AFTER THREE DECADES ON OUR SCREENS DAVID WENHAM’S STAR KEEPS RISING – BUT EVEN HE DIDN’T SEE HIMSELF REMAKING HIS FAVOURITE AUSSIE FILM, WRITES Michael Adams.
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.