Life of Bryan

He has long been a sturdy onscreen sym­bol of Aus­tralian man­hood. But as ac­tor Bryan Brown tells Stel­lar, his new pas­sion project re­sulted from an alarm­ing brush with his own mor­tal­ity

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents -

While he’s been the go-to ma­cho guy on Aussie screens for more than 40 years, Bryan Brown tells Stel­lar that his lat­est project was borne from an in­tense per­sonal strug­gle.

The idea that Bryan Brown could be un­well, fal­li­ble even, was dif­fi­cult to com­pre­hend. Af­ter all, Brown had epit­o­mised an ide­alised ver­sion of the Aus­tralian male onscreen since the 1970s: strong and bronzed, with a Ch­esty Bonds jaw­line and a dis­arm­ing ease with our ver­nac­u­lar.

When film­mak­ers got to work cast­ing The Shi­ralee, they found their quin­tes­sen­tial swag­man in Brown. When Two Hands di­rec­tor Gre­gor Jor­dan needed the per­fect Syd­ney gang­ster, he also turned to Brown.

Yet Brown’s lat­est film, which he pro­duced and his wife Rachel Ward di­rected, came from a time when he was bro­ken. Palm Beach stars Sam Neill, Greta Scac­chi, Richard E. Grant and a scen­esteal­ing Heather Mitchell as a group of 60-some­things as­sem­bling in Syd­ney’s idyl­lic North­ern Beaches to cel­e­brate the birth­day of Brown’s char­ac­ter Frank.

The 72-year-old Brown wanted to tell a story about his gen­er­a­tion, sparked by an over­seas Christ­mas he had spent with a close bunch of mates. “You know with friends you’re al­ways laugh­ing and jok­ing and you talk a bit about what’s go­ing on or how are your kids or what­ever,” he tells Stel­lar.

This time that hol­i­day bon­homie had a worrying un­der­tone. “I came away know­ing that ev­ery­one – ev­ery­one – was deal­ing

with some­thing,” re­calls Brown. “All the blokes were deal­ing with some­thing.”

One mate had been a life­long al­co­holic and was still deal­ing with the trauma that brought his fam­ily. An­other had lost his job, and with it his iden­tity. An­other had just sold the com­pany that had been his life. Ex­plains Brown, “And now he’s bump­ing into walls and didn’t know which way was up.” He had gone on an­tide­pres­sants.

Then there was Brown, the seem­ing con­stant of the past four decades of Aus­tralian film and TV. Surely such a totem couldn’t top­ple, too? Yet he had also been deal­ing with per­sonal chaos, and did not know how to mend him­self.

While film­ing the ro­man­tic com­edy Along Came Polly in the US more than 15 years ago, Brown was rushed into in­ten­sive care with a se­ri­ous blood in­fec­tion. It knocked him around as much men­tally as phys­i­cally, al­though he didn’t know it at the time. For years af­ter, his anx­i­ety about an­other pos­si­ble episode bal­looned. He was gripped by ner­vous thoughts about the per­mu­ta­tions, par­tic­u­larly if he wasn’t near an­other hos­pi­tal that could save his life, as hap­pened in Amer­ica.

“And, of course, once you start to build up anx­i­ety, other things can trig­ger it that you get wor­ried about,” he says. “But I didn’t know what was go­ing on. Some­thing was hap­pen­ing to me.”

Phys­i­cally, he was ad­dled yet doc­tors couldn’t di­ag­nose any­thing con­crete. He was pre­scribed an­tibi­otics to no ef­fect. “I just got to the end of my tether and thought it just can’t be some virus or dis­ease thing, it can’t be,” he re­calls. A chance ob­ser­va­tion by his ac­tor daugh­ter Matilda trig­gered a break­through. She told him he sounded like she did when au­di­tion­ing, racked with nerves. So Brown did what few Aussie blokes have the where­withal to do: he asked his GP if he could see a psy­chol­o­gist.

Af­ter about four ses­sions – or “eps” (episodes), as Brown un­wit­tingly refers to them – a di­ag­no­sis ar­rived. He had crip­pling anx­i­ety. “But once you know what some­thing is, it doesn’t just stop be­cause it’s sit­ting in there and it’s taken hold,” notes Brown. “It’s about mak­ing it let go and then just el­bow­ing it so that voice can’t get in there any­more.”

At that re­cent Christ­mas, Brown was deal­ing with it, past the frag­ile stage and lu­cid enough to re­alise some­thing – namely, he says, “We were all strug­gling. [And] I said to Rachel, I reckon there’s a film in this age group where peo­ple think, ‘Oh… noth­ing could be go­ing wrong. It must be easy trav­el­ling.’ But it isn’t easy. They’re ac­tu­ally trav­el­ling with some strug­gles.”

Brown also felt his co­horts weren’t be­ing looked af­ter onscreen. Peo­ple still ask him when he’ll re­unite with Sam Neill on an­other se­ries of the ABC show Old School that aired in a sin­gle sea­son in 2014. “There’s noth­ing out there for us,” they tell him. “When’s some­one go­ing to talk about us [in a way] that we can re­late to?”

“Lone­li­ness, re­la­tion­ships, break-ups, their par­ents, Alzheimer’s, all these sort of things are re­ally painful,” says Brown. “And you can go, ‘Well, it’s not as painful as be­ing in a refugee camp.’ No, it’s not. And that’s a story that needs to be told. But let’s not think things aren’t go­ing on with all of us.”

Palm Beach’s mid­dle- to up­per-class afflu­ence is a rare sight in Aus­tralian movies, which tend to­wards sub­ur­ban re­al­ism or out­landish com­edy. Brown pre-empts any crit­i­cism its com­fort is a neg­a­tive. “We haven’t been do­ing au­di­ence-friendly movies, you might say, and by that I mean mak­ing peo­ple cry, mak­ing them laugh and mak­ing them feel that it’s OK and we can deal with stuff,” he says. “That’s part of life, the strug­gle, re­mind­ing us that our hu­man­ity keeps us all to­gether.”

And it’s not the only story to tell, says an ac­tor who hasn’t ever con­fined him­self to a niche. He notes, with a lit­tle pride, his re­cent out­put has in­cluded “a sub­ur­ban, in­ter­cul­tural piece” (Fox­tel’s 2017 TV-movie Aus­tralia Day), last year’s Indige­nous his­tor­i­cal film Sweet Coun­try, Stan’s Lo­gie-win­ning TV mys­tery se­ries Bloom and the up­com­ing SBS drama Hun­gry Ghosts, which is set in Mel­bourne’s Viet­namese com­mu­nity. “I look at all that and think, ‘This is Aus­tralia.’”

Asked why he keeps push­ing and search­ing to tell Aus­tralian sto­ries, Brown replies with a smile, “Other peo­ple will de­ter­mine my re­tire­ment, not me. But while they’re silly enough to ask me, I’m gonna be do­ing it. And while I’m silly enough to think up ideas, I’m go­ing to be try­ing to per­suade peo­ple to go with me.”

Palm Beach is in cine­mas na­tion­wide from Thurs­day, Au­gust 8.

“Once you build up anx­i­ety, other things can trig­ger it”


BRYAN WEARS (be­low right) Sportscraf­t jacket, sportscraf­; Em­po­rio Ar­mani knit, (02) 8233 5858; his own jeans (worn through­out); (op­po­site) Coun­try Road jacket, coun­try; Cal­i­bre shirt, cal­i­; his own shoes

(from top) Bryan Brown in Palm Beach; with his wife Rachel Ward last month; in 1999’s Two Hands with Heath Ledger.


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