Discussing social media, ABC budget cuts and more with one of Australia’s finest, Richard Roxburgh.
ONE OF AUSTRALIA’S MOST BELOVED ACTING TALENTS, THE STAR OF STAGE AND SCREEN REFLECTS ON MODERN MASCULINITY, ABC BUDGET CUTS, HIS MOST CELEBRATED ROLE AND WHY YOU’LL NEVER FIND HIM ON SOCIAL MEDIA .
There are certain constants in the Australian media landscape. Interminable days of test cricket; neighbourhood disputes masquerading as current affairs; reality TV contestants endlessly discussing ‘plating up’ dishes. Some are sliding into irrelevancy, while others acquire a burnished patina of unassailable reliability. No prizes for guessing which camp Richard Roxburgh falls into. Whether imparting his own stamp on figures we already know well (Bob Hawke, Roger Rogerson, to mention just two) or those which we’d merely like to meet ( Rake’s protagonist Cleaver Greene), Roxburgh conjures a sense of debauched dishevelled debonair. All shot through with a mischievous erudition sorely missing from a generation of budding public figures who require Teleprompters and Instagram managers to supply them with personality. Better still, he’s not one for trying to shill you a coffee machine or a vitamin shake. All Roxburgh is selling is the quality of his work. On the eve of season five of Rake, the 56-year-old sat down with GQ to talk stage, screen, social media – and who the hell his most famous character is actually based on.
GQ: As time goes by, are you finding Cleaver Greene is an easier cloak to slip on or are there still challenges for you? Richard Roxburgh:
Slipping into Cleaver has become really second nature over time and it’s kind of become incredibly familiar. But the process itself, and the work that goes into the creation of the experience, in some ways has gotten more demanding, as time’s gone on. I guess because we keep reconfiguring where the bar lies so we’re constantly trying to work on it more, to not rest on our laurels.
GQ: A part of Rake’s longevity has been the support it’s received from the ABC. As an Australian institution it feels increasingly under threat. RR:
The ABC plays an extraordinarily important part in our cultural landscape. The ABC is all about, obviously, creating Australian work, so it’s where we see reflected our own voices and the wonder of who we are – that’s all on the ABC. It’s terribly disheartening to see the constant cutbacks that are being inflicted, and it will show over time. There will cease to be the dramas that we love and the parallels with BBC dramas will gradually wither on the vine unless we’re incredibly careful. Once that infrastructure is gone, once you have kneecapped the ABC, it will not be able to move, there will be nowhere to go. That would be a crying shame.
GQ: Do you see the likes of Netflix and Stan moving to fill that space? RR:
There’s no question that streaming companies are doing great work, but at the moment they are under absolutely no compunction to put anything back into creation of local work. And unless things change, there’s a problem here.
GQ: Do think the inherent Australian-ness of Rake and particularly its protagonist Cleaver Greene is part of its success? RR:
There’s so much about Cleaver that is, I suppose, some of the stuff we love about Australia. He’s irreverent, he doesn’t give a damn, he’s kind of iconoclastic. There was an attempt to do an American version, but that floundered, I guess in part, because of the fact that, quintessentially, it is Australian.
GQ: That, and the fact squeaky-clean Greg Kinnear was the lead in the US version. Over time, Rake has moved from being as much about the lead character as it is reflecting on debates raging in Australia. RR:
We’ve always tried to keep abreast of what’s going on. We’ve been quite fortunate in that way. In the last season, Cleaver was running for Senate and won – and what was fantastic is that the night that episode was broadcast was the night of the national election. People were uploading shots of their voting papers on Instagram with an extra box for Cleaver Greene written on the official form.
GQ: Let’s get this settled, once and for all: is Greene based on infamous Sydney barrister Charles Waterstreet? He tried to sue the production over it. RR:
That came to nothing because there was nothing there to begin with. The character is not based on anyone. Cleaver’s life bears no resemblance to that of Charles Waterstreet apart from the fact that he’s a criminal barrister.
GQ: Do you think the case turned into good publicity for the show, anyway? RR:
I think it turned into publicity for Charles – and Charles likes his publicity. GQ: You have a zero presence on social media. Why is that? RR: I just don’t like the bastard. I don’t trust where it’s taking us. There is great value in some ways – for instance, I suspect that the Coles and Woolworths ban on plastics may not have happened prior to social media. But I don’t want my kids being the experimental generation, where we see just see what happens.
GQ: You’re raising two boys in the post-metoo era. That must bring its own challenges?
RR: It’s important to talk to them. I feel like my boys know that if they have any questions about anything, I would be the first person they could come to. Honestly, respect is engendered in the home, and so if you see your parents in a respectful, loving relationship, the most important lesson you can ever teach them is the way that you treat one another. Beyond that, it’s conversations, and obviously as they enter their teenage years, those conversations are more tricky, because there’s more at stake now than there used to be. There’s more at stake because of porn, because of the online environment, because of social media and bullying. The world’s changed, but not the fundamental characteristics I was inculcated with, about how you treat women. I think that those things haven’t really changed.
GQ: There’s also been a spate of retrospective outrage, recently. RR:
I’m looking forward to the flurry and the heat to go out of this stuff. It’s unfortunate to go back over people’s history and to judge them. Unless it’s Weinstein or you’re obviously a monster who’s done appalling and illegal things.
GQ: Switching from the removal of tech to the immediacy of theatre, live performance has been a consistent part of your resumé. What’s the allure for you? RR:
It’s great conditioning as an actor. It forces you to constantly have to do the hard yards of reinvention, of going back to the simple matter of finding truth. It’s an act of refinement. There’s a kind of Zen in theatre and if I don’t do it for long periods, I miss it in the same way as one might miss going to the gym. It’s my first love. I love the live experience. I love the laughter. I love the silence. There’s nothing more profound than the feeling of when a show is absolutely hitting a moment of, for want of a better word, a kind of perfect truth.
GQ: In the past, you’ve described yourself as ‘a collector of mannerisms’ where you would view people on a bus or a train or whatever, and those things would bubble to the surface again in a later performance. Is the collection full or is it an ongoing thing? RR:
I don’t think it is full. I’m constantly riveted by humans, by what we do, by the way we are, and maybe when the collection is full, that might be a sign that it’s time to hang up the tights.
GQ: You’re 56 now and have clearly lived through several iterations of Australian masculinity. Where is it that Aussie men need to lift our collective game in 2018? RR:
We’ve come a long way in a very short time, and I think that’s why everybody’s heads are still spinning. I feel that it’s incredibly important that we learn what’s expected of us, that women won’t put up with stuff that they used to have to and those days are gone.
GQ: And what about men’s interest in fashion - what’s the definition of style for Richard Roxburgh? RR:
Style is knowing who you are, as opposed to the way everybody thinks you or a man of your age should look. It’s whatever you carve out over time and what you think is the most simple, rendered-down outward definition of your inward self.
GQ: What does contentment mean to you right now? And do you have moments where you think you’ve made it? RR:
I never, for a moment, feel that I’ve made it. I do have moments of great contentment and that’s important because, otherwise, what are we doing all of this for? And they’re kind of weird, blessed moments, and sometimes for me it’s when I’m in the hurly burly with my people or my family that they occur. Sometimes it’s also when I’m away and I can look at them as what I’m missing, and love it so much and feel to be in a blessed state. But that’s nothing to do, really, with feeling like I’ve made it. And that’s probably better because that’d be another sign for me to say, ‘OK, time to retire’.
GQ: Looking back, what advice would you give your younger self – the youngest of six in a family from Albury with dreams of an actor’s life? RR:
I guess I would say: it’s OK. Bet on yourself, back yourself and trust the talent will allow it. If you have a modicum of talent, keep working on it and trusting it, then eventually it will be seen. Also, spend less time fretting. I spent so much time worrying about the minutiae as a younger man, and there were a great deal of perfectly productive hours that went into the enormous dustbin of worry. Season five of Rake is airing now on ABC
“women won’t put up with stuff they used to have to... those days are gone.”
Cleaver Greene facing the press in a scene from season five of Rake.