Interview: David Wenham (Oranges and Sunshine, Lord of the Rings)

Interview: David Wenham. By Simon Miraudo.

Three-time AFI award winner David Wenham is one of Australia’s most beloved actors. He’s starred in such acclaimed Aussie films as The Boys, Gettin’ Square and The Proposition, as well as the international hits 300 and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In his latest picture, Jim Loach’s Oranges and Sunshine, he appears opposite Emily Watson and Hugo Weaving as a man who, in his youth, was taken away from his parents in the U.K. and forced to relocate to Australia. More than 100,000 children were sent abroad in this ‘home children’ scheme, and many were subjected to abuse in the various institutions where they had no choice but to stay. I spoke to Wenham – who is currently in Busselton for the CinefestOz Film Festival – about Oranges and Sunshine, being recognised on the street, his five favourite movies (including a Pixar fave and what he believes to be the best Australian flick) and playing Jerry Springer on the stage.

SM: Do you remember seeing any films or performances when you were younger that inspired you to get into acting? That kicked off the inspiration?

DW: When I was younger, I’ve got to be honest, I didn’t go to the cinema very often. It was a real treat. But what I did do, I was very fortunate in the fact that my parents knew I had an interest in acting, and they’d save up money and they’d actually take me to the theatre as a very young kid. So, my exposure was mainly to live performance. For me, there was a theatre company in Sydney called Nimrod at the time, which was one of our great theatre companies. And it was the performances on that stage that actually really opened my eyes to the possibility of what acting could be about.

SM: Nice one. So, your parents were encouraging? You didn’t have to “break” it to them that you wanted to be an actor?

DW: No, they were terrific actually. There was no history of the acting disease in our family, but even so they were extremely encouraging.

SM: Congrats on Oranges and Sunshine. It’s been one of the biggest Australian films of the year. I like talking to people once their movie has come out, because you’ve been able to get some feedback from audiences. How have you found people responding to this one?

DW: Extremely well. Extremely positively. The interesting thing about this film is people actually do want to talk about it. It seems to really really affect people, because it deals with an issue that, even though it was a major part of our history, very little people actually are aware of the extent of the program that the film delves into. So, I suppose people, first of all, they’re shocked and they’re moved and they want to engage in conversation to find out a little bit more about it.

SM: Do people often stop you in the street to talk to you about any of your films?

DW: Sometimes they do. Sometimes they do.

SM: Which film is the most commonly brought up?

DW: Oh look, it really depends. Constant ones are the bigger films like Lord of the Rings and 300. Australian films, Getting’ Square would have to be a constant stopper.

SM: Are you “flattered” that you’re still getting recognised for Gettin’ Square? Visually? [Here’s video of Wenham in Gettin’ Square.]

DW: What’s really pleasing is that some of the characters I’ve been able to play have stayed in people’s consciousness. I must say that is satisfying.

SM: You’re in town for CinefestOz. Do you often get to catch Australian movies?

DW: Not as many as I’d like. I don’t get to catch many; not just Australian movies but any movies, just due to time constraints. But to come to a festival like this, and to have the opportunity to be exposed and then to watch more films, namely Australian films in this case, it’s a terrific thing.

SM: Oranges and Sunshine is going to be eligible for the inaugural AACTA awards, which have replaced the AFIs. Do you have any thoughts on the new Australian Academy?

DW: I don’t know terribly much about the change, because I haven’t been involved in the changes because I’ve been all over the shop. From the little I know, I think it’s a really good idea. To have a real rethink and rebranding and relaunching of the recognition of the film industry; I think it’s all positive.

SM: You’ve got a really nice range of genres in your filmography. Obviously your adept at comedy and drama, but as you’ve said, you’ve got the fantastical epics like Lord of the Rings and 300 too. When you’re considering a movie, is there something specific that you’re looking for, either in the film, or in your character?

DW: I think any actor and director would probably say the same thing. The script has to work off the page. If it doesn’t, it’s like alchemy: you’re not going to turn it into gold. The script has to be good. For me, the character has to pique my interest in some particular way, and make me want to play that character. Sometimes though there might be a character I’m not completely convinced about, but the combination of the director and other cast may tip me over.

SM: I understand with Oranges and Sunshine, it was something of a case like that, where you weren’t sure about this specific character, so you went on a road trip to get into his head.

DW: That is partly true. The first time I read the script – look, I loved the script when I read it – but the character they suggested, to see if I’d be interested in, I couldn’t quite understand his motivations. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the character as such. It was only after I met the director in London and he talked about the person on whom this character was very loosely based, and I was intrigued. And then he set up a meeting for me, so I flew across to Perth and I spent time with this gentlemen and it was through those couple of days that I spent that I did manage to gain an understanding of who this person was and why he reacted the way he did. I found it a fascinating journey.

SM: Do you have a favourite character, or just a film you’re really proud to have as part of your legacy? Or, even independent of you being in it, just a film of yours that you really love?

DW: There’s a few for various reasons. Yeah, there’s a few. Lord of the Rings, obviously, is going to go down in the history books. But then in terms of Australian cinema, The Boys I’m extremely proud of. I think it’s a film that really will stand the test of time. I think Gettin’ Square is a really great character. Oranges and Sunshine is another film I’m proud of; I think it’s a really well constructed, well made film talking about a part of Australian history that wasn’t as well known as it now is, thanks to the film.

SM: I think with The Boys, it’s still influencing Australian movies, with Animal Kingdom last year.

DW: Without a doubt. And Snowtown; I think you can certainly see the influence of The Boys on that film.

SM: I understand you just completed a run of Chekhov’s The Seagull, and a few years ago you did Jerry Springer: The Opera. As you said, you were first drawn in to theatre more than cinema. Is that what keeps bringing you back to the stage?

DW: Sort of. I agreed to do both of those shows for different reasons. Jerry Springer: The Opera, that was an extraordinary thing to be a part of. To play Jerry Spring, but also to be involved in this extraordinary musical experience, whereby my character was the only one who didn’t sing, but all of Jerry’s dialogue was intrinsically linked to the music, so it was technically an extremely difficult piece for me to be involved in. But to be onstage in the biggest theatre in the Opera House in Sydney – I think it’s like two-and-a-half-thousand people a night – and with the extraordinary voices surrounding me, I found just the most uplifting experience. And doing The Seagull; Judy Davis is obviously one of our greatest actors ever. I thought it was an opportunity too good to pass up – to play opposite her – so that’s the major reason. There were other ones, but that was the major reason I said ‘yes’ to being involved in that production.

SM: I’d like to wrap up by asking you a question many have come to dread. Can you share with us your five favourite films? I understand if you don’t have an all-time list, but can you share with us some of your faves?

DW: They change all the time.

SM: Of course.

DW: The Last Picture Show is great.

SM: Peter Bogdanovich!

DW: Yeah. Wake in Fright I think is probably the best Australian film. Oh, God. What else? There’s two. God, what’s it called? Set in Venice; Donald Pleasence; Julie Christie. [Long Pause] That is one of my favourites.

SM: I’ll look that up and write the name when I publish the interview. [The film David is referring to is Don’t Look Now, which stars Donald Sutherland, rather than Donald Pleasence]

DW: What is it called? [Very long pause]. Made by the same guy who made Walkabout.

SM: Nicolas Roeg?

DW: Oh, what’s it called? That shows my memory. What else? Toy Story 3 I’ll put in at the moment.

SM: Nice one. Is there anything else you’ve seen recently? I know you said you haven’t been able to catch too much.

DW: I really did see a great film the other day. What was that? Rats in the Rank, there you go.

SM: (Laughs) Beautiful, thanks very much for that.

DW: They may not be my five favourite, but they’re five off the top of my head.

SM: That’s how those lists always work. That’s the best way to do them, I think. Before we wrap up, can you just tell us what you’re working on next?

DW: Well, I can’t really say, because I haven’t signed off on the contract yet. So I can’t really tell you!

SM: Exciting things, no doubt.

DW: Yeah, fun things.

CinefestOz runs until August 28, 2011. Oranges and Sunshine arrives on DVD and Blu-ray October 5, 2011.

One Response to “Interview: David Wenham (Oranges and Sunshine, Lord of the Rings)”

  1. Loooooooove David Wenham. Him as Diver Dan in Seachange is still my favourite 🙂

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