Anita's death inspires film
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH
Edition 1TUE 06 MAY 1997, Page 013
By BRYCE CORBETT
/ EMMA-KATE SYMONS / VICKY ROACH
MURIEL'S Wedding starlet Toni Collette is set to star in a film inspired by the murder of Sydney nurse Anita
Titled The Boys -and based on the controversial Australian play of the same name -the low-budget feature film
is scheduled to be shot in and around Sydney in July.
Cosi actor David Wenham has been cast in the role of Brett, a relentless sociopath who rapes and murders a
young woman on the day he is released from jail.
Collette will play his girlfriend.
Lynette Curran -currently appearing in Chekhov's The Seagull -is his mother, and John Polson, perhaps best
known as Russell Crowe's gay boyfriend in The Sum Of Us, has landed the role of middle brother Glenn.
The film got its green light in the same week Blackrock, a gritty look at the underbelly of teenage surf culture
with strong parallels to the 1989 murder of Newcastle teenager Leigh Leigh, opened in cinemas across Australia.
"That's pure coincidence -we've been working on this film for five years," Wenham said yesterday.
Wenham, who struck a chord with audiences as the pyromaniac in the clinically insane Australian comedy Cosi,
also played Brett in the 1991 Griffin Theatre Company production at the Stables Theatre, in Kings Cross.
Veteran Australian writer Stephen Sewell has adapted Gordon Graham's award-winning play for the big screen
and Robert Conolly will produce.
Conolly describes The Boys as a tough suburban family drama.
"The play was inspired by a series of brutal crimes against women, one of which was the Anita Cobby murder,"
"But in no way is it the biographical story of Anita Cobby -the character of Anita Cobby isn't even in the
Wenham added: "Crimes like this are happening constantly, like in Perth at the moment where those women are
disappearing at what is becoming a regular rate.
"Violent crimes against women -it's still a taboo subject in society today, and we're addressing it, I suppose."
Boys will be boys
Author: Jim Schembri
Publication: The Sunday Age
As far as dream film projects go, David Wenham knows he's come about as
close as he's likely to get with
Since appearing in the stage play by Gordon Graham at Sydney's Griffin
Theatre in 1991, Wenham has nurtured
the project from pub conversation to
finished film, on which he was associate producer. Whether the film gets
or leads on to other things is beside the point, he says.
"I'm very self-critical and there's not too many pieces of work that I can
honestly say, 'Yeah, I'm proud
of that'. I am with this film," he says.
"It's a fulfilling feeling to know that we did create this piece of film
The Boys follows the release from prison of Brett Sprague (played by
Wenham) as he tries to fit back into
his malfunctioning family, which
includes two layabout brothers, a pregnant young woman and a
(Lynette Curran). As the day progresses, there are
pointers to a brutal and random act of violence perpetrated by Brett
On film, The Boys is an unremittingly gritty tale that carries on the
torch of Australian social realist
cinema, something that has been
fluttering in the recent wake of musical comedy fancy that has filled
theatres and won
overseas notice (Muriel's Wedding, Strictly Ballroom, The
Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert).
The notion of making a screen version of The Boys had been marinating for
years during long lunch and drinking
sessions at the Green Park Hotel in
Darlinghurst between Wenham and the play's producer, Robert Connolly. Soon
the play's brief run, Connolly went to film school, Wenham went on
to get more film and TV experience and the idea eventually
The play was adapted by noted playwright Stephen Sewell with producer John
Maynard (Vigil, The Navigator,
Sweetie) teaming up with Connolly, Wenham,
cinematographer Tristan Milani and first-time feature director Rowan
As associate producer, Wenham says his job was to make sure "that none of
our visions were ruined anywhere
along the way". The Boys is Wenham's
baby, his artistically uncompromised little baby.
"We had 100 per cent control, so of what's up there on the screen there is
not one ounce of artistic compromise
at all from any of the team
involved," Wenham says. "We could have had the film done years ago if we'd
gone with an
established director, an established director of photography,
an established editor. We didn't. We all had experience working
other before. It's a wonderful way to work because it was like a shorthand
process. We knew how we operated."
It took Wenham an inordinate amount of time to help turn The Boys into a
film. He was motivated by one key
"The thing that drove me, the thing that kept me going was just the
audience reaction from that one production
in Sydney," he says. "I've done
quite a bit of stage work (Cosi, Hamlet, The Tempest), but never before
have I been
involved in a stage production where a large majority of the
audience would actually stay behind after the play to talk
"It obviously tapped into something that's sort of unfathomable, in a way.
I actually can't explain it."
Amazing, maybe, but limited. The Boys was not exactly the type of project
that screamed to be filmed. Nor
was it the type of proposal that had
investors kneecapping each other just to be first in line with their
The Boys ran in Sydney for about six weeks. It did not make it to
Melbourne. The film's $2.2 million budget
came from a "jigsaw" of sources,
including SBS Independent, the NSW Film and Television Office, the AFC and
Any film based on a stage play has the inevitable hurdle of not looking
like a photographed stage play. The
Boys avoids that by adopting an almost
voyeuristic visual style.
"When we were thinking about how we'd shoot it, we decided very early on
that we would shoot it on location,"
Wenham says. "We searched for a house
that would allow the best possible perspectives for the camera. The house
character within the film, and Rowan was always conscious of making
the house alive."
When talking about the house in the film, Wenham is on firm ground. Ask
him to articulate what it is about
the dark nature of the story that
captivated him so, and he becomes a tad tongue-tied.
So a suggestion. While not seeking to excuse what Brett and his brothers
eventually do in the film, The Boys
does present the complex background of
mounting frustrations that results in an act of violence that is as random
it is inevitable.
"You can write all that down and attribute it to me because it's quite
correct," Wenham says.
But seriously ...
"We didn't want to explain. Within the film, we seek to understand why
events like this occur," he says.
"The reasons are extremely complex, as is the protagonist, Brett. He's a
man who has an enormous emotional
range and is passionate. He's a man
capable of wonderful love on one hand, and horrendous violence on the
and you never quite know when that's going to occur."
Whether producing The Boys helps his career is not the point, Wenham
insists. "I never went into it with
the prime motivation of 'Ah gee, this
could lead to whatever'. My motivation was that I was driven by the desire
tell this story, to play this character."
Which is just as well. It's a fickle business, though you don't have to
tell Wenham that.
He has enjoyed solid success, winning an AFI award for best actor in 1997
for his work in the mini-series
Simone de Beauvoir's Babies. He had
notable roles in Cosi and Dark City. However, he also has a lead role in
film A Little Bit Of Soul, directed by Peter Duncan, who made
the multi-award winning comedy Children Of The Revolution.
Soul was not a
success. It was, by any measure, a commercial and critical clunker. And it
"It obviously distressed Peter to the maximum," Wenham says. "Peter owned
that film. I was surprised by the
vehemence of a lot of the criticism.
Sure, it's not a great film, it's flawed, but it didn't deserve the
that it got in some quarters. I saw The Big Lebowski on
the weekend and I think it's a mess of a film, an absolute mess.
read about that. If Peter Duncan was the Coen brothers, I wonder if the
criticism would have been the same."
He pauses again, as his fingers strangle the life out of a sugar sachet.
"I find it strange, I can't ...
you know, I'm ... phew ... look, if you
believe the good that people write, you have to believe the bad as well, I
a believer in that philosophy."
Critics aren't the worst of it, he says. Wenham still considers himself a
newcomer to TV and film, and some
of the characters on the landscape scare
"I don't think there are too many downsides to the business. I suppose the
bureaucracy of the film industry
is frustrating, the grey or black suit
brigade that pulls the purse strings. I think in a lot of situations the
people are pulling those strings. They give you script advice like
'you come back with a second draft with these amendments,
then you might
get a little bit more money from us'. You've got to be kidding.
"It's also frustrating how the words business and product are used as
opposed to creation. You know, that
sounds a little bit wanky, but it
should be the culture of cinema as opposed to the culture of business."
It doesn't seem to be in Wenham's nature to carp for long. He has a nice
place in Rushcutters Bay, he's about
to appear in the ABC series
Seachange, he's produced a film. He's doing fine.
"It's good, you know. Actors always complain. They complain when there's
no work, they complain when they're
too busy. Actors are a shocking lot.
Maybe that's a collective noun for a group of actors. A shock of actors,
to a whinge of writers. Oh, I heard a beauty the other day for
directors. A lack of directors!" He laughs.
He's not complaining.
* The Boys is on general release.
Too close for comfort.
The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Australia)
May 14, 1998
Byline: FISCHER P
AUSTRALIAN actor David Wenham, an established member of Melbourne's frenetic theatre scene, seems to have been
rediscovered through his meticulously chilling performance in new film The Boys.
Wenham originated the role of a jail inmate on the edge _ one that won him enormous acclaim initially in the
He plays Brett Sprague, who was recently released from prison after serving a sentence for assault with a deadly
weapon and grievous bodily harm.
On his way home, bringing with him a coffee table he made behind bars, he returns with his younger brother Stevie
(Anthony Hayes) to the family suburban house where he grew up with a third brother, Glenn (John Polson). Also living in the
house is Sandra (Lynette Curran), mother of the three, and her current lover George (Pete Smith), a Maori who is contemptuously
referred to as Abo by the boys.
Brett is both charming and quite psychopathic and was imprisoned for an attack on the owner of a liquor store.
He's on parole and forbidden to return to the scene of his crime, yet, in true menacing style, that's precisely
what he does. It's clear that he's heading for major trouble and is likely to drag his brothers down with him.
A key character is Brett's girlfriend Michelle (Toni Collette), who has waited for him. She's greeted with a
mixture of suspicion, hatred and lust.
Brett's impotence provokes Michelle's furious accusation that he indulged in homosexual sex while he was in
prison, resulting in one of the film's major confrontations.
Brett is also angered by the fact that while he's been away, someone has stolen his stash from a padlocked locker
in his bedroom. He suspects various members of his family, and as he gets drunker and more stoned, his rage mounts.
It's often been said that both the stage and screen adaptations of this story, was loosely based on the Anita
Cobby killers. Not true, says Wenham.
"The play was written nine years ago at a workshop at a Playwrights' Conference in Canberra, then a year later
there was a workshop that I was involved with for the Griffin Theatre Company, then a year after that, we went into production.
"By the time we'd gone into production, it wasn't too far removed from that particular case, so people immediately
assumed that that's what the play was about.''
Since the success of the play, Wenham has always believed that there was a film waiting to emerge, and so has
stuck with this project through it's metamorphosis from stage to screen, right from the outset, to the point where he now
serves as the film's associate producer.
"That was always going to happen, because I was always convinced that it would make a great film, as long as
we added a certain cinematic depth to the material, which I believe we have,'' he says.
WENHAM DOES VENOM
It's often been said that both the stage and screen versions of The Boys
were loosely based on the infamous
Anita Cobby murder. Not true, David
Wenham tells PAUL FISCHER.
"The play was written nine years ago as a workshop at a Playwrights'
Conference in Canberra, then a year
later there was a workshop that I was
involved with for the Griffin Theatre Company, then a year after that, we
into production. By the time we'd gone into production, it wasn't too
far removed from that particular case, so people
IMMEDIATELY assumed that
that's what the play was about." Wenham adds that the play was written "in
response to a series
of crimes that occurred all around Australia over a
long period of time. In fact it was more based on a family that lived
door to the playwright in the outer suburbs of Perth. So I guess it was
either fortunate or unfortunate that the
Cobby thing happened, and it's
fine, but when we did the stage production, it was soon after that
and the media circus was huge, so they couldn't see past
"I've come across many people like Brett."
Ultimately, however, the role of the unnervingly venomous Brett was a
defining moment in the life and career
of David Wenham, and a role that
immediately brought some exciting new challenges for the young actor. "I
that he was an extremely complex individual, and the danger with
playing something like this is to portray him as two-dimensional
which I don't think is the case. The depths within the character are far
greater than just that, and the reasons
behind some of the events that
unfold in the story are extremely complicated. His emotional range is
greater than the average person, which I suppose is what
makes him a fascinating individual.
"He is extremely charismatic, and capable, on the one hand of intense
love, and on the other hand, of the
most tremendous violence. So it's the
balance between the two extremes within the individual that makes him
Wenham found it easy to identify with this character. "I've
come across many people like Brett."
Since the success of the play, Wenham has always believed that there was a
film waiting to emerge, and stuck
with the project through it's
metamorphosis from stage to screen, to the point where he now serves as
the film's associate
producer. "That was always going to happen, because I
was always convinced that it would make a great film, as long as
a certain cinematic depth to the material, which I believe we have."
"The film was never about THE CRIME, but the events leading up to it."
The film explores various aspects of family behaviour, of the fragmented
family unit, torn asunder over the
years. In some ways, Wenham argues,
Brett retains an idealised sense of family duty, which ultimately has
"I suppose that everything that he does is an attempt
to bring this family together as a unit, and in an attempt to create
he actually goes through a method of creating chaos." Though the
film explores what it is that can lead to atrocious violence,
one of the
strengths of the film, is that the ultimate violent act perpetuated by the
brothers is never shown on screen,
nor was there ever a temptation to do
so. "The film was never about THE CRIME, but the events leading up to it.
a search, on our part, for understanding. We don't come up with any
Despite Wenham playing such a dark and chilling character, there's no
danger of the actor being typecast;
after he all, he recently played a
nerdy scientist in Peter Duncan's A Little Bit of Soul. Wenham is riding
first co-starring opposite Sigrid Thornton in the new ABC tv
series, Sea Change, which he describes "as an awful lot of
fun". Next it's
off to Hawaii, to work with Peter O'Toole in the new Paul Cox film.
DAVID WENHAM; 'In this job you can't plot a career'
The Advertiser (Adelaide, Australia)
June 22, 2002
WHEN David Wenham began production on his first film, Molokai, in 1998, he had become one of the best-known
faces on Australian television, with the hit SeaChange.
If he'd been relying on Molokai to start building his film career, he'd have had a long wait.
Director Paul Cox's film, the story of remarkable Belgian priest Father Damien,
who worked on the leper
colony on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, is only now on the local scene.
"It's a relief that it's finally got a release in Australia,'' Wenham says.
"It means Paul Cox and myself can go on with our daily life and not answer that
question that pops up
every week or so: 'When's that film about the Belgian priest going to be released?' ''
The 36-year-old actor says it's ironic that a film about a man who dedicated his life to acts of altruism
and generosity was held up basically over money.
There are two versions of the film. "The Belgian producers tried to sack Paul three times through the production,''
Wenham says. "They succeeded in getting him off the film for post-production because they wanted a totally different
type of film -
something sugar-coated and saccharin-sweet, which is not the way Paul approaches these projects.
"Then, with absolutely no experience, they cut the film themselves and released it. It was rather diabolical.
"When Paul succeeded in a landmark court case in Belgium to get the film back, he found they'd cut the negative
and there are some parts of the film that can never be retrieved.''
Wenham and Cox took the film back to Molokai 18 months ago and screened it:
"They are so proud of it and consider it their film, which it is. Their story,
their history. It's very,
Wenham is satisfied with SeaChange, too, and the films that have moved his career into the stardom arena.
"SeaChange changed my career domestically,'' he says. It changed him into a sex symbol: "That's what television
does; it gives you a profile, an enormous profile. That was great. I loved being a part of it.''
The film that opened international doors for Wenham was The Boys. "I was one of
its producers and it was
very critically successful in many countries,'' he says.
The big surprise was The Bank, with its blast at the ruthless activities in the
banking system. "It was
at a time of enormous anti-bank sentiment,'' Wenham explains.
"We were quite fortuitous that it was released when there was such a feeling in the community.''
Wenham scored a role in the The Lord of the Rings blockbuster trilogy but won't
know how large his role
is in The Twin Towers, until November when it's due out.
Like most actors, Wenham is philosophical about his future. "I'd like to spend half my time here and half
overseas,'' he says.
"But in this profession, you're at the whim of a phone call. You can't really
plot a career in a way.
You just have to wait and see how it goes.''
* Molokai is at Palace Nova Eastend Cinemas.
HIS STORY SO FAR
Born: September 21, 1965, in Marrickville, New South Wales.
Career: First appearance on TV in G.P. (1988). First film Molokai (1999). Received Australian Film Institute
best actor nominations for The Boys (1999), Better than Sex (2000) and The Bank (2001). Won AFI best TV actor for Simone De
Beauvoir's Babies (1997) and nominated for best actor for SeaChange (1998).
Personal: Unmarried, five sisters, one brother. Adam Cullen's portrait of him won the 2000 Archibald Prize.
In March, he signed up as an Ancient Forest Guardian, joining Sam Neill and Toni Collette.
Burying Diver Dan
Sydney Morning Herald
June 11 2002
Far from wallowing in TV glory, David Wenham has instead embraced a film career as unusual as it is challenging,
writes Sue Williams.
You have to hand it to the boy. After 14 plays, 15 movies and headlining in a television drama that gripped
the nation, David Wenham could well have made the decision to sit back and wait for the glamour roles to pour in.
Instead, he headed out to one of the most godforsaken places on Earth, a remote island to which leprosy sufferers
were traditionally banished to die, learned to speak with a Flemish accent said to be among the toughest to master and then
played a whiskery Belgian priest.
Glamorous? Never. Sexy? Hardly. Fun? Only if your idea of a good time is sitting on a patch of land, traversable
only by foot, in the middle of shark-infested seas, among a community made up of elderly lepers, their descendants and their
nurses, who view every newcomer with suspicion.
But Wenham, 36, not only loved the experience; he'd head back there in a shot.
"It was the most incredible opportunity," he said, cheerfully. "It was a very emotional experience, an amazing
The result, the Paul Cox film Molokai: The Story Of Father Damien, is nothing less than a miracle of modern
Its true-life tale was guarded jealously by its tellers, it was set on the most difficult terrain imaginable,
and it came complete with a huge bust-up, halfway through, between Cox and the Belgian producers who each had dramatically
different visions of the end product.
And right in the middle sat Wenham, an actor who, at times, must have wondered what the hell he'd gotten into.
Not that he'd ever say so, of course he's far too polite. And then there was the chance to play Father Damien, someone revered
in the goodness stakes alongside Mother Teresa and Gandhi, for volunteering to go over to the leper colony on the Hawaiian
island of Kalaupapa in 1872 and embracing its desperate inhabitants, at the same time fighting for medical supplies, shelter
and their rights. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Hopefully.
"Yes, it was an amazing experience," Wenham said. "We shot exactly where the story was set on the island,
right among the community to whom this all happened over 100 years ago. Quite a few people who appeared in the film actually
still live there.
"At first, the community was suspicious of us and didn't want to be involved. Eventually, they trusted Paul
Cox and I enough, and offered to put themselves on screen. So a lot of the patients you see in the film still suffer from
the disease. Incredible."
Wenham read up copiously on Father Damien and on leprosy now called Hansen's disease before he went, to make
sure he'd be as ready as possible. No-one would expect any less of the star of SeaChange, The Boys, The Bank and Better Than
Sex than that he would rapidly carve out a name for himself worldwide.
"The difference with him as an actor," said Robert Connolly, who produced The Boys and directed The Bank,
"is that he's not only intuitive like a lot of actors, but he combines his craft with a rigorous intellect. He's not dissimilar
to Geoffrey Rush or Cate Blanchett in that.
"He's also very much into going for the interesting role rather than the starring role. His career has been
built on fantastic character roles, and he's constantly defying people's expectations. I'd never be surprised by anything
he does, whether it's Father Damien or one of the leads in Lord Of The Rings."
Indeed, Wenham is likely to hit global celebrity paydirt with the release of the next two Rings sequels, where
he plays Faramir, the brother of the character played by Sean Bean. That's likely to make Hollywood sit up and take notice
in the same way that Britain has over the past couple of years.
"He'll definitely become even more well known after that," Connolly said. "It's a huge role. He'll have such
an interesting career, and one that's long term, never flavour of the month. He's earning himself a very solid reputation."
As far as his standing goes in the UK, Wenham's movie Dust, in which he plays an Oklahoma cowboy in Macedonia
alongside Joseph Fiennes, is screening there at the moment to critical acclaim, and he's also just finished a film directed
by Gillies (Hideous Kinky) MacKinnon. From here on in, it might be difficult to keep him in Australia.
Wenham, however, is having nothing of such talk. Although he's constantly receiving scripts these days, he
still chose to return to Melbourne recently to perform in the play True West. He has little doubt that, unless the roles he's
offered capture his imagination totally, he'll turn them down every time in favour of the smaller gig back home.
"I have representation in the US and one day I'll go over there and spent a little bit of time in LA," he
said, during a break between stage performances.
"But I'm very realistic in my ambition. As I get older, the ambition diminishes. The less ambitious I become,
the more interesting work I find comes my way. I've always found that the harder you try and seek something out, the further
it gets away from you."
While he's always happiest when he's working, Wenham, the youngest of seven children who was disruptive at
his inner-west-Sydney school until he discovered acting, said he was also pretty content sitting around in coffee shops reading
newspapers, or going for walks near his home in Sydney's eastern suburbs with long-time girlfriend, actor and yoga teacher
Balance is what it's all about, and that's a quality he seems to possess in spades.
"Oh well, I'm lucky that I really love what I do," he said. "I've never worked out what my alternative career
could be, so it's just as well this is going OK. I just consider myself extremely lucky to do something I love, and being
able to travel while I do it as well."
Travel to places like Kalaupapa is perhaps not necessarily what he had in mind at the start of his career,
but he was still in d**n fine company. Along with Cox (Man of Flowers, Innocence) was a cast that included Derek Jacobi, Peter
O'Toole, Sam Neill, Leo McKern and Kris Kristoffersen.
In addition, there was the emotional seesaw of being surrounded by people ravaged by a disease that in most
places today can be treated with a drug that costs about $20 and the nurses who came over to help them.
"That wasn't an easy experience, but it made the project an extremely rewarding one," he said.
"It was always important to highlight what these people went through, which was the basis of Paul's [Cox]
problem with the producers. They wanted a more saccharine version of events; he was adamant he wanted realism."
That realism, for Cox, extended to the desire to cast a Belgian actor in the lead role, but he simply couldn't
find anyone who fitted the bill. In the end, Wenham's name was suggested, ironically enough, by an agent in London. Cox found
himself flying back to Australia to audition a fellow countryman he'd never met.
That decision has paid off handsomely. At a preview of the film for the Belgian press, there were congratulations
all around that their country had managed to produce such a fine lead actor they had no doubt such a perfect Flemish accent
came from a bona fide Belgian.
As for the future, Wenham doesn't like to look too far forward. Others, however, have far less compunction.
Connolly said he, Wenham and The Boys director Rowan Woods had made a pact when they started shooting that movie: between
them, they'd make a trilogy, taking turns to direct.
Next time, it's Wenham's turn. "We said we'd help each other out, directing, producing and acting," Connolly
said. "I know he's got aspirations there. And I've no doubt he'll be just as successful in that area, as he is as an actor."
No doubt. Molokai: The Story Of Father Damien will be released on June 20.
Act of faith
June 14 2002
Paul Cox struggled to get his inspirational film Molokai: The Story of
Father Damien to the screen, writes
In 1873, a Belgian priest called Father Damien volunteered for service on
a Hawaiian island where leprosy
sufferers, or anyone remotely suspected of
having leprosy, were exiled. With its sheer cliffs and treacherous waters,
was no escape from Molokai. Those sent were expected to die there,
and conditions were atrocious. Father Damien was supposed
to stay only for
a few months but spent 16 years working to improve the lot of the local
community. He eventually died
of leprosy, one of the few to contract the
disease while on the island.
In 1998, Australian film director Paul Cox arrived on Molokai to shoot a
film about Father Damien. The funding
for Molokai: The Story of Father
Damien had been organised by a Belgian producer and the cast was
O'Toole, Kris Kristofferson, Sam Neill and Derek Jacobi
plus Australian talent including Chris Haywood, Aden Young and
All was not well, however. Over the course of filming, Cox was fired and
rehired by the film's producers.
Then two versions of the film were edited
- the director's cut and the producer's version - and Cox took legal
He was eventually asked to re-edit the film, and in September
1999, the director's cut premiered at the Toronto Film Festival.
Continuing tension about which edit would be distributed internationally
meant Australian audiences have
had to wait until now to see the film.
Father Damien is portrayed, complete with convincing Belgian accent, by
Wenham, who first caught the public eye on TV as SeaChange's Diver
Dan and on film in The Boys, Better Than Sex and The
On location for Molokai, he says, it was clear there were problems: "You
couldn't escape the fact that there was
tension between different
But his feelings about the dispute are not all negative. "In a bizarre way
I think it helped the film,
because it did feel as though we were forever
trying to fight against the powers that be, which is what, basically, the
that I played did. He was forever fighting against the hierarchy
of the church."
Wenham spent about four months shooting on Molokai, a remote and
"Filming there you can sense the history," he says. "It's so beautiful but
you get off the little plane at
the settlement and the first thing you're
confronted with is masses of graves."
Wenham did his own research into the disease when he was offered the role
and corrected his widely shared
misconceptions. Leprosy has been treatable
since the 1940s and the risk of catching it from visiting the island was
Though now free to leave, many of Molokai's disfigured "patients" (the
term they prefer to "lepers") have
chosen to stay on the island that has
become home. The local community granted Cox permission to shoot at their
of Kalaupapa but had no plans to participate.
"They were very suspicious of a film coming in to make a story of their
hero," says Wenham.
During their time on Molokai, Cox and Wenham lived at Kalaupapa, drinking
and chatting with its residents
at Elaine's Place, a shed that serves as
the settlement's bar. Local suspicion was replaced by acceptance, which
lead to involvement. About 50 patients feature in the film and
it was partly as a result of their protests that Cox was
director after he was sacked.
Compared with the average film shoot, conditions were tough, with little
of the usual infrastructure. On
top of producer problems, it was a
physically demanding project.
"Some of the sets were an hour away from where Paul and I were staying in
the settlement," recalls Wenham.
"More often than not the person who was
supposed to take me to the set would either forget or not turn up. After
14-hour days, I'd walk back in the dark along dirt tracks. But
that was a small thing in the multitude of things we had
And, of course, it was small potatoes compared with the real Father
Damien's lot. Wenham doesn't think
he could have emulated his character in
"You'd love to think you could do something like that but I realise my
limits," he says.
In 1995, Pope John Paul II granted Father Damien the second step before
sainthood - he is now Blessed Damien.
During the making of Molokai, Wenham
and Cox discussed the fact that the Belgian priest needed one more
after his death, to become a fully fledged saint.
"Paul always said once the film gets released in Australia, that'll be
says Wenham. "That will be his final miracle."
Now it's up to the Pope.
THE PETROL IN HIS ENGINE
Australian Catholics Magazine, Autumn 1999
By Michael McGirr
David Wenham has played roles as different as Diver Dan and Damien of
Molokai. Michael McGirr spoke to him
about the convictions which are
important to him.
Late last year, David Wenham was in New Zealand promoting the release of
The Boys, a film in which he plays
the role of a prisoner on parole. He
was surprised that he was introduced on radio and elsewhere as one of
sexiest men. He has been saddled with the status of a sex
symbol since the runaway success of the ABC series SeaChange
in which he
plays the likeable, laconic Diver Dan. But there is a lot more to David
Wenham than meets the eye.
Wenham is also the star of a new feature film, soon to be released in
Australia, called Molokai. He leads
a cast which includes Peter O’Toole,
Leo McKern, Derek Jacobi, Sam Neil, Chris Heywood and Aidan Young.
The film tells the story of Fr Damien of Molokai. In 1866, 140 people
suffering leprosy were banished to
the inhospitable and inaccessible
island of Molokai, part of the Hawaiian group, for no greater crime than
They were given farming implements and left to fend for
themselves. The authorities believed that isolation would stop
of the disease. They were wrong.
As more and more people with the disease were dumped on Molokai, Fr Damien
de Veuster, a Belgian priest,
volunteered to go to live and work with
them. He knew that once he set foot on Molokai, he would have to remain
from the rest of the world for the remainder of his life. He
set about improving both the morale and the living conditions
outcasts. Inevitably, he caught the disease himself and died on Molokai in
April 1889, aged 49.
David Wenham says of his character, Fr Damien, that he was ‘a very simple
man who achieved extraordinary
things’ and that ‘he was a gentle man with
a ferocious temper’. Wenham spent four months on Molokai shooting
film. He was struck by the severe geography of the location, which has the
tallest sea-cliffs in the world and fierce
winds. But the greatest
influence on his performance was the friendships he developed among the
fifty or so patients
who still live in the leprosarium at Kalaupapa, on
the island. Among them was an elderly man called Kenso. Kenso had known
friend and successor, Joseph Dutton.
‘These patients had decided to stay there because they have lived their
whole lives there’, explains
Wenham worked a gruelling schedule to make the film.
‘Technically it was difficult. I was an Australian actor in Hawaii to play
the Belgian national hero
who spoke with a Flemish accent and sang the
Mass in Latin. On an emotional level, it was draining. It was a role for
I really had to lay myself on the line. I had to make myself
vulnerable to a huge extent.’
The only day off in the week for the actors was Sunday. Wenham made a
point of getting up early each Sunday
to attend a Mass which was
celebrated at 7am by a visiting priest at Kalaupapa.
‘All the patients would go to the church. Their singing was just
fantastic. Kenso was known as the
“little bishop” because he had served on
the altar for years. He was in his 80s. Sadly, he died while we were
‘It was a wonderful experience on a Sunday to share the Mass with those
people. It was a great communal
event. It really was a sharing. The sign
of peace was exchanged by people without hands and fingers. So we all
around and looked at each other and waved. I think if every church
had a bit of that, they would be jam-packed. What happens
in church has
just got to be real and true and honest.’
David went to school at Christian Brothers’ High School at Lewisham in
‘I spent a lot of time on the balcony outside a lot of classrooms. And I
had sore hands on many occasions’,
Some of David’s fondest memories of school involve the style of religious
education he received.
‘My favourite RE classes were with one brother, Br Loth, who was also a
chaplain at Long Bay jail.
He got us to write letters to the prisoners.
The prisoners wrote back to us.’
Ironically, in earlier days, Br John Loth also taught the Australian
actor, Michael Caton. In the mid-eighties,
he was teaching Years 7, 8, 9,
10 and 11 during the week and did prison chaplaincy on the weekend.
‘My approach was to try and make faith part of the boys’ life and being
rather than just intellectual
ideas’, Br John explains. ‘I tried to make
it personal and foster a personal relationship with God. I think
were very responsive.’
David would agree. His parents are actively involved in the parish at St
Brigid’s, Marrickville, where
they help run a senior citizens group.
‘When I got the part of Damien, the first thing I did was to ring them up
and ask if they’d heard
of him. They knew all about him and spoke so
warmly of him. Faith has an enormous influence on them. In fact, I would
that religion is probably the most important thing in their lives.’
David is currently best known for his role as Diver Dan in SeaChange. He
describes Pearl Bay, the imaginary
town in which the series is set, as a
‘very spiritual place’. He explains this is partly because the show has
anti-materialistic theme. The main storyline is about a family which has
given up an affluent city lifestyle for
a more gentle life on the coast.
He also believes that the spirituality of the show comes from the fact
that the characters
in it have a genuine ‘core.’ He gives as an example,
Kev, a straightforward, even simple, bloke, and his son
Trev, who often
have a brief exchange at the end of an episode. On one such occasion, Kev
asks Trev if dreams come true.
Kev thinks for a minute and then says that
he’s sitting on the beach with his son, throwing stones into the water.
he reckons dreams do come true.
Why is there no priest in Pearl Bay?
‘There definitely is a priest in Pearl Bay’, says David. ‘He just happens
not to be present
on the screen.’
David was deeply affected by the spirituality of Damien of Molokai. ‘His
faith was the petrol in his
engine’, he says, emphatically.
‘Paul Cox, the director, told me that there were very few shows around
that actually inspire people.
We tend to revere the Schwarzenegger and
Chuck Norris characters. But here was a man who was a true hero. He was
He put himself aside totally. Totally. He was 33 when he came
to Molokai, the same age I am now. I’d love to be like
Does his own faith make a difference to David Wenham?
‘When I go to church I need to experience reassurance, inspiration and
enlightenment. It’s great
if that happens.
‘Belief in God makes a huge difference to how you see yourself and the
world. It changes things totally
when you know there is a life hereafter.’