Interview: Daniel Henshall (Snowtown)

Interview – Daniel Henshall (Snowtown). By Simon Miraudo.

Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown tells the story of Australia’s most notorious serial killer, John Bunting, who in the early 1990s infiltrated the lives of some disenfranchised suburbanites and perpetrated some of the most horrific murders in history. The controversial film divided audiences while in cinemas, with reports of walkouts across the country. Still, it became one of the highest grossing local features of the year and garnered some rave reviews, specifically for chilling lead actor Daniel Henshall. We spoke to Henshall about the arduous task of playing such an infamous character, being recognised on the street as John Bunting, and whether it’s affected his personal relationships.

Check out our review here, as well as our interview with director Justin Kurzel.

SM: Tell me how you got involved in Snowtown.

DH: I’m sure you’ve heard about the other guys getting involved off the street, but it’s pretty traditional, my getting cast in the film. I went down to Sydney, had two or three auditions and got the part.

SM: I understand you couldn’t meet with John [Bunting], to mimic has cadence and such. How do you get into a character like that? Do you try and do as much research as you possible, or do you go in fresh?

DH: Yeah, look we didn’t want to meet John. Personally, I didn’t want to have anything to do with the man. And of course, like you just said, for legal reasons it would have been a massive difficulty. But Justin [Kurzel] from the outset was very much about the relationships in the film, and making them as authentic as possible. In the film, the violence comes out of a domesticity; it comes out of banality and it comes out of a normality, and that’s what makes it so terrifying. What we had to create was an absolute authentic relationship between John and Jamie, John and Elizabeth, John and Robert. You know? Getting in the headspace was more about learning to communicate as a father figure, as a mentor, as someone who thought they had integrity and love, and whose violence comes out of disappointment and hurt and pain. That’s the way I looked at it anyway.

SM: Interesting.

DH: Everything we heard about John, from the people we met in the community – I mean, I spent three or four months out there; I did a lot of reading of Debbie Marshall’s book to begin with, and it was just immersing myself in the community. Because we cast from the community, I met over 700 people, and you’d meet people that were 5th degree separation from John, or people that knew of him, or people that knew him before he went into prison, or people that had just come out of prison with him, and you got this wonderful picture. ‘He was such a normal, average human being; a nice guy who would offer to look after your kids after work, or fix your car, or cook your dinner’. A lot of people had no idea of what he was doing.

SM: To that effect, was there a concern you had at any point about making him seem too human?

DH: No, because, he was. That’s how he fooled them. I mean, it’s an interpretation, but to tell the story of our interpretation, it had to be convincing, and you had to have the audience believe that a guy like this could come into a community and take them on his back, and say ‘I’m going to take you out of this hellhole and bring you through’; like a knight in shining armour. There had to be a humane, human element to him that you could relate to. That’s the most terrifying thing; that that’s how it happened. He came in and offered so many things. No one saw it coming.

SM: Absolutely. Were there any performances or films that you used as inspirations, or at least rough inspirations?

DH: Yeah, I watched a few films from the Dardenne brothers; Belgian filmmakers. And a film called Ballast by an American filmmaker, where the director had cast first-timers and gone for a very naturalistic, very simple and raw approach. That was for the atmosphere of the performance. Yeah, I didn’t really go watch Raging Bull, or any psycho-killer films, or any massive performances which have inspired me in the past. Working from within the community out, basically finding out how this guy would operate in the community; getting to know everybody in the film really well.

SM: I spoke to Justin earlier in the year, and it was just before the film went to Cannes. It hadn’t really screened yet, and we didn’t really know what the audience reaction to the film would be. I’m curious: have you sat in with an audience and what is that experience like?

DH: Yeah, it depends. You can feel the audience move at certain points in the film. They’re absolutely with it the whole way; they’re engrossed and that’s a wonderful thing that Justin and [cinematographer] Adam [Arkapaw] have achieved. It sucks you in and doesn’t let you out until the end. People are absolutely glued to their seat, and some people do find it too hard to handle. Most screenings that I’ve been in, one or two people leave at some point. A lot of people come back in who leave at certain points.

SM: Is that a sign that you’ve done something right? Obviously you want people to sit through the whole thing, but if some people are walking out…?

DH: Yeah, look, it’s an extremely hard sit. When I get a response from people who congratulate us that it hasn’t been sanitised, and it hasn’t been disrespectful, and it’s done with as much sensitivity as possible: that excites me, when people say that, because that’s the effect. We spent so much effort. We didn’t sanitise, but we didn’t push the audience away too much, in telling the truth of the story.

SM: I’m curious, have you been recognised on the street at all, and what kind of reaction do you get from people?

DH: I get a mixed reaction.

SM: (Laughs)

DH: A couple of times people have stopped and just stared, and said, ‘You scared the s*** out of me’, and walked off. People come up and say, ‘You look like that actor who was in this film.’ And I say, ‘What film?’ ‘Snowtown.’ ‘That was me.’ ‘Oh wow, that was a great film. Fantastic. An extremely hard watch, but a film that was done so respectfully, so well’. Yeah, it’s a mixed reaction.

SM: Well I hope it hasn’t affected any of your personal relationships, playing John Bunting.

DH: No, no, all my friends are extremely proud.

SM: Can you tell me what’s coming up next for you? I understand you’re in the new Working Dog film [Any Questions for Ben].

DH: Yeah, that comes out on Australia Day next year, and I just did a small role in an Aussie film called Not Suitable for Children, with Ryan Kwanten and Sarah Snook. That’s it at the moment. Going to the London Film Festival in October. That’s it for now.

Snowtown arrives on DVD and Blu-ray September 21, 2011.

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