“Working with Brendan was a dream. We really trusted each other completely to make it as real and as dynamic as possible.”
Interview by Matthew Eeles.
Did you speak with any of the actors who have portrayed Ruben in the stage play about playing the character, or did you always want to make the film version your own?
I saw the original production when Toby Schmitz played in it in 2009. Toby was fantastic and the play was fantastic but I didn’t consult him. I just work off what I’ve got and what I had was the film script and I had Brendan who was not only the writer but it’s also based on his own experiences, so that was the only source material I needed.
Were you ever approached by Brendan to play Ruben in the stage play?
Apart from seeing the show I had no history with the play at all. It was quite a surprise to get the call to tell you the truth. I had known Brendan socially but we had never worked together and it probably didn’t hurt that we looked similar as well. [Laughs]. I think that that probably got me over the line.
Do you often get mistaken for Brendan?
Constantly. I had a waitress come up to me last week who said, “I saw you at the Sydney Writers Festival.” I told her I wasn’t there but she kept saying, “I did. I did.” I told here she was probably confusing me for Brendan Cowell and she said, “Are you not Brendan Cowell?” [Laughs]. We’re constantly getting mistaken for each other. Sometimes I see it, but not as much as some.
Maybe it’s the hair cut.
Maybe it’s the hair cut. Maybe it is or maybe it’s because I’m drinking more heavily now. I don’t know what it is. That’s a joke. I’m not drinking more heavily now.
Well, I don’t really have a problem with the booze. I’m a social drinker – sometimes extremely social. I don’t have a problem with putting it down or not having a drink but we’ve all got demons and we’ve got things that we struggle with. But no, I don’t especially have a problem with drinking.
Brendan Cowell is an incredibly hardworking filmmaker with a lot of experience under his belt. How did you find working with him on his feature film debut compared to other directors you’ve worked with?
Working with Brendan was a dream. Given the sort of artist that he is, he’s so passionate and raw, and this is his first feature project and he was just one hundred percent committed to getting the thing right. His passion and excitement is infectious. We had a great time together. We really trusted each other completely to make it as real and as dynamic as possible, and as beautiful, ugly, funny and as serious as possible so we tried to stretch it every which way. That was really exiting to do that together.
Did you ever become that attached to Ruben the character that you found yourself giving advice to Brendan on certain things you think Ruben might do that strayed from the script?
[Laughs]. Well, not really. There was always wiggle room in terms of, “That word doesn’t fit comfortably.” or “That phrase doesn’t feel right.” and things like that. Brendan is very open to that sort of stuff. Also, he had particular things he wanted to say because the thing lived in his head and his body for so long that he was very specific at times about the things he wanted to express with the film, so you’ve got to respect that as the actor. As the actor you’re not the creator, you’re the interpreter of the material and you contribute, of course. He was very open to collaboration but ultimately it was his film.
You and Robyn Nevin must know each other quite well having starred in Upper Middle Bogan together and now Ruben Guthrie. What’s your relationship like with her and how do you go working with her?
I really love it and I think she enjoys it too. We also did a play together for Melbourne Theatre Company a few years ago where she played my mother, so there’s a bit of a theme emerging. [Laughs].
Have you ever accidentally called her Mum?
Yeah a couple of times. Actually, early in rehearsals and pre-production for this she referred to the character as Margaret which is her character in Upper Middle Bogan. She was slightly embarrassed and tickled by that. We have a great time together. We have a great chemistry and, you know, she’s brilliant and a complete pro who knows what she’s doing and she can do pretty much anything. She does the high comedy stuff in Ruben Guthrie with the cat and then does the high tragedy stuff when she’s feeding me a drink. It’s a really poetic moment that not many people could pull off but she absolutely does. We’re friends socially too. Her husband, Nicholas Hammond and I did a play together years ago for Bruce Beresford, so I got to know Robyn a bit that way as well.
Well it’s not intimidating because he’s so warm and welcoming and lovely to intimidate anyone. He’s such a gentleman, like a proper, proper gentleman. He’s interested and curious and thoughtful. It’s just amazing to be opposite him and see that face and hear that voice. He was an amazing dream to work with. We just did this interview together today and the best part of it was sitting around talking to Jack again. He’s just got such a wealth of experience. It was a real privilege to work with him and I really mean that. He’s amazing.
Was he someone you admired growing up as an actor?
Yeah, well he’s always there. He’s the voice of Australia. To have him playing my dad feels unreal on one hand and very familiar on the other. I saw him recently in an incredible film, Wake In Fright. We had talked about the film on set before we made Ruben Guthrie because of its similar themes. The fact that he was in that film and this film is incredible lineage.
Speaking of Wake In Fright. I spoke to the film’s director Ted Kotcheff recently and asked him if the heavy drinking themes of the film had turned cast and crew off drinking while taking a break during filming. What was the wrap party like for Ruben Guthrie? Was everyone drinking lemonade and orange juice or was everyone happy to get smashed?
It had the opposite effect. Knowing the power of the demon drink we still drank our fair share that night. It’s interesting that this film is coming out during July and Dry July. I think it’s a good thing because how hard is it to do Dry July?
Have you ever done it?
No. I’ve done other charity work but I’m happy to keep drinking, thank you.
Well there you go. You’ve covered all your bases.
You’re definitely a man in demand with a heap of TV and film credits to your name lately. What has the journey been like from when you first started out to where you are now?
Well when I look back now I think that mine’s an incredible and diverse body of work considering the opportunities that are available to actors in Australia. It’s something I’m really proud of and amazed by. But when I go through it chronologically I realise I’m very fortunate to have that kind of momentum. If I could go back and tell myself as a young struggling actor that it’s going to be ok and that I’m going to be all right I would probably say, “Holy shit! That’s the jackpot.” Just to get to play drama, comedy, theatre, films and TV and to make some shows that I would watch myself, that’s a dream really. I’ve got no complaints.
How hard are the rolls to get or are they just falling at your feet?
Well it varies, it varies. With Ruben Guthrie, Brendan just called me and we talked about it for a while. There was no audition process. With Glitch though, apparently they wrote that part with me in mind but I still had to audition three times for it. So some things you’ve got to do the hard way. Ultimately what you do with the roll doesn’t matter whether you’ve auditioned or not, you’ve just got to make sure you’re right for the role and that you’re going to do a good job with it.
Is it humbling to hear that someone has written a role with you in mind?
Absolutely. Amazing. It happened with Upper Middle Bogan as well. To have something written with me in mind is an incredibly humbling thing.
It is a dark role, but it’s also a straight drama. I’ve done a couple of those like Power Games and a couple of other dramas and theatrically I’ve done dramas but it is a bit of a departure. Ruben Guthrie is a comedy but it also has a dark heart. I think it’s a change in terms of how I’m perceived and what I can do.
I guess it’s every young actors dream to crack the lucrative American film market. Is working in Hollywood or overseas something you aspire to or are you happy working at home?
If I could do both then that would be the ideal. I went over there and got a pilot for NBC shot in Canada called The Strange Calls which was a comedy. It was very funny but it sort of came and went and I don’t think many people saw it but that’s got some momentum for me happening over there. In the meantime I’m also developing my own things because I’m also a writer as well. When I’m not acting I’m trying to do that stuff.
Anything you’d like to share with our audience?
Well, at the moment we’re in post-production for this new online show called No Activity. When I say online I mean it’s the first original content commissioned by the streaming service, Stan. So they’ve commissioned this thing that I’ve got going with the guys at Jungle Boys and it’s essentially a cop show about a stakeout where nothing ever happens. It’s about two cops in a car who talk about the minutia of nothing ever happening. It’s an entirely improvised comedy made up of six episodes. That’ll probably go online later this year.
Put us out of our misery. Is there going to be a third season of Upper Middle Bogan? I asked Michala Banas recently but she kept mum.
There’s serious talk. [Laughs].
Make it happen, please.
I’ll do my best, I promise you.
Ruben Guthrie is in cinemas now.