Words by Sarah Stopforth
Ewen Leslie stars in the critically acclaimed Australian film The Daughter, alongside Geoffrey Rush and Sam Neil. Ewen has been acting since the age of 12 and graduated WAAPA in 2000. Since then he has performed in a variety of roles; from being cast by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Riflemind, Hamlet, and Brick Pollitt in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on the stage and film roles in Jewboy, Dead Europe, Deadline Gallipoli, countless short films and television. Ewen was in Melbourne, downing his third coffee as we spoke.
SS: You’re originally from Perth and you studied at WAAPA, how do you think this helped you in your career?
EL: I grew up in Freo and I did a kids TV show there called “Ship To Shore”. It’s the cliché story. My mum saw an ad in the paper asking for kids to audition. I did an audition and they whittled us down to twenty kids and we did a week audition at WAAPA. My first memory of ECU and WAAPA was when I was 12 and doing these weeklong workshop/audition for this TV show. Out of that, when I graduated from high school, I got accepted into WAAPA, and was there for 3 years. On top of that, my dad was a lecturer at ECU in the media department. He lectured photography, so I’d also been there as a kid growing up. I used to sneak in and use the editing facilities on videos. ECU has had a big part of my growing up in WA. I suppose the good thing with WAAPA is that it’s a really prestigious school that’s kind of removed from the industry, so you get the opportunity to fall on your ass, which is good. At the end of the three years we came over here and did a showcase. I feel like all the stuff I did in Perth was a great foundation for setting up some remnants of a career.
SS: How did you find when you moved away from Perth, how did get to where you are now?
EL: I found it pretty tricky at first. I found Sydney pretty hard. I was 17 when I got into WAAPA, which I think now-days is pretty regular. I think they do tend to take people quite young, but back then they wouldn’t. I remember there was a lot of umming and ahhing about whether or not to take me on. I didn’t get in, then I got on the residents list, then someone pulled out somewhere. I didn’t fully understand it until I moved to Sydney at the age of 19, 20 and then I realised; I had gone through very young. The great thing about being so removed is that you get the opportunity to fall on your ass without industry watching you do it. The flipside is that they haven’t watched you for the three years, and it takes a bit of time to build up a name for yourself and for people to get to know you and see your work. The first thing I did over here, I mean I didn’t really work for about three and a half to four years. I did an episode of All Saints and stuff like that. I just started working at this pub called the Old Fitzroy Hotel and there was a theatre underneath where you could put on plays where you didn’t get paid for them. Friends of mine had written shows and were putting them on and I started doing co-op theatre. People coming along to see that was how I managed to start getting work, but it really did take me quite a bit of time to get the ball rolling.
SS: What was it like taking your original character in The Wild Duck and then reshaping him into Oliver for the screen adaptation?
EL: It was really different. I was a bit taken aback when I first read the film script. He’d totally re-written it. In the play, which is on at the Perth Festival, it’s a different cast but it still has some original people in it. In the play [Oliver] was sort of a middle class photographer who lived in an apartment in inner city Sydney. Then I got the script and he’s a working class forklift driver at a sawmill, in an isolated house in a small country town. Day one I was shooting the bar scenes with Paul Schneider and Simon [Stone] was giving me all this direction. He was saying “that’s wrong, that’s wrong, that’s wrong, basically it’s the opposite of what you did in the play,”. I thought going into it that I’d be a step ahead of everyone. I was like “okay, you’re working with all these amazing people, but don’t worry you’ve done the play, you’re ahead of them”. In fact I was back at square one, except I had all this baggage of the play. It was ultimately a good experience because the pressure of having to deliver some sort of definitive version of the play, it disappeared, because it was going to be an entirely new thing.
SS: Your role in The Daughter so well, and so intensely, I enjoyed it. What was the most challenging part of exploring this new character of Oliver?
EL: You know what’s funny? The scenes obviously in the back end of the film are really tricky. They are scenes that you do worry about, because they’re so emotional and they’re constantly on your mind, you’re like “right that scenes coming up, when are we doing that?”. You do go through the schedule and go, “when do I have to do those?”. We shot so quickly that you don’t have too much time to really reflect on how something went. There’s a big argument scene between Miranda [Otto] and I at a wedding and that was one of the first scenes that Miranda and I shot together. It’s all out of order and you just have to throw yourself into it and hope for the best. I think, what I did really like about the character is that he’s someone who doesn’t realise that he might be one of the leading characters. He’s completely unaware. All these characters around him are aware of these stakes, and are going “aw man when is the shit going to hit the fan, is the shit going to hit the fan?”. Oliver is completely unaware that this is happening. Then all of a sudden, he’s completely thrown into the eye of the storm. It’s a really jolting journey for him. It goes one-eighty for him really quickly. He’s not equipped to deal with a lot of the scenarios that he’s thrown into. Obviously he doesn’t make fantastic decisions and he doesn’t behave in the best way at times.
SS: What are your interests outside of acting?
EL: I’m a massive film buff. That’s not much different from acting, is it? I’m a huge film nerd, always have been. Growing up as a kid I remember seeing The Never Ending Story. I think I watched that 10 times when it was in the cinema. I’ve always been a huge fan of film. I guess I always kind of knew, even when I did Ship to Shore, I wasn’t that interested in acting. You have to keep doing things over and over and it’s actually pretty boring but I became really excited about the technical side of things, editing and the way it was being shot and the way it was coming together. Besides that, editing has been something that I really enjoy doing and hopefully I get to do more of.
SS: You’ve played such a huge variety of roles from theatre to film to television, you seem like you’ve done most of it. Do you know what you’d like to do next?
EL: I’m not sure. I’m really bad. I’ve been lucky in the sense that there have been a few theatre directors that have gone “is there anything you’d like to do?” and I’m really bad at coming up with a good answer for it. It’s just what I respond to when I read it. To be honest, The Wild Duck, I’d never even heard of that play, I’m embarrassed to say. It’s good, it’s turned into something that’s incredibly close to me, but it really came out of left field. I love Shakespeare, I’d love to do more Shakespeare. I have done a lot of it, I’ve been really lucky. Geoffrey Rush actually said to me during the shoot, he was talking about the play Coriolanus. He told me “you should do that, because you’re going to find you start missing these roles, you get older and all of a sudden you go, oh I actually can’t do that one anymore”. I’ve never been someone that’s gone “you’re not a real actor unless you do theatre” or “theatre is something you do when you can’t get a film”, I just want to do stuff that I like and work with people that I like. Sometimes it’s about the script and other times it’s about the people.