The Proposition is a grimy, violent film set in the deserts of Australia back in the 1880s. It’s basically about that nation’s Old West, and it’s a grim story of betrayal, bloodshed and badasses. Aussie director John Hillcoat takes Nick Cave’s script (yes, that Nick Cave) and evokes the dusty, gory past – greatly aided by a fantastic cast that includes Guy Pearce, Danny Huston, Emily Watson, John Hurt and David Wenham.
Wenham’s probably best know to readers of this site as Faramir, the ranger of Gondor whose dad sent him to die on the plains outside of Mordor in Lord of the Rings. The unlucky will know him as Carl, the monk from Van Helsing. He’s got a wide and varied filmography, which will soon include the Frank Miller adaptation 300.
Wenham was in LA, doing voice over for 300, when I talked to him on the phone about The Proposition, his career and the hazards of being a character actor.
Q: Your character in The Proposition is a real city slicker scumbag, isn’t he?
Wenham: [laughs] That’s one way of putting it!
Q: How would you put it?
Wenham: He controls virtually all the money in the town. It’s a relatively new community there, and because it’s relatively new and in a harsh environment, as you see in the film, he’s somebody who sees events that occurs in that community in very black and white terms and acts accordingly.
Q: Can you understand where he’s coming from?
Wenham: I can only understand him if I think about the environment back then, in the 1880s in the middle of the Australian desert, with all the harsh environmental elements at play there, and the fact that all these people from England and Ireland and wherever happened to have come to this part of the world. They were essentially aliens, and they were fighting against this landscape, so I can understand that there was lawlessness so he had to put in place a system that was black and white purely for survival. From that point of view, I can understand him.
But through today’s eyes and today’s social conscience and the morality of today, nah, he obviously comes across as a heartless son of a bitch.
Q: Forgive my American ignorance, but what’s the modern Australian relationship with that time period? It’s the beginning of the nation but it’s also filled with racism and brutality.
Wenham: We’re a country that’s only 200 years old, and the film’s set in 1880, so it’s relatively early in Australian development. Especially out there, people were laws unto themselves. We did have, as you do in this country here, outlaws. Our film history is littered with those, the most famous being a guy called Ned Kelly, who Heath Ledger played not long ago.
Q: In America our outlaws and their time period, the Old West, are heavily mythologized. Is it the same in Australia? Do kids grow up playing games set in that period?
Wenham: Not as much. Strangely enough, although there were a lot of outlaws in that period of our history only a few have made their way into the Australian story. As I said, the most famous is Ned Kelly. It’s strange that we revere someone like that – he was a really nasty character; he was violent, he was a criminal. But for some strange reason he’s grown into our folklore.
Q: What was the shoot like? Everything looks so authentic.
Wenham: What’s great about it, in terms of pure authenticity, is that we shot at a place called Wyndham. The time that I was there the daily temperature each day hovered around 40 degrees Celsius. I don’t know what that is in Fahrenheit, but it’s well and truly above a hundred. Well and truly. You could let the heat dictate how you would act and react in those circumstances.
Something strange for me, and I come from Australia, is that I have never seen so many flies in my life as in that location. There were literally thousands of them the whole time and they were constant. They never left you alone. The only thing we found effective was this cream they actually put on horse’s backsides to keep the flies away from them and to prevent them from becoming flyblown. If we put that on us, the flies wouldn’t actually land on you, they would just hover near you. That gives a real visceral feel to the film – the fact that we did shoot in this really harsh climate, with the flies and with the heat, with the sweat and with the fact that we were working very long hours under those conditions really added to the texture of the film.
Q: People who see Van Helsing won’t realize you’re the same guy in this movie, and they won’t realize you’re the same guy in Lord of the Rings. How important to as an actor is it that you can get these very different roles?
Wenham: I think it’s just happened that way. As an actor I am drawn to characters and stories that interest me for various reasons, and I want to be challenged by various characters. I never want to go over the same terrain twice. I want to challenge myself as an actor, and I like to disappear inside characters. It’s just happened that when I look back over my career there is a great range of characters.
Q: Does that make it tougher for you when you are trying to get new jobs, because you don’t have one specific image?
Wenham: In all honesty I think it does confuse people. It would be far easier, I think, if I constantly played in a far more limited range, and if casting people and directors could be able to see me as a distinctive character. There’s a double edged sword there. I like the fact that I can play a wide range of characters, but for me it does make it more difficult to get what I want.
Q: This film is so authentic, and the set was so authentic. I visited the set of your next film, 300, and it’s just about the opposite of authentic; you’re playing in front of these giant sheets. What’s that like?
Wenham: Your expectation of what it would be like was completely different from the actual reality. The fact is that while we didn’t have the physical environment there, we had all the people that were playing characters within the film. You were never pretending to play opposite Leonidas. From an acting point of view, it was relatively easy because all you had to do was communicate with your fellow actors. Everything else, the environment and everything, was going to be dropped in later, so it wasn’t as hard as one would imagine. When you’re doing blue screen and green screen work it’s much more difficult when there’s absolutely nothing there. When you’re pretending to react to a dinosaur that’s running at you, that’s when it becomes difficult. But we never actually had that with this film.
Having said that, filming in a room constantly surrounded by the same colors does start to have a strange effect on your mind.
Q: One of the things that was interesting about visiting that set was that everybody essentially naked the whole time. Were you in that kind of costume?
Wenham: Close to, yeah. Close to.
Q: How was it coming to work everyday and taking off everything?
Wenham: When I was cast in the film, I have to admit, I didn’t know terribly much about the source material. It was only after I was cast that I had a look at Frank Miller’s graphic novel and then I realized what sort of costume I’d be wearing throughout. In Frank’s book my first appearance was completely in the nude and then leather underpants, essentially. I did push the freak out button for a second, but we were all there – I think there were five or six main cast and about 50 stunt guys – we were all there for weeks before we started principal photography and had a very heavy training regime. So we were all relatively comfortable with our bodies before we put them on screen.
Q: What’s next? Anything lined up?
Wenham: Not yet. I’m just here putting down the narration for 300 and taking meetings and seeing what’s around at the present time. Hopefully something fabulous will come along.
Q: What’s your ideal career move at this time? Is it to get more leading roles or to stay as a character actor?
Wenham: In an ideal world I’d love to do both. Throughout a 12 month period I’d love to play one leading role and one really fabulous character role. One of each every year is great, more than that would be a wonderful bonus. But it’s so hard to find those roles. I read a lot of material but it’s rare that I come across something I really respond to and am desperate to do.
We have a problem with the film industry back in Australia, and we’re very hard on ourselves back there. Then I come here and realize it’s a worldwide phenomena – it’s very difficult to write a great script. I take my hat off to writers of great ability, because I understand how difficult it is. When you do come across one it’s a needle in a haystack.
Q: You’ve done some great comedic roles – are you more comfortable in comedy or in drama?
Wenham: I don’t really have a genre I feel more comfortable with. I really don’t. It really just depends where I’m at at a particular time.
Q: Have you thought about producing, or trying your own hand in screenwriting?
Wenham: I’ve actually been involved in producing in the past. I’ve produced three films I’ve actually been in. That’s a very interesting journey for me, because you’re in control of your own destiny to a point. I was actually invited to become involved in producing through the great Australian producer John Maynard, who produced a lot of Jane Campion’s films. He’s a bit of legend on the other side of the world. That was a great opportunity for me to learn as much as I can about the other side of the camera. I am an actor who is also a frustrated director. John and his business partner have an open invitation to produce a film I want to direct; it’s just about finding what I want to do at this point. I’m always on the hunt and I’m in no particular hurry.
Q: I imagine as a frustrated director you pay a lot of attention to the directors you’re working with, and you’ve worked with some greats. Who has taught you the most?
Wenham: I learn from every job – you pick up the things that inspire you, or you can become aware of somebody’s bad habits. The obvious one is Peter Jackson; you can’t help but admire this man’s immense talents and incredible achievements. To be on set of Lord of the Rings and to see him in front of his tremendous bank of monitors, directing main unit but also knowing what was happening on sets and locations all across the country being beamed in by satellite was truly inspiring. Baz Luhrmann was another one; his infectious energy and amazing imagination and creativity are pretty awesome.
Q: Looking back at the Lord of the Rings, is that something you think you can top?
Wenham: I try not to compare projects. That is something that will always stand alone. I was in the gym here in Los Angeles the other day and a crew member who worked on the film happened to be on the rowing machine next to me. We started to talk about the project, and we both agreed that it’s slightly surreal that we were part of that project for so long. It becomes part of your life and yet it doesn’t; it’s become something bigger than itself, in a sense. It’s an incredible piece of cinema that will always be there for the rest of history, and we were part of it. We pinch ourselves.