Men's Style (Australia) - - Contents -

Ac­com­plished Aussie ac­tor David Wen­ham is more in de­mand than ever

David Wen­ham knows what scares you about the new ver­sion of Wake In Fright be­cause it scared him too. “I was dead set against it,” he says of be­ing over­seas and hear­ing that the 1971 Aus­tralian mas­ter­piece was to be re­made. “I just thought, ‘That’s ridicu­lous.’ I mean, why would you?”

As things would have it, shortly af­ter the ac­tor ar­rived back home in Syd­ney the re­vamped script landed on his desk. “I could eas­ily just have dis­pensed with the idea but out of cu­rios­ity I read it,” the 52-year-old ac­tor says. “It was re­ally, re­ally good. I went 180 de­grees on the idea.”

Wen­ham didn’t make the de­ci­sion lightly – he rates the orig­i­nal ver­sion as his favourite Aus­tralian film of all time “with­out a doubt”. But he feels that the new ver­sion will al­low a strong tale – based on Ken­neth Cook’s 1961 novel of the same name – to find a new au­di­ence. “Why not give the op­por­tu­nity to other gen­er­a­tions to look at this story from a new per­spec­tive?” he says.

Wake In Fright re­lates the har­row­ing odyssey of a young teacher who’s stranded in an out­back hell­hole, where he’s grad­u­ally stripped of his san­ity by a toxic ver­sion of Aus­tralian mas­culin­ity, his de­scent fa­cil­i­tated by the town’s malev­o­lent cop Jock Craw­ford.

In the 1971 ver­sion, Jock was played by Chips Raf­ferty, who fa­mously re­fused to im­bibe fake booze on set, telling di­rec­tor Ted Kotch­eff: “You sup­ply the beers and I’ll sup­ply the act­ing.” Sadly, Wen­ham didn’t get to fol­low this par­tic­u­lar ver­sion of Method act­ing. “You’re not al­lowed to any­more,” he ex­plains. “It would’ve been great – it’s ac­tu­ally harder drink­ing the non-al­co­holic stuff that’s given to you. It’s pretty dis­gust­ing.”

But Wen­ham rushes to as­sure that he didn’t fol­low in the foot­steps of his leg­endary pre­de­ces­sor. “Did I try to chan­nel Chips Raf­ferty? No, I didn’t. It’s pretty ap­par­ent who Jock is – he’s a fas­ci­nat­ing in­di­vid­ual, the man who looks af­ter law and or­der but who re­alises for the place to ex­ist har­mo­niouly, the laws have to be more rub­bery than they would be in the city.”

The other ap­peal of the new Wake In Fright, he says, is that while it’s a con­tem­po­rary take, the char­ac­ters, lo­ca­tions and themes re­main time­less. “Over the past few years, I’ve shot in

dif­fer­ent small coun­try towns around Aus­tralia and es­sen­tially, some of those places haven’t changed very much,” he says. “They’ve held onto their char­ac­ter. They’re very idio­syn­cratic. They’re dif­fer­ent to the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple who live in the city hubs. Life hasn’t changed ter­ri­bly much – mod­ern com­mu­ni­ca­tions ob­vi­ously have – but life out there is hard and peo­ple live a hard ex­is­tence. They’re tough peo­ple but you have to be tough to live in those en­vi­ron­ments.”

As de­scribed in Cook’s novel, Wen­ham is a good fit for Jock, both for his phys­i­cal­ity, hav­ing a “raw freck­led face”, and for a ca­reer that’s seen him fre­quently in­habit An­tipodeans of men­ac­ing depths, whether bru­tal Brett Sprague in his 1998 break-out film The Boys or deadly cop Al Parker in ac­claimed 2013 TV se­ries Top Of The Lake.

They are but two high­lights in a screen ca­reer that has now spanned 30 years, a fact which gives Wen­ham pause for thought. “It’s weird, ac­tu­ally when you hear that.” He chuck­les. “It feels like I only started about 10 years ago. But I think that’s just a prod­uct of get­ting older.” He is, he says, acutely aware that most ac­tors have done their best work by his age. “If you think of any of the great ac­tors, and tell me their great­est per­for­mance, 95 per cent of the time they’ll be younger rather than older. I’m aware of that and so I’m try­ing to now ap­proach my work so I can get a sense of the lib­er­a­tion and free­dom I had when I was younger. I want to make sure I don’t get shack­led or be­come jaded.”

This phi­los­o­phy is pay­ing off in spades, with Wen­ham go­ing from strength to strength on the big and small screens, and across gen­res. We’ve re­cently seen him do great, re­strained work in the crit­i­cal and com­mer­cial hit Lion (“A re­ally beau­ti­ful story, stun­ningly told… a film I’m re­ally proud to have been in­volved with.”) – and have fun amid the block­buster mad­ness of the lat­est Pi­rates Of The Caribbean in­stal­ment (“It’s nice to have a bit of fairy floss, but too much will rot your teeth.”) In ad­di­tion to pres­tige TV drama Top Of The Lake, there’s now Wake In Fright, which he has bal­anced with the Marvel comic-book thrills of Net­flix’s stream­ing hit Iron Fist.

“We’re in a re­nais­sance in TV with­out a doubt,” he says. “It’s go­ing to be in­ter­est­ing to see what peo­ple do with film now. How do you rein­vig­o­rate that? I think there’s an op­por­tu­nity for peo­ple to sur­prise the au­di­ences with the type of films that can be made.”

For Wen­ham this isn’t mere ab­strac­tion. When we speak, he’s await­ing the pre­miere of his fea­ture di­rec­to­rial de­but, El­lip­sis, which he work­shopped with ac­tors Emily Bar­clay and Bene­dict Sa­muel in three days and shot in a week around Syd­ney on the smell of an oily rag. “A mod­est lit­tle film has come out of it,” he says in the days lead­ing up to its Syd­ney Film Fes­ti­val de­but, “and some of those pro­cesses I played with I may in­cor­po­rate in more for­mal projects in the fu­ture.” The film has sub­se­quently been com­pared favourably with the best work of Gus Van Sant, Woody Allen and Richard Linklater.

“It hasn’t been a con­scious de­ci­sion by any means,” he says of a ca­reer that’s taken him from the love­able junkie Johnny Spi­teri in Get­tin’ Square and heart-throb Diver Dan in Sea Change to the swords, sor­cery and san­dals of the 300 and The Lord Of The Rings fran­chises. “It’s the way it’s panned out.” Wen­ham says he chooses projects based on scripts, on who he’ll get to work with or where he’s shoot­ing—and is blessed he of­ten scores the tri­fecta. “I keep my fin­gers crossed that that keeps hap­pen­ing.”

‘I’m try­ing to now ap­proach my work so I can get a sense of the… free­dom I had when I was younger.’ David Wen­ham

Wake In Fright screens on Net­work­ten soon.

Wen­ham as Jock Craw­ford in Wake In Fright.

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