Interview: Steve Bisley

Mel Gibson and Steve Bisley on the set of Mad Max.

Mel Gibson and Steve Bisley on the set of Mad Max.

“I’ve done a lot of research for this role which is always a big part of my work really. You could get monkeys to learn lines.”

You’re in Melbourne at the moment. Keeping warm?
Yeah, winter in Melbourne. I’m rehearsing a play and it’s been a full on week.

How’s everything going with Glengarry Glen Ross?
Look, I’ve done a Mamet before and they are challenging. It’s quite a big show really. It’s big in detail. I don’t know if you’re aware of Mamet’s work but it is detailed, his style of writing. They made a film of Glengarry Glen Ross which is very different from the play. It had a big cast with Al Pacino and Spacey, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda. It’s quite different from the play.

I guess there’s a huge difference between acting on age and in front of a camera. Do you still get nervous before a live performance?
I think it’s good to be nervous. They did an experiment once where they wired up some actors the opening night of a show, they put some sort of monitors on them and the stress levels they went through were akin to major automobile trauma like an accident. So that’ll give you an idea.

You’ve become one of Australia’s most recognisable actors with a career spanning almost four decades. Are you still having fun?
[Laughs]. It frightens me when people say four decades, Jesus. Yeah, of coarse I’m having fun. You wouldn’t do it if you weren’t having fun. I’m just so privileged to have been offered and to have been involved in some of the stuff that I have been. There’s certainly some landmark films in the mix, like the first Mad Max, peppered through my career. I’ve had, and am having, a great run.

Did you ever consider a career other than acting before studying at NIDA?
Prior to NIDA I was just trying things. I was young, in my early twenties, and I was just trying to find out what I wanted to do. I had an inkling that I could act and I wanted to act. I wanted to discover it and I wanted to find out if my instincts were right about it. I got into NIDA and I guess I was only in there a fortnight and I realised it was the thing I wanted to do. I really wanted to tell stories. I wanted to move people emotionally and be a story teller. Realising I wanted to become an actor wasn’t an epiphany at all. I think it was just the realisation that this was something that I really wanted to pursue.

Your earlier films like Summer City and The Last of the Knucklemen look like they were pretty wild shoots. What was it like on set of some of those earlier films? 
[Laughs]. Rugged. [Laughs]. Pretty bloody rugged. Even on Mad Max. I guess back in those days – gee this is making me realise I have been around for a while – there was no safety at all. They killed crew people, not regularly, but quite a few died. There were no safety people. We shot Last of the Knucklemen out at Andamooka, an actual opal site and one of those rough and ready towns full of miners that are ferreting away underground. It was pretty rough out there.
I made Summer City with Mel when we were both in our second year at NIDA and that was put together on a low budget and it looks like it. [Laughs]. 

And what are some of your memories working with actors like John Jarratt, Gerard Kennedy, Mel and Abigail?
Given that Mel and I were in second year NIDA it was so brand new for us. These other people were in the business already. I virtually went from Summer City straight to Mad Max and I guess the advantage of being in a film like Summer City at that time was when Mad Max came along, right at the end of my third year at NIDA, was that at least we had stood in front of a camera. We had some knowledge, at least, of how it all worked. It was a real advantage.

In all of your years, what’s the craziest thing you’ve seen happen on set? You mentioned earlier that people on sets were dying. Did you ever see any of that?
Not on anything I did. But it was certainly happening. I was filming in Melbourne once and a stuntman died while filming another film in town. We were only trying to tell stories, it shouldn’t have been life threatening. Mad Max was real fly by the seat of your pants stuff. I was, and still am, a motorcycle rider so playing the role of the motorcycle cop was sorta cool and we were just going flat out everywhere. No one discouraged us. [Laughs]. There weren’t any walkie-talkies on set, it was all controlled by a red flag way down the road. When they waved the red flag it meant just ride as fast as you can. For a rev-head like myself it was a licence to go mad.

Bisley with Water Rats costar Catherine McClements

Bisley with Water Rats costar Catherine McClements

Which character are you most often recognised as by fans in the street? Is it Jim Goose?
Definitely Goose. Still. We mad it in ’79 so it’s gone through a couple of generational shifts. It’s a cult film but people still come up to me and say they only just watched it a couple of weeks ago. Given it was made before CGI it’s still pretty impressive.

What does that film mean to you now? How do you look back on it?
I think it’s absolutely wonderful. I think it deserves to be a classic, it really does. It still holds its own, you know. In terms of its construction and its story line, I think it’s a marvellous film.

How do you feel about George Miller’s Reboot?
Yeah, wow. It’ll be interesting to see how they go with that. I’ve resisted seeing any images from it. I just want to see it when it comes out without any sneak peaks. I’m really keen to see it.

Which other actor inspired you throughout your career?
I like De Niro’s works. I think his work is really truthful work. I love Nicholson too. De Niro particularly because his work is truthful. I don’t know if you can say that about his work on Meet the Fockers but definitely with his earlier stuff like Raging Bull and Taxi Driver. His portrayal in Taxi Driver is a marvellous one. He’s always had a great honesty with the stuff he’s done. But I draw inspiration from a lot of areas, I don’t just focus on actors.

Like what?
Things I observe. I think actors that are worth their salt do that. They put different experiences into certain parts of their memory that they can draw on while constructing characters. This has been an interesting trip on Glengarry because I play Shelley Levene who’s this Jewish real estate agent. [Laughs]. I’ve done a lot of research for this role which is always a big part of my work really. You could get monkeys to learn lines. With research, I think the more you can bring the better. I always feel it’s a great respect towards the writer. My job is to sorta serve the writer and whether that’s the playwright or the guy who wrote the screenplay it’s my job not to just come up with my notion of the character but to serve their notion of the character. Now that I’m a published author I understand that more. [Laughs]. Someone has actually just enquired about the option on my book for a film. I don’t know whether I will give it to them but we’ll have a conversation about it. It’s quite filmic really, quite visual.

Usually they make biographical films after a person has died. They’re not planing to slip something in your coffee during the conversation are they?
[Laughs]. I hope not. I hope they don’t know something I don’t. I guess it’ll be worth more then because I’ll be dead. [Laughs]. 

You’ve worked across film, television and theatre. Which medium do you prefer?
I like them all. I do. I like them for different reasons. I like the immediacy of theatre and I like the process of film and television and the fact that it lasts. I like them all.

Out of everyone you’ve worked with – actors, directors, even grips – who’s been the most memorable?
Um, they merge. I don’t have a standout, I really don’t. A lot of them have had their strengths and a lot of them have had their weaknesses. Let’s just leave it there. [Laughs]. With a lot of television I’ve done there’s been a constant changing of directors. Some people I’ve enjoyed more than others but I don’t have a standout.

You often play the tough guy. Are you as tough in real life as the characters you play?
No, definitely not. I think it’s the same in film industries around the world that if you get branded and boxed early then I think it’s pretty hard to break. A lot of producers just want to see you do something they’ve seen you do in something else. I have a lot of producers ask me to do the same thing I’ve done in something else.

Does it bother you to be typecast?
No, no, no. I’ve done a real variety of characters but maybe the more memorable ones have been the tougher guys. I get much more variety in the theatre too. The good thing about the stage is that there’s a broader pool of work to draw from where film takes so much investment and time to put it all together.

You’re a patron for the Revelation Perth International Film Festival. How did this come about and what does it mean to you to be involved in such a great local festival?
I’m a great mate of Richard Sowada who started Rev all those years back. Richard and I used to travel quite often through WA with this government funded thing called Big Screen. We would take collections of films out to remote areas that wouldn’t necessarily get them. We had periods over a few years where we would travel together, just him and I in a car with a bunch of films really. I really enjoy his company and I enjoy his commitment to film so when he asked me to be patron for Rev it was really magic. It was a no-brainer for me to take it on. Unfortunately because of my theatre commitments this year and Rev happening right in the middle of Glengarry’s run I’m unable to make it so I’ll still be the patron, just not the patron in attendance.

How’s your novel coming along?
I’ve had to put it aside for a while during the play. I found with Stillways that I had to commit one hundred percent to it. I took six months out of the industry to write that book and I treated it like a day job. I would get up in the morning at a particular time and start writing for six hours and that’s the way I like to do it. While the play is on it pretty much sits all by itself. I’m over what I call the hump and I’ve got to a place I’m enjoying in the book. I’ll definitely be coming back to it once I’ve finished the play.

Revelation Perth International Film Festival runs from 3 – 13 July and Glengarry Glen Ross is on now in Melbourne.







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