On the Verge ...
Australian Actor David Wenham
by Ted Murphy


Since the renaissance of the Australian cinema which began in the late 1970s, many of the prominent actors and actresses have crossed over to success in the US market. Sam Neill and Judy Davis were part of the first wave that also included Jack Thompson and Bryan Brown. In recent years, it has been the likes of Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, Toni Collette, Geoffrey Rush and Russell Crowe. But for every one of them, there are equally talented performers who often go unheralded. The Matrix wouldn’t have worked as well as it did if it hadn’t been for the perfect malevolence of Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith and the well-received CBS drama The Guardian might not be as successful had Simon Baker not been tapped to play the lead. One of the finest Australian actors who has yet to make his mark in America is David Wenham. With a featured role in the second and third installments of Lord of the Rings and terrific starring parts in the romantic comedy better than sex, the thriller The Bank (for which he was nominated for the 2001 Best Actor Award by the Australian Film Institute), and the Western Dust (which debuted at Venice), Wenham’s profile is on the rise.

Meeting in the lobby of his Manhattan hotel, the ruggedly handsome, light-haired actor projected a quiet calm and somewhat shy demeanor. While admitting that interviews “aren’t my favorite thing,” he proved delightful company, answering questions with a directness and a down-to-earth quality that many celebrities simply don’t have.

Born and raised in Marrickville, a suburb of Sydney, David Wenham was the youngest of seven. According to a recent TV profile on the Australian version of 60 Minutes, he used to create puppet shows to amuse himself and would charge admission to members of his family. When queried about whether there was a specific moment or event that caused him to decide to be an actor, he replied, “I did have a love of entertaining. Once again, like most actors I suppose I was the class clown, I loved making people laugh.

“I suppose the defining moment for me was as a young kid, I was the last of seven, so I was forever trying to fight for attention. My birthday and Christmas presents were subscription tickets to the theater.

“I didn’t come from a very wealthy family at all, but my parents would get subscriptions to one particular theater in Sydney, it used to be called Nimrod, it’s now the Belvoir St. Theatre. Back then, theater was really a vibrant scene in Sydney and that was just like the most magical world for a young kid to go along and enter into. And as soon as I saw productions there, I knew that’s where I wanted to be. I’d dream about the possibility of one day performing at that theater company. And I did.”

After completing drama school at the Theatre Nepean at the University of Western Sydney, the actor landed his first major stage role in “The Boys,” playing Brett Sprague, a man who returns home after years in prison and whose presence upsets the delicate balance in his family. (Wenham eventually went on to recreate the role in the 1997 feature film on which he also served as a producer.) Additionally, he honed his craft in a variety of guest roles on Australian television.

“When I graduated drama school, I did a lot of guest roles in a lot of television series. In a way, that was a great training ground. You sort of had the right to fail, because it was so quick, and like most actors, I learned a hell of a lot about acting on those serial. Because I did fail, I failed miserably on quite a few occasions. But that’s okay.

“Drama schools have a tendency to train actors specifically for the theater, which is a certain approach to acting. It’s very rare at drama school you get the opportunity to be knowledgeable about techniques in filmmaking. So it’s trial and error.”

While attending drama school, he became friends with writer-producer-director Robert (Rob) Connolly and director Rowan Woods and the pals developed an intriguing agreement.

“We did make a pact before we made The Boys that Rowan was going to direct the first one, Rob was going to direct one, then I’m up. That pact still holds.

“When Rob and I were in San Sebastian [in September] when The Bank [which Connolly wrote and directed] was screening there, we were walking by the seaside and we were talking over the project that I’ll be working on as my directorial debut.

David Wenham in The Bank
© 2001 Footprint Films
“Both times we’ve worked together the films have started in that way, just a discussion and it grows from there. We meet on a regular basis and talk the film through every way, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

“For The Boys it took six years, for The Bank, it took two years. We’d meet every week. Rob would tell me the story of the film -- we rely on an oral way of working. We don’t progress to the writing stage until we’re absolutely certain that the film works in its entirety in a spoken form ... we did that on The Bank and he went away and wrote what he’d been telling me for a couple of years. And the same sort of thing will happen on the next project, which we’ve begun.”

The role that really changed Wenham’s career, however, was Diver Dan on the Australian series SeaChange. Although he only appeared in about 13 episodes, the actor emerged as a heartthrob and suddenly producers and casting agents were looking at him in a different light.

“It’s been a slight surprise to me over the past few years that I’ve actually moved to playing characters that are “straighter”. That actually wasn’t by design, it was just by pure chance really.

“And how that occurred, I did a television series in Australia which became very popular and opened up doors that I would never have thought existed. Which has been a wonderful, pleasant surprise to me, because I suppose it’s meant that I throw a little bit of confusion into casting which is good. Because I try not to fit into any particular box which I actually quite like.”

Astute moviegoers may recognize the actor from one of the many feature film roles, although Wenham is a bit of a chameleon.

David Wenham and Hugo Weaving in Russian Doll
© 2001 Lot 47 Films
“It’s role specific. I’m always conscious of being very honest to the character that I’m playing at that particular time and if that requires a particular look or change of voice, then, yeah, then I actually find that quite exciting.”

For instance, he can be briefly spotted in an early sequence of Moulin Rouge as Audrey, the transvestite writer.

“There used to be more [to the role]. It was a bigger character but before we even shot, Baz [Luhrmann] rang me up and said, ‘I’ve got something to tell you. The part got whittled down to virtually nothing. It was a bit too distracting for people’s liking. For the main action.’

Playing Audrey, though, “was a hoot. It was great. I feel very fortunate to be involved in that project. Baz asked me about it like a couple of years before it went into production. Told me about it and that he’d love for me to be involved in some capacity and he spoke to me about a couple of roles and said, whichever you fancy. I sort of fancied that bizarre little character. A bit of fun.

“ ... I prefer characters that are far removed from myself and the idea of a writer who thinks he’s an absolute genius and everyone else thinks he’s a fool and happens to be extremely camp and effeminate and looks a little bit like Louise Brooks, it sort of appealed to me. And that fact that no one, not even my closest friends, know who I am in the film puts a smile on my face.”

Although he is not in the first of the three films adapted from J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings, he described working on the project as “extraordinary. I pinch myself over the fact that I’m involved with it.”

Since his character of Faramir doesn’t come into the tale until The Two Towers (set for release at Christmas 2002), the performer is a bit skittish about discussing the films. (“I don’t think I’m allowed to talk terribly much about it.”) But he did allow an interesting tidbit.

“I met Peter Jackson and his wife Fran [Walsh] who is one of the writers on Lord of the Rings about three years ago. Myself and Robert Connolly were over in New Zealand on a bit of a promotional tour and I think we were the second people after the New Zealand Prime Minister to go through what is the Weta Studios in Wellington.

“We met Peter and Fran then and got taken on a little tour through the studio on this magnificent movie they were about to embark on in the future, having no idea that however long down the track, I’d be involved in.”

“I feel very lucky to have been involved in it. but also to have had the opportunity to work with Peter who I find is just the most incredible talent.”

David Wenham and Susie Porter in better than sex
© 2001 IDP
Much more of Wenham is on display in the romantic comedy better than sex , which charts a one-night stand that turns into something more passionate. Teamed with the very talented Susie Porter (with whom he once appeared on stage many years ago), the actor offers a relaxed and sexy performance as Josh, a wildlife photographer suddenly confronted with the possibility of love.

“[Writer-director] Jonathan [Teplitzsky] had been dreaming of this film for many years and before he ever set foot on the set, he knew in intimate detail what he was going to do. The very first time I met Jonathan, he basically talked me through the film, showed me shot lists, and I could see the film he wanted to make, which I thought was impressive. We had the same sort of vision for the film, and I can honestly say it is exactly the film that Jonathan described to me over coffee the first time we met, with a few little twists.

“The thing that initially fascinated me about doing “better than sex” were the little things that occurred between two people who don’t know each other very well that really want to. The little idiosyncrasies that you’re aware of with somebody you don’t know very well. Those funny little moments you can’t predict.”

Asked if his role in this romantic comedy is the closest audiences have come to seeing the “real” David Wenham on screen, he stated, “My background is in theater and I suppose I’m drawn to characters that are further removed from myself and I, actually, strangely enough find them easier to play. I suppose the closer it comes to yourself it’s a little bit more revealing. It’s harder because the mask is much thinner.

“So yeah, Josh is a character that I suppose is closer to me, and yeah, it was more of a challenge. Because, you know, you’re naked up there. Literally!”

While Americans await the releases of Wenham’s completed films, his countrymen will be able to see him in the flesh early in 2002 when he returns to the Melbourne Theatre Company in a production of Sam Shepard’s searing drama True West. “I’ve been hungry to go back to the stage and it was just a matter of finding the right project.”

© Copyright 2001 by Hollywood Media Corp. All rights reserved.



Pictures included were ...... Click the TN's for slightly larger versions  
  Better Then Sex The Bank Russian Doll
More Pictures from the BTS page.