Mr Australia himself Bryan Brown on why it pays to follow your passion.
THE VETERAN STAR OF STAGE AND SCREEN REFLECTS ON HIS CAREER, WHAT SETS AUSSIE ACTORS APART, AND WHY IT PAYS TO FOLLOW YOUR PASSIONS.
If God was Australian, he’d be a dead ringer for Bryan Brown. A salty, windswept, taciturn, take-no-shit bloke from the ’burbs with a clenched jaw and a kindness in the eyes. At 71, Brown is old enough to qualify for a senior citizen’s travel discount but still looks as if he could take on anyone in the pub with a bone to pick. Back in the late ’70s and ’80s, he was at the forefront of bringing local stories like The Odd Angry Shot and Breaker Morant to global audiences for the first time. Almost 40 years later, he’s continuing to put the nation’s moralities, mandates and miscreants under the celluloid microscope in films such as Australia Day and Sweet Country. Along the way, he’s flirted with the Hollywood machine on his own terms in vehicles like Cocktail opposite Tom Cruise. Still creating, still striving and still with something to say about who we are, Brown has joined the streaming revolution in the new Stan Original series Bloom. GQ sat down to talk ageing, artistry and ambition with the thesp who’d bristle at the term icon, just as much as he clearly deserves it.
GQ: Your latest project, Bloom, is not only on Stan but was produced by the Australian streamer. How do you see new players like this impacting the traditional entertainment landscape?
Bryan Brown: They’re here, they’re here to stay and that’s how it is.
GQ: It seems they’re evolving to a point where they’re not just repackaging US or UK shows, which must be a good thing as far as creative output is concerned?
BB: I guess it is. You’re going to get some really terrific stuff and also some banal crap. That’s no different to how it’s always been. Streaming demands a lot of content, but because there aren’t that many great ideas out there – and when there are, the realisation of them isn’t always that good – we have to expect the bad is going to go along with the good. That said, when you have new platforms, creativity comes to the fore and that makes it a pretty exciting space to be working in.
GQ: Your recent project Sweet Country was a historical drama that shone a light on the shameful treatment of Indigenous Australians. It was set in the early 20 th century, but have we made enough progress with reconciliation?
BB: I don’t think I’m the bloke to answer that. All I’ve noticed in my own game, which is film and television, is that there has been a positive drive by organisations like Screen Australia and the different state-funding bodies to support the opportunity for Indigenous filmmakers and storytellers to get a good shot. That movement probably started 10 years ago and has given us the fantastic works of Redfern Now and Mystery Road, plus exposure to talents like Ivan Sen and Warwick Thornton. They may be Indigenous Australian stories, but they still come under the banner of Australian stories, and they’re powerful, and they’re funny and they’re part of our language.
GQ: Similarly, your 2017 film Australia Day touched on issues of race and culture around the controversial holiday. Where do you think we stand in terms of tolerance in 2018?
BB: That’s not an easy question to answer. You know, I look at certain things and I go, ‘Oh, there’s a great intolerance there’. And then I look at other things and I think we are such a tolerant nation. We’ve got things in front of us that we have to take on to make us more tolerant. But when I go around the world, I do not see a country with the faces in it that Australia has, living a fantastic life, living alongside each other. There are not many countries that do that, that have state stability and it’s a big feather in our caps. Does it all work wonderfully all the time? No. Does anything? No.
GQ: In Bloom, you play the husband of a woman (Jacki Weaver) with dementia. In real life, you’re also an ambassador for Alzheimer’s Australia.
BB: In this show, I’m the husband of a woman dealing with Alzheimer’s, but that’s not why I take on something. My approach is generally: ‘That’s not a bad story. That’s a pretty good character to play, and the people that are making it seem to know what they’re doing.’ In terms of the dementia element, it’s more that it represents a truth in society which makes the narrative contemporary and also triggers a major part of the story. But I suppose at my age, it’s such a big thing. Particularly, either the Baby Boomers dealing with it themselves, or dealing with it with their parents.
GQ: You recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Australian International Movie Convention. Do you ever think about hanging up the boots? BB: I don’t think I would ever choose retirement. Retirement might choose me. People might one day look at me and either go, ‘Who the fuck is he?’ or ‘Is he still alive?’ For now, I’m still very active. I’ve got a film in post-production now called Palm Beach, which I’ve produced and acted in, which will come out next year. I’ve been asked to play this major role in Bloom. For some reason, people keep asking me to do things. I loved having the opportunity to play Sweet Country. It was a hell of a drama, and I loved playing that character. While people keep offering me characters, I go, ‘Yeah, I want to play that. I don’t want another Australian actor to define that bloke. I want to define him.’ As long as that goes on, I’ll keep doing it. GQ: Palm Beach is directed by your wife Rachel Ward. How’s that working out?
BB: She’s nicer to me on the set than she is in real life. Because, on the set, I’m the actor. I have the power. I can go, ‘I don’t like you talking to me like that. You can come and get me in an hour from my van.’ At home, if I tried that, I’d have a frying pan come across the kitchen. Also, she’s very good at what she wants to do on the set and with the story. Plus, it’s not just on the set where we have the opportunity to creatively talk about the project, and argue, and push to make what it is we want to make. Talking about creative things or trying to create something is fun, and exciting, and demanding. And I’m a bloke that needs to be demanded of. GQ: You’ve been together since 1983. For two actors, that’s practically centuries. BB: Well, the simple fact is, as a bloke, it’s always, ‘It’s my fault. I’m sorry.’ GQ: You’ve seen the Hollywood machine up close in films like Cocktail. Why do you think Australian actors continue to carve out a niche? BB: The thing to realise is that this is nothing new. It’s been going on for a long time. There was a resurgence in the ’80s with really great Australian films like Mad Max, My Brilliant Career and Breaker Morant getting noticed. People were going, ‘Whoa! Those actors are great. We’d love them to be a part of our community doing things.’ But it happened
before that too. You know, Rod Taylor, a bloke from Homebush, went over to make his name in America in the ’50s and of course Peter Finch. But it all comes back to the fact that we make great films, our actors get noticed and once they get over there, they’re ambitious and have fabulous work ethics. They’re capable of playing all sorts of characters and are English-speaking.
GQ: Do you think then that it’s more achievable for young actors today?
BB: I think so. When I grew up, you wouldn’t think about being an actor because only Americans did it. Now, young kids growing up in the suburbs, go ‘I want to be in Neighbours’ or ‘I want to be in Home & Away’. Then they can think about going, ‘Oh, maybe I want to be on a 40-foot screen’. And then they’d go, ‘Oh, but they’re only making 20 movies here, but they’re making a thousand there. Why don’t I go and have a shot at that?’
GQ: What do you know now that you wished you knew as a younger bloke?
BB: I probably wish I knew that I wasn’t a bad looking bloke. But, actually, I’m glad I didn’t know things because being naive made me do things that I wouldn’t have done. GQ: Like?
BB: At 25, I lived near Bankstown [in Sydney’s west], decided to sell the car and go to England, saying I’m going to be an actor. I then just knocked on doors and eight or nine months later had a contract with the National Theatre of Great Britain. Now, I go, ‘What was I thinking?’ So, naivety is really great. Then I went, ‘Oh maybe something must be in America’. And it turns out there bloody was. What I realise now was that I was adventurous and optimistic, and I’m really glad for it.
GQ: Any advice for people who might be at a similar point in their lives?
BB: Follow your need. I didn’t realise I needed to express myself in some way, and when I was at the AMP selling insurance, they had a little drama club and I went down there, and they got me to do something. From that moment there was a place for me. I needed to be an actor. Luckily, I didn’t try to be a painter. I’d have failed. Luckily, I didn’t try to be a poet. I’d have failed. Lucky I didn’t try to be a novelist. I’d have failed. But I needed to express myself, and I found the form that allowed me to do it. After I found it, I didn’t have a choice. That was what I was going to have to do.
GQ: What does style mean to you at this stage of your life?
BB: It comes down to how I feel comfortable going out into the street. And that usually means pretty simple, pretty classical.
GQ: What do you make of the current state of Australian politics? BB: Ridiculous. GQ: Fair enough. What are you currently watching?
BB: I still keep going back to Scandinavian stuff. Borgen, The Killing and The Bridge. But I’ve discovered things like Below the Surface and an Israeli one called Fauda recently, which was pretty good in a lot of respects. At the moment, there’s a French one called The Bureau that I just bloody loved.
GQ: Can you be a regular punter and just enjoy a film or a show, or do you find yourself asking, ‘Why are they doing that?’
BB: I try not to let any of that happen when I’m enjoying a show, but I know within half an hour whether I’m going to turn it off. GQ: What about down time?
BB: I do a Pilates class three or four times a week. I’m usually the only bloke among 30 girls. I still surf on a long board. I always do an hour’s exercise a day no matter where I am.
GQ: You must be very proud of the Bryan Brown Theatre out at Bankstown in Sydney. Do you think that our suburbs are finally getting the facilities they need?
BB: Listen, you’ve got to fight for what you want. Nothing will ever be given to you. I’ve been going backwards and forwards to Bankstown a lot lately and I’m always blown away by the vitality and the buzz that exists in the suburbs, particularly in the Western suburbs. You just feel it in the air. There’s just, life. And that life, therefore, needs to express itself in a good way, otherwise it’ll look for a bad way.
GQ: Your old mate Sam Neill. He called you an idiot recently on Twitter because you turned up to the red carpet of the wrong film – his film. Care to retort?
BB: Well, I’m awfully glad he said that because I think it probably very well describes our relationship. We enjoy being able to give each other shit. And that’s because we enjoy each other very much. GQ: That was disappointing.
BB: But it’s all you’re getting. n Stan Original’s Bloom airs on Stan this summer
“I needed to express myself, and I found the form that allowed me to do it.”
Brown as Ray Reed, a high-school teacher and former astronomer who doubles as his wife’s carer, in this year’s Stan Original production Bloom.