ANSWERED BY FIRE
WED 17 MAY 2006
the programs you can't afford to miss this week
LIKE many Australians, actor David Wenham was ``not unfamiliar'' with the plight of East Timor. He was
among the millions of people who, in 1999, watched the crisis unfold on television and through the media. But unlike many
of us, the Lord of the Rings alumnus took things one step further.
``I wasn't unfamiliar with the situation at all
but, quite a few years ago, I saw a documentary called Death of a Nation ,'' he remembers. ``It touched me, and I made it
my business to get as much information as I could about what was happening just north of us.''
His close study of those
tragic events has now become something more again - this week, Wenham stars in the two-part drama Answered by Fire. He plays
Mark Waldman, an Australian Federal Police officer who is sent to the embattled region as part of the unarmed United Nations
civilian police, or Civpol.
Wenham says his character faces an unimaginable crisis.
``He does something that
he never thought he could do, would do and which (he thought) would never happen - he is forced to pull out and leave these
people to fend for themselves in an impossible situation,'' he explains.
``He finds that terribly hard to live with,
and that affects his home and family life. When he gets home, he feels as if he has unfinished business and he's guilt-ridden.
The only way he can deal with that is to return to East Timor and finish what he started to do.''
To craft the character,
Wenham worked closely with AFP officers including David Savage, who wrote Dancing with the Devil following his own harrowing
``I spent a great deal of time talking with David . . . the situations he told me about were eye-opening
and jaw-dropping,'' Wenham says. ``He also gave me an understanding of what it really was like to be there at that time. I
met with a couple of other guys who were there, too, and for me that was great source material.''
It was also something
of an inspiration. ``Even though my character in Answered by Fire is fictional, he's still heavily based on the experiences
of a lot of people who went there,'' Wenham says. ``I felt personally responsible to portray my character as honestly as I
could, so that anybody who was there could give it their stamp of approval.''
So far, so good. Early screenings of
the show have won the admiration of former Civpol workers, while The Advertiser 's defence writer, Ian McPhedran, calls it
``an authentic and disturbing reflection of what really went on''.
``That seems to be the reaction of virtually everyone
who was there at that time,'' Wenham says.
``The night before last there was a screening in Darwin with a lot of people
. . . officers, army, journalists as well as East Timorese. They certainly gave it their stamp of approval. We're screening
it for the East Timorese community in Melbourne (before it goes on air), and that's going to be a highlight for me. To be
involved in telling the story of the rebirth of East Timor was a bit of an honour for me.''
Wenham shares the screen
with Canadian actor Isabelle Blais as Civpol officer Julie Fortin, Alex Tillman as Ismenio Soares and East Timorese actor
Almeida brings Madleina Soares to life, and Wenham is full of praise. ``She's amazing,'' he says. ``Really
beautiful, not just physically but also within. She has a great spirit and has given a wonderful portrayal of her character,
one that audiences will really respond to.''
Production on Answered By Fire wrapped up almost 12 months ago, giving
Wenham time to pursue a concept almost alien to him. ``I'm just having a rest, actually,'' he chuckles. ``I'm just having
a bit of time out, which is unusual for me but I think it's important, every now and again, to recharge the batteries. I'm
only just starting to read stuff (scripts) again now.''
Acting remains his passion, but the former Faramir has plans
for the future. ``The ultimate goal is to step behind the camera,'' he says, ``but that's some ways down the track.
I find exactly the right thing, hopefully it's something I'll be able to start (my directing career) with. I'm always looking.
The best thing would be if somebody plopped a script on my table and I said `that's it'.''
WED 17 MAY 2006
Star power answers a worthy call
By Trent Dalton
joins a cast of East Timor refugees to tell the torrid tale of a new nation, writes Trent Dalton
'I've had to stop
acting. It shows next to these people. They're real'
'Maybe I should get an agent. I might get to meet Orlando Bloom'
church walls are stained with blood. Pews have been torched, crucifixes have crumbled. On the church steps, a candle burns
inside a stack of stones sprinkled with pink bougainvillea petals: an East Timorese memorial for the dead. On the charred
rear church wall, above a bloodstain the size of a human head, a Timorese phrase has been partially scorched: ``Pai Nosso
Outside, the village of Nanura, East Timor has been ransacked. Homes have turned to cinder, stores
have been pillaged then burnt, cars have been firebombed. Valuable aluminium roofs have been stripped from houses. A United
Nations flag has been torn from a flag pole. Members of an East Timorese militia group -- the Indonesian-backed men responsible
for Nanura's total destruction -- are huddled outside a ruined grocery store. They lean on rifles laughing. They drink from
whisky bottles. One militia member -- a shifty-eyed man wearing a bandanna and a sleeveless denim shirt -- rubs his thumb
along the thin edge of his machete.
Then, in a wrecked United Nations compound, surrounded by armed Australian Army
officers, there is the peculiar figure of David Wenham -- Diver Dan in SeaChange, Johnny Spiteri in Gettin' Square, Faramir
in The Lord of the Rings -- arched over touching his toes with his fingers. He springs back up and stretches his arms. He
takes three deep breaths and shakes himself loose like a boxer preparing for a title fight. He's now ready for Scene 98A of
Answered By Fire, listed in his call sheet as: ``Mark watches as Jose makes a phone call.''
East Timor-born extra Julia
Magno giggles at Wenham's odd stretching ritual.
``Quiet on set,'' calls first assistant director, Ian Kenny.
covers her mouth with her hand. Wenham throws her a cheeky grin.
Kenny looks across at director Jessica Hobbs. Hobbs
views the scene through the camera frame. The landscape is a destroyed East Timor, circa September 1999. There's no telling
the scene is being shot at Rudy Maas Marina, a canefield-covered marina at Jacobs Well, 20km off the Pacific Motorway. Hobbs
nods her head.
``Action,'' Kenny says.
Answered By Fire is a three-hour miniseries set around the 1999 referendum
in East Timor which saw 78 per cent of East Timorese voters choose independence from Indonesia, causing the Indonesian military
and East Timorese militia groups to go on a bloody rampage, murdering an estimated 2000 people and forcing 250,000 Timorese
civilians into camps in Indonesian-controlled West Timor.
In January this year, an independent UN-backed report, the
Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation report, estimated 183,000 East Timorese were killed in the 24 years of
Indonesian repression that followed the 1975 Indonesian invasion.
Wenham, who'll do a few more stretches today, plays
an Australian policeman, Mark Waldman, who volunteers for the UN mission to East Timor to oversee the 1999 referendum.
is day 35 of a difficult 36-day shoot. The team has been filming a three-hour-plus film in less time than would be comfortable
for a two-hour film. Early in the shoot, torrential Queensland rain caused the loss of an entire day's shooting. And money
is tight. ``We're making this on 50 and a bus ticket,'' says screenwriter-producer Barbara Samuels.
The set has been
built on a cheap canefield the filmmakers bought at the start of filming. The canefield was mowed down and transformed into
a village with a dirt soccer field and a series of shacks acting as East Timor homes, stores and UN buildings.
the project's subject matter has proven most emotionally draining. In casting East Timorese leads and extras, director Hobbs
met with more than 400 members of Australia's Timorese community. She found a community aching to share its story.
met Alex Tilman, whose father was a member of the East Timorese resistance group, Fretilin, the long-time opponent of the
Indonesian armed forces. In 1978, Tilman's father disappeared, not to be seen again. Tilman became a translator for the UN
in Timor. Fittingly, he plays a UN translator in Answered By Fire.
Hobbs met Jose De Costa, who lost six siblings after
the invasion of East Timor. An independence supporter, De Costa was arrested by Indonesian police and repeatedly tortured
before the Red Cross organised his release, upon which he sailed to Australia as a political refugee. Not so fittingly, De
Costa plays a militia leader in Answered By Fire.
``For East Timorese, to be militia is to be evil,'' De Costa says.
``I had to try and reverse my feelings of pain, anger and revenge against them, to use them for the role.''
says Wenham, walking to his next scene -- a technically difficult one where his character boards a helicopter to fly out of
East Timor -- are starting to show on screen.
``I've had to stop acting,'' he says. ``It shows next to these people.
They're real. There's no performance there. Most of the cast here has never acted before. But their performances are extraordinary.
They're mining personal histories to get what we're seeing. It hasn't been a pain-free experience for them. But it's certainly
been a rewarding one.''
When Samuels heard Wenham was on board to play the lead, she immediately sent a group email
out to her friends. In the subject box she typed a message in capital letters: ``WE'VE GOT WENHAM!''
On the 35th day
of the shoot, Wenham's value is palpable. It shows on screen as well as off, where he's always boosting morale with a joke
or a well-placed compliment. While the physical-effects crew and a team of set decorators transform the village soccer field
into a helicopter landing pad, Wenham plays a game of soccer with a group of younger East Timorese extras.
like Tom Cruise,'' says Magno, watching Wenham from the sidelines of the soccer field. ``He's not: `Ooohh look, I'm sooo famous.'
He talks to everybody. He has lunch and dinner with us every night.''
Before the 1999 referendum, Magno was a medical
student at Indonesia's Hasanuddin University. When East Timor voted for independence, Magno's Indonesian lecturers refused
to teach her. Returning to East Timor, she became a volunteer medic tending to injured East Timorese under the instruction
of Australian Air Force Warrant Officer and medical technician, Peter Hind.
In 2001, Hind repaid Magno by finding her
a study position at the Queensland University of Technology, paying for her accommodation, books and transportation.
hopes to one day bring her medical skills back to East Timor.
``There are still people dying in East Timor,'' she says.
one place, people are killing people. In another place, people are dying of starvation.''
Magno looks around this created
East Timor, a landscape in ruin.
``This is just 10 per cent of the story,'' she says.
As the sun sets over Jacobs
Well, the physical effects crew turns on a giant steel fan to simulate wind coming from the helicopter's blades. Wenham stands
with a UN bag over his shoulder looking toward the fan as though it was a recently arrived helicopter. He shields his eyes
from the very real dust blowing against his face. Where possible, says physical effects supervisor Brian Cox, filmmakers will
simulate helicopter scenes for safety reasons. A former tradesman in the Australian Army, Cox has blown things up for films
such as The Matrix, Moulin Rouge and The Thin Red Line. But he has learnt to be wary of helicopters, recalling a story from
one renowned war film, which he refuses to name, where an extra had his head chopped off by a spinning helicopter blade.
the real helicopter arrives. This scene will become the final scene in the miniseries, in which Wenham's police officer bids
farewell to the world's newest nation, East Timor.
The supervisors tell Wenham to keep his arms down as he boards the
helicopter. It's been a long day -- 12 hours -- and accidents happen when the brain is tired. Wenham nods.
Wenham turns to his character's East Timorese translator, placing a hand on his shoulder. ``Seeya mate,''
he says warmly. He boards the helicopter and cinematographer Mark Wareham tracks it as it flies up toward the sun. The scene
lasts about 30 seconds. It took two hours to set up.
On the ground and out of frame, the East Timorese extras, who
have stayed around to watch the spectacle, wave goodbye to the helicopter. ``Cut,'' Kenny calls. ``Time for dinner.''
starts at 6.45pm. Gathered under an army-green tarp, the cast and crew line up for vegetable casserole. With the shoot coming
to an end, this is, for many people here, a last supper. Wenham taps his plate on his thigh, waiting in line between a gaffer
and a grip.
``This is a strange business,'' Wenham says. ``In one career, you don't just do one job. You do many jobs
and you're forever forming really, really close relationships. Then at the end of the job you have to say goodbye.''
plastic cups of lime cordial, cast and crew members reminisce. They talk about the rain that turned the set into a mud pit.
They talk about the herd of kangaroos that once bounced into shot, not good for a film set in East Timor. The guys who played
militia talk about the day they shot special-effects gunfire. And Magno, scooping up spoonfuls of vegetable casserole, is
``I'd love to do more acting work,'' she says. ``Maybe I should get an agent? I might get to meet Orlando
Answered By Fire, ABC, Sunday May 21 and May 28
WED 17 MAY 2006
By ROBERT FIDGEON
Answered By Fire, M
Drama set in East Timor
Duration: 2 x 85 minutes
Local stories, well told. It's just what the Australian
industry needs, David Wenham tells Robert Fidgeon
BEAUTIFUL one day, perfect the next. That's what the ads would have
us believe about Queensland weather.
But on this particular day someone forgot to tell the person in charge of this
daily dose of perfection -- it is bitterly cold and wet. About as far removed from perfect as weather can be.
on location with the ABC/Canadian co-production Answered by Fire, a two-part drama starring David Wenham and Isabelle Blais
as police officers working for the United Nations in East Timor.
Wenham plays Aussie Mark Waldman, alongside Blais
as Julie Fortin, a Canadian on her first overseas mission.
Their job is to oversee the East Timor vote on independence
The UN promised the East Timorese it would stay after the vote -- a promise it didn't keep.
bloodshed and broken promises haunt Mark and Julie, who try to make amends to the East Timorese they tried and failed to protect.
project appealed to me because it was history I was very familiar with,'' Wenham says.
``I'd become interested in the
plight of the East Timorese people after I'd seen a documentary called Death of a Nation.
``I joined the Australia
East Timor Association, purely to get information about what was happening up there and inform myself as much as possible
because it both moved and angered me.
``It was history . . . and I felt honoured to be a part of telling it.''
of Australia's most respected actors, Wenham is concerned about the state of our film and TV industry, but is not hopeful
of a turnaround in the immediate future.
``I've just come back from Los Angeles and I think the majority of the Australian
acting community are over there at the moment,'' he says.
``They are not there seeking fame and fortune, they're there
for bread and butter because there is no work here in Australia.''
Wenham is disappointed about the diminishing of
Australian culture on our screens.
``Long term, I think we'll look back and rue the day we didn't treasure it and put
more money into it, and give people more incentives to invest in the industry.
``We can't develop the industry without
He believes government subsidy would be ``great'', but feels there isn't much incentive for investment.
go on about the state of Australian drama and the quality of it, but if you only produce 10 things a year, all of those 10
aren't going to be winners.
``We have to be permitted the right to fail every now and then. It's ludicruous to expect
everything we do will be a winner.
``The moment we accept we'll have a few bad ones, but every now and then a gem,
I think we'll be on the road to recovery.''
More quality television drama like Answered by Fire can only aid this recovery.
the story moves at a cracking pace, has superb cinematography and great performances, particularly by the East Timorese actors,
most of whom had never previously acted.
``They are stunning,'' Wenham says. ``All the Indonesian militia are played
by East Timorese, and some of the actors had been tortured by the militia members so it was very emotional for them.
too, is great. There's a wonderful innocence about her character -- a young Canadian police officer thrown into a world that
is so alien to her own.
``The hard thing in terms of pitching this project, and trying to get people to watch it, is
the fact that it isn't a dry piece of social or political drama.
``It's a ripper story that you can't help but be affected
The Daily Telegraph
WED 17 MAY 2006
In the line of fire - a reluctant David Wenham puts himself in the
hot seat - Fire in his belly
By SARRAH LE MARQUAND
David Wenham's concern for the East Timorese people made a
decision to portray their plight on screen easy. Just don't ask him to boast about it
In an industry known to thrive
on self-promotion and narcissism, David Wenham is a welcome exception. Although he's quite happy to discuss his role in Answered
By Fire, the two-part miniseries beginning on the ABC this Sunday, he seems genuinely embarrassed over his leading man status.
enjoys top billing in the series - which revisits East Timor's bloody quest for independence in 1999 - but he insists it's
his lesser known East Timorese castmates who are the real stars.
"I never wanted to be the 'lead' - it's their story
and they should tell it," he says. "The reality is that I'm here talking about it because a couple of people in Australia
might know my name and that's fine, I understand the reality of that. But their stories are far more fascinating than my life
and my experiences could ever be."
Rather than rely upon professional actors, Answered By Fire director Jessica Hobbs
met with more than 400 East Timorese as she held acting workshops across the country in an ambitious casting call.
essentially brought their lives to the story - without them I don't think it would have been possible," Wenham says. "It's
extraordinary in that all the cast have in some way been affected by what happened in East Timor; they've lost somebody within
their immediate family or know somebody who has.
We're dealing with people who have very raw emotions.
begin to imagine what it was like for them. Having said that, all of them were determined the story should be told and put
to air so as many people as possible could experience what is was like."
Not that Wenham was excluded from emotionally
taxing scenes himself in his portrayal of Mark Waldman, an Australian federal police officer who volunteers for the United
Nations Mission in East Timor in the lead-up to the referendum.
"I was portraying a fictitious character, but one obviously
based upon the experiences of lots of different federal police officers so I was constantly aware of bringing a reality to
that role," he says.
As a long-time member of the Australia-East Timor Association, Wenham was no stranger to the struggles
of our northern neighbours, yet was still taken aback when exploring this chapter of modern history.
"Having been involved
in the project I now realise it's a far more complex situation than I'd ever realised. Australia has been intrinsically involved
in the history of that country for quite some time, and did come to the rescue in 1999, but prior to that unfortunately we
had a very sorry history with East Timor.
We were silent during 25 years of occupation when nearly a quarter of a million
people lost their lives."
The timing of Answered By Fire - filmed on location in the Gold Coast Hinterlands last year
- has become even more relevant in the light of the Federal Government's decision last week to deploy a peacekeeping task
force to East Timor. In what will be Australia's biggest military deployment there since 1999, Navy warships, armoured vehicles,
helicopters and 450 troops will be sent to the region to help restore law and order in the wake of growing civil unrest.
his part, Wenham is not aware of any resistance on the part of the Indonesian government to Answered By Fire, even as it recreates
the campaign of terror waged by pro-Indonesian militia after the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence
in August 1999.
"The fact that the series has been made and is going to air suggests the Indonesians haven't interfered,"
Wenham says. "There's nothing within the series that's any great secret, everything is on the public record. The series doesn't
offer any solutions there, and neither should it, but it does explore it."
With the UN unable to control the escalating
violence, Mark and his colleagues are forced to evacuate the region and return home, riddled with guilt.
people at a personal level because they feel for the people they're leaving behind," Wenham says, citing the case of a federal
police officer who acted as an adviser on set and saw the series for the first time last week.
"He watched it with
his wife and they were riveted but both of them actually had to look away from the screen during the domestic scenes because
they found it too close to the bone," Wenham says.
Answered By Fire marks the former SeaChange star's return to the
ABC after almost a decade working on films such as Lord Of The Rings, Van Helsing, Three Dollars and the upcoming 300.
all honesty, it's essentially exactly the same," he says of the differences between international blockbusters and local productions.
ends of the spectrum deal with the same thing: telling the story. The only great difference is one end of the spectrum has
a ridiculous amount of money. I love working here and I think it's very important that we tell Australian stories so we can
keep our identity."
TUE 16 MAY 2006
ON THE BOX
By VANESSA SANTER
Aussie heart-throb DAVID WENHAM returns
to the small screen as a cop fighting for peace in East Timor.
Q.What made you return to television after a string
A.Basically, the opportunity to be involved in telling an amazing story, which affects and moves people. Ultimately
it's a triumphant story and I'm proud to be a part of it.
Q.Has there been a point in your career when you've thought
`I've made it'?
A.I was never really that ambitious. I always wanted to perform on one stage at Belvoir St Theatre in Sydney.
But there was a moment in The Lord of the Rings when I was on a horse in New Zealand surrounded by 200 other horsemen and
this amazing scenery and I thought ``this is pretty special''. Rings was one of the highlights, but not the highlight. Others
were Getting Square, I loved The Boys and Cosi was fun, and so was SeaChange.
Q.Is there a character you're dying to
A.I've got to say I don't have a wish list. I wish I did. I could ring my agent and say `Here's a list and see what
you can do for me'. I like to be surprised when I'm reading material. The leading man and straighter characters are harder,
because they're closer to myself. It's a strange thing considering I'm an actor, but I'm an introverted extrovert.
played equal parts comedy and drama. What's your favourite?
A.I don't have a favourite, but I do love comedy and I'd love
the opportunity to do more. I'd like to do some relatively soon. To make people laugh is a wonderful thing and it's not an
Q.Would you ever do a more mainstream blockbuster?
A.The closest thing I've done is a monk in Van Helsing.
It was a popcorn-type movie. I had refused films like that up until that point and then I thought `Why not be a part of it?'
The sets are bigger and there's more bang for your buck. Sometimes that's fun.
Q.Your ABC-TV telemovie Answered by
Fire seems to be centred around courage and determination. Where do you find those traits in yourself?
A.God only knows.
I was lucky enough to meet guys not dissimilar to the character. On first appearance they are average, ordinary Australian
blokes, but after conversations with them you realise they have had the most amazing experiences and can deal with people
in very trying situations in a very delicate manner.
Q.In another life could you see yourself as a freedom fighter?
hope so. It's an extraordinary thing to do and I can understand it 100 per cent. Here we take for granted that we are not
occupied by a foreign nation.
Answered By Fire
Thursday, 18 May 2006
A fiery political docudrama is the star vehicle
for hot actor David Wenham
Generally, my idea of keeping up with the news involves watching Entertainment Tonight every
single day. This means I can hold extended discussions on the real paternity of Katie’s baby, but I’m usually
quite clueless about what’s going on in the real world. Therefore Answered by Fire was initially something of a mystery,
as this powerful new mini-series is set against the backdrop of East Timor’s struggle for independence. I’m sure
I should have already known about this very serious issue, but up until now my main experience of Foreign Affairs involved
a brief encounter with a Frenchman at Sleaze Ball.
As I soon discovered, Answered by Fire is based on a United Nations
mission to East Timor in 1999 where the assignment was to oversee the area’s upcoming vote on independence from Indonesia.
Given the task of ensuring a fair ballot, the UN’s volunteers were hampered by interference from the brutal Indonesian
military and the corruption of the local authorities. It was a dangerous exercise, but as one of the Aussies in the series
explains, “The East Timorese saved our arses in WWII against the Japanese. Then in 1975 we just stood by and let the
Indonesians walk in and take over. We owe these people, big time.”
Answered by Fire is David Wenham’s
first television vehicle in quite some time. The hunky bloodnut plays Mark Waldman, an Australian policeman who volunteers
for the mission to East Timor and is put in charge of the Civilian Police in Nunura. One unexpected benefit of this plot is
that Wenham gets to wear a very sexy policeman’s outfit for the entire show. For anyone with a uniform fetish, this
has roughly the same effect as six beers and a Viagra.… although in some scenes he also wears a rather pale blue beret,
and not even Diver Dan can make that look good.
In the village, Mark meets both a Canadian policewoman who’s
on her first overseas mission and a young Timorese translator whose father and sister are actively campaigning for independence.
Over the course of the film the lives of all five of these people will be changed forever, but the main focus remains squarely
on Wenham’s character. Mark is initially a little too good to be true, but as the situation in Timor worsens his façade
crumbles as he edges towards a nervous breakdown. Wenham does some fine dramatic work here…. and whether he’s
bawling his eyes out or pushing one of the locals off a cliff, he still looks devastatingly handsome.
Answered by Fire
is an intriguing piece that consists of two ninety minute episodes, with part one covering the events leading up to the vote
and part two taking place in the chaos that ensues after the UN decides to pull out of the area. Adding a layer of authenticity
to the drama is that many of the cast are actual Timorese who fled to Australia to escape these events and are now recreating
scenes that they themselves experienced. Coincidentally, violence erupted in East Timor again this week and Australian troops
are once more on standby. I know…. I saw it on a newsbreak during Entertainment Tonight.
Bad moon RISING
Author: BY MICHAEL GADD
Publication: Newcastle Herald
Australian Federal Police officer
(David Wenham) volunteers to join the United Nations mission in East Timor and assist
with the registration of its people to vote for or against independence from Indonesia.
He is put in charge of the
Civilian Police at the UN base in Nunura where he meets a French-Canadian policewoman (Isabelle Blais) on her first overseas
They are two deep and important characters played by outstanding actors.
But Answered By Fire, a two-part
miniseries based on the events leading up to 1999's dramatic end of 25 years of forced occupation in East Timor, is not their
The plight of the East Timorese captured the hearts of Australians as it was so close to home.
Wenham points out, despite geography the real story was worlds away.
'Our characters' primary purpose is to lead the
audience into this world they know little about,' he says. 'But once we get there the story is that of the East Timorese.'
Mark Waldman and Blais's Julie Fortin are unarmed and unprepared for the brutality the Timorese face from Indonesian military
Their young translator Ismenio Soares (Alex Tilman) is justifiably cynical about what the UN can actually
do to protect his people.
A multiple AFI award-winner and recent star of the Lord of The Rings trilogy, Wenham says
there's no drama like that based on reality.
'It's a story that certainly moved me and one that I made a point of finding
out more about when it was happening,'
Wenham says, making particular mention of John Pilger's eye-opening documentary
Death of a Nation: The Timor Conspiracy. 'That really affected me and I made it my business to read as much as I could about
what had happened. It seemed so close to us but we seemed to be doing nothing.'
Wenham says East Timorese-Australians
were enthusiastic when given an opportunity to be involved in the project, which was shot largely in the Gold Coast hinterland,
a landscape the cast commended for its similarity to the region.
The cast subsequently filled with firsttime actors
who Wenham soon found were natural story-tellers.
'Most of them didn't need to look too far to find their characters,'
Wenham says. 'The stories weren't far removed from themselves in many cases.'
Tilman is one of the mini-series' standout
performers and among those with a particularly close link to Timor's violent history.
He lived a nomadic childhood.
His father was part of the Fretilin resistance in the 1970s and was arrested before disappearing in 1978. His family became
refugees in Portugal then two years later in Australia.
Tilman became an activist for Australia's East Timorese community
and after the referendum returned to Timor as an interpreter in the Serious Crimes Unit, where he spent time with David Savage,
the Australian police officer Wenham's character is based on.
He found the filming process 'hard but fulfilling'.
understands the way UN workers would have felt when they were forced to evacuate after the country was set alight following
the vote for independence.
In Answered By Fire, Mark and Julie must abandon ship, leaving Ismenio and his family, which
is central to the story, to an inevitable nightmare haunted by murderous militias.
Guilt drives the UN contingent to
return and make amends to the people they couldn't protect.
'The audience will really be able to connect to this story,'
Wenham says proudly. 'And respond to it. Hopefully this returns Timor to the social conscience. It's a story we should never
Northern Territory News
MON 22 MAY 2006, Page 026
Fiery cause for story incentive
BEAUTIFUL one day, perfect the next. That's what the ads would have us believe about Queensland
But on this particular day there's no daily dose of perfection -- it is bitterly cold and wet.We are on location
with the ABC/Canadian co-production Answered by Fire, a two-part drama starring David Wenham and Isabelle Blais as police
officers working for the United Nations in East Timor.
Wenham plays Aussie Mark Waldman, alongside Blais as Julie Fortin,
a Canadian on her first overseas mission.
Their job is to oversee the East Timor vote on independence from Indonesia.
UN promised the East Timorese it would stay after the vote -- a promise it didn't keep.
The bloodshed and broken promises
haunt Mark and Julie, who try to make amends to the East Timorese they tried and failed to protect.
``The project appealed
to me because it was history I was very familiar with,'' Wenham says.
``I'd become interested in the plight of the
East Timorese people after I'd seen a documentary called Death of a Nation.
``I joined the Australia East Timor Association,
purely to get information about what was happening up there and inform myself as much as possible because it both moved and
``It was history . . . and I felt honoured to be a part of telling it.''
One of Australia's most
respected actors, Wenham is concerned about the state of our film and TV industry, but is not hopeful of a turnaround in the
``I've just come back from Los Angeles and I think the majority of the Australian acting community
are over there at the moment,'' said Wenham.
``They are not there seeking fame and fortune, they're there for bread
and butter because there is no work here in Australia.''
Wenham is disappointed about the diminishing Australian culture
``Long term, I think we'll look back and rue the day we didn't treasure it and put more money into it, and
give people more incentives to invest in the industry.
He believes government subsidy would be ``great'', but feels
there isn't much incentive for investment.
More quality television drama like Answered by Fire can only aid this recovery.
story includes great performances, particularly by the East Timorese actors.
David Wenham receives ACU honorary doctorate
David Wenham, the star of
the ABC's acclaimed television mini-series about
East Timor's bid for independence, yesterday received an honorary doctorate
from the Australian Catholic University.
The Age reports David Wenham plays an Australian police officer whose
is irrevocably changed when he volunteers for the UN mission in Timor, in a
three-hour series, Answered By Fire,
that begins on the ABC on Sunday night.
Receiving an honorary doctorate from the Australian Catholic University
at the Melbourne Town Hall, Wenham said that renewed fighting in
East Timor is unfortunate and that he felt for the East
"Whatever's happening, it is extremely unfortunate because one would have
hoped the continuing of their
transition to independence would have been a
little bit smoother for a little bit longer," he said.
he was particularly concerned for the safety of a cast member,
East Timorese actor Jose De Costa, who was now working
with the Dili
"He brings a wonderful richness to the story and, of course, he and many
involved in the production, has experienced first-hand the trauma of
East Timor's struggle for independence," Wenham said.
people of East Timor are not rich, yet they, too, have a remarkable
"They've suffered loss ... most have
to cope with the death in dreadful
circumstances of a family friend, a family member, a friend of someone
them. Yet they live on in the belief in their own worth instilled
in them by their incredible faith and a keen sense of
Wenham received the Doctor of the University (honoris causa) for his
outstanding contribution to the
arts. His strong commitment to social and
environmental issues was also acknowledged.
SAT 27 MAY 2006
In the line of fire
By SARRAH LE MARQUAND
DAVID Wenham's concern
for the East Timorese people made a decision to portray their plight on screen easy. Just don't ask him to boast about it.
an industry known to thrive on self-promotion and narcissism, David Wenham is a welcome exception. Although he's quite happy
to discuss his role in Answered By Fire, the two-part miniseries beginning on the ABC tomorrow, he seems genuinely embarrassed
over his leading man status.
Wenham enjoys top billing in the series, which revisits East Timor's bloody quest for
independence in 1999, but he insists the real stars are his less familiar East Timorese castmates.
``I never wanted
to be the lead,'' he says. ``It's their story and they should tell it. The reality is I'm here talking about it because a
couple of people in Australia might know my name and that's fine; I understand the reality of that. But their stories are
far more fascinating than my life and experiences could ever be.''
Rather than rely upon professional actors, Answered
By Fire director Jessica Hobbs met with more than 400 East Timorese in an ambitious casting call.
brought their lives to the story,'' Wenham says. ``Without them I don't think it would have been possible. It's extraordinary
in that all the cast have in some way been affected by what happened in East Timor -- they've lost somebody within their immediate
family or know somebody who has.
``We're dealing with people who have very raw emotions; I can't begin to imagine what
it was like for them. Having said that, all of them were determined the story should be told and put to air so as many people
as possible could experience what is was like.''
Not that Wenham himself was excluded from emotionally taxing scenes
in his portrayal of Mark Waldman, an Australian Federal Police officer who volunteers for the UN mission in East Timor in
the lead-up to the referendum.
``I was portraying a fictitious character, but one obviously based upon the experiences
of lots of different Federal Police officers so I was constantly aware of bringing a reality to that role,'' he says.
a long-time member of the Australia-East Timor Association, Wenham was no stranger to the struggles of our northern neighbours,
yet was still taken aback when exploring this chapter of modern history.
``I now realise it's a far more complex situation
than I'd ever realised. Australia has been intrinsically involved in the history of that country for quite some time and did
come to the rescue in 1999, but prior to that, unfortunately, we had a very sorry history with East Timor. We were silent
during 25 years of occupation when nearly a quarter of a million people lost their lives.''
The timing of Answered
By Fire, filmed on location in the Gold Coast hinterland last year, has become even more relevant in the light of the Federal
Government's decision last week to deploy a peacekeeping task force to East Timor. In what will be Australia's biggest military
deployment there since 1999, warships, armoured vehicles, helicopters and 1300 troops will help restore law and order in the
wake of growing civil unrest.
For his part, Wenham is not aware of any resistance on the part of the Indonesian Government
to Answered By Fire, even as it recreates the campaign of terror waged by pro-Indonesian militia after the East Timorese voted
overwhelmingly in favour of independence in August 1999.
``There's nothing within the series that's any great secret; everything's
on the public record,'' Wenham says. ``The series doesn't offer any solutions there, and neither should it, but it does explore
With the UN unable to control the escalating violence, Mark and his colleagues are forced to evacuate the region
and return home, riddled with guilt.
``That affects people at a personal level because they feel for the people they're
leaving behind,'' Wenham says, citing the case of a Federal Police officer who acted as an adviser on set and saw the series
for the first time last week.
``He watched it with his wife and they were riveted, but both of them actually had to
look away from the screen during the domestic scenes because they found it too close to the bone.''
Answered By Fire
marks the former SeaChange star's return to the ABC after almost a decade working on films such as Lord of the Rings, Van
Helsing, Three Dollars and the forthcoming 300.
``In all honesty, it's essentially exactly the same,'' he says of the
differences between international blockbusters and local productions.
``Both ends of the spectrum deal with the same
thing: telling the story. The only great difference is one end of the spectrum has a ridiculous amount of money. I love working
here and I think it's very important that we tell Australian stories so we can keep our identity.''
Answered By Fire, Sunday,
Author: ANNETTE SHARP
Publication: Sun Herald
Wenham acts the goat
violence once again erupted in East Timor last week, David Wenham - star of an ABC drama series that follows the 1999 referendum
marking the end of Indonesia's occupation of East Timor - found the opportunity to take stock of life's precious small events,
spending a morning in the park with his family.
He and his partner, Kate Agnew, and daughter Eliza, 2, enjoyed the
morning together at an Elizabeth Bay park.
The young family played together on the equipment, Wenham clowning for his
daughter by rolling about on his back in view of morning runners.
The actor, who was raised a Catholic, last week received
an honorary doctorate from the Australian Catholic University for his outstanding contribution to the arts.
In an acceptance
speech, he paid tribute to the courageous East Timorese actors and extras who participated in the drama series Answered By
Fire, saying they first had to put aside their psychological scars to relive the war-torn past.
ANSWERED BY FIRE
FRI 22 JUL 2005, Page 008
Timor role fires up a class act
By Natalie Gregg
FOR accomplished actor David Wenham, Cabbage Tree Point seemed an unlikely location.
But there, on the southern edge of Moreton Bay, is where the actor is filming a new ABC mini-series, Answered
Wenham plays a Gold Coast policeman who volunteers for the United Nations mission in East Timor during the
bloody 1999 referendum.
"This is a story I was well aware of (and) I feel passionate about being involved,'' Wenham said yesterday.
The mini-series, a co-production between the ABC and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, also stars Melbourne-based
Timorese actor Alex Tilman, who plays a translator.
Also starring is Canadian actor Isabelle Blais, who plays a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer.
The film is being shot at Cabbage Tree Point and Mt Tambourine, in the Gold Coast hinterland.
It took about six weeks to re-create two East Timorese villages and the United Nations compound.
Executive producer Roger Simpson said they were halfway through an eight-week shooting schedule.
"The cast have been fantastic, especially many of the Timorese,'' he said. "A lot of them have lived through
the experience and here we are re-creating the story. It must be very moving for them and we are sensitive to that.''
Gold Coast Bulletin
FRI 22 JUL 2005, Page 010
Answering Coast call
David drawn to Dili drama to be filmed amid Steiglitz canefields
By by Melanie Pilling film industry reporter
MOVIE Star David Wenham says a `magnetic force' keeps bringing him back to the Gold Coast.
Yesterday the Lord of the Rings star was on set near Jacob's Well for the $8 million mini-series Answered by
He plays a lead role as Australian policeman Mark Waldman, volunteering for a United Nations mission in the
lead-up to the 1999 referendum in East Timor.
It is his second `business trip' to the Gold Coast and fourth in Queensland
in three years after starring roles in The Proposition, Gettin' Square and The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course.
"There must be some sort of magnetic force that keeps bringing me back here,'' said Wenham during a break in
"I have a great affinity to the Gold Coast. I feel very at home here.''
Wenham said he agreed to work on Answered by Fire, as opposed to potential larger film offers, because he felt
passionate about the storyline. He said working with many East Timorese actors and extras who had lived through the horrifying
event was a rare opportunity.
"I feel extremely privileged to be involved because it is a story I was well aware of at the time and to be
involved in the telling of it is fantastic,'' he said.
"I feel passionate about this project and it is a really great cast and crew. The opportunity to work with people
like Alex (Tilman, who plays in the lead role of a young Timorese translator) is something that you don't get to experience
The large Steiglitz site has been transformed into East Timor capital Dili, with some of the sugarcane fields
levelled to make way for the main set, the United Nations Regional Headquarters, the marketplace, police station and the church.
Production designer Nick McCallum spent a week in Dili with the film's director exploring and taking photographs
to ensure the Steiglitz set was true to the East Timor landscape. He said the set took six weeks to build.
"This area was perfect because we could so easily make it look like downtown Dili,'' said McCallum.
The eight-week shoot is at the halfway point, with only one day lost to rain despite the deluge three weeks
Arts Minister Anna Bligh also toured the set yesterday, describing it as `very reminiscent' of East Timor.
"I went over there in 2001 just after the disruption. This has really brought all that to life,'' she said.
Ms Bligh also announced another production starting on the Coast on Monday, Voodoo Lounge.
The $3 million feature film is about a group of kids who are lured to an island and get caught up in ancient
A second feature film, 48 Shades of Brown, will also begin production in Brisbane on August 22.
Caption: Clockwise from above: Production designer Nick McCallum; actor David Wenham in character for 'Answered
by Fire'; and Wenham with lead actors Alex and Isobelle Blais
Catching up with Gettin' Square:
Herald Sun (Melbourne, Australia)
Oct 9, 2003
Glamour boy to grub. BLANCHE CLARK looks at David Wenham's new role.
HOW can this zit-popping junkie in tight stonewashed jeans be the same man who played the deliciously reticent
Diver Dan in the hit ABC TV series SeaChange?
How could David Wenham be ugly?
Doesn't he realise he is shattering the fantasies of thousands of women with
his portrayal of hapless crim
Johnny ``Spit'' Spitieri in the new Australian
film Gettin' Square?
"I gave that (being a sex symbol) absolutely no thought,'' says Wenham, now
preoccupied with impending
fatherhood. "But I did have a clear picture of
what Johnny Spitieri should look like.''
That included creating a humungous zit on his lip and having its eruption
filmed up close.
In Gettin' Square, Wenham plays one of two small-time Gold Coast crooks who
are trying to go straight.
And he steals the show, particularly in the court
scene, when his bogan babble bamboozles three lawyers.
There's authority behind that scene. Lawyer Chris Nyst, whose clients have
included postcard bandit Brendon
Abbott and Pauline Hanson, wrote the
While it's unpalatable to think Wenham could be anything like Spit, he says
there is a bit of him in all
his characters, whether the untrustworthy Faramir
in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, sensitive wildlife photographer
in Better Than Sex or murderous Brett Sprague in The Boys.
But he has a soft spot for Spit.
"From the moment I saw the script, I knew Johnny was a special character. He
was a challenge.''
Wenham went on a regimen of lettuce leaves, tomatoes and no exercise to
acquire Johnny's weedy demeanour.
If you thought it was impossible for Wenham to look tragic in a pair of leopard undies, not so.
"I lost some weight before and during the shoot. Not a ridiculous amount, but
I just made sure I was not
in a good condition.
"I enjoyed not exercising, but I didn't particularly enjoy not eating well.''
Despite the diet, Wenham doesn't consider himself a method actor.
"I think it's different strokes for different folks. From my own experience,
I approach each project differently.''
He has no trouble switching off from roles, whether it's a four-month shoot, as
on The Lord of the Rings,
or eight weeks on Gettin' Square.
"You have to switch off or I think you'd be a candidate for a psychiatric institution.
"You have to have your own life. You put yourself in the mind-set for however
long it takes.''
While he happily talks about his work, which included confidently baring his
bod in Better Than Sex, Wenham
is determined his private life should stay
Asked what preparations are under way for the arrival of his first child, with
actor and yoga teacher Kate
Agnew, he replies: "How do you prepare for
something like that?'' but doesn't elaborate.
It would be wrong to give the impression he is being difficult. It's more the
tone of someone who has told
dozens of journalists his personal life is
off-limits, and wonders why they still ask.
"I'm a normal person who goes home and does normal things just like you,'' he
Wenham was born in 1965 in Sydney, the youngest of seven children. A NIDA
reject, he trained at Western
Sydney Uni's Theatre Nepean. His appearance in a
gritty student film, Tran the Man, in the early 1990s sealed his future
of Australia's leading actors, though he didn't see it at the time.
"The thought of making movies then didn't enter my mind. I was entrenched in
theatre, low-budget productions
in churches and sheds. I enjoyed acting, I
wasn't interested in the money.''
The team behind Tran the Man, Robert Connolly and Rowan Woods, went on to make The Boys.
Wenham has since won an AFI award for best lead actor in a TV drama for his
role in Simone De Beauvoir's
Babies, a Logie for best actor in SeaChange, a
Variety Award for film in 2000 and had a swag of AFI nominations.
But he remains grounded.
"There are not many I look back on and say, 'Oh yeah, there's nothing in
there I wouldn't change'. I'm
my own worst critic.''
His role in The Lord of the Rings thrust him on to the world stage and he has
been in Los Angeles working
beside Hugh Jackman and Richard Roxburgh in the
Dracula adventure Van Helsing.
His next film, based on the book Three Dollars, by Sydney lawyer Elliot
Pearlman, will be shot
"I enjoy working in LA, but I've no desire to live there.''
Instead, he'll stay here, maintaining the values he was imbued with as a
"I always try to do the best I can and get better,'' he says. "My school
motto was Conatus corona -- a
crown for the trier. That's all you can do.''
Gettin' Square opens today.
The 8-14 October 2003 issue of Brisbane News magazine.
He may have wanted to be a footballer, but a knack for impressions and a gift for storytelling set actor David Wenham
on a very different path, writes Trent Dalton.
The foyer of Sydney’s W Hotel echoes to a two-man chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’ as David Wenham enters
nursing a creamy white coffee. The song comes from actor Sam Worthington and director Jonathan Teplitzky – here today,
like David, to promote ‘Getting’ Square’, the Queensland gangster film shot on the Gold Coast.
David’s been 38 for 1 and a half days and he appears officially over it. “Thank you, thank you,” the
actor says, deadpan, before quickly shifting conversation to his beloved Sydney Swans and their weekend loss to the Brisbane
In Adam Cullen’s 2000 Archibald Prize-winning portrait of David Wenham, the actor’s ears and eyes stood out.
But it’s his scruffy ginger hair that stands out most today.
He’s shorter and thinner that the silver screen suggests. Not as stout as warrior ranger Faramir, whom he plays
in Peter Jackson’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ film trilogy. Definitely not as monstrous as psychopath Brett
Sprague in ‘The Boys’, the character that took him from the theatre to films, and bagged him an AFI Best Actor
“The expectation is often different to the reality,” says David. “I’ve ended up in movies, but
it’s not something I thought would happen. I became an actor to work in theatre. This is a very bizarre bi-product.”
David wanted to be an Australian rules footballer – the greatest sportsman ever from Marrickville, in Sydney’s
inner west; greater than the Marrickville Mauler, Jeff Fenech. But his classroom impressions of Gough Whitlam and bushman
Harry Butler were too good to ignore. He was an actor. And as his parents always said, he was a storyteller.
“I was the youngest of seven children. I had very understanding, supportive parents who allowed me to become a
David says his acting ability as a youth had a magic that adults with emotional baggage can never match.
“I love films with kids as protagonists,” he says, citing ‘E.T.’, ‘Cinema Paradiso’
and ‘My Life as a Dog’, which, he says, are up there with his all-time favourite film, ‘Don’t Look
“I think children are the best actors. They have the ability to believe utterly in what they do. It becomes harder
to do that as you get older because your confidence gets battered around a bit.”
Knocked back by NIDA, David studied theatre at the University of Western Sydney and soon after found work on the local
theatre circuit and in television, (He played a motorcycle cop in ‘A Country Practice’ in 1987.)
Playing the lethal Brett Sprague on stage to riveting effect in ‘The Boys’, David was first choice for the
filmed version. He considers his work in that film, six years ago, the best he’s done and perhaps the best he can do.
“It’s the one film that I look at and I can say I actually can’t improve on that,” he says.
It was a testament to his acting skill that a year later he had transformed himself from the vicious Sprague to the charismatic
and popular Diver Dan on the ABC’s ‘SeaChange’. At the show’s peak, David was introduced on a New
Zealand talk show as one of Australia’s sexiest men. He was horrified.
Film roles kept coming – ‘Dark City’, ‘Better Than Sex’, ‘Russian Doll’, ‘The
Bank’, ‘Moulin Rouge’ (playing the cross-dressing writer Audrey).
In 1999, director Paul Cox asked him to move temporarily to the island leper colony of Molokai to film ‘Molokai:
The Story of Father Damien’, leaving partner, actor and yoga teacher Kate Agnew, at home in Sydney.
A story about real-life Belgian priest Father Damien de Veuster, who cared for 140 banished sufferers of leprosy on Molokai
Island – one of the Hawaiian islands – before catching the disease himself and dying there in 1889, the film cut
straight to David’s Catholic core.
“That was probably the best thing in the world I’ve ever done,” says David, who lived and worked in
the tight leper community for four months.
“I defy anybody to go to that place and not be affected or moved or changed. These are people who have suffered
through the most incredibly disturbing lives and yet are so full of joy and full of life. You realize how ridiculous some
of the petty things that upset us in our rather privileged lives are. It was a huge life lesson. Those people had a profound
effect on me.”
A former student of Christian Brother’s High School, Lewisham, with parents still involved in the church, David
acknowledges his Catholic faith, but is reticent to discuss it. When asked how he balances faith and the film industry –
known for its sometimes-dubious morality – David pauses, resting his head on his fist, thinking.
“It’s not something that’s at the front of my head,” he says. “I try to be a good person.
It’s as simple as that. A lot of the time, I don’t succeed at all. I’m as messed up as the next person.
“It is a strange business… It’s easy to be consumed by the madness that is Hollywood.”
One could say David leapt head-first into the mouth of madness when he signed on for director Peter Jackson’s ‘The
Lord of the Rings’ saga, the trilogy of films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic. David’s character,
Faramir, has an important role in the saga’s upcoming conclusion, ‘The Return of the King’.
“It was a very different experience to anything else. I hadn’t read the book before I was given the baton
to come on board,” he says. “Then I had an opportunity to read the book, and that was like putting many layers
of icing on the cake. And it was an enormous cake. I can say, unreservedly, that Peter Jackson is at the top of the tree.
There’s Peter Jackson and then everybody else. Undoubtedly. And history will show that.”
Which brings us to David here today, as he stirs high-profile Gold Coast lawyer-cum-author-scriptwriter Chris Nyst, who
has flown to Sydney to talk about this script for ‘Getting’ Square’.
‘I’ve just been talking about you,” says David, as Chris shuffles quickly past our table.
“Don’t believe a word,” the savvy lawyer advises.
David is describing Chris’s script - which borrows heavily from the Gold Coast stories and characters Chris has
come across in his day job – as one of the most original, quick and clever scripts to come out of Australia. And, sorry
Chris, having seen the film, it’s easy to believe every word.
The film follows two criminals, Wirth (‘Dirty Deeds’ Sam Worthington) and Johnny “Spit” Spiteiri
(David), who are released from prison and endeavour to go straight – to get square. It’s not long, however, before
the friends find themselves in the grip of the Gold Coast underworld and are forced into a suicide mission to save their necks.
David’s hapless junkie Spit is a fidgety, distrusting, mullet-haired, thong-wearing marvel. It’s hard to
recall a character so repulsive, yet somehow so endearing.
“It’s a strange dichotomy because there are people that society wants to shun, but at the same time you can’t
help but feel compassion towards them and a certain amount of empathy and a great deal of understanding.”
David’s empathy goes back to his school days when he’d write letters to prisoners in literacy programmes.
His empathy has led him to be a vocal commentator on the environment, immigration and reconciliation.
“I’m extremely patriotic, but I’m not proud of many issues in this country,” he says. “I
travel often and the reactions from virtually everywhere I go overseas is rather different to what this current government
would have you believe. And I’m telling you, we don’t look too good.”
As David talks, those big eyes that Adam Cullen focused on are becoming more intense.
“I never wanted to become a public figure,” he says. “All I wanted to do was become an actor, work
in theatre, come out and have a beer and be anonymous.”
But expectation is, after all, often different from reality.
Changing face of Diver Dan
THU 23 OCT 2003
By Alison Sandy
IN Gettin' Square, David Wenham is far removed from the rugged, handsome Faramir from The Lord of the Rings: The Two
Sporting a black mullet, tight jeans, rubber thongs and in one scene leopard-print underwear, the Australian actor well
and truly ditches his sex-symbol status to play heroin junkie Johnny Spitieri.
"I knew the sort of person I wanted him to be," Wenham said. "The physical attributes, wardrobe, hair, make-up, the way
he moved and he sounded ... he's a junkie and not one of Australia's most attractive characters."
Wenham acknowledged he wasn't an actor who remained in character off-camera.
"You've got to have a life," he said.
"I would have been kicked out of every restaurant on the Gold Coast if I walked in as Johnny Spitieri."
Wenham said the decision to play Spit wasn't a deliberate defiance against the sex-symbol image he first acquired as
Diver Dan in ABC's Sea Change.
"I wanted to do something that was funny and a little bit ridiculous," he said.
"It was a delicate balancing act ... we're not about making a social realistic drama - it's not patronising to people
Wenham said he wanted audiences to have an empathy with Spit.
"I've known lots of Johnny Spitieris in my life ... they're not uncommon or unfamiliar in my world."
Wenham, 38, grew up in the working-class suburb of Marrickville in Sydney and although he enjoyed acting as a youngster,
he doesn't appear to have had stars in his eyes growing up. He actually appears humble about his acting ability.
"I am aware of what I can do and can't do. I am aware of my limits in ability."
Despite Wenham's portrayal of a drug addict, Gettin' Square is nothing like cult drug film Trainspotting.
It does not aim to show the audience how bad drugs can be. It does not send a moral message to the audience. It is meant
to entertain as only Australians can.
Gettin' Square is screening now.
"The Guide" section of The Courier Mail newspaper from Oct 9, 2003
Comedy crime caper
Australian films have not done well at the box office recently but a new movie made on the Gold Coast could have
an impact, writes Michael Bodey.
It’s no secret that the Australian film industry has had a dog of a year at the box office. Things have flopped
and previous audience favourites have been ignored.
Two more Australian films try their luck before Christmas and thankfully the first, ‘Gettin’Square’,
has a chance to make an impact.
The crime caper is slickly made, has plenty of laughs and possesses a cast of familiar faces including Gary Sweet (Stingers),
Freya Stafford (White Collar Blue), Englishman Timothy Spall (Sex & Lies, Topsy-Turvy), Sam Worthingon (Dirty Deeds) and
comedy veteran Ugly Dave Gray.
It also features a stand-out performance by “SeaChange” favourite, David Wenham, as Johnny Spitieri, the
junkie with a heart of gold.
It is a comedic turn that will win him another AFI Award and it deserves an audience, but in this environment, who knows?
The actors certainly don’t.
“I can say quite confidently that the people I’ve spoken to, as the Americans say, have ‘responded
to the material’,” Wenham smiles.
“You sort of have a feeling but whether that translates to bums on seats, I don’t know.”
His co-star, Worthington, who plays Barry, a Gold Coaster wanting to go straight while fresh out of prison, is similarly
“The movies that are coming out are still good quality, I don’t know why people aren’t watching them,
it’s just the way of the world,” he says.
“We enjoyed doing it so I hope people sense that when they watch it.”
Wenham understands that many Australian films aren’t accepted by audiences unless they’ve “supposedly”
garnered some attention internationally – and often that can be orchestrated.
“It’s madness because you look at all the different elements here, from actors to directors to cinematographers,
I hate using that term world-class, but we have a disproportionate representation internationally, in all those areas.”
‘Gettin’ Square’ is one of those “world-class” films. It had to be such considering the
financial backing coming from England’s Working Title studio, the company behind ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’
and ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’.
And Wenham and Worthington are at the heart of this world-class film. Both actors are firing on all cylinders at the
moment; Wenham internationally with the final ‘Lord of the Rings’ film and the action blockbuster, ‘Van
Helsing’, due in the next year, Worthington with lead roles in local flicks ‘Thunderstruck’ and ‘More
Than Scarlet’ to add to his part in Miramax’s upcoming World War II drama, ‘The Great Raid’.
The two are a terrific coupling in ‘Getting’ Square’, Worthington as the stoic bloke drawn into one
last heist and Wenham the bumbling idiot who might derail it all.
For Worthington it’s a major lead role, although he chuckles that he didn’t consider it such “but people
keep saying it is! I thought it was an ensemble thing”.
Indeed, his lead role is upstages by Wenham’s performance. Not that Worthington is annoyed.
“The bloke’s wearing a mullet, pants up to his neck, thongs and leopard skin underpants, so if the bloke’s
not stealing the movie there’s a problem with the movie,” Worthington smiles.
“He’s my Jerry Lewis and I was his Dean Martin. The more he did, he’d whisper to me ‘Do you reckon
it’s too much?’ and I’d go ‘Keep going, keep going’ because the less I had to do then,”
For Wenham, the chance to work again with his ‘Better Than Sex’ director Jonathan Teplitzky was reason enough
to head to the Gold Coast.
“He’s one of the few people who can quite clearly articulate the kind of film they want to make,” Wenham
says. “Some directors say they can but they don’t or can’t but Jonathan genuinely can.”
Teplitzky’s articulation worked for Worthington as well. “He’s detailed and so enthusiastic about what
he wanted to do that he made me think if he can bring that to the set, it’ll be fantastic.
“He told me the movies he was inspired by and one of them was ‘Out of Sight’, which sold me. If he
could do half as good a job as that, we’re doing all right.”
Teplitzky knew how to interest Wenham: he gave him the script telling him there was a character in there he might like.
Wenham, correctly, veered to Johnny Spitieri. “Jonathan thought that possibly from his knowledge of some of my
earlier theatre work,” Wenham smiles.
It’s a big leap from the charismatic Diver Dan character for which Wenham won a Silver Logie and also from his
more dramatic film characterizations.
Not that he was looking for a comedy to break things up.
“It’s impossible to orchestrate a career like that,” he says. “A lot of it’s left to luck.”
“I was attracted to him because I saw it as a huge challenge, number one.
“He’s someone who’d normally be perceived as one of society’s outcasts.
“Yet in this film he had to be understood by the audience and then have the audience on side so they’d go
along for the journey, which is no easy task considering he does happen to be a junkie.
“That was the challenge, to humanize and empathise with this character. I also saw the opportunity for a bit of
humour, although that’s not the motivating factor.”
Worthington had just as tough a job, researching the life of a hardened prisoner. A number of ex-cons who worked on the
film as extras told him something that colours his character wonderfully.
“They said the biggest thing when you’re inside, the only thing you’ve got, is time,” he says.
“That’s the only thing you have. So when you’re outside you can afford to take your time. So I adopted
Now the time has come when the Australian audience has to find ‘Getting’ Square’.
At least Wenham, Worthington and their cohorts have done everything in their power to make it a more palatable experience
than most recent Australian films.
The Advertiser (Adelaide, Australia)
Oct 9, 2003
Starring David Wenham, Sam Worthington, Timothy Spall, Freya Stafford, Gary Sweet.
David Wenham squares off with STAN JAMES about the Australian film industry.
DAVID Wenham doesn't hesitate to describe his philosophy of choosing the movies he makes.
"Bums on seats, that's my artistic policy,'' he says in his softly spoken style. It seems to have worked for him,
The 38-year-old actor has been on the small and then big screens regularly since popping up in TV's Sons and Daughters
Today his new Australian movie, Gettin' Square, opens across Australia, and in December he again appears as Faramir in
The Return of the King, the final chapter in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Plus, he's just returned from Hollywood where he completed Van Helsing with fellow Aussies Hugh Jackman and Richard Roxburgh.
"It's been a busy two years. It's good to be home in Sydney,'' he says simply.
Wenham pauses a moment before defining the change in his career which has seen him in six movies and a mini-series in
the three years since Moulin Rouge!.
"It's hard to pinpoint turning points in a career but I suppose two points in the same year, 1998 - SeaChange on TV and
a couple of weeks later, (film) The Boys being released. Both those pieces opened doors for me. SeaChange locally and The
Wenham played a violent psychopath in The Boys, with Toni Collette and John Polson. "In terms of pure performance, The
Boys is one of those films I can
look at and say there are no moments in it I would change.
"Then came The Lord of the Rings trilogy as Faramir. I was in New Zealand for the last four months of principal photography.
"That was a truly special moment in my life, just to be involved with the project.
"Peter Jackson is the most extraordinary director I have ever come across, an amazing and special man. I regard myself
as being quite blessed to be involved.''
A completely different project is Gettin' Square, an Aussie crime caper set on the Gold Coast with Wenham as druggie
and hustler Johnny Spitieri.
He's joined by a motley crew of associates, including Sam Worthington (of Bootmen fame) trying to go straight after jail
release, Gary Sweet as a money launderer and Timothy Spall as retired British crime boss Darren Barrington, trying to run
a restaurant on the Gold Coast.
Wenham says his role harks back to when he started acting and did more character work.
"Now I've played more leading-men roles. It was good to get back to my roots,'' he admits.
"Director Jonathan Teplitzky gave me the script and said there was a character in the film I'd just love. He didn't mention
which one. Off the page I knew I could relate to the character.
"Very rarely do those kind of characters come along and as an actor you just go, 'yeah'.''
Wenham says everybody has come across one Johnny Spitieri in their life, even if they've just passed him in the street.
"His thongs are a very recognisable sound, very rhythmic,'' he says.
"I've come across a lot of Johnnys in my life so he is a bit of an amalgam of them. I spent a lot of time wandering around
various parts of Sydney before filming and just observed people.
"Some of the characters and their idiosyncracies were a bit too large. If I had taken some of those and put them on the
screen people would have said I was over-acting.''
Working with legendary British actor Spall was also a drawcard for Wenham, who has a high opinion of his co-star. "We
were fortunate that Tim said yes to
doing this film because, even before I did the film with Tim, I rated him as one of
my 10 favourite actors in the world,'' he says.
Wenham and director Tiplitzky, who steered him through the comedy Better Than Sex three years ago, have a mutual admiration.
"Jonathan is one of the few directors I totally clicked with,'' Wenham says. "Like a football coach, he's always into positive
reinforcement as opposed to bringing up the negatives. For actors, who are known to be insecure individuals, to have a director
him is great.''
Teplitzky says it was an "absolute pleasure'' to work with Wenham again. "He's smart, intelligent and understands it's
not just about grandstanding in a role like that,'' he says.
"We agreed not to play it for laughs but a totally earnest, totally serious character going about his survival. David's
an actor of incredible skill and incredible timing.''
Gettin' Square is yet another Australian comedy in a season which has seen so many crash and sink without trace.
Wenham believes it's not a particularly Australian problem.
"All around the world local film industries aren't doing well,'' he says. "It's very frustrating to look at some of the
films that have been funded and you ask 'why?' It seems as though there's a hotch-potch of ingredients that appeal to a few
people and they think there's going to be a successful movie come out of it.''
Wenham knows there are no simple answers and says there are problems in the script assessment area, distribution and
"We don't market and distribute Australian films very well,'' he says. "The crash-and-burn strategy of releasing an Australian
film, which might have a niche market, on 150 screens in its opening week is not great strategy. That's my personal opinion,
but marketing experts would beg to differ.''
The Sunday Times
SUN 05 OCT 2003
AND the AFI Award goes to David Wenham. Those words, I guarantee, will be heard come November's Australian Film Institute
It will be Wenham's second win from six nominations and something tells me that winning for playing the low-life lovable
loser Johnny "Spits'' Spitieri in the crooks-and-crooked-cops comedy Gettin' Square will be all the sweeter for Wenham, who
has been trying to shake his Diver Dan image for ages.
"Yeah, he's pretty special,'' Wenham said from Sydney's ABC studios in Ultimo.
Spits might not be the central character in this ice-cool comedy set on the Gold Coast but Wenham makes sure he steals
the show. Just check out his get up -- ice-wash denim ankle-freezers, worn-out thongs, rat-tailed mullet and, when he's outrunning
the copsm, a skimpy pair of leopard-skin jocks.
"Sure, Spits is many sandwiches short of a picnic,'' Wenham said, "but he has this great rat cunning and street-survival
"A few of the characters I've played have fallen between smart and dumb but it's people like Johnny I feel a genuine
And that's saying something because Wenham has played a virtual rogues' gallery of diverse characters, from SeaChange's
dashing Diver Dan to leprosy-ridden Father Damien in Molokai.
He was utterly convincing as genius mathematician Jim Doyle in The Bank and amorous as sex-addict John in Better than
Sex. His most powerful role is the woman-beater Brett Sprague in The Boys and he's enjoying international fame as Farimar
in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Return of the King.
Wenham admits that while some of those characters were difficult to create, Spits was dead easy. In fact, he got a clear
picture of him the moment he read Chris Nyst's script. Nyst, a Gold Coast lawyer, based Spits on a witness he once saw in
"I could see the character, I could hear the character, I knew what he was about,'' Wenham said.
"So I was really excited about it because I had a grasp on this guy. It really did light my fire.''
Wenham was so definite about Spits's dirty look that he helped shape the character's uncouth appearance.
"I knew exactly what type of mullet I wanted,'' Wenham said laughing. "I was quite specific in my needs with the hair,
make-up and wardrobe departments.
"The wardrobe itself was a work in progress, going through the many opportunity shops in the suburbs of Brizzie and the
Gold Coast. It was part of the charm.
"Clothes are somewhat irrelevant to him.
"But the thongs were vital because it is set on the Gold Coast and thongs are an iconic thing there.
"The way the character moved (a quick hands-in-pockets shuffle) was also important to me. And I could hear him, so it
was just a matter of working out exactly what pitch and cadence I was going to use.''
The result is quite a piece of work. When Spits isn't in the slammer, he's getting up to no good robbing petrol stations
(using a screwdriver and a tea towel, mind you), looking for his next fix or teaming up with Barry (WA-actor-made-good Sam
Worthington) for a heist that's way out of his league.
"I have seen Johnny Spitieri so many times in my life in so many different places,'' said Wenham, who grew up in Sydney's
rough suburb of Marrickville.
"I love watching people -- they fascinate me and the more extreme the character is the more they fascinate.''
In the comedy's most hilarious scene, Spits gives evidence before a criminal investigation commission but is more concerned
about who will pay for his bus ride home.
This, Nyst said, came straight from real life.
To this day Nyst said he couldn't work out if the guy was the dumbest person he'd ever seen or the smartest. "And that's
the key to Johnny Spitieri.'' he said.
The Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Australia)
Sept 28, 2003
Thick as a short plank...that's the latest role for David Wenham, writes CHRIS TAYLOR
THERE IS no middle ground for David Wenham.
The rogues' gallery the Australian actor has portrayed so far in his colourful, character-driven career is mainly
at the extreme ends of the spectrum -- either fiercely intelligent or thick as a short plank.
His latest, Johnny ``The Spit'' Spitieri, in the crooks-and-bent-cops caper Gettin' Square by Gold Coast criminal
lawyer and writer Chris Nyst, is clearly in the second category.
Johnny The Spit may be one of the biggest idiots -- albeit an endearing one -- to feature in an Australian film
in a decade.
He's the sort of two-bit crim who sports an atrocious mullet, wears worrying leopard-print undies -- as seen
in a key sequence -- and tries to hold up an all-night service station with a screwdriver and a tea towel.
Dumb as they come.
The beauty of it is that, off-screen, Wenham does not seem the type who would gladly suffer fools like Spitieri.
The Wenham dichotomy is that while he has a deep empathy for characters like Johnny, off-screen he'd probably spot him at
500 paces and put him in his place with a single withering glance.
"He's not smart, but at the same time Johnny's a paradox,'' Wenham says. "He does survive on his rat cunning.
He's not one of society's most attractive characters . . . and some others of mine haven't been either.
"A few of the people I've played fall between smart and dumb. But people like Johnny, I feel a genuine affection
Filmed around Maryborough, Brisbane and mostly the Gold Coast, Gettin' Square debuted at the recent Brisbane
International Film Festival. But Wenham saw it with an audience only this week.
"After sitting with an audience, yeah, it works. With film, you never know how they will go. But I do love a
gamble, I do love to take on a dicey role.
"I'd so love it to do well, but I think it's going to be a word-of-mouth film, that'll put bums on seats. Fingers
Gettin' Square is a fast, tightly-woven little drama that, while bristling with energy and played mostly for
laughs, doesn't always make a lot of sense.
The characters are written with genuine affection by Nyst -- whose first career as a Gold Coast lawyer would
qualify him to know these characters intimately -- but they appear to be almost of another era.
The shady deals and laughably crooked cops inhabit a modern-day Surfers Paradise but, in truth, the party was
over for the criminal underworld by the end of the 1980s.
What Gettin' Square does have going for it is knockout performances from Wenham, Sam Worthington and British
import Timothy Spall . . . and a clever script from the writer who is attuned to the dialogue of the underworld.
"I wasn't aware of who Chris Nyst was when I read the script, but I found out pretty quickly,'' Wenham says.
"He's just got an ear for the dialogue. He knows that world better than anyone and he's captured stuff that's very specific
to people in that world.''
Wenham's small-time thug is released from prison about the same time as his fellow inmate Barry Wirth (Worthington).
Life on the outside is a tough slog before both characters end up on the Coast, Wenham as a junkie looking for
his next fix and Worthington as a chef at a spectacularly unsuccessful restaurant owned by the dodgy Darren Barrington (Spall).
It's clear from the outset things are going to end in tears. But along the way Nyst and director Jonathan Teplitzky
provide employment for an array of Gold Coast personalities who appear in cameos including Ugly Dave Gray, Joe Bugner and
even Gretel Killeen (as a wife from hell).
It's also one of just a few Australian films to go into production and achieve distribution this year, a fact
Wenham concedes is part of an industry considered to be going through a rough patch.
"It's a difficult thing to judge and I could say, 'Yes things are in a bad way', but I think the fact is we
just haven't had a hit movie for a while. Only a handful of films have even turned a profit.
"What I do know is that it's bloody hard to make a good film, it's bloody hard to write a good film and sometimes
films go into production that possibly shouldn't have.
"It's so difficult to find a script that's really good and works, they are absolutely like hens' teeth. But
go to the United States, go to Italy, go to the UK -- people are bemoaning the lack of quality in film scripts everywhere.''
And speaking of actors overseas, Wenham is yet to join the growing exodus of Australian actors taking on Hollywood,
despite significant exposure in the Lord Of The Rings series which will climax with the release of The Return of the King
"In an ideal world, I'd be able to split my life overseas and at home -- but this is my home. I'd never not
want to work locally.''
The Sunday Age
He's been called one of Australia's sexiest men, but to play junkie-thief Johnny "Spit" Spitieri in his latest
film, David Wenham got in touch with his inner scuzzball. He spoke with Michael Shmith.
IT IS almost impossible to recognise David Wenham in his latest film, Gettin' Square. He plays Johnny "Spit"
Spitieri, a recently released jailbird and drugged-out hustler with thongs on his feet, a stringy, greasy mullet haircut,
a cold sore on his lower lip, and a bad attitude everywhere else. Spit flip-flops his way through the action, set very much
in the one-carat backstreets of the Gold Coast, in clothes that even an op shop would find hard to love. Diver Dan has morphed
into Junkie Johnny.
Wenham comes close to stealing the film, which is quite something when the cast also includes Gary Sweet as
almost-suave gangster Chicka Martin, Timothy Spall as reformed crim Darren Barrington (whose name is longer than he is), and
David Field as corruption-oozing cop Arnie DeViers.
Into this repertory company of tarnished Surfers Paradise also-rans - captured in syringe-sharp dialogue by
Queensland criminal lawyer and writer Chris Nyst (yes, the same Chris Nyst who recently defended Pauline Hanson in court)
- comes the appalling Spit. In one scene, when he faces an anti-corruption hearing, he does everything to avoid telling the
truth, including badgering the prosecution QC for money to pay his bus ride home, and falling off a chair. Spit is not so
much a hostile witness as a hyped-up, hysterical, half-wit-ness who is, we come to suspect, brighter than the court realises.
Spit is also continually plagued by an unwelcome guest on his lower lip. "I always saw Johnny with a cold sore,"
says Wenham. "It never completely goes. It's always just there, at the tip of the tongue, just around the corner of the mouth,
always hanging. The first time I met the make-up artist, she started to panic when I came up with that and other ideas. But
she was great; took them on board and started to invent a little creation, which was the cold sore."
In one of the movie's most gruesomely memorable scenes, Spit and his cold sore stand in front of a dirty bathroom
mirror for a confrontation that is, thankfully, left to the imagination at the crucial moment. "If Jonathan (director Jonathon
Teplitzky) hadn't cut that shot where he did, it would have had a life of its own," Wenham says. "You know what's going to
happen: just like Hitchthingy's shower scene, you know where that knife's going, we don't need to see exactly where."
Wenham, looking the very antithesis of Spit, is leaning forward on a couch in a tensely minimalist hotel room
in Woolloomooloo, in inner Sydney - the sort of place his character would be shown the door, possibly before he steps through
it. Without the terrible wig, the thongs, the shorts, the shirt and, yes, the cold sore, David Wenham is ? well ? David Wenham.
And dressed in trousers and shirt that Spit would neither consider nor afford.
It would be a mistake, though, to say that Wenham is the sort of actor who vanishes into himself with nothing
to show but a mask and a few muted responses. On the contrary, he is lively, loves a good laugh, and is most articulate about
his work, although a portcullis descends if one approaches too closely the ramparts of his private life.
He is well known for taking time and trouble to come to terms with his roles. Spit was no exception, especially,
as Wenham says, keeping the character on that straight and narrow path between plausibility and caricature.
"That was the tricky part, the fine line I had to trundle along, in the flip-flops. I was very fortunate in
having a strong foundation in the script. Beautifully constructed. The character's beautifully drawn. The first time I read
it, I could see Johnny and certainly hear him. The rhythms in the character were there on the page. Then came mapping that
clear image into reality: that strange, indescribable process that goes into acting. It's hard to articulate the route you
take: it's a mixture of external factors that include the physicality of Johnny Spitieri, that's very important. Then his
wardrobe and make-up. I'm very clear what I wanted."
Gettin' Square is Wenham's second film with Teplitzky, and could not be more different from Better than Sex,
which was essentially a two-hander for Wenham and Susie Porter. This time, says Teplitzky, the Spitieri character was not
intended to be the lead but, rather, a foil for the other characters, including former cellmate Barry "Wattsy" Wirth (Sam
It was important, says Teplitzky, to find a good actor to play Spitieri. "David read it and loved it instantly.
We talked a great deal about keeping it as truthful and earnest as possible, not playing it for laughs."
The walk, the voice, took time. "We experimented, finding the right pitch and not over-pushing it into caricature."
Teplitzky says Wenham had a lot of fun building Spitieri. "He came back one day with the most awful pair of
jeans you've ever seen. But it was the way he wore and used them to develop his costume and, at the same time, somehow adding
a layer of empathy. He was happy to look completely like a pile of nuts all the time. Once that hair piece and the thongs
went on at the beginning of the day, David came out of the trailer and had the character."
Before shooting each of his scenes, Wenham pinched the bridge of his nose with his fingers. "I thought he had
a headache and asked if he was OK," says Teplitzky. "He was fine, but was trying to get that slightly washed-out look in his
Early one morning, while being driven to location, Wenham had a somewhat spooky encounter. "I spotted this guy
walking along the street: it was Johnny Spitieri! To the life. He was carrying one thing in his hand - it looked so sad and
so odd, but at the same time there was humour to it as well. He was walking along, taking his teaspoon for a walk as if he
was walking his dog. Obviously the teaspoon was an accoutrement, but it was a bizarre business."
Was Wenham tempted to give his Johnny a teaspoon? "Yes and no. It belonged to him."
The great thing about working with David Wenham, says Teplitzky, is that he takes sole responsibility for what
he is doing. "He is always prepared and always knows his lines." But he is also ready to adapt where necessary. In one scene
in Gettin' Square, Spitieri is waiting to be interviewed by tax-fraud investigators. Bored, he lies on the table and then
fiddles around with a chair. This was improvised by Wenham while waiting for the actual shot, and Teplitzky insisted on filming
it: it took 15 minutes from conception to finish. "Such little moments tell us more about this person," he says.
David Wenham grew up in Sydney's western suburbs, the youngest of seven. He attended the local Christian Brothers
and started Saturday-morning drama classes. He went on to student theatre, then drama school. He made some television appearances
he'd rather forget (a policeman in A Country Practice among them), and slowly went from role to role, series to series, stage
Did being the last of seven make him a natural show-off? "I've never really thought about it at all," he says.
"Possibly two days ago was the first time I gave it any serious consideration - there's no history of performances in my family.
It's obviously not a genetic thing. But growing up the last of seven, definitely you do strive for attention: the survival
instinct, I suppose.
"Another factor that possibly nourished a theatrical interest in me was growing up Catholic and the rituals
within the church. I don't think I'm in an unusual situation here. Being the last child with a Catholic upbringing is not
something unusual in this business. I look at myself in comparison to my siblings and I do see myself as relatively similar,
slightly similar to my brother, who comes at the head of the family. But the sister just above me has a totally different
temperament from me."
Perhaps acting, for the young David, was a retreat from real life? "Playing is often a form of escape. I don't
know what I was escaping from. I had an extremely happy upbringing. I've always been fascinated with the idea of the play,
the idea of storytelling. From a young age, I loved being told stories and I love the opportunity to tell stories. In its
simplest, basic form that's what actors do: they tell stories. The effects of those stories can be wide and varied, but that's
essentially what it is. And we happen to play characters within those stories."
One of the greatest stories is the film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, in which Wenham plays
Faramir. "That is storytelling on the purest, most monumental scale. It is great storytelling," he says. "I feel extremely
fortunate to have been involved in that. For a few reasons, but also to work with (director) Peter Jackson. I went to the
project having seen every one of his films."
Wenham has not been backward in coming forward about his own directing ambitions. So when will we see a movie
with the words "a film by David Wenham" in the titles? "It's not happening yet. When it does, it's going to be a project I
will be 100 per cent passionate about and put time aside to devote myself totally to it: one year or two. Until that comes
along, until I feel that passion, I won't do it. There's a few little things around, but nothing that I will run with.
"Each time a movie gets up, I think it's a minor miracle, what with all the factors that go into it. It's a
delicate process, and picking up a slippery bar of soap is far easier. As an actor I am a frustrated director. Not every actor
is, but a lot are. I'm fascinated by the art and craft of filmmaking and I can objectively remove myself from the process
when I'm working, and I'm equally fascinated with everything else that goes on in the process apart from just the acting."
Interestingly, for someone who loves stage as much as film acting, Wenham does not want to direct theatre. "I
feel I could not articulate it as well," he says. "I love the theatre and when it works, it's one of the most wonderful creations.
It's a rare occurrence when it does work like that. This is a strange statement to say, but I think a mediocre film is strangely
far more palatable than a mediocre night in the theatre. Why that is, I don't know. In the theatre, it can go on for so long
you can count the number of lights in the rig. You don't do that in the cinema, or count the audience members. You can still
lose yourself in the cinema."
Gettin' Square is on general release from Thursday.
WENHAM, DAVID: GETTIN' SQUARE
Published October 9, 2003
David Wenham adds a low-life Gold Coast druggie to his repertoire of screen characters in the new Australian drama/comedy,
Gettin’ Square, morphing his well groomed good looks into an unrecognisable, misshapen, mullett-haired, badly dressed
misfit. And he loved every minute of it, he tells Andrew L. Urban.
Two flat whites sit between us as David Wenham takes a seat in the café of a Sydney hotel to talk about Johnny ‘Spit’
Spiteri a character in Gettin’ Square that is attracting all the attention, even though he isn’t the lead. Considering
the impact he makes, I begin our interview asking him how constructed ‘Spit’.
First of all, tell me about building ‘Spit’ ….
I was extremely fortunate because I had a strong foundation – it was very obvious from the first time I read the
script, the potential for the character of John Spiteri. It was so beautifully observed and constructed. I could see the character
off the page…the rhythms of the character were pretty apparent to me. I had a very clear mental picture of who this
person was. And Jonathan [Tipletzky, director] shared that view. Then it was just a matter of turning it into a three dimensional
What specifically in the script gave you this sense of him?
The dialogue is all you’ve got to go on. The big print doesn’t mean much to you as an actor. It’s the
voice . . . It’s very hard to pull off what Chris [Nyst, scriptwriter] has done, which is to have different voices.
You can see that on the page. Most scripts that come an actor’s way, they’re pretty much homogenised characters.
The way the sentences are constructed are all the same. But that’s not life, we don’t all speak the same, we have
different syntax and all that sort of thing. And Johnny Spiteri had a specific voice.
What about the physicality of him…when you put them together, what impact did that have on your picture of
Oh, huge. You know, some people work from the outside in, others inside out…With this one, the physical attributes
of the character were extremely important. Costume, hair and make up all helped…and I was very particular about the
look, I knew what I wanted. I think I drove the costume and make up department slightly round the bend at first because I
was SO specific about who this character was. So I went shopping in the op shops around the Gold Coast looking for specific
articles of clothing. The moment I put those on, I knew how the character should move – those articles of clothing helped
me achieve what was in my mind.
In Johnny Spiteri’s memorable and hilarious courtroom scene, when he upends the lawyers with his street cunning
that hides beneath his bumbling, drug-dazed persona, there is a real risk of taking it just over the edge. How did you approach
I think it wasn’t just that scene…it was in all the scenes my character and a few of the other characters
were in. It’s a very fine line with many of these characters. But I think as long as the character is always rooted
in a reality…. And you, Andrew, know more than anybody when you’re walking around with a microphone [for Front
Up, SBS TV] there are extraordinary people out there. But if you believe in the character you’ll go on the journey with
And what about Spiteri’s journey, did you analyse it?
Well, I did think about that at first, but then I threw it away because I thought that’d possibly be counter productive
in terms of how I get there. I was always aware of the risks and the potential pitfalls of the character…it’s
a strange character in a way. He’s one of society’s shunned ones. He happens to be a junkie, a guy with a habit
and not somebody that society will embrace and feel for and empathise with and understand. So I had to create a character
that the audience … would want to go along with him and understand, care and feel for…and laugh with.
How did you find getting into character for every take? Did you go in and out of character on set?
Um….phew….it’s a strange one to talk about the acting process, because it’s not … even
on the days that I worked, it always changed. No easy answer to that. Although we did spend a couple of weeks in rehearsal,
they were more discussion to make sure we were all in the same movie. We didn’t get up on our feet and say the lines…
Actually, most or all of the stuff you see on the screen was basically created on the day. Which I found extremely liberating,
especially for comedy. Totally spontaneous. The courtroom scene we shot in a day, everything, even all the coverage. It helped…and
the adrenalin nourishes creativity.
So you find him a character easy to slip in and out of? And enjoyable?
Yeah, I did. It was somebody I had a total grasp on. I knew where I could push him, I knew where he wasn’t comfortable.
And yes, I loved it. I was a pig in mud there (laughs).
The story of Gettin’ Square:
Barry Wirth (Sam Worthington) has done eight years inside for a murder he claims he didn’t commit during a robbery
in which his major accomplice was the Aussie Gold Coast gangster Chicka Martin (Gary Sweet). He reckons it was crooked cop
Arnie DeViers (David Field) who verballed him. Now he’s out on parole and wanting to ‘get square’ and look
after his younger brother. His best friend Johnny ‘Spit’ Spitieri (David Wenham) is still hooked on drugs but
also trying to ‘get square’ and is a go between for Darren ‘Dabba’ Barrington (Timothy Spall) who
offers Barry a job in his so far empty Gold Coast restaurant. The tough new Criminal Investigation Commission is after all
of them, and Barry has to stay out of trouble – but still ‘get square’.
October 10, 2003
I am waiting by the trailers and trucks laden with film equipment, on one of those too-bright Gold Coast days,
when a junkie comes up, thrusts his hand at me and says "Hi, I'm David."
He looks revolting - greasy mullet, yellow teeth, cold sores. I am about to turn away when I notice something
familiar about the eyes.
My God: this scrawny guy in the too-tight stone-washed jeans is David Wenham.
The actor - famous as heart-throb "Diver Dan" from SeaChange and, more recently, as Faramir in the Lord of the
Rings films The Two Towers and the imminent The Return of the King - is playing Johnny Spitieri, a junkie and loveable loser,
in the gangster comedy Gettin' Square.
He's fond of walking to locations and even visiting supermarkets in character, but apparently nobody bats an
"They look once and look away, as though it was a very normal occurrence," he says.
And here in Surfers Paradise, a place where meter maids wear gold bikinis, high heels and cowboy hats, perhaps
The movie, about small-time criminals attempting to pull one last heist before they go straight, is the second
film directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, who helped establish Wenham as leading-man material when he cast him in Better Than Sex.
Teplitzky says that Wenham is not known as a comic actor, but he thought of the 38-year-old immediately for
the part of Spitieri. But it took a while to convince everyone else that there was a funny junkie hidden in Diver Dan.
"It wasn't like everyone went, 'Yeah, yeah'," says Teplitzky. "It was a real process."
Teplitzky won, and Wenham was the first person cast.
Effecting the actor's transformation wasn't easy. Wenham watched the junkies and dealers in Kings Cross, and
from early on had a very specific idea of what he wanted Spitieri to look like.
He went on a low-carbohydrate diet and gave up exercise.
"Any shape just goes and you're left with that little tyre around the waist," he says, pointing towards his
uncharacteristic flab. "It's very attractive and I think will be quite fashionable in a year's time."
He wanted Spitieri's clothes to be fractionally too small, and he and the film's costume designer trawled the
children's sections in Gold Coast op shops for the right shade of stone-wash.
A pair of very loud thongs - and, in one scene, the most horrible pair of leopard-print underpants - completed
the outfit. Make-up did the rest, adding cold sores, hair extensions, layers of grease, and yellow paint to his teeth.
"A slight detritus does actually stay there," he says, scratching at his not-so-pearly-whites. "They've just
sent out for a special toothbrush that will remove this stuff."
The film was written by Chris Nyst, novelist and controversial criminal lawyer, who has represented the likes
of "postcard bandit" Brendan Abbott and Joh Bjelke-Petersen. When we speak, just before the film's release, Nyst is working
on "the perils of Pauline", representing Hanson in her upcoming court appeal.
Nyst has had plenty of experience with the seamier side of life and admits there are similarities between certain
characters in the film and characters from his life.
"I think David Wenham's junkie is a pretty good portrayal of the amalgam of lots and lots of people you see
over the years," he says.
He says there are no direct parallels, although this never stops people looking for them - especially with his
book Cop This!, about pre-Fitzgerald inquiry Queensland. Readers are always saying they recognise particular people, but Nyst
insists that his characters are composites; types rather than individuals.
"Your basic wiseguy is always trying to cut corners," he says. "He doesn't want to live life like John and Mary
Citizen out in the suburbs. He wants to make life just a little bit easier."
Strangely, for a man who is known for working hard, has a wife and four children, and writes books and movie
scripts in his "spare time", Nyst says he can understand this.
"Those kind of characters appeal to me a bit.
I can see how stupid and dumb they are. It's the same sort of stupidity I'm guilty of myself."
In what way?
"I suppose I'm always trying to make life a bit more colourful than it really is."
Unsurprisingly, then - and without giving too much away - there is a good chance that the good-hearted crims
are going to get away with it in Gettin' Square.
The screenplay evolved out of a few scenes Nyst sketched between novels. He says he let it sit for ages, with
no particular view to getting it developed. Then his agent read it and suggested sending it out. Nyst agreed, but he didn't
want to just sell it on. He wanted to be involved in the whole process of bringing it to the screen, and ended up as co-producer.
Andrew Dominik, who directed Chopper, was interested for a while but passed due to other commitments. He mentioned
the script to Teplitzky, who loved it. He and Nyst set about re-drafting, hanging out in the latter's garden shed as Teplitzky
filled Nyst in about the filmmaking process, and Nyst filled Teplitzky in about criminal life.
"Just hanging around Chris on the Gold Coast, you meet people on the way," says Teplitzky. "There's usually
a tale to be told about them afterwards."
This tale has its own distinctive vocabulary, which makes its way into the film and is helpfully explained in
a glossary in the media kit.
Some of it seems unnecessary - how many Australians don't know that "crook" can mean sick or criminal? - but
other phrases are specific to the old-time criminals Nyst knows in Queensland. "Getting square" translates as "going straight".
There are cameo appearances from Ugly Dave Gray and Gretel Killeen, but the film centres around Sam Worthington,
from Dirty Deeds, Hart's War and Bootmen. He plays Barry Wirth, Spitieri's unlikely best friend and a good guy who has spent
eight years in jail for a crime he didn't commit.
When he gets out, he tries to "get square" and ends up working in the restaurant of retired crim Darren Barrington
(played beautifully by English actor Timothy Spall). But it's not so easy to leave the past behind.
They hatch a plan that will get dirty cop Arnie DeViers (David Field) and gangster Chicka Martin (Gary Sweet)
off their backs - and, hopefully, make them rich, as well.
The film presents a picture of Queensland very different to the touristy one we usually see.
"These characters don't live in the high rises, they live in the shadows cast by them," says Teplitzky.
It was this world he wanted to capture and he had specific ideas about how he wanted to do it. His film has
plenty of unusual camera angles, fast-paced scene changes and thumping music.
Given his subject matter, the inevitable comparison is with Guy Ritchie. Gettin' Square has been dubbed "Lock,
Stock and Two Smoking Barrels on the Gold Coast".
"'Pulp Fiction down under' is another one I've heard," says Teplitzky, clearly unimpressed.
"The film is very different from both those films. I think it's much more like Pulp Fiction than it is Lock,
Stock." He's not even much of a Guy Ritchie fan.
"I really enjoyed Lock, Stock. But I find it a bit cold."