Television Rosemary Neill finds rough magic in an acting school for ex-cons
Ex-cons are getting a kick out of treading the boards, and screen appearances can sometimes follow
PETER Sammak’s roving, expressive eyes — the eyes of a natural comic — widen visibly as he says: ‘‘ I never could have imagined it in my life. I’m grateful I did, but.’’ A tattooed man mountain and one-time prison inmate, Sammak is talking about his part-time career as an actor.
He says that in his stamping ground of Punchbowl, a suburb in Sydney’s west with a large Middle Eastern population, ‘‘ if you say you do art or acting, they’ll say, ‘ You’re a weirdo, man’ ’’. Alternatively, they’ll assume you are ‘‘ a poof’’ or ‘‘ on drugs’’.
It’s an understatement to say that Sammak, a 43-year-old single father of two grown sons, is an unlikely performer. With a large, shaven head and muscles on his muscles — his arms and thighs seem to explode out of his bottlegreen shirt and shorts — he has an almost physically threatening presence.
At 14, he was kicked out of school after he hit a teacher. He had been in an English-as-asecond-language class even though English was the first language of his Christian Lebanese family. As a young man, he was ‘‘ known’’ around Sydney’s Kings Cross and had unnervingly close encounters with the criminal underworld — an acquaintance of his was chained to a nightclub sink and bashed and raped by bikies. At 24, he spent three months in Sydney’s Silverwater jail for assaulting police (‘‘I accidentally hit eight of ’ em,’’ he says, deadpan ) and for drug possession.
Yet today Sammak runs a thriving carpet cleaning business and attends an acting course with a difference — it’s for ex-criminals and its graduates have been remarkably successful at securing professional gigs. As a result of these classes, Sammak has played a cameo role in the popular ABC drama Rake and a major one in the feature film Convict, which is released this month and explores racial tensions in a maximum security prison.
The novice actor also features prominently in the documentary Taking on the Chocolate Frog, which will screen on Foxtel’s Studio channel from early April. Across three episodes, the documentary follows a group of exprisoners as they reinvent themselves as stage actors. Guided by their acting teacher Grant Thompson, the former criminals work towards a showcase performance at the decommissioned Parramatta jail in front of an invited audience of celebrities, family and media. Thompson — who with blokey affection, describes Sammak as ‘‘ 120 kilos of Lebanese manhood’’ — says the task he set his students ‘‘ was almost impossible. Get up there. Learn Shakespeare.’’ When he was told he would have to memorise pages of dialogue, Sammak responded, ‘‘ f . . k off’’ — he couldn’t handle more than three or four pages at a time.
A more pressing problem emerged when the documentary, produced by Screentime, was caught up in a fake identity scandal. Last month, it was revealed that one of the exprisoners who features in it, Michael Lahood (also spelt LaHoud), had invented much of his criminal past. Lahood claimed in this film and in SBS’s reality show Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl that he had spent years in some of NSW’s toughest prisons. But prison authorities clarified that he pleaded not guilty to an armed robbery charge in 2006 that was eventually dismissed, and that he spent just a few days in a remand centre. SBS has postponed its documentary, which focuses heavily on Lahood, while it investigates his background.
Meanwhile, during a live showcase performance filmed for Taking on the Chocolate Frog, Lahood falsely claimed he had spent six months in solitary confinement in Parramatta jail, and that the experience was ‘‘ f . . ked’’. The press kit incorrectly states that the father of four, who has top-to-toe tattoos, spent eight years in jail. A Studio channel spokesman says the solitary confinement claim does not appear in the documentary and that Lahood plays a small role in the film. Any inaccuracies about his past would be ‘‘ edited out’’. alcoholic, he would never adjust to life on the outside — and the ex-cons’ progress as actors.
Thompson estimates that about 40 excriminals have completed his acting boot camp during the past three years. He holds a weekly class in whatever venue he can rustle up — a warehouse, a strip club, an office after hours. ‘‘ I do this to get the guys work,’’ he says.
So far he has been highly effective; his students have been extras and secured speaking roles in Australian and US films and television series including Screentime’s Under-
HIS ARMS AND THIGHS SEEM TO EXPLODE OUT OF HIS GREEN SHIRT AND SHORTS
Last spring, Review went to see the showcase being filmed at the jail — all coiled razor wire and dungeon-like cell blocks with punishingly small windows. Yet in this inhospitable place (and despite Lahood’s false claims), a kind of rough magic occurred: reformed drug addicts and robbers who wouldn’t dream of going to the theatre fluently recited Shakespeare’s verse and starred in a production of The Chocolate Frog, a one-act play written by ‘‘ prison playwright’’ and former armed robber Jim McNeil. (Chocolate frog is prison slang for dog, and in this work two prisoners accuse a younger cellmate of being a dog, or informer.)
In the late 1960s, McNeil crafted awardwinning plays from his almost lightless cell at Parramatta jail, although he had never been inside a theatre. The documentary shuttles between McNeil’s life story — a violent belly and Bikie Wars: Brothers in Arms. Normally, he says, about 70 per cent of released prisoners in NSW return to jail. Of the 40 or so he has taught, three went back inside, one died and the rest stayed out of prison.
The Parramatta jail performance, he says, ‘‘ is the first time we’ve focused on the theatre. I wanted to challenge them to perform live in front of an audience.’’ It’s hard to believe this joyless institution — which includes a solitary confinement cage exposed to the weather — was decommissioned only two years ago. In fact, several of Thompson’s acting students have done time here.
Ex-prisoner Shamus Vincent tells the invited audience: ‘‘ Shakespeare was like Chinese language for me, I could hardly understand it.’’ He’s performing tonight in front of his kids — the last time they saw him here, it was in the bleak visitors’ hall, where the printed rules ban ‘‘ excessive touching/cuddling’’.
Former convicted drug user Guy Spence secured a major role in the showcase. Days before, he developed a life-threatening blood clot and ended up in intensive care with 80 stitches in his leg. But he turned up, limping heavily, on the night and Thompson said of this: ‘‘ Nothing was gonna stop this bloke getting on stage tonight. He’s a cranky old bastard anyway, so it kinda suits him.’’
On the same night, Sammak performs an integral role with ease and a flair for mimicry. Studying his lines didn’t come easily, though. Drawing on his amiable, class-clown persona, he says: ‘‘ I get nervous when I sit down for too long. My blood starts to shake. That’s why it was so hard to do this, because we had to sit down and study it for like, four weeks. Sweet Jesus.’’
Notwithstanding the scepticism of Punchbowl locals, this man, who went straight years ago to please his mum, gets a lot out of acting. ‘‘ I dunno, it’s very important to me,’’ he confesses. ‘‘ I’ve never been a part of something like this, I’ve been a cleaner all my life . . . Having the support and learning something new — art, something I never knew existed — is something that’s touched my heart.’’ Even so, Sammak is not about to throw over his cleaning business for an uncertain life in front of the cameras: ‘‘ I know it’s cleaning, but it’s my bread and butter,’’ he says.
Grant Thompson, front, with
actors, from left, Paul Mackenzie, Michael Lahood and Peter Sammak