Prince of dark­ness

An ac­tor brings fright­en­ing au­then­tic­ity to his role in Top of the Lake, writes Dar­ren Dev­lyn

Herald Sun - Switched On - - Newseries -

PETER Mul­lan is like an un­det­o­nated ex­plo­sive. Blis­ter­ingly in­tense, he pushes his way through a crowded pub in Glenorchy, New Zealand.

When the beer-swill­ing mob re­alises he’s found his way to a mi­cro­phone, there’s an in­stant, eerie si­lence.

It be­comes easy to see why Mul­lan, a Scot who has ap­peared in films in­clud­ing War Horse and Trainspot­ting, is re­garded as one of the most pow­er­ful, in­tu­itive char­ac­ter ac­tors of his gen­er­a­tion.

In Top of the Lake, a minis­eries co-di­rected and cowrit­ten by Jane Cam­pion, he brings a fright­en­ing au­then­tic­ity to the role of drug lord Matt Mitcham, who in the pub scene ad­dresses the lo­cals about the dis­ap­pear­ance of his preg­nant 12-year-old daugh­ter Tui (Jac­que­line Joe).

‘‘ We’re a small town, we know no-one can hide any­thing,’’ a brood­ing Mitcham tells the gath­er­ing.

‘‘ We all know that some­one here knows some­thing. I look at the moun­tains and hills and like to think my lit­tle one is hunt­ing rab­bit and deer to sur­vive, be­ing free and look­ing af­ter her­self. What I can’t bear is the thought that some­one has her chained up against a wall, hold­ing my lit­tle one cap­tive. So if some­one wants to come for­ward, it’s your last chance. If you are that per­son and you are hold­ing some­thing back, quite frankly you de­serve to f------ die.’’

There’s noth­ing in­tim­i­dat- ing about Mul­lan when he later sits for a chat in a break from film­ing. He wins you over with ebul­lience and a streak of lar­rikin, ex­plain­ing why he re­lates well to characters from the wrong side of the tracks.

One of eight chil­dren, Mul­lan, 53, grew up near ship­yards in Car­don­ald.

He lived on Moss Park Boule­vard, a street nowhere near as grand as it sounds.

The house looked nice enough from the out­side, but there was lit­tle in­side be­cause the fam­ily was dirt poor. Mul­lan once de­scribed this domestic sit­u­a­tion as ‘‘ a coat and no knick­ers’’.

It was an un­happy up­bring­ing partly be­cause Mul­lan’s fa­ther had come home from World War II psy­cho­log­i­cally trau­ma­tised, with no idea how to re­late to his wife or chil­dren.

He was a bright kid, but Mul­lan be­gan run­ning with a knife-car­ry­ing street gang.

‘‘ The turn­ing point for me was as a teenager who had lost the plot for a year or so,’’ Mul­lan says.

‘‘ It was re­al­is­ing that go­ing around hurt­ing peo­ple was not some­thing that I wanted to do. So I went back to school and got into uni (study­ing eco­nomic his­tory and drama).

‘‘ Act­ing is the best job in the world be­cause you get to do things with im­punity. As an ac­tor, you can do the most hor­ri­ble things to peo­ple. Some­one will jump up (from a beat­ing) and say, ‘ that was great, you were so bloody hor­ri­ble. Let’s do it again,’’’ Mul­lan says, burst­ing into a laugh that sounds laced with gravel.

‘‘ Act­ing is such good fun, ridicu­lously stupid. You come in, say some lines with­out hit­ting the fur­ni­ture, and then you f--- off.

‘‘ But you do have to hum­ble your­self as an ac­tor be­cause you can make such a tit of your­self. You don’t want to let any­one down to the point where they think you’re s---. Ac­tors are al­ways look­ing for some kind of val­i­da­tion.’’

Mul­lan has plumbed the depths of dark­ness in films in­clud­ing The Fear (set in Brighton’s crim­i­nal un­der­world), Tyran­nosaur, My Name is Joe and Brave­heart.

The man who has also ap­peared in Chil­dren of Men and Harry Pot­ter and the Deathly Hal­lows says he leapt at Top of the Lake be­cause it was a chance to work with Cam­pion and a star-stud­ded Pow­er­house: Peter Mul­lan (be­low) costars with Thomas Wright, Elis­a­beth Moss and David Wen­ham (above).

Act­ing is the best job in the world . . . you­cando the most hor­ri­ble things to peo­ple

cast in­clud­ing David Wen­ham and Mad Men’s Elis­a­beth Moss.

Top of the Lake be­gins with Tui wad­ing into the depths of an icy alpine lake. She is rescued and dis­cov­ered to be five months preg­nant but won’t say who the fa­ther is.

When she dis­ap­pears, po­lice in­clud­ing Robin Grif­fin (Moss) and Al Parker (Wen­ham) take on the case, which in­cludes in­ves­ti­gat­ing a tribe of dis­il­lu­sioned women (led by Holly Hunter) who have set up a com­mune to try to fix their bro­ken lives.

Mitcham is fu­ri­ous about the women oc­cu­py­ing the land be­cause he’s adamant it be­longs to him.

‘‘ Matt Mitcham is one of th­ese d---s who, if you look at him the wrong way, you could lose your teeth,’’ Mul­lan says.

Asked if his own ex­pe­ri­ences have in­formed his ap­proach to the psy­chotic Mitcham in Top of the Lake, Mul­lan says it’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that op­er­at­ing in a gang or as a crim­i­nal is ‘‘ act­ing by an­other means’’.

‘‘ I don’t get to play the toff, that kind of passed me by,’’ Mul­lan says with a smile.

‘‘ For some­thing like this (Mitcham), emo­tion­ally you can con­nect with some­one who is f----d up.

‘‘ The other thing is, this (New Zealand) is so like Scot­land it’s un­be­liev­able. I live in Glas­gow and Ki­wis are so like Scots, so many hang-ups. They hate the Aussies, we hate the English — all that s---.’’ Top of the Lake, UKTV, Sun­day, 8.30pm

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