Here’s a fabulous in-depth interview I did with John Jarratt a couple of years ago. With Django Unchained, starring Jamie Fox and Leonardo Di Caprio (not to mention winning the Academy Award for Best Screenplay for Quentin Tarantino), recently released in box office cinemas it seems John’s acting career is still on the up and up. Incredible! I remember him saying that Quentin Tarantino referred to him as one of the best Australian actors around. And here they are a few years later working on a film together! John said to me recently that he felt privileged because he helped coach Quentin for his cameo role as an Australian in Django Unchained. I don’t think there’s no better Australian actor than John Jarratt to help with such a task. John nails the Aussie accent!
In this rather frank but insightful conversation John Jarratt discusses character development and the acting technique he adopts to portray such complex characters as Wolf Creek’s Mick Taylor. And for those interested he’s currently filming Wolf Creek 2. Ahhhh!
For the record, I was extremely fortunate to have John Jarratt star in my cyber bully film, Cyber Sin. He’s such an awesome guy and actor. He offered to help me out with my film in any way he can. Who says such a thing?? I was straight to the punch and said, “You mean you’d star in my film?”… And the rest they say is history! (picture below: the dvd jacket to my film, Cyber Sin starring John Jarratt)
You’ve got a long and well-established career, has it turned out as you imagined?
When I first started I went to drama school from ’71 to ’73 and at that stage in Australia you would get work in a theatre company if you were lucky. And there wasn’t television to go around. You’d get to play a bad guy in Homicide occasionally but there wasn’t a lot of work in that industry. So I was training to become an actor and hopefully join the Sydney Theatre Company or Melbourne theatre company or something like that. The dream! But as we went on movies started to come out and the Australian film industry was slowly getting back on its feet. I left school in ’74 and all the NIDA students who spoke like this (mimics a ‘toffee’ accent) and worked in theatre are trying to do their Aussie accent again, which I never lost. I never gave mine up. So I auditioned for movies and I got them. Being a country boy it kind of helped. I’m comfortable doing the clichéd Australian I suppose.
What attracted you to acting in the first place?
Basically, the only thing I enjoyed in school was upsetting the teachers and entertaining the children. I’ve always been a smart arse and quick witted and pretty funny. I like to entertain in the class room. Then I did a couple of concerts and I was quite good at it. Then the headmaster at Longreach suggested I try acting. That planted the seed. So I continued on in school, mainly because I wanted to win the Grand Final in football. I wanted to do that with my mates. Then school came to an end and I auditioned for NIDA and I got in.
Were you surprised at that outcome?
Yes. Something like a thousand people auditioned and they only accepted about 30. I didn’t think I had the experience and I didn’t speak like that darling (again the ‘toffee’ accent, which he pulls off rather well!). So I thought maybe I’ll get in but I doubt it.
I didn’t realise NIDA was so popular even then?
Always has been.
Do you have a particular technique that you adopt when you approach your characters?
Just the absolute truth in the human being. I work out who the human being is. In my own head I try to understand all about the person; where they’re from, who their parents were, what status they have in life, brothers, sisters, straight or gay. All of them have been straight so far! I work the human being out and write up page zero I call it. That’s just before page one of the script so I know exactly where I am when I walk onto the script. That’s basically all I do. Good acting is impersonating human beings really truthfully. Unless it’s fast or something large then I move onto a comedy technique. It’s just a cartoon of who you are I suppose. There’s a lot of technique involved, there’s a lot of things that you can do once you’re comfortable within the human being, then you can play some crafty little tricks on your audience. Like find out when you need a moment and take it.
Do you still do any training to refresh any of your instruments (e.g. voice, body, etc)?
I’m quite a good singer and so I sing a lot. When I drive around in the car I sing and that keeps my voice fairly tuned. And I stay fairly physically fit. In this industry there’s certain things you should know. I can ride a horse so I don’t have to learn that. I think a lot of actors are born. I think you train all your life if you can’t act. I don’t train to be an actor anymore, I just keep myself physically fit and don’t knock myself around. I’m getting too bloody old anyway! And I sing. I think any young actor should get singing lessons because all of the vocal techniques are good for the voice whether you’re speaking or singing. It keeps the throat fairly well limbered and singing teaches a range of notes so that your voice is strong and you learn to sing out. That’s about it really.
Your Aussie accent is strong but not classically nasally as we are well known for.
No it’s not.
So you put that down to the singing and breathing techniques?
Yes. I was a little thinner accented when I did Picnic At Hanging Rock. I don’t know whether that was youth or not. As you get older you get a bit more timber in your voice too.
More popular actors, male and female, do tend to have a deeper voice.
Yes, for sure. There’s not many thin lipped little actors that do all that well. It’s good if you can sing really high but it’s not much good for acting.
Do you have a favourite genre to perform in?
No. I just do what I’ve always wanted to do. I don’t expect it. The next good script is what I want to do.
Do you think to yourself, “I might give television a break and focus on film for a while”?
Yes. I never did but just to back track a bit, up until Better Homes and Gardens in 1996 I’d never done regular television. It was feast or famine but finally a film would turn up or a telemovie or mini-series. Back in the 70’s and 80’s when there was a bit of work. I pretty well went along free lancing. Then I did Better Homes and Gardens. I had four kids at that time and were sick of working for nothing, so we decided to do a TV show and get paid properly for a few years. So that’s what took me to TV, at that stage I needed the money. Then I left Better Homes. There was very little work and still is very little work. MacLeod’s Daughters came up and again for those reasons, I thought I better pull my head in and do this show for a while. I did that for four years. I don’t begrudge it. I enjoyed playing the character, and I enjoyed the people I worked with. But the weekly grind of knocking out show after show, week after week, year after year. I decided I’m okay in life, I’m comfortable enough. I’d have to be very desperate to go back into TV series put it that way. I’d love to just make movies. I love theatre and I’d love to do a couple more plays. Mainly film and theatre and possibly one-off stuff on TV like a mini-series or a telemovie. I don’t think I’ll do serious television again.
Is that because you get bored with playing the same character and make less discoveries?
No. If an actor says that they’re being lazy. Hopefully the script writer will bring up something and make the character go to some areas that are different or a little bit strange. The character I played was in MacLeod’s for four years so the character is growing too. If the character is the same as four years ago then you should make him grow up and learn from his mistakes like a normal person. There is plenty of room for growth and for him to change his mind which happened with his girlfriend about four times. I found things with ‘Terry’ right up to the very end. In fact I think the best scene I ever did in the entire show was one of the last scenes. I think as an actor you can grow, so that’s not the problem. The problem is flying from Brisbane to Adelaide and back again every week, the sameness about what I’m doing not with the character. The sameness of the grind. I was glad it was over. I like the idea of going from movie to movie and playing different characters.
Do you like to rehearse with your characters first?
All actors are different in rehearsal. I like to tighten the script up in rehearsal. I think you can do some amazing things with the screenplay but I play at about 1/3. I’m fairly well in the zone but I don’t act my arse off! At that stage I want save a lot of the performance for the day. I do it almost academically without too much heart and soul until I get onto set. When I am doing it what I’m looking for from myself and my fellow actors is getting the script right and getting the connections right. Working out what’s not working and make it work. It’s kind of clinical but that’s fine. It’s what you’re supposed to do. Sort of like a sportsman; they rehearse their moves and then on the day it’s blood and guts. It’s very different. It’s the same for actors.
You’ve starred in two of Greg McLean’s films now, is that because of the relationship you both share?
There’s probably a small handful of people I would do it for without reading the script. So if Greg says, “I want you to do this,” then I’d probably do it. Almost! It would have to be one hell of a dreadful bloody script for me to say no. I think Greg is brilliant man and I’m very lucky to be working with him. He’s a pleasure to watch and a talented bloke. He’s only just begun. He’s so good because he’s also so humble. I just worked with Baz Luhrmann on “Australia”. He’s very clever and brilliant like Greg. He knows exactly what he wants every day but at the same time wants to know what’s going through your head. He understands I’ve been around a lot longer than he has. I didn’t have a big part on it but I told him my ideas and he agreed. That’s what a good actor brings to a bloke like that who’s got so much on. He doesn’t have time to sit down and go over every character. The film has about 40 characters in it. So he opens his arms to that. Greg is the same. I think the mark of a great person is a humble person who wants to learn as much as he wants to give to people. That’s why they’re so good.
That’s also a compliment to you though to be working with such ‘big’ directors.
Yes and I’m not the only one. There was lot’s of names like Nicole Kidman and Ben Mendolsen, another brilliant actor. All the clever ones. Not all actors are clever actors by the way. You’ve just got to look at some intuitive actors and you wouldn’t want to stand on their soap box in case you were wrong. Most seasoned, good actors though know what they’re doing and any director that’s half as good will lean all over them and not dictate to them. Usually a director who dictates to you doesn’t know what they’re doing.
Or perhaps they’re a ‘technical’ director?
Yeah. If someone says they’re a technical director then they should go make a documentary. I don’t have much room for technical directors. If you’ve got to have a technical director call the Director of Photography. I have worked with a few technical directors and it’s always been bad.
How do you approach working with a complex and scary character like ‘Mick’ from Wolf Creek?
As I’ve said I had the pleasure of knowing I was going to do that role for 6-months. Greg and I sat down and talked and it was mine from then on. So I had plenty of time to think it through. I knew exactly who he was. So if you feel that confident and justified in your character it’s not that complex it just happens. But I had to stay in a zone of that person, which is pretty well documented now. Once I got the make-up on I had to go into his realms which I normally don’t do. I’m not a method actor but I had to method act with that one because of who he was. That was the only difference to what normally happens with me when I normally work. I had to stay there and it was not a very nice place. I was glad when it was all over.
How long was filming?
It was a five-week shoot.
That’s a long time to be in that zone.
Yes. When it was a wrap I went and got a haircut and had a wash and a shave and Mick was gone.
Did you feel relief or exhaustion?
I felt relief but not exhaustion. I partied all night at the wrap party!
Did you also feel ‘job well done’? Could you sense what a great film it was going to be?
Yeah. I kind of knew that we had done something very interesting. When I read the script I thought if this guy (Greg) is any good it’s going to be a hit. It exploded onto the screen.
So you took it on because of the script?
Yes, I liked the script.
So how do you respond to the mixed audience reactions?
Well women react to me in a clouded way and want to clip the guy I was. For that film some people have really strange reactions. Some women get behind their boyfriends when I walk into a room. They’re quite freaked out by me. But men? This is why men are so scary in this world. Men actually say, “Hey Mick. Wow! It’s Mick Taylor!” Absolute pleasure. They kind of admire me which is kind of weird.
That is weird. I found your character in Rogue a huge transformation.
Yeah. Greg wanted me to be in it but he was not sure because of the Wolf Creek character as he was so large and people might not see past it. So I sent him a photo of me in a fishing hat, glasses and moustache and he bought it.
Well done because I had to look twice. So what kind of research was involved?
Greg told me who he was and I just built a story around him. I just built this really strong story with lot’s of background.
What character are you most proud of?
There’s a few. There was Picnic At Hanging Rock; that was only my second film and I was very young. I was most impressed with Peter Weir and when I finished that film I thought I can’t wait to make the next one. Then I never made another one for seven years! I knew that was a special film even though it was my second. I played Ned Kelly in The Last Outlaw. I made that in ’79. I did a film called All Men Are Liars which didn’t do particularly well but I loved that character. I loved the character in the mini-series called Fields of Fire about cane fields. I suppose the two I’m most proud of is Ned Kelly and Mick Taylor.
Do you have any difficulty watching yourself on screen?
No, I have no trouble at all unless I’m bad. I’m quite happy with my work. I think I do a good job. I’m one of the few actors with enough guts to say that I suppose! I quite enjoy watching myself, I think I’m a pretty good actor. For some reason actors say,” I can’t watch myself, I’m dreadful.” What bullshit! For some reason in any other profession you’re expected to say I’m good at what I do but in this business it’s different. I don’t know what that’s all about. I don’t like watching myself if I make a mess which I’ve done a couple of times.
Do you look at certain scenes and think how painful it was to get through it?
I like to enjoy the film, so I don’t get into an analytical mind. I like to see if the story works and if the film works. Like everyone I like to sit down and enjoy the film. But of course if I think I was terribly bad then I cringe all the way through it. But if I’m feeling good about myself then I enjoy it.
What’s the ultimate part you’d like to play or have you already done it?
The next one! I just to play the next good part, the next good script. So I look forward to playing the next good character, whatever that is. Because this is Australia you can’t pick and choose.
Do you enjoy the bad characters more?
They are more complex and have a better range for humour. I love humour. The lead can be pretty tedious. The good thing about getting older is you get more complex and colourful characters to play, not just bad guys. But bad guys are good to play. Secretly we all want to be bad but we know it’s not right. Sometimes you just want to grab that person and smash their head in. You can’t do it in the real world. In the acting world you get to throw someone against the wall and almost smash their head in. Or say something really nasty that you wouldn’t in real life so I suppose that’s fun.
Who’s an actor you’d love to work with one day?
I’d like to work with Geoff Rush. I’ve never worked with him and I think he’s extraordinary. He plays Peter Sellers better than Peter Sellers. He’s a wonderful actor. I’d also like to work with Mickey Rourke, I think he’s very interesting. Cate Blanchett, I’d like to work with her.
Do you see your career remaining in Australia or is the international circuit calling your name?
No I don’t want to go overseas. I’ve got my own film company now which I started after Wolf Creek. Specifically I was inspired to get off my arse. I thought it’s about time I made movies. We look like we’re getting the money and should be shooting it by February I’d say.
Are you looking at being behind the camera?
No, I’m in front of it. Know your limitations I always say. I’ll stay in front of it and do my best to produce it and get the money for them. I do that well, because I’m well-known so I can go out and put my head in a room along with the people who know what they’re talking about and get movies done. Low budget but high quality. Hopefully I will be able to continue to do that for the rest of my life. We’re called Winnah Films. Like in Wolf Creek when I say, “The winnah!” People quite often ask me to say it.
That film freaked me out so much I’d never ask you to say that.
No, not many women do. A lot of men do.
Do you have a motto that you live by?
I’ve got a few mottos. I love a couple of my Dad’s sayings. There’s only one sure to buy a lottery in life, that’s bloody hard work. Expect nothing and you’ll never be disappointed. My motto for acting is; face the front and go for the laughs.
If you weren’t an actor would you be the builder that we also know you as?
Building? You’re stopping me from putting the posts up on the carport out the front at home!
So that’s still in the blood?
Yes. I’ve got into plants lately too. I like gardens. I like making the place look beautiful. I like tropical stuff, rainforests and paths, etc.
What advice would you offer actors?
Get off your arse and take the industry back. For up and coming actors; get off your arse and take the industry back! Really though, look up the words tolerance and patience! Get a licence and learn how to wait on tables.
Is it possible to take the industry back?
Yes and we’re doing it. The Wolf Creek voice is an example. The film The Final Winter was made without government money. I would like getting my first film made without government money. Independent films are backed by private investors. You shouldn’t have to rely on governments anymore and I think we’ve had our fill of coming of age movies. Hugh Jackman has set up his own production company and a fair few of the big actors have come back to Australia. So if the international actors who are doing well come and give a bit back then I think we can take the industry back.