Ewen Leslie was just nine years old when he started acting professionally.
It was on a popular children’s television series called Ship to Shore, filmed in and around Rockingham – a small coastal town about forty minutes south of Perth.
After graduating from WAAPA in 2000, Leslie’s first feature film role was in Matthew Newton’s Right Here, Right Now. A year later Leslie nabbed the lead in Tony Krawitz’s Jewboy and that’s when people really started to recognise his talent as a serious actor.
Since then, Leslie has gone on to star in many productions across screen and stage including Kokoda: 39th Battalion and Sleeping Beauty. 2015 saw him cast in one of Australian cinema’s greatest acting ensembles which included Geoffrey Rush, Sam Neill, Odessa Young, Paul Schneider and Miranda Otto in Simon Stone’s powerful family drama, The Daughter.
This month Ewen joins Reg Cribb and Cappi Ireland on the CinefestOZ Film Prize Jury headed by internationally acclaimed filmmaker, Scott Hicks. The jury has the responsibility to choose the film which will walk away with the $100,000 Film Prize. Leslie’s new film The Butterfly Tree will also have its WA premiere at the festival, outside competition of course.
When I called Ewen on a very cold August morning, we found much humour in the fact that we were both in Fremantle, streets apart, yet had to be connected via a press agency in Sydney.
It’s always good to start an interview with a laugh.
“It was an extraordinary experience to do something like Ship to Shore as a kid. You’re surrounded by other kids but you’re working in an adult world.”
Interview by Matthew Eeles
You’ve travelled the world as an actor. Do you still consider Fremantle to be your home?
I grew up in Fremantle and I went to John Curtin. I went straight to WAAPA from John Curtin and I moved to Sydney when I was about 20 because there was more work over there, I really only went for work. Coming back to Fremantle I always had that wonderful feeling of being home for the first five years or so. I must admit that after about six years that feeling began to change. You drift apart from friends and you meet other people. I still love coming home and I still have such a nostalgic feeling when I come back here because it’s still the family home I grew up in. Sydney is a difficult city to find your feet, but once I started to feel like I had my head above water I started to consider Sydney to be my home.
Freo is still a place that is incredibly close to my heart and I couldn’t imagine ever not coming back here.
What are some of your fondest memories growing up in Fremantle and Western Australia?
The amazing thing about growing up in Fremantle was that after school you could walk into town with your friends and it never felt like a dangerous place. I have very fond memories of going to Leighton Beach and being in Cottesloe. It took me years to come around to the quality of beaches in Sydney. [Laughs]. When I first saw Bondi I was like, “C’mon. This is not a beach!” [Laughs]. It took me years to accept that the Eastern States doesn’t have beaches like we do in Western Australia.
It was a great place to grow up as a kid because I had such a strong community of kids around me on my street and on neighbouring streets.
I have very fond memories of Rottnest Island as well. I knew if you got me started my memories would start snowballing. [Laughs]. Holidays on Rottnest Island were always a big thing.
So when were you hit with the acting bug?
Very young. There was an advert in the paper calling for kids to audition for this TV show called Ship to Shore. My Mum saw this ad and she encouraged me to put in for it. I had put together a production of Batman when I was about nine. [Laughs]. It was around the time the Tim Burton Batman came out. So I put together this little production that we showed at lunchtime at school. Off of that my Mum noticed that acting was something I was really interested in. They did a cull from about one hundred kids down to around twenty. We did a week long callback process at WAAPA and out of that they chose eight kids and I was one of the eight.
I did two series of Ship to Shore and I kind of missed years 8 and 9 because of it. Doing Ship to Shore I wasn’t in love with acting like I am now. I was more into the editing and filmmaking side of it.
I went back for year 10 and having missed a few years I wasn’t the best student. I was wagging a lot of classes and I dropped out of my theatre scholarship and I was a nightmare for my parents. At the end of that year there was a theatre showing and I did a scene from David Williamson’s play, The Removalists. From that I fell in love with theatre and asked to get back into the scholarship so they put me on a probation which I passed. At the end of year 12 I auditioned for WAAPA and it went from there.
Ship to Shore was a right of passage for many WA actors and you were a big part of it. Can you share a story with us about working on that show?
It was an extraordinary experience to do something like Ship to Shore as a kid. You’re surrounded by other kids but you’re working in an adult world. We were a bunch of kids hanging out on a film set but you’re also working. It was an amazing experience and to see the filmmaking side of things first hand was a real eye opener. It taught me so much and that’s why I originally thought I wanted to go down that path.
We got to do some great stuff. When I look back on it now the first horrifying thing is noticing annoying acting habits and realising I still do those things now. [Laughs].
I don’t think I was necessarily that good in the show but I’m kinda one of the only kids to go on and work in this industry full time. In the scenes where I had to be a kid, I was great. In scenes where I tried to do some actual acting, it all went downhill quickly. [Laughs].
I was a big fan of the show as a kid. I think everyone I knew was.
I worked with Tom Budge on Kokoda years ago and he was in Round the Twist which was the show I loved growing up. It was my favourite TV show and Ship to Shore was his, so we kind of had a real fan moment with each other. It was like that movie Heat when De Niro and Pacino meat for the first time but it was child actors instead. [Laughs].
Jeffrey Walker will be at CinefestOZ this year at the same time as yourself. He’s of Round the Twist fame.
That’s right. Jeffrey kind of did what I wanted to do with his internationally successful directing career, didn’t he. [Laughs]. He really followed through on that.
You went on to have a very successful career in film and on stage? Where do you feel the most comfortable? In front of the camera or treading the boards?
A bit of both really. I love the live experience of theatre. I love telling a story from beginning to end and doing that in front of an audience and the immediacy of it. There’s an amazing energy that can happen between the people on stage and the people in the audience. But I love filmmaking because I love being on set. I feel very at home on a film or TV set. And I don’t necessarily mean in front of the camera. Shooting a film is almost like rehearsing for a play because you shoot as many versions of it as you can and then it gets taken away and a year later you see it for the first time and you get to see how it comes together. I suppose theatre is a little more actor friendly because you have a little more power over it where as with film it’s much more a director’s medium.
Let’s not beat around the bush. It’s all about the catering isn’t it?
Absolutely. [Laughs]. That was something as a kid I thought was amazing. [Laughs]. Ice cream at lunch!
And all of a sudden you’re asked to judge your peers’ work as part of the CinefestOZ Film Prize Jury. How does that sit with you?
Really great. And I don’t mean that in an arrogant way. I was at CinefestOZ a couple of years ago with The Daughter and I really loved the festival. I’ve got family down there too so I got to invite them along which was great. I remember thinking when I was there, “Man, I would love to be on this jury.”
You don’t really want to be that person to ask to be on the jury because it can come across as a bit arrogant to throw your name in the mix. [Laughs]. When I got the phone call a few weeks back asking me if I’d like to be on the jury I was over the moon. I jumped at the opportunity. The other great thing is that I haven’t seen any of the films.
The wonderful thing about this festival is that it’s Australian and it’s dedicated entirely to Australian film. How many festivals can boast that?
The Butterfly Tree just had its world premiere at MIFF and is playing at CinefestOZ. What can you tell us about it?
I was actually in Fremantle and I was on my way to the airport and I got an email from my agent saying they were making this film with Melissa George and Sophie Lowe and at the time the film was called Bloom so that’s all I knew. My agent told me there was some interest for me in this role. I read it on the plane and I fell in love with it. The second I got off the plane I called my agent and I said how much I loved it and that I would love to do it if they would have me.
I really fell in love with all of the characters in this film. I really gave a shit about them. I really cared about this kid. I actually read this line from Melissa George and I’m going to steal it because I think it’s good. She said she really fell in love with this boy who was finding himself and his father who was losing himself and this enigmatic woman who is driving them apart but is also bringing them together at the same time.
There’s also a magical realism to the film which felt very unique. I had never met Priscilla Cameron and I haven’t seen any of her work but I guess I really responded to this script she had written.
CinefestOZ runs from August 23 – 27. Tickets and details at http://www.cinefestoz.com