2008 BC

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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Arts -

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.

Main pic­ture: Re­nee Nowytarger

Multi- task­ing: Bren­dan Cow­ell in Ten Empty , above; and in Syd­ney, op­po­site

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