Australian actor John Jarratt has made his name playing thoroughly decent blokes from down under with credits including Peter Weir's Picnic At Hanging Rock, TV soap McLeod's Daughters and even a stint presenting a DIY series. So his towering performance as Mick Taylor, the horribly convincing pscyho of Greg McLean's outback horror Wolf Creek is all the more chilling. Casting a menacing shadow through the film, he terrorises a pair of English backpackers (Cassandra Macgrath and Kestie Morassi) and their young Aussie friend (Nathan Phillips) after their vehicle breaks down in the remote outback of Australia.
Mick Taylor is a memorable villain, when you came to play him was it important to you to latch on to something about him that was likeable?
The way I always prepare is to work out the character from the moment he was born to what he was doing the day before page one of the script. So I walk on to the set confident that I know that human being. I built the back story and built all the justifications in his mind as to why he does what he does, and why he doesn't feel bad about it. With that in mind I played the character.
Did you stay in character for the duration of the shoot?
I've been around a long time but I've never had to do that before, because with most characters I've played there's enough of me there to let me relax between takes and not carry on like a w****r, as some actors do. But in this particular case, because he's such an abhorrent person, I had to stay in character. Basically once the make up started going on I sort of stayed there. I mean mildly, I didn't cut anyone up in between takes! But I had to stay in his skin for the day's work.
How did you relate to your younger co-stars on the film, who play the characters Mick terrorises?
I kept fairly separate from them while we were making the film, and I teased them a lot. I didn't sit down and talk at length with them about their lives, but I didn't ignore them either. It was shot virtually chronologically, and I'd seen the rushes of where they're romping in the pool early in the story, and I'd do things like go up to them and say, "I saw the rushes, gee you all looked so young, healthy and fresh -- I just thought 'veal!." Then I'd walk away. Occasionally I'd smack Nathan around. I'd start sparring and bash him up, and have a go saying, "You're 30 years younger than me, if you can't beat a bloke up who's in his 50s what's the matter with you?" One night I started sparring with the focus puller and the camera assistant, who's female. It freaked her completely, though she didn't tell me until afterwards.
Would Australian audiences be surprised to see you playing this role?
They would. At the moment on Australian TV I'm in a series called McLeod's Daughters which is on cable here. I play this affable character called Terry who everyone loves and feels sorry for. He's very popular with old ladies, who always come up to me. Then again I think they'll still come up to me because I don't think they'll go and see Wolf Creek. But a lot of people will get a shock to see me playing this kind of role.
That kind of contrast is a great gift for any actor, isn't it?
Yeah, it's always what you want to do: play monsters or sickos. Blokes with a hunchback or a busted eye. Or comedy, I really like to do comedy. You've got to work hard on all of those fronts, and it's great to get characters like that to play.
You obviously saw the quality in the script straight away, but were you always confident Greg could deliver it on screen?
I was really worried about that. It was a really good script, with some really good ideas but he was 34 and hadn't made any other movies. I was worried sick that he wasn't going to get it on the screen. I thought if he did that then we'd be alright. I didn't know I was about to work with a genius, and I didn't know he had this cinematographer called Will Gibson who's equally as talented. He got together this hard bitten, crusty old crew, that had worked on a lot of stuff. They'd been around. We all did it for nothing, worked our arses off and he more than got it on the screen. He really nailed it.
Are you expecting feedback from blokes similar to Mick, critiquing your portrayal of this Australian archetype?
I've had nutters come up to me all over the place right through my life, so it doesn't particularly worry me. I used to do a show on television called Better Homes & Gardens, because in between acting I'm a builder. I used to build things on television with my then wife. It was a very popular show. I used to carry on in my little segment, and do little funny things. One day this guy came up to me at a fancy dress party. He said "I know you," and I'm used to that so I said "Oh yeah", and he said, "You're that dickhead who can't build!" Quick as a flash I said, "Yeah, but I can fight," so we cleared the floor and that was that. I'm from central Queensland. I just react accordingly.
Wolf Creek is released in UK cinemas on Friday 16th September 2005.