Richard Roxburgh on Rake, Blue Murder: Killer Cop, and avoiding the spotlight

Richard Roxburgh at home in Bilgola. Photo: Louise Kennerley

Richard Roxburgh at home in Bilgola. Photo: Louise Kennerley

Richard Roxburgh says he has no desire to be famous. It’s a common actorly claim, usually offered by those for whom celebrity isn’t an immediate concern. But it still sounds pretty convincing coming from this very private Sydney-based star. Richard, of course, has already had his Hollywood moment. Back in the early 2000s, a double-whammy of big screen roles in Mission: Impossible 2 and Moulin Rouge pushed Richard squarely into the international spotlight.

“There’s an element of the fame thing that I find threatening and hideous,” Richard says. “Obviously, you want as many people as possible to see and enjoy your work, but there was a time where I was visible in America and I really hated it. I felt beleaguered.”

In recent years, he’s dedicated himself more or less exclusively to Australian productions, onstage for Sydney Theatre Company, on the big screen in a run of powerful dramas (plus Blinky Bill the Movie), and on television in anarchic ABC legal drama Rake.

But while he’s uncomfortable with fame, he seems far more comfortable with infamy. This month, he returns to a role that kickstarted his screen career back in 1995, that of ex-cop and convicted murderer Roger Rogerson. Since Richard first played Rogerson in the acclaimed docudrama Blue Murder, the real Roger’s story has gone through several dark twists, ending with a life sentence for the murder of Jamie Gao.

Blue Murder: Killer Cop

  • Seven
  • August 6 and 7 at 8.30pm

The two have never met, but he was drawn to the complex role. “Roger was a man who could turn you cold with a stare. And he’s a man who played the organ at church on Sundays and drove little old ladies around the place. There’s a lot going on there.”

It isn’t difficult to draw a link between Roger and Cleaver Greene, Richard’s role in Rake. Both are men of the law who seem to spend most of their time on the wrong side of it. The story goes that rogueish Cleaver is based on real-life Sydney barrister Charles Waterstreet (who helped created the series).

Richard is quick to dismiss that as a myth – one he says Charles has taken pains to perpetuate. In fact, there’s as much Roxburgh in the mix as there is Waterstreet, with the character bearing more than a passing resemblance to Richard in what he describes as his “wayward years”.

Richard Roxburgh as Roger Rogerson. Photo: Supplied

Richard Roxburgh as Roger Rogerson. Photo: Supplied

The show has been a great success for the ABC, returning later this year for its fifth run, which Richard says will likely be the last – though he has been touched by the affection for the character. “The character obviously causes merriment. There’s no downside in that, it’s a social good to give people that work every couple of years. But we’ll probably kill it at the end of this one.”

Merriment is increasingly important to Richard. He describes Cleaver as a chance to “get his clown out every couple of years”. Looking back on his career, there’s a clear streak of larrikin humour running through even his most villainous characters. I wonder if growing up in Albury as the youngest of six children pushed him in that direction. Was it important to play the joker?

“It was pretty important, actually. I’ve always loved laughter. In directing material now, the work that I want to create and develop will tend to have more comedy because I feel like that’s my happy place.”

If his own childhood left its mark on his career, then parenthood has reshaped it. His directorial debut with 2007’s dark drama Romulus My Father was highly acclaimed, but he says he wouldn’t be tempted to do it again.

“I found it gruelling, intense and at times heartbreaking. If I go back to directing, the material I choose now will be substantially different. My palate is different since I became a parent. I’m less inclined to tell stories of existential despair and human misery.”

Parenthood’s greatest impact on his career might not be his artistic choices onscreen but rather his new sideline as a children’s author. Last year Allen & Unwin published Artie and the Grime Wave, which Richard wrote and illustrated. The book was a success and a follow up is planned.

A post shared by Berkelouw Books Leichhardt (@berkelouwbooksleichhardt) on

“That came 100 per cent out of being a parent,” he says. “That was just the sheer love of children’s literature and telling stories for kids. It was just wanting to foster that and to be able to say to my kids, ‘You can do this. If you want to set about writing and illustrating a book, you can do it’.”

When we speak, the father-of-three is about to take time off from acting to spend more time with his three-month-old daughter Luna – and help out wrangling his young sons Raphael and Miro. Given he and Italian wife Silvia Colloca are both actors, it seems probable that the pair have founded an acting dynasty. Probable, but not inevitable, Richard says.

“I’ll be happy for my kids to do whatever the hell they want to do, although I’d encourage them to do something that they love. That’s my only strict rule as a parent, apart from no motorcycles.”

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