Interview : John Jarratt

Clint Morris chats to the “Wolf Creek” star

He’s as much an Aussie institution as the Southern Cross, a Chiko Roll and Billy Tea, but it wasn’t until he stepped into the gumboots of a redneck serial killer that John Jarratt, a 30-something-year-veteran of many Australian Films and TV shows, finally got the kudos he so ornately deserves. Not that he didn’t already have some pretty discernible admirers, as Clint Morris discovers.

After graduating from NIDA in 1973, John Jarratt made his film debut in the exemplary B-fave “The Great McCarthy”, playing the lead character, a country kid with mammoth footballer potential. He followed that role with a memorable one in the highly acclaimed “Picnic at Hanging Rock” (1975), and went onto co-star in such other memorable local films as “The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith” (1978), “The Odd Angry Shot” (1979), “We of the Never Never” (1982), and “Belinda” (1988).

Jarratt was no less a familiar face on TV too, starring in a string of successful telemovies and mini-series, including the extraordinary “The Last Outlaw (1980), in which he played iconic Australian bushranger Ned Kelly, “Fields of Fire” (1987), “Joh’s Jury” (1993) and “Blue Murder” (1995).

If there’s been one period where he’s been a little less busy than usual – likely to do with the lack of good Australian films and TV, out there – it’s been the preceding decade. In fact, his most memorable role in that time has been as a TV host, co-hosting the Australian home improvement series, “Better Homes & Gardens”, opposite ex-wife Noni Hazelhurst.

In 2001, Jarratt returned to acting, accepting a role in the hit Aussie drama series “McLeod’s Daughters”, playing Terry Dodge. He’d play the role for four years, winning “Plenty of Nana’s” over with his charming performance.

In that time, while it seemed much of the movie community may had forgotten about the legendary Aussie actor– except Greg McLean, of course, who had Jarratt in mind for the lead role in the forbidding thriller he was writing – someone most definitely hadn’t.

“Quentin Tarantino got off the plane [here] to do the publicity tour for Kill Bill. I got a phone call, on my way home from the airport from doing McLeod’s, that he was keen to meet me – I was apparently his favourite Australian actor, and he’d hope I come to the Kill Bill premiere that night. Unfortunately, it was 4:30, I was further down in NSW, and I was nearly home, so I couldn’t”, he says. “Hollywood calls and I’m not available!”.

The Pulp Fiction director wasn’t going to give up that easily though. “I didn’t think much of it”, admits Jarratt, simply finding it hard to believe that a famed filmmaker like Tarantino would prefer his films to those of someone like Russell Crowe or Jack Thompson. “Then, I got home and there was a message – Tarantino was really upset that I couldn’t come to the premiere, and was wondering if I’d like to meet up with him tomorrow for a drink down at quay. So I went down for a couple of hours and had a chat with Quentin”.

The filmmaker blew the actor away. “Tarantino has seen more Aussie films than anyone I know – he has seen stuff that I haven’t even seen. He loves Aussie films, He loves Aussie actors – he has Oz nights!”.

Jarratt, who confesses to being a huge fan of Tarantino’s films, was keen to get the filmmakers opinion of his latest film, the pragmatically unsettling “Wolf Creek”. He recently got the verdict.

“He loved it”, says Jarratt. “Apparently, it was the scariest film he’s ever seen”.

Granted, you wouldn’t automatically think ‘Scary’ and ‘John Jarratt’, so how did all this come about?

“Greg [McLean] saw me do a play called Dead Heart, like the film, in which I was playing Bryan Brown’s part. He told me he liked the play and enjoyed my performance in it. It stuck with him a bit. Seemed he was interested in me for the [killer] part. He sent me the script, and it was great – ‘if we can put this on the screen, we’ll have a hit’, I remember thinking”.

The actor says he got fleetingly vexed though. “He told me that they had bugger all money to film it, it was going to be shot in high-def, and that the two main Pommy characters were going to be played by Australians. I got a bit worried”, he says, “But then, when it all started to come together, I realised that it was actually going to be great. Better than I could have ever imagined”.

And the Aussie actors (Cassandra McGrath, Kestie Morassi) playing the Poms? “Bloody great”, he expresses, “They give absolutely heroic performances in this”, adds the father of five.

Considering the film was made, as Jarratt says, “on the equivalent of Mel Gibson’s lunch-money”, it’s an amazing accomplishment technically, as well. “It’s bloody amazing. It’s great. Greg’s really talented, and at the same time, he’s humble – so he’ll actually listen to your ideas. I think Will Gibson deserves some credit too [though]. I’ve worked with some of the best cinematographers in the world and he did a magnificent job. It looks great. He basically had the camera on his shoulder, filming in high-def, and look at the result – it’s terrifying”.

Despite the fact that the character is reportedly based on a couple of real-life psychos, Jarratt says preparing to play the role was no real different than any of the other roles he’s played. With anything, he says, he sits down and writes a detailed back-story for the character he’s about to play. “Who he is, what he is, where he’s from, and then I add as much of John Jarratt – usually just the ‘larrikin country boy’ part of me – as I possibly can”.

Jarratt’s happy to say that he’s had a couple more offers since the completion and consequential buzz of “Wolf Creek”. “There’s one that I don’t know if I can mention yet, I should ring to see if that’s cool, another mate of mine in L.A, who just did a film with Minnie Driver, he’s got a film coming up, and Craig MacLachlan’s got a script that’s looking healthy”, he says, adding “My profile’s going up, and I’m suddenly more bankable”.

Jarratt’s not planning on dashing off to Hollywood either. “The two films [I just mentioned], one of them’s set in Melbourne, the other in Brisbane. I’d rather work in Oz any day”.

Which begs the question, is he going to have a role in Greg McLean’s next film, “Rogue”, set to start shooting soon in the Northern Territory? “Could be”, smiles Jarratt, unsure if she could give away anymore. “It’s an ensemble piece…. that’s all I can say”.

Meantime, Jarratt’s hoping his career boost might help him execute his long-time aspiration of helping getting some better Aussie movies made. “I’d like to make my own Australian films, and cast a lot of my friends, Australian actors who are on the bread-line and just aren’t being used, in them”, he says, adding that as long as they’re “good ones” he doesn’t care what genre they fall into.

In January, “Wolf Creek” opens in the states. It’s being distributed by uber-producer Bob and Harvey Weinstein’s newly formed Weinstein Company. “I met Bobby”, he tells, “‘You’re a scary guy’ – that’s all he’s ever said to me”, smiles Jarratt.

Jarratt’s unpretentious, but the actor won’t deny that “Wolf Creek” is already starting to do wonderful things for his career.

“I’ve been waiting for a while for this to happen”, says the good-natured actor. “I don’t think it would happen, but it’s happened – and I’m going to take the bull by the bloody tail and go with it!”.

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