Horses for courses in an Aussie blockbuster.
ACTOR Stephen Curry remembers exactly where he was when Media Puzzle won the 2002 Melbourne Cup.
When star jockey Damien Oliver thundered first past the post at Flemington on the Irish-trained gelding, then ecstatically blew a kiss to the heavens in one of the most enduring images in Australian sport, the star of The Castle and The King was at his Melbourne home, ‘‘ jumping around like a fool’’.
Like many other Australians, Curry had laid down his hard-earned cash on Oliver, inspired by the hope of a fairytale end to an extraordinary story.
Just the week before, Damien’s brother, Jason, also a jockey, had been killed after a fall at a barrier trial in Perth. The tragedy hit the Oliver family particularly hard given that the brothers’ father, Ray, had also died in a racing accident in 1975. Damien agonised all week on whether he would take the Melbourne Cup ride he had been carefully selected for by Irish training great Dermot Weld – or indeed whether he would ever race again. When the big day arrived, Oliver couldn’t take a trick – not even managing a place in the long card before he lined up in the race that stops a nation.
But wearing his brother’s silks and dedicating the ride
to his memory, he outlasted Media Puzzle’s more fancied stablemate, Vinnie Roe, and a world-class field to power his way into sporting folklore.
‘‘ I didn’t even know the full story – I knew his brother had passed away,’’ says Curry, who plays Damien Oliver in the new Australian film, The Cup.
He admits he didn’t know too much about horseracing before he signed up for the lead role – and even less about horses.
He had, however, ridden on screen early in his career for The Man From
Snowy River TV series, not that the experience helped him too much.
‘‘ I only got that role because at the audition they had a little questionnaire saying, ‘ Can you ride a horse? Tick yes or no’,’’ he says.
‘‘ I am an actor, so they might as well have been saying, ‘ Do you want this job – yes or no?’.
‘‘ So I ticked ‘ yes’, got the role and suddenly thought ‘ oh ----’.’’
Fortunately for him, Curry was in good hands.
With credits including Phar Lap and The Lighthorsemen and the westerns Quigley and Into the West on his CV, The Cup’s Aussie director Simon Wincer knows a thing or two about filming horses.
So a rather nervous Curry headed to the director’s property for a crash course in riding, first on stock horses and then retired thoroughbreds. The extended pre-production period also proved to be a blessing.
‘‘ I was slowly learning as I went there and getting pretty good at it, according to Simon,’’ Curry says.
‘‘ I felt pretty good and felt confident – they say the horse knows pretty instantaneously if you don’t know what you are doing and then they take charge.
‘‘ That’s how you end up on your arse. I ended up on my arse a few times early but got the hang of it and started quite enjoying it.
‘‘ Then I got on to thoroughbreds – and that’s a completely different kettle of fish. The techniques are still the same but it’s like the difference between a 180B and a Ferrari.
‘‘ You know where the wheel is and where the pedals are and how to stop and start but that’s where it ends.’’
Curry also hit the gym and lost 15kg to more accurately reflect the jockey’s physique, and in the process gained a newfound respect for the profession.
‘‘ What I did was nothing compared to what they do,’’ he says.
‘‘ It’s not just about their courage and ability and strength and timing, it’s that dedication.
‘‘ Damien and a handful of other jockeys are very successful in terms of wins, experience and money.
‘‘ He has made a living out it. Ninetyfive per cent of these blokes and girls don’t – or they live hand to mouth. And they are not doing any less work than Damien is doing.
‘‘ Actors complain about having to get up at 4.30am once in a blue moon – that’s a sleep-in for most of these guys.
‘‘ I can’t say enough about what an eye-opener it has been to see the true extent of what they go through.’’
Curry is even more effusive about the man he is playing, describing him as ‘‘ a great bloke’’ and ‘‘ genuine Aussie man’’.
Oliver was an adviser on the script, also taking Curry to race days and barrier trials. He also opened up on what is to this day a very raw and emotional chapter in his life.
‘‘ It was all on the table and he didn’t pull any punches and the generosity of that was astonishing,’’ Curry said. ‘‘ He is a very impressive man.’’ Thankfully, the real jockey liked what he saw.
When Curry watched the film for the first time he was sitting behind Oliver and his wife Trish. All shed a tear as the action unfolded.
‘‘ They were really emotional about it and afterwards we had a really good talk about it,’’ Curry says. ‘‘ They said it had been done in a way they really appreciated and his mum would really appreciate and that Jason and even his father would have loved.’’
Curry is no stranger to playing revered Australians.
His highest profile role, and arguably his finest hour, came with his portrayal of Aussie entertainment great Graham Kennedy in the TV movie
The King, for which he won a Logie and also an AFI Award.
Curry says he is a terrible mimic and the key to playing a real-life figure is interpretation rather than impersonation.
‘‘ For me, rather than physicality, it’s more about the personality and the motivations and essence of who that person is,’’ he says.
He also says having the jockey both alive and on call for The Cup made his job considerably easier than preparing for The King.
‘‘ With the Graham thing, I probably would have said no if he was still alive because he is one of my all-time heroes and renowned for his belligerence, among other things,’’ he says.
‘‘ The very thought of him telling me what he thought in a negative fashion about what I did with him would be devastating.’’ THE CUP Now showing at Village Cinemas