My acting career has, so far, been one ecclesiastical role after another. I mean that to be read in the sparest possible way. I’ve acted twice. I’ve been a man of the cloth twice. It’s been one ecclesiastical role after the other.
My debut was marred by the audience breaking into raucous laughter because of the size of my mitre. The year was 1990, and the Headmaster of Camberwell Grammar School had chosen Robert Bolt’s dour, Sir Thomas Moreish classic A Man for All Seasons as the best possible play for ensuring none of us ever met any girls. I nevertheless applied, hoping against hope that ‘Maid’ or ‘Young Woman’ might be hot. In the end, I scored the part of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Twelve lines. Script directions to speak fussily, hastily, discreetly and pettishly. I did my best pettish, I really did, but whatever I said was washed away by laughs and heckles from a restless Second Act audience. I was simply too tall. Six foot four without my mitre. Eleven foot two with it. They jeered and they pointed, and they sent me into the wings vowing to avoid being a pastry chef or a Beefeater, or any other high-hatted profession, for the rest of my life.
I also swore off acting. My voice was too monotone; my looks of concern or anxiety or surprise too easily mistaken for palsy. For eighteen years, acting swore off me too. But then, late last year, I received a phone call. Angus Sampson, star of Where the Wild Things Are and Thank God You’re Here, had written and was directing his first film. He was assembling a cast of professional actors and willing friends to shoot The Last Supper in the old laundry room at the Abbotsford Convent. He wanted to know if I would play St Bartholomew, set back in the time when he was just Bartholomew.
‘But I’ve got indoor soccer,’ I say.
‘It’ll be fun,’ he counters, with that same persuasive gravelliness that makes him one of the most sought-after voiceover artists in the country. ‘It’s set ten minutes before Jesus arrives at the Last Supper. It’s a catch-up between mates, a boozy lunch where work is paying.’
‘But I’m not much of an actor.’
‘You’ll be a perfect Bartholomew.’
I look up St Bartholomew on Wikipedia. ‘Bartholomew is one of the apostles of whom no word is reported nor any individual action recorded in the New Testament.’
Perfect. A blank parchment. A role I can make my own. There’ll certainly be less heat on me than on Jesus.
Biblical scholars struggle to pinpoint Christ’s exact age at the time of his death. Equally, there’s much confusion about the colour of his skin. We arrive on set to discover that our Jesus is going to be a sixty-five-year-old Aboriginal. I meet Jack Charles in the costume tent, just outside the barn door entrance to the film set. Jack played Harry Edwards in the Fred Schepisi classic The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, has worked alongside Geoffrey Rush and Neil Armfield, and was the founder of the first Aboriginal theatre company, Nindethana. His life has also been a roller-coaster of heroin addiction, homelessness and intermittent jail stints. A reviewer of the recently released feature documentary about Jack’s life, Bastardy, described him as an ‘unrepentant burglar’ who justifies serial acts of theft as ‘collecting the rent’ from white suburbanites. In the give and take of his colourful life, today it’s about giving. Like all the professionals on set, Jack is working for free.
‘This film has betrayal at its heart,’ Angus tells us when he sits us down for our read-through and briefing. ‘We hopefully get our laughs from the drinking games and the banter between the apostles, but the key moment is when an elderly Aboriginal man says the words “One of you will betray me”. At that point, he’s not just speaking to his disciples. He’s speaking to the whole country.’ Angus is as directorial as a man can be while wearing blue swimmer shorts, a hunter’s hat, a purple tie and carrying a slab. He lays the beers down on the lunch table. ‘As you know, the film begins with the drinking game “I Never Ever”. I thought it’d be good if you guys played it now, just to get to know each other.’
And so began my first ever drinking game dressed as a monk. The idea of the game is that the boozer who has the floor says that he has never ever done something, and everyone at the table who has done that thing is forced to drink. Naturally, it takes about half a round before it’s basically an exercise in which cast member has had sex where. Drunken mishaps also get a run.
‘I’ve never ever jumped off a gazebo looking for the pool and chipped a tooth,’ Angus says, glancing at his friend Tim Bone, a holiday park owner from Anglesea who is playing St John.
‘And I’ve never ever attacked a house burglar with a cricket bat,’ Bone returns.
Angus then tells us an epic story about the time he returned to his Sydney apartment to find an intruder, and how a dramatic wrestle and fist fight ended with him flat batting the burglar through short mid wicket. The comedian Tony Martin, who is playing James the Greater, tells us that in the UK a man’s right to shoot a house burglar is called ‘the Tony Martin defence’. He doesn’t drink, though. It must be a different Tony Martin. Our Jesus doesn’t say anything. Bastardy hasn’t been released yet. None of us even knows to feel awkward.
On a warm November afternoon, I down two or three stubbies, enough to develop a slight slur and a paranoid sense that I can no longer remember my lines. But Stanislavski would be happy. We’re living the role. We’re drinking and laughing and spending time together, and finding out which apostle, if any, has ever had sex in a ditch at the side of a road.
The set is spectacular — a crumbling, unrenovated, plaster-peeled section of the Abbotsford Convent that even seemed to offer the ethereal sunbeams. It’s also filled with people. Gaffers laying and tending to camera tracks. A cameraman behind something large and expensive looking. Lighting designers, producers, publicists, make-up artists, sound mixers. One of the grips is Nathan Phillips from Snakes on a Plane and Wolf Creek. Set designers and continuity experts prod and poke at stale bread and goblets to try to get the look and feel of the Da Vinci painting. As are the actors, the crew is donating its time, equipment and expertise. All because a fellow member of the Australian film industry has called them up and said, ‘Who’s your favourite actor?’
Leigh Whannell, who worked with Angus on the ABC music show Recovery and went on to write the first three Saw movies, says it’s something he likes about filmmaking in this country. ‘Here, the industry is small enough and it’s a good enough community of people that Angus could get the best gaffer in Australia to come and work on his short. You couldn’t get the best gaffer in Hollywood to come and work on your short, unless he was your father, and even then he’d be like, “Yeah, I’ll do it. Eleven hundred a day.”’
We assume our seats, all along one side of the table, the art directors taking their cues from Leonardo Da Vinci. On my immediate left is St Andrew, played by Lawrence Leung. Next to him is Simon Lyndon, who’s been in everything, but is surely best remembered for his chatty stabbing of Chopper. I quickly learn that making films is even slower than making television. We play ‘I Never Ever’ as a full table of twelve. We then break and table right play it again. Then it’s table left’s turn. Then we skol, skol, skol in close up. We wrap for the day and we’ve hardly even seen ‘The Thin Man’, which is what we’ve taken to calling Jesus so that we won’t offend Christians. All together, I put away about five litres of Ribena.
Angus smiles and pats us on the back, and generally behaves as if he has been doing this for years. ‘I want you guys to represent every man,’ he tells us. ‘You are saints and sinners, tall men and short men, geeks and alpha males, wowsers and debauchers, rebels and sycophants. We’re holding up a mirror to society.’
Bartholomew is the sycophant, the teacher’s pet. He has two solo lines in the production, which is two more than he gets in the whole New Testament. Angus tells me to think of The Thin Man as my all-time hero on Planet Earth, the person who would inspire nervous awe in me if I had him over for dinner. I decide to choose Muhammad Ali. I ride home that night along the Merri Creek, repeating my lines over and over to my imaginary Muhammad Ali. ‘Pray tell, mine ears are vestibules for your humble words.’ My call time is eleven o’clock the next morning.
The camera is dangling from the DOP’s neck, the idea being that a rubber bungee cord will give a taverny wobble to the shot. He closes in on me, the first assistant director asks for silence, and a clapper board arrives in my face. It’s time for my vestibules line.
‘Pray tell, mine ears are vestibules for your loving words.’
‘Loving’! It’s meant to be ‘humble’. Humble words! All those rehearsals, all that Ali-ifying of Jack Charles. We cut and I have another crack. This time, I nail the ‘humble’ but nearly choke to death on my second line. ‘Please, Father, vocalise your thoughts and let the heart that dwells in my proud bosom receive them as a doting mother does her child.’ We have another go. Now I’m talking about my humble bosom. We have another go. Proud mother. I’m playing mix and match with adjectives and nouns. Take five. I’m sweating under the lights, under the woolly weight of my brown tunic. How does that smiley priest guy who walks around Brunswick Street put up with clothes like this? Angus tells me to relax, to think about my love for The Thin Man and not the actual words. I give this a go and we get a ‘doting bosom’. I give it another go and it suddenly clicks, as though somebody who isn’t me has mysteriously taken control. ‘And … cut,’ Angus says. ‘Magnificent, Tone.’ He’s either genuinely pleased, or acting pleased to a level to which this newcomer could never ever aspire.
The tagline for Angus Sampson’s The Last Supper is ‘it’s time to go … Judas’, hinting at a reality TV heartbeat that I’ll hint at again here. As a grand finale, we shoot the ‘eviction scene’ a collegiate free-for-all that allows me to explore my actorly renditions of ‘deep thought’ and ‘disbelief’. Next, we have to delve deep for ‘indignation’, and aim it at Angus because he is playing Judas. I point at him with my finger, give it a wag, wondering if I’ve replaced my too-big hat from 1990 with some too-big finger waggling. Leaning forward, I grip the table with both hands, watching in amused wonder as the table fights its way into the positions described in Da Vinci’s masterpiece. We are amateurs and professionals. We are friends and workmates of the director. We are genuinely surprised that the great Leonardo imagined quite so many people doing quite so much ham acting at one of the most dramatic moments in history.