“The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.” So Alfred Hitchcock once famously said and no one argues with the Master of Suspence.
Recently, I found that for me the triumph of Warwick Thornton’s ‘Sweet Country’ lies in Ewen Leslie’s performance as Harry March. Part dysfunctional sociopath, part shell-shocked soldier and a whole lot of smoldering angst to fill in the shades of grey in between, Leslie’s performance as the racist, sexual abuser March kicks off with a vengeance this poetic Indigenous Outback western with a Tarantino-esque twist.
I had the pleasure to interview Leslie in person a couple of years ago in Dubai, when ‘The Daughter’ played as part of the Dubai International Film Festival 2015 line-up. In person, the handsome Australian exudes a warmth and kindness which only add to his undeniable charm. And yet, here was this perfect gentleman being a complete bastard in ‘Sweet Country’. I mean, he wasn’t the model dad in ‘The Daughter’ either, but at least in Simon Stone’s film he upheld a certain moral standard. Not so in Thornton’s film, not at all, not as far as the eye can see — for the whole of maybe fifteen minutes he’s on the big screen! Leslie is every bit the perfect villain and more.
This time, when ‘Sweet Country’ played at DIFF, I caught up with Ewen Leslie via email, which I’ll admit is not usually my favorite means of conducting an interview. Yet having met him before I could actually hear his voice throughout this “conversation” of ours. I asked him about playing a villain, what he wants the audience to take away from Harry March and how ever did he manage to perform in the most haunting rape scene this side of ‘The Accused’.
'Sweet Country' screens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto the week of April 13th.
Do you prefer to play a hero or a villain and why?
Ewen Leslie: In 2010 I played Richard III who openly describes himself as a villain in his opening speech. He was a lot of fun to play, but Shakespeare has written him that way. He has all the best lines and makes no apologies for the horrible things he does. He’s having fun, so as a result we have fun watching him. Someone like Harry March has no idea that he’s the villain. I suppose given the choice it would be a lot more fun to play a Bond villain than it would be to play James. But hey, I wouldn’t complain either way.
What kind of work goes into playing an imperfect man like Harry March and how do you keep him bearable in your own thoughts?
Leslie: Warwick Thornton, the director, said that he didn’t want him to just be a monster. He wanted someone who’d been traumatized by World War I and was suffering mentally as a result of it. That allowed a great way in for me. The first thing you look for is a way to empathize with the person you’re playing, and someone like Harry makes that difficult. I watched documentaries on PTSD and read ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’. I also taught myself some basic weapon drills that I managed to get into the film. Warwick was really open to input if he thought it enriched the characters and story.
There is a truly haunting scene in the film, involving a rape, yet the scene takes place in the dark. Can you talk about it a bit?
Leslie: Natassia [Gorie Furber] who plays Lizzie had never acted before, never been on a set before and we were shooting that scene in the first week. On the page it was very explicit, very graphic and you saw everything. The day before we shot it Warwick pitched his idea on how he wanted to shoot it and I thought it was genius. It made it easier for Lizzie and I, I’d never seen it done like that on screen before and I thought it would actually make it worse for the audience. We did three takes and then Warwick said “okay, I don’t really wanna do that again”.
How many days of shooting did you have for the scenes with Harry March?
Leslie: I worked ten days in total. It was a fast shoot but it never really felt rushed. Warwick is an exceptional visual storyteller and he’s very clear about how he wants to cover a scene and when he has what he needs.
And during that time, what kept you going? As I assume your own psyche is much different, much more sane than March’s.
Leslie: Believe it or not it was a very light set. Warwick creates a family atmosphere and we all loved what we were making. Its exactly the sort of film Australia should be making. I didn’t keep my distance from any of the other cast. Hamilton [Morris] who plays Sam was lovely and we spent a lot of time together. Our scenes will be better because we had a beer together, not because we avoided each other out of any sort of method.
What do you hope audiences walk away feeling about Harry?
Leslie: I don’t know. I think pity would be a stretch. I suppose someone who is damaged and not in their right frame of mind. Apparently people clapped when I died in Toronto so thats probably pretty telling.
And what do you wish them to learn from him?
Leslie: I think a lot of soldiers came back from WWI, didn’t cope in the cities, and thought going into the middle of nowhere and isolating themselves was the best thing they could do. I also think a lot of men went to war, endured incredible hardships and saw such horror that when they returned they felt they were owed something.
They’d fought for their country and as a result they felt like they owned a piece of it. A lot of Harry’s behavior to those he calls “black stock” comes from this.
How are you like him, in any small way even? Or unlike him at all...
Leslie: I have no place running a farm, and no place on a horse. They’re beautiful animals, but I would be happy to not ride one again. I was also pretty out of my element shooting in that terrain. You have all these ideas about how you’re going to play a scene, and then you get out there and go “no, I’ll just be dealing with the elements”. It was actually really helpful.
And finally, how would you describe yourself to someone who doesn’t know you?
Leslie: Oh, charming, witty, razor-sharp intelligence, but also glimpses of a pain that has long since been buried. An enigma wrapped in a riddle. But mainly I’d just settle for “yeah, he seemed nice.”