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The 8-14 October issue of Brisbane News magazine.
He may have wanted to be a footballer, but a knack for impressions and a gift for storytelling set actor David Wenham on a very different path, writes Trent Dalton.
The foyer of Sydneys W Hotel echoes to a two-man chorus of Happy Birthday as David Wenham enters nursing a creamy white coffee. The song comes from actor Sam Worthington and director Jonathan Teplitzky here today, like David, to promote Getting Square, the Queensland gangster film shot on the Gold Coast.
Davids been 38 for 1 and a half days and he appears officially over it. Thank you, thank you, the actor says, deadpan, before quickly shifting conversation to his beloved Sydney Swans and their weekend loss to the Brisbane Lions.
In Adam Cullens 2000 Archibald Prize-winning portrait of David Wenham, the actors ears and eyes stood out. But its his scruffy ginger hair that stands out most today.
Hes shorter and thinner that the silver screen suggests. Not as stout as warrior ranger Faramir, whom he plays in Peter Jacksons The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. Definitely not as monstrous as psychopath Brett Sprague in The Boys, the character that took him from the theatre to films, and bagged him an AFI Best Actor award.
The expectation is often different to the reality, says David. Ive ended up in movies, but its not something I thought would happen. I became an actor to work in theatre. This is a very bizarre bi-product.
David wanted to be an Australian rules footballer the greatest sportsman ever from Marrickville, in Sydneys inner west; greater than the Marrickville Mauler, Jeff Fenech. But his classroom impressions of Gough Whitlam and bushman Harry Butler were too good to ignore. He was an actor. And as his parents always said, he was a storyteller.
I was the youngest of seven children. I had very understanding, supportive parents who allowed me to become a storyteller.
David says his acting ability as a youth had a magic that adults with emotional baggage can never match.
I love films with kids as protagonists, he says, citing E.T., Cinema Paradiso and My Life as a Dog, which, he says, are up there with his all-time favourite film, Dont Look Now.
I think children are the best actors. They have the ability to believe utterly in what they do. It becomes harder to do that as you get older because your confidence gets battered around a bit.
Knocked back by NIDA, David studied theatre at the University of Western Sydney and soon after found work on the local theatre circuit and in television, (He played a motorcycle cop in A Country Practice in 1981.)
Playing the lethal Brett Sprague on stage to riveting effect in The Boys, David was first choice for the filmed version. He considers his work in that film, six years ago, the best hes done and perhaps the best he can do. Its the one film that I look at and I can say I actually cant improve on that, he says.
It was a testament to his acting skill that a year later he had transformed himself from the vicious Sprague to the charismatic and popular Diver Dan on the ABCs SeaChange. At the shows peak, David was introduced on a New Zealand talk show as one of Australias sexiest men. He was horrified.
Film roles kept coming Dark City, Better Than Sex, Russian Doll, The Bank, Moulin Rouge (playing the cross-dressing writer Audrey).
In 1999, director Paul Cox asked him to move temporarily to the island leper colony of Molokai to film Molokai: The Story of Father Damien, leaving partner, actor and yoga teacher Kate Agnew, at home in Sydney.
A story about real-life Belgian priest Father Damien de Veuster, who cared for 140 banished sufferers of leprosy on Molokai Island one of the Hawaiian islands before catching the disease himself and dying there in 1889, the film cut straight to Davids Catholic core.
That was probably the best thing in the world Ive ever done, says David, who lived and worked in the tight leper community for four months.
I defy anybody to go to that place and not be affected or moved or changed. These are people who have suffered through the most incredibly disturbing lives and yet are so full of joy and full of life. You realize how ridiculous some of the petty things that upset us in our rather privileged lives are. It was a huge life lesson. Those people had a profound effect on me.
A former student of Christian Brothers High School, Lewisham, with parents still involved in the church, David acknowledges his Catholic faith, but is reticent to discuss it. When asked how he balances faith and the film industry known for its sometimes-dubious morality David pauses, resting his head on his fist, thinking.
Its not something thats at the front of my head, he says. I try to be a good person. Its as simple as that. A lot of the time, I dont succeed at all. Im as messed up as the next person.
It is a strange business Its easy to be consumed by the madness that is Hollywood.
One could say David leapt head-first into the mouth of madness when he signed on for director Peter Jacksons The Lord of the Rings saga, the trilogy of films based on J.R.R. Tolkiens fantasy epic. Davids character, Faramir, has an important role in the sagas upcoming conclusion, The Return of the King.
It was a very different experience to anything else. I hadnt read the book before I was given the baton to come on board, he says. Then I had an opportunity to read the book, and that was like putting many layers of icing on the cake. And it was an enormous cake. I can say, unreservedly, that Peter Jackson is at the top of the tree. Theres Peter Jackson and then everybody else. Undoubtedly. And history will show that.
Which brings us to David here today, as he stirs high-profile Gold Coast lawyer-cum-author-scriptwriter Chris Nyst, who has flown to Sydney to talk about this script for Getting Square.
Ive just been talking about you, says David, as Chris shuffles quickly past our table.
Dont believe a word, the savvy lawyer advises.
David is describing Chriss script – which borrows heavily from the Gold Coast stories and characters Chris has come across in his day job as one of the most original, quick and clever scripts to come out of Australia. And, sorry Chris, having seen the film, its easy to believe every word.
The film follows two criminals, Wirth (Dirty Deeds Sam Worthington) and Johnny Spit Spiteiri (David), who are released from prison and endeavour to go straight to get square. Its not long, however, before the friends find themselves in the grip of the Gold Coast underworld and are forced into a suicide mission to save their necks.
Davids hapless junkie Spit is a fidgety, distrusting, mullet-haired, thong-wearing marvel. Its hard to recall a character so repulsive, yet somehow so endearing.
Its a strange dichotomy because there are people that society wants to shun, but at the same time you cant help but feel compassion towards them and a certain amount of empathy and a great deal of understanding.
Davids empathy goes back to his school days when hed write letters to prisoners in literacy programmes.
His empathy has led him to be a vocal commentator on the environment, immigration and reconciliation.
Im extremely patriotic, but Im not proud of many issues in this country, he says. I travel often and the reactions from virtually everywhere I go overseas is rather different to what this current government would have you believe. And Im telling you, we dont look too good.
As David talks, those big eyes that Adam Cullen focused on are becoming more intense.
I never wanted to become a public figure, he says. All I wanted to do was become an actor, work in theatre, come out and have a beer and be anonymous.
But expectation is, after all, often different from reality.
“The Guide” section of The Courier Mail newspaper from Oct 9.
Comedy crime caper
Australian films have not done well at the box office recently but a new movie made on the Gold Coast could have an impact, writes Michael Bodey.
Its no secret that the Australian film industry has had a dog of a year at the box office. Things have flopped and previous audience favourites have been ignored.
Two more Australian films try their luck before Christmas and thankfully the first, GettinSquare, has a chance to make an impact.
The crime caper is slickly made, has plenty of laughs and possesses a cast of familiar faces including Gary Sweet (Stingers), Freya Stafford (White Collar Blue), Englishman Timothy Spall (Sex & Lies, Topsy-Turvy), Sam Worthingon (Dirty Deeds) and comedy veteran Ugly Dave Gray.
It also features a stand-out performance by SeaChange favourite, David Wenham, as Johnny Spitieri, the junkie with a heart of gold.
It is a comedic turn that will win him another AFI Award and it deserves an audience, but in this environment, who knows? The actors certainly dont.
I can say quite confidently that the people Ive spoken to, as the Americans say, have responded to the material, Wenham smiles.
You sort of have a feeling but whether that translates to bums on seats, I dont know.
His co-star, Worthington, who plays Barry, a Gold Coaster wanting to go straight while fresh out of prison, is similarly flummoxed.
The movies that are coming out are still good quality, I dont know why people arent watching them, its just the way of the world, he says.
We enjoyed doing it so I hope people sense that when they watch it.
Wenham understands that many Australian films arent accepted by audiences unless theyve supposedly garnered some attention internationally and often that can be orchestrated.
Its madness because you look at all the different elements here, from actors to directors to cinematographers, I hate using that term world-class, but we have a disproportionate representation internationally, in all those areas.
Gettin Square is one of those world-class films. It had to be such considering the financial backing coming from Englands Working Title studio, the company behind Four Weddings and a Funeral and Bridget Joness Diary.
And Wenham and Worthington are at the heart of this world-class film. Both actors are firing on all cylinders at the moment; Wenham internationally with the final Lord of the Rings film and the action blockbuster, Van Helsing, due in the next year, Worthington with lead roles in local flicks Thunderstruck and More Than Scarlet to add to his part in Miramaxs upcoming World War II drama, The Great Raid.
The two are a terrific coupling in Getting Square, Worthington as the stoic bloke drawn into one last heist and Wenham the bumbling idiot who might derail it all.
For Worthington its a major lead role, although he chuckles that he didnt consider it such but people keep saying it is! I thought it was an ensemble thing.
Indeed, his lead role is upstages by Wenhams performance. Not that Worthington is annoyed.
The blokes wearing a mullet, pants up to his neck, thongs and leopard skin underpants, so if the blokes not stealing the movie theres a problem with the movie, Worthington smiles.
Hes my Jerry Lewis and I was his Dean Martin. The more he did, hed whisper to me Do you reckon its too much? and Id go Keep going, keep going because the less I had to do then, he laughs.
For Wenham, the chance to work again with his Better Than Sex director Jonathan Teplitzky was reason enough to head to the Gold Coast.
Hes one of the few people who can quite clearly articulate the kind of film they want to make, Wenham says. Some directors say they can but they dont or cant but Jonathan genuinely can.
Teplitzkys articulation worked for Worthington as well. Hes detailed and so enthusiastic about what he wanted to do that he made me think if he can bring that to the set, itll be fantastic.
He told me the movies he was inspired by and one of them was Out of Sight, which sold me. If he could do half as good a job as that, were doing all right.
Teplitzky knew how to interest Wenham: he gave him the script telling him there was a character in there he might like.
Wenham, correctly, veered to Johnny Spitieri. Jonathan thought that possibly from his knowledge of some of my earlier theatre work, Wenham smiles.
Its a big leap from the charismatic Diver Dan character for which Wenham won a Silver Logie and also from his more dramatic film characterizations.
Not that he was looking for a comedy to break things up.
Its impossible to orchestrate a career like that, he says. A lot of its left to luck.
I was attracted to him because I saw it as a huge challenge, number one.
Hes someone whod normally be perceived as one of societys outcasts.
Yet in this film he had to be understood by the audience and then have the audience on side so theyd go along for the journey, which is no easy task considering he does happen to be a junkie.
That was the challenge, to humanize and empathise with this character. I also saw the opportunity for a bit of humour, although thats not the motivating factor.
Worthington had just as tough a job, researching the life of a hardened prisoner. A number of ex-cons who worked on the film as extras told him something that colours his character wonderfully.
They said the biggest thing when youre inside, the only thing youve got, is time, he says.
Thats the only thing you have. So when youre outside you can afford to take your time. So I adopted that.
Now the time has come when the Australian audience has to find Getting Square.
At least Wenham, Worthington and their cohorts have done everything in their power to make it a more palatable experience than most recent Australian films.Posted in Old Special Reports on October 10, 2003 by xoanon