Aaron Jeffery underwent a huge transformation for his latest role.
Kiwi actor Aaron Jeffery plays notorious criminal Mark ‘Chopper’ Read in a new Australian mini-series drama. He tells Sarah Nealon why he relished the role.
Some people attract the glare of the public spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Mark ‘Chopper’ Read was one of those people.
The notorious Australian criminal, who died of liver cancer in 2013 at the age of 58, was a violent psychopath who spent more than 20 years behind bars.
Read, who was known to tell tall tales about his past, had his ears cut off in prison and typical depictions of him in popular culture show him heavily tattooed and sporting a moustache and gold-teeth fillings.
In the 2000 film Chopper, Read was portrayed by actor Eric Bana. It was the role that launched the actor’s Hollywood career. Mark ‘Chopper’ Read’s life is now the subject of Underbelly: Chopper, a mini-series starring Australian-based New Zealand actor Aaron Jeffery in the lead role. Underbelly: Chopper also stars Michael Caton (The Castle, Packed To The Rafters), who plays Read’s father Keith. Other actors in the drama include Westside’s Reef Ireland and ex-Home And Away star Todd Lasance. For Jeffery (Wentworth, McLeod’s Daughters) it was a big undertaking which required drastic changes to his clean-cut appearance. “Well obviously I put on weight and there was quite an extensive make-up call,” says Jeffery, 49. “There were 200-odd tattoos and 15-plus scars and, obviously, there are prosthetic ears and I had some brown contacts. “It was just awesome as an actor to be able to make that physical transformation.” To play Read, Jeffery gained 25kg which he says was achieved by consuming “all the things you might have once a
week, you just had every day, (like) sugar and carbs.”
While the extra body mass helped him get into character, it also affected his gait.
“It wasn’t so much the weight, it was the walk because you kind of walk like a penguin with your feet splayed out,” he says.
The additional kilos put a strain on Jeffery’s back and he turned to a chiropractor for help.
Turning up on set each morning meant spending hours in the make-up department.
“If I had to do full-body stuff, it was like three and a half hours just for the tattoos and the scars, 45 minutes for the ears,” says Jeffery.
“All up it could be four and a half hours and then, obviously, I had to get it all off for the end of the day.”
It was a demanding role for the actor who has three children aged 15, six and three.
“It was quite a busy schedule. We shot two tele-movies in 22 days which is pretty much unheard of,” says Jeffery. “So I was working sometimes 17-hour days. It was the most full-on shoot I’ve ever done.”
This isn’t the first Underbelly role for Jeffery, who appeared in the franchise’s 2012 series Badness as a bikie named Frank ‘Tink’ O’Rourke. Coincidentally, he had to gain weight for that part too.
To prepare for this Underbelly, Jeffery’s research included reading books and meeting a prison warden who spent 15 years with Read.
“I don’t think it’s your standard Underbelly,” Jeffery says of the mini-series. “I guess it’s just a great psychological expose into what makes somebody tick. “It’s got humour in it. And also the fact that he (Read) wasn’t born that way. He was made. That’s a societal thing on institutions and people’s upbringing and how that can affect them moving forward.
“He wrote 17 books. He was a fascinating character and a one off. The prison warden I spoke to said, ‘I will never meet anybody like that again’. He’s kind of out of the box.”
Interestingly, Jeffery tried out for the part of Read in the 2000 film but lost out to Eric Bana.
“The funny thing is I thought Eric Bana was just a shoo-in for that role and I actually said that to the producers when I auditioned,” recalls Jeffery.
Of all the criminals in Australia, you can’t help but wonder why there is such a fascination with Read.
“It’s a beautiful question because I’m a Kiwi and there is not really a New Zealand equivalent is there?” says Jeffery.
He thinks Australians like characters who are underdogs and a law unto themselves, like Ned Kelly.
“So there is that real Australian psyche, that attraction to those kind of characters and I think Chopper really epitomises that,” says Jeffery.
“He was very funny. He was very intelligent and he was brutal. There is something in the Australian psyche in that they are attracted to that persona.
“This character lived his life with no rules and bucked the system.”
“If I had to do full-body stuff, it was like three and a half hours just for the tattoos and the scars, 45 minutes for the ears.”
– Aaron Jeffery
Aaron Jeffery as Mark “Chopper” Read