Dangerous thing, this acting. At rehearsals in Sydney for the ABC’s new series of Rake, an actor has walked out into the darkness, miscalculated the edge of the stage, fallen off and broken his shoulder. Rehearsals stop while an ambulance is called.
Richard Roxburgh, the show’s star and co-creator, is sympathetic to his colleague and remembers his involvement in a slightly similar incident.
“It was the last-ever rehearsal of an MTC production for The Three Musketeers,” Roxburgh says. “It kind of pre-dated OH&S (occupational health and safety). We had some guy come around and mumbled something about how they’d removed the railing up the top so don’t try and lean on it. I backed all the way up the stairs and fell three metres off on to my back.”
Happily, he survived, and here he is sitting in an empty auditorium at Sydney’s National Institute of Dramatic Arts during a break.
It’s a homecoming of sorts. Roxburgh studied economics at the Australian National University before deciding to study acting at NIDA.
So amid the photos on the wall of the young hopefuls, Roxburgh returns as an established name, at the top of his craft. He looks in pretty good shape, too; good enough for the rigours of saddling up again to play the louche, dissolute barrister Cleaver Greene.
“How we wish we could write that, since we last met our hero, he has found the road to Damascus instead of the road to perdition,” the series liner notes colourfully muse, “that he has learnt to love wisely instead of too often, and that going another 25 grand into debt to back a ‘sure thing’ at Moonee Valley paid off. The nag didn’t even finish the race.”
Sadly, the notes lament, Cleaver Greene “has learnt nothing in this time and hasn’t changed one whit. If anything, he’s a little worse.” Which is how we like him.
Roxburgh explains how Cleaver Greene came about. “(Co-creator) Peter Duncan and I had been talking about doing something. Or mainly I’d been talking at him … We wanted to create a character that would play to both of our strong suits. I’d pester him. We’d been mates ever since film school.”
Roxburgh suggested to Duncan that he would write it with him. “He said, ‘As if I’d want to write something with you’.”
But of course he did, and Roxburgh’s perseverence paid off. “There were various strands of characters I’ve always been attracted to, and one was this really brilliant, very mercurial, very self-destructive figure,” Roxburgh says.
“There was a guy who I was at university with who was the model really for that. And I’d talk a lot to Peter about that. He was somebody who was always being beaten up by bouncers and landing on his feet and quoting Shakespeare at them and launching into I’m Getting Married in the Morning.
“If I think about it now he was almost certainly bipolar. But he was incredibly gifted, brilliant, beautiful and the funniest man you could poke a stick at.
“He’d turn up at a fashion event and get absolutely wildly drunk. He’d find a piano in the room and start playing it. So I was trying to tease Pete with that and didn’t quite get there until we finally started talking about the idea of him being a lawyer, and in particular a barrister, so he was a wordsmith as well.”
Did Roxburgh desperately want to be this man but was terrified? “Oh yeah, I think that’s really quite right. I would look at him and think, ‘If I could be him’.”
Did he wow the women? “He did, but he’d be so drunk by the end of the night that he ended up sleeping between two sewerage pipes across a bridge. His fall was slow and ungainly and ugly.”
Is he alive? “I actually don’t know. Last I heard he was living in Melbourne.”
Roxburgh was born in Albury, New South Wales, and grew up in a large – six children – and fun household.
His father was an accountant and his mother stayed home to raise the family. “It was great. You accepted it as perfectly normal that you had all of these siblings around you. It was a doting family; good bunch of siblings to have. I was lucky.”
“I would hesitate to spend too much time talking about the efficacy of the film itself ... but I got a very wonderful wife out of it.”
There was “not a skerrick” of acting blood in the family. “I always had an inkling that I liked it,” he says. “I remember doing a primary-school production of Mary Poppins and I auditioned for it and they said, ‘You can take your pick of roles’. I thought, ‘Wow, bonanza!’
“At high school we did a production of Death of a Salesman where I played Willy (Loman). I had a real moment with myself where I thought, ‘Wow, I can feel things shifting’. I liked it.”
In 1995 Roxburgh shot to national fame with a superb performance playing corrupt NSW detective Roger Rogerson in the television mini-series Blue Murder. The role made him, and the offers started pouring in.
“It probably meant there were more things sent my way, which is what you want,” he says. “The thing that you have to ward off is the natural tendency for all of those things to be dark and dangerous, so you have to kind of fight against that shift towards putting you in a particular category.”
He made his directorial debut with a filmed version of Raimond Gaita’s moving childhood memoir Romulus, My Father, released in 2007 and starring Eric Bana.
It was a fine piece but, when asked about it, Roxburgh reveals some insecurities and even fears of bringing such a powerful story – or any true story – to the screen.
“It was so full of things that I both loved and hated in such extreme equal measure that I was left with my head spinning at the end of it,” he says. “I still can’t quite process what that experience was, in a way. I want to do it again so I can have a clearer sense of reason about what it was.”
What were the good bits? “The good bits were being there in that beautiful landscape, that beautiful part of the world. Working with a story that I loved and which moved me so much. Working with the actors, I loved that. Just trying to carve out what that story was. That was the thing I was really so determined to do.
“The bad bits were the timing and money conundrum that faces every director that no amount of talk can prepare you for in your first directorial effort. And the kind of horrible sense that I had every day, at every moment, that I was committing (that story) to film … it was like you were carving something out of stone and every stroke you took with a chisel meant that the stone could never be changed back; you could never get it back.”
The tyranny of permanency? “That’s right. That’s a very good way of putting it. I found that almost unbearable at times because I had the thing in my head so strongly and I wanted it to be that. But of course it’s not. Film has to change and evolve with what you get on each day and you have to be an accomplished enough filmmaker to change and evolve with it. And I still don’t know if I was.
“And to make sure it wasn’t just a work of reverence, because that is the death of art in a way. In art you have to release something. You can’t sort of hammer its shoes to the ground. We had to navigate a way of
getting it up on the screen replete with the things that we loved about it but to not turn it into a kind of museum or altar piece.”
Roxburgh’s Bob Hawke was memorable in the 2010 mini-series Hawke. He says he didn’t meet Hawke to prepare for the role. “I often kind of recoil from it (meeting the person an actor is portraying). I didn’t have a violently negative reaction to the idea of meeting Bob. The Bob that we were describing is a different Bob to the way that he is now. The world changes and people move and change utterly.”
He mentions watching former Greens leader Bob Brown on the ABC’s Q&A just after Brown had retired.
“The man seems like a totally different man, so relaxed. His face was different. He couldn’t stop smiling. I thought, ‘Wow, as soon as you quit that horrific game, everything changes’.
“(With Hawke) that real larrikin complexity that he had as a man, and the darkness, has probably been smoothed over and polished over and I didn’t want to be charmed or moved by that so that I wouldn’t then be able to see what it was we were really doing.”
But what an opportunity, to inhabit such a colourful character.
“Frightening as well,” Roxburgh says, “because of the threat of the pastiche or the cartoon. He was not only famous for being such a visible and such an identifiable presence but also because of the cartoonery that had been done of him and the versions that existed of him, which in themselves were quite famous. Everybody’s got a Bob Hawke voice. That famous crow voice.”
Roxburgh got Hawke down, but didn’t overplay the famous tics, characteristics that were so strongly identified with Hawke. “I’d get extras coming up and doing that (crow voice). I’d be getting a coffee and I’d be getting a guy coming up going, ‘Aaaaerrrghh” and pulling their cuff.”
Roxburgh met his wife, Italian actress Silvia Colloca, on the Prague set of the 2004 American action horror film Van Helsing, which starred Hugh Jackman as a vigilante monster hunter and Roxburgh as Count Vladislaus “Dracula” Dragulia.
The film wasn’t one he’s proud of, but it had its uses.
“I would hesitate to spend too much time talking about the efficacy of the film itself,” he says, “but I got a very wonderful wife out of it.”
Roxburgh and Colloca have two sons, aged five and nearly two. I ask if he is enjoying fatherhood.
“It’s the best thing in the whole wide world. There’s nothing that can hold a candle to it. It answers so many things that had always been questions. It’s sort of unalloyed pleasure.”
Roxburgh, 50, was 45 when his first son was born. He talks about the joys of late fatherhood, including the pleasure of introducing his sons to the American wild-man musician Iggy Pop.
“The good aspects are I could never be more ready. I have a degree of wisdom I can bring to the table. And I just delight in it. When you’re changing nappies at my age you do, though, start to think, ‘For Chrissakes … if we go again am I going to be doing this when I’m 60?”
The Iggy Pop album Roxburgh played his son was Lust for Life. Luckily, Roxburgh’s got that.
Watch » Series two of Rake screens on Thursdays at 8.30pm on ABC1.
iview » www.abc.net.au/iview/#/series/rake