With a new play, a film and the lead in Bell Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the year belongs to writer, director and actor Brendan Cowell, writes Rosalie Higson
BRENDAN Cowell seems like your typical knockabout bloke. He’s genial, 30ish, talkative, casual to the point of looking as if he has just rolled out of bed. But this morning he’s excused for looking a little rough around the edges: he has more going on than pretty much any other writer- actor- director in the country.
This week, Belvoir St Theatre’s B Sharp series presents Cowell’s new play, Ruben Guthrie. His feature film Ten Empty — Cowell co- wrote and appears in it — opens in July. And, just to top it off, he’s to play Hamlet with Bell Shakespeare in Sydney and Melbourne midyear.
Ruben Guthrie is about alcohol abuse, the social issue of the moment. Binge drinking may be ugly, nasty and sickening, with plenty of potential for violence, but it’s a behaviour encountered across social strata: everyone wants to satisfy that hard- earned thirst. Bingeing is as prevalent among schoolies on Queensland’s Gold Coast as it is among fashionable young women who’d rather drink than eat, corporate types and elite sportsmen. There’s former AFL footballer Wayne Carey on Enough Rope with Andrew Denton, talking about sinking 10 or 20 beers in a session, and the sad tale of young Olympic swimming hopeful Nick D’Arcy.
‘‘ It just gets better and better: the swimmers beat the shit out of each other because they were drunk at ( Sydney’s) King Street Wharf. Swimmers! Butterfly swimmers! The issue just keeps rolling out,’’ says Cowell, shaking his head. ‘‘ You’d think they’d be the last people to have a fight. They’ve got laps to do at 5.30am.’’
Cowell began writing in 2005, the year he stopped drinking. During his period of abstinence Cowell says his life, his perspective and his relationships all changed: ‘‘ Everything really picked up. I had this brand- new day, this whole new vision of the world.’’
Not one to twiddle his thumbs, he worked up a scene about a young man going along to Alcoholics Anonymous: a long, amusing monologue of denial. That won him the 2008 Philip Parsons Young Playwright’s Award and gained him $ 5000 and support from B Sharp to develop the play.
Now a more mindful, moderate social drinker, Cowell hadn’t noticed he was drinking heavily at the time because he was in an industry where everyone was doing the same.
‘‘ I seemed to be staying out as late as everybody else and drinking as much as everybody else, but when I stopped I was like ‘ Whoo’. My whole life was based around the alcoholic beverage. Meet for drinks, meet for lunch, meet for dinner, premiere, opening night. As soon as you’re not drinking you realise there was f . . king drink everywhere, you know.’’
Ruben Guthrie, directed by Wayne Blair, is set among the suits of the corporate world: Ruben ( Toby Schmitz) is a creative director at a cuttingedge advertising agency, a familiar face in the bar scene, with a hot model girlfriend. At 29, he seems invincible . . . until he comes undone.
‘‘ I’ve been heavily involved in advertising, I know those people,’’ Cowell says. ‘‘ They are people who think on a certain angle, and I guess I wanted to explore that as well. And there is also the fact that alcohol advertising is now a big issue, so it’s fallen into our hands really beautifully.
‘‘ I didn’t want a guy whose life was no good, who drank because he was dissatisfied, because we’ve seen that before. I wanted the good, successful drunk. A guy that has it all and loses it all rather than someone who drinks because he’s a failure. Ruben’s the opposite and yet he throws his life away.’’
One night, after way too many shots of vodka, Ruben jumps off a roof. He wakes up with his arm in plaster, his girlfriend gone and his mother driving him to an AA meeting. ‘‘ To get his girlfriend back he’s got to start going to AA, so he goes, but in massive, complicated denial. Then he starts getting into it a little bit, and then he decides to change his life and he goes on, as they say, a journey of self- discovery.’’ IT’S Monday, 10am, the only time Cowell can spare from his hectic schedule. We are at Peas Cafe, near his mother’s home in Alexandria in Sydney’s inner west, where he and girlfriend, actor Rose Byrne, are camped temporarily before they return to New York later in the year. He ambles in, leaving Miller, his old collie, to mooch outside, and sets to work on a bowl of healthy muesli and fresh fruit.
Cowell grew up in the Shire, the Sutherland area south of Sydney known for its lovely beaches, bush settings and, more recently, its racially motivated troubles. Cowell may have lived by the sea, but he wasn’t into surfing: rugby league was ( and still is) his sport of choice. His team, the Cronulla Sharks, has never won a premiership, but for Cowell loyalty is more important than glory.
‘‘ I played until I was 17, until everyone got really massive and I got scared,’’ he says. ‘‘ But I felt like a bit of an outsider at school, I guess, because I was heavily involved in the drama department and doing television commercials, you know. I was probably a bit feminine.’’
Did he drink in high school? ‘‘ Yes!’’ He gives me a look, like: d’uh.
‘‘ I put it down to lack of confidence,’’ he says. ‘‘ They separate the sexes, then in high school put them together again. Boys aren’t good with feelings and emotions. Maybe they should give lessons in them . . . But confidence isn’t a virtue that’s generally prized in Australia.’’
He had a supportive family and two sisters who loved dancing, but ‘‘ it’s not the most creative place in the world to grow up. I guess if I’d been at a performing arts high school I’d have spray- painted my hair purple and gone crazy, which I did at university. It was just delayed a few years. I went to the university at Bathurst and I really let loose there.’’
His career in show business began at age eight, with a string of roles on TV, as well as commercials. At 16 he gave it away and thought he’d be a journalist. But as soon as Cowell arrived at university, he ‘‘ was in every play and making short films. I knew there’s no escape.’’
Since 2001 he has won a string of awards: the Patrick White Playwrights’ Award for Bed, the Griffin Award for Rabbit. An Australia Council grant helped develop his play Self- Esteem, which played at the Sydney Theatre Company last year when he was also director of the series Wharf2Loud. His face is familiar from regular appearances on Foxtel hit Love My Way as the troubled Tom Jackson; his first leading film role in the 2007 thriller Noise, as a young policeman suffering from tinnitus, was compelling and critically acclaimed.
Cowell has written nine plays, and directed and acted in several short films. In his own work he returns again and again to examining the contemporary male, in all his complexity and dysfunction. He admits that swapping roles, from actor to director to writer and back again, is not always simple.
‘‘ I think some directors are scared of me. But I’ve always wanted to work with Wayne Blair. He and I — ironically, during late nights at many bars — have said to each other, ‘ When are we going to take over the world?’ And there’s never been a project, just a mutual yearning. But when he read this script he rang me up and said: ‘ This is it, brother. We found it.’ I think it’s perfect for him because the play is about heart and passion and family, all the things Wayne gets because he’s such a big- hearted man.
‘‘ And I think he’s getting used to my outspokenness; he probably hasn’t worked with a writer like me. I just think the actors are so heavily criticised all the time during rehearsals and the script development process is really, really intense and often debilitating and involves writing draft after draft. Then the director walks in the room and he’s king.
‘‘ I don’t think writers should be silenced in the rehearsal process — in TV, film or theatre — and I think the things that work best happen when the writer has a voice. Luckily that’s not a huge issue because Wayne is all about the tribe of theatre, so it’s pretty harmonious.’’
With the success of his many projects, Cowell finds himself in the enviable and rare position of being able to choose his jobs.
‘‘ I love acting, and acting and writing are great friends in a way: you learn a lot about the other. There’s a lot of people doing it now, this multi- tasking writer- actor- director,’’ he says, scooping up the last of his muesli.
‘‘ And it seems you become a more mature actor, a more respectful actor.’’
Ten Empty was co- written with his friend Anthony Hayes, who also directs. Mike Leigh heavily influenced this tale about fathers and sons set over one dramatic weekend. Both writers came from the outskirts of big cities ( Sydney and Brisbane) and found they had plenty to share about family relationships and life in the suburbs.
Cowell may be addressing a social problem in Ruben Guthrie and getting to the heart of male relationships in Ten Empty, but he would rather put a stick in his eye than make an earnest film, like many contemporary Australian dramas.
‘‘ For me that kind of worthiness is tiresome and unappealing. We make these films about somebody prevailing through an oppressed society or a minority group failing in society but getting there in the end,’’ he says.
‘‘ If I was in charge of the funding bodies I would make it a prerequisite that for the next five years we have to make morally bankrupt movies, completely politically incorrect, with no moral or ethical worth at all, because I think what makes a good f . . king movie is people ( who) don’t have morals.
‘‘ Let’s talk about the extremes of human behaviour, not great human behaviour.’’
Pre- production for Cowell’s next film is under way and, all going well, filming should begin next year. ‘‘ It’s a cricket movie about a D- grade Melbourne team that ( goes) to India on a selfimposed cricketing odyssey. It’s a black comedy about male friendships, when they get to about 35 and things start to change,’’ he says.
‘‘ I’m really hoping this momentum will continue, because it took seven years to get Ten Empty up and I really don’t want to go through that again.’’ Ruben Guthrie opens at Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, next Thursday. Hamlet is at the Sydney Opera House from June 10 and the Arts Centre, Melbourne, from July 18. Ten Empty opens in cinemas in July.
Multi- tasking: Brendan Cowell in Ten Empty , above; and in Sydney, opposite