Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Anthony LaPaglia: the thinker

John Mangan

December 6, 2009

ON THE question of the Australian film industry's health, Anthony LaPaglia stands relentlessly and loquaciously in the glass-half-full camp. The would-be actor left Adelaide almost three decades ago for America's bright lights and is now a household name in the US, thanks to his starring role as Jack Malone in the long-running TV series Without a Trace. But he has always loved coming home to lend some Hollywood heft to Australian films, including Lantana, Looking for Alibrandi, The Bank and even Happy Feet.

Storm clouds often seem to be gathering over the Australian industry - this time, curiously, it's caught between the pincers of the global financial crisis, which has killed international investment in such speculative fripperies as film, and Australia's relative economic health, which has boosted the Australian dollar, making it expensive for foreigners to shoot their movies here.

For LaPaglia, though, the question of industry health is answered by looking at the movies up for this year's Australian Film Institute awards. They include Balibo, the Australian-East Timorese drama that he produced and starred in, which has been nominated for a staggering 14 awards.

He goes through the list of major Australian films this year - Australia, Mao's Last Dancer, Blessed, My Year Without Sex - before settling on Warwick Thornton's Samson and Delilah, which has been nominated for 13 AFI awards.

''Not to detract from any of the others, Samson and Delilah was the Australian film that impressed me most this year,'' he says in his mid-Pacific accent. ''It's quite a unique film, and not just because it's an indigenous film. It's remarkable that Warwick's a first-time director.

''Part of the genius of the film is that there's almost no dialogue, it's very minimalist, and it's actually very difficult to convey all the different layers, all the different emotions that these kids go through without the use of dialogue. All in all, it's a really wonderful film.''

It's high praise, particularly coming from an actor who is known for his ability to look more like he's thinking than acting, but LaPaglia's enthusiasm for Australian films doesn't end there.

''For the most part, the American film market has become very corporatised, even independent film to a degree, and because of the corporate management mentality, they want to take the safe way. Australian film doesn't have that restraint on it, therefore people are willing to make bolder choices, take more chances. So that's one factor.

''The other factor is Australian movies traditionally don't have much of a budget, and that puts you in the situation of having to compensate for the lack of money with ingenuity. And with big budgets sometimes you can lose focus on what matters the most - do you care about the characters?''

Balibo, which recounts the true story of the killing of five TV reporters and cameramen working in East Timor for Channel Nine and Channel Seven when the Indonesian army invaded in 1975, provided a reminder last week of the power of film when it was banned in Indonesia, having been scheduled for screening at the Jakarta International Film Festival this month.

The gritty drama directed by Robert Connolly, who also directed LaPaglia in The Bank, had its world premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival in July. That screening at Hamer Hall was attended by East Timorese actors and dignitaries, including President Jose Ramos Horta (who is portrayed in the film), and the families of the Australian journalists killed during the invasion. Within weeks, the Australian Federal Police announced they were reopening a war crimes investigation into the killings.

LaPaglia has always preferred to keep his politics private, but with East Timor he's making an exception. ''In terms of my personal politics, in public I've always adopted a stance like I'm Switzerland, because my political beliefs, you know, they're mine,'' he says thoughtfully. ''I've never really put myself out as a political advocate of any description.

''When I saw it [Balibo] at the film festival, I realised I'm going to get asked all kinds of questions about the politics of this, and suddenly I'm going to become a political activist. But in this case, I don't mind at all.''

The movie combined the challenge of one of those relatively humble Australian budgets with the difficulties of filming on location in an undeveloped nation.

''When I landed there, the first thing I was met with was this massive refugee camp right outside the airport. So from the start you know you're in a different place. Then, after a day or so, when you realise your phone doesn't work and your computer's not going to work, you just give up on them, and there's a kind of freedom that you get that's just quite wonderful.''

The lack of facilities affected production every day, in every way, LaPaglia says. ''We had a very small crew, only 18. But everybody was there for the right reasons so everybody pitched in. Tristan Milani (the film's cinematographer) would cook breakfast if the breakfast people got lost, which happened a lot. The young guys playing the Balibo Five, when they weren't working they'd come and swing the boom, we'd all drag camera equipment up mountains.

''It's a physically beautiful island, with incredible beaches, but what impressed me most were the people. Even though they have had a history of being abandoned by the Australian Government, they maintain a very optimistic view. It's infectious to be around.''

Jakarta's official version of the incident is that the five journalists were killed in crossfire. The film portrays a more deliberate process, with an Indonesian officer ordering the shootings.

LaPaglia is animated on the question of what really happened that day in Balibo, and the legitimate expectations a group of journalists might have that the protection for reporters defined in the Geneva Conventions would see them at worst captured and held, especially given the increasingly warm relations between the Whitlam and Suharto governments.

''The Indonesian Government said it (the film) wasn't fair because we weren't telling the story from their perspective,'' the actor says. ''To which I said, 'Well, make your own film, and tell it from whatever perspective you like'.''

And apart from exactly what happened, another question burns for LaPaglia. ''At the end of the day, it really comes down to this: it doesn't matter what anybody says, true or not true, blah, bla-blah, bla-bla-blah. The truth of the matter is they were executed, three Australian nationals, two English nationals.

''Can you imagine today if five people were murdered in one hit, there would be a massive investigation. And yet, for them, there was really nothing except a bunch of smoke and mirrors, these token attempts which basically concluded that it was all their own fault, they shouldn't have been there. And it's like, really, honestly, you're kidding me, aren't you? They're journalists, of course they're supposed to be there, it's their job.''

When LaPaglia and Connolly first decided to tell the story of Balibo, they worked on telling it through the eyes of the Balibo Five themselves.

Roger East, the veteran reporter who met Ramos Horta in Australia and went to East Timor to piece together the details of their deaths, was only a minor character. But LaPaglia, who plays East, says it was all getting too ''soapy''.

''Rob (Connolly) came up with the idea that it would be easier to tell the story from the perspective of somebody from the outside. There was always the danger it would become a bit too diabetic, a bit too precious. So he came up with this idea of telling it through Roger East.''

But once the decision to focus on East had been made, getting more information on the man proved strangely difficult. ''It might be different now, but when we started researching it, Roger East's name never came up in conjunction with the Balibo Five - ever. And when you started looking into Roger East, it was almost like he had disappeared from history.''

Finally, though, they hit the mother lode, receiving a packet of correspondence covering 30 years between East and a friend that filled in all the gaps.

''It turns out Roger is probably one of the most accomplished journalists Australia has ever produced,'' LaPaglia says.

''The problem was he was always an independent, and there's always a certain disdain for independents. He was the first Western journalist to get a legitimate permit to report in China. No one knows how he did it, and he didn't tell.

''But this is a guy who had started his career in the navy, survived the bombing in Singapore Harbour, went on to become a journalist, worked as a journalist in England, South Africa, the United States, he did the civil rights movement, he was in Vietnam, he did everything.''

The research bore fruit, giving the film an earthy power and a powerful climax. LaPaglia is proud of the result.

''It's one of the few examples I can think of - the only example in my life I can think of - where a film has been everything a film should be; both entertaining but also having a social significance and is able to effect some kind of social change.''

LAPAGLIA will be in Melbourne again for the AFI Awards next weekend, and while Without A Trace has finished up after a seven-year run, allowing the actor some time to holiday, he still has several projects on the boil.

One is making the film of The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, a book written by best-selling American author Joe McGinniss about a soccer team in a tiny Italian village that punched above its weight, ending up in Italy's second-top league. The film's cast will include Italian soccer legend Francesco Totti, who LaPaglia assures me is more difficult to get an interview with than the Pope.

''I basically had to wait three days in Italy to get it,'' he says. ''He was really quite charismatic. When I explained I wanted him for a proper acting part he smiled and said to his interpreter, 'I can't act for shit, but it's your money!' ''

LaPaglia also has a Broadway play scheduled for early next year, Lend Me a Tenor, directed by Stanley Tucci and co-starring Tony Shalhoub, who plays the lead role in the TV series Monk.

And then there's a mystery Australian project that the actor says he really can't talk about, except to say that it focuses on a major event in Australian history.

Balibo was seven years in the making, and LaPaglia says that while he loves the idea, he's not holding his breath on the Australian film, or the Italian soccer story.

''Who knows, I would like them to move quicker than that. I have projects that I've been working on for 13 years. Seven years seems like a gift!''

The LaPaglia files

Balibo (2009) Producer and played the lead character Roger East. The film is up for 14 AFI Awards, LaPaglia is up for two.

Without a Trace (2002-2009) Won a Golden Globe for his performance as Jack Malone in this Golden Globe winning drama.

Frasier (2000-2004) Won an Emmy playing an English character, Daphne's brother Simon, in the sitcom.

The Bank (2001) Teamed up with director Robert Connolly and David Wenham to play an evil banker.

Lantana (2001) Won Best Actor AFI Award for his performance as a cop cheating on his wife.

Looking for Alibrandi (2000) Starred with Pia Miranda and Greta Scacchi in this multi-AFI-award-winning film.

The Client (1994) Played Barry Muldano in this Oscar-nominated John Grisham adaptation with Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones.

So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993) Played a frustrated cop opposite Mike Myers.

Anthony LaPaglia has been nominated for two AFI awards. The 2009 Samsung Mobile AFI Awards will be presented on Saturday and broadcast from 9.30pm on the Nine Network.


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