There’s never been a shortage of talent in Australia, and new film “Healing” demonstrates this with an impressive cast including Hugo Weaving, Don Hany, Tony Martin, Justine Clarke and Xavier Samuel. While quite new on the scene, Mark Leonard Winter turns in a very memorable performance as Shane, a troubled inmate in a Victorian prison with an important part to play in the journey of prison life.
Mandy caught up with Mark to talk working with animals, going to high school with Xavier Samuel, and getting in the head of prison inmates.
Congratulations on the film, I really enjoyed it, and I particularly loved your performance in it – how did you become involved in the film?
Mark: Thanks so much. I became involved just through the usual channels, I was sent a script and a character brief. I was actually in LA at the time and I sent a tape to Craig [Monahan – director of the film] and the girl who I was shooting a scene with she actually stopped me at the end and said ‘are you really going to send that?’ [laughs]. She thought it was a bit too outrageous, but I thought ‘well I’ve got nothing to lose so I may as well’ and so I did. And yes was very surprised to hear there was actually some interest. I came back and did an audition with Craig and I was fully prepared in the audition to bring it back a lot, and he actually said ‘no let’s go further. Can you make it any bigger?’ And I thought my head was going to explode [laughs].
Well there you go – trust your instincts!
Mark: Yes that’s right!
I understand the film was inspired by true events, was there actually a real “Shane”?
Mark: I don’t think there was actually a real “Shane”, I think he was a representation of many prisoners. I think Craig said they were referred to as ‘the little shits’ – just those guys in prison who are up to no good but are essentially pretty harmless. He was a composite of many people whereas Hugo [Weaving]’s character and Don [Hany]’s character were more specifically inspired by actual people.
That’s interesting that you say that because I must admit I went through a gamut of emotions with the character – you felt kind of sorry for him, then he was very funny, but then you wonder ‘is he a bit of a bag guy too’, then you felt really sad for him and I just ended up really liking him.
Mark: He’s a tricky guy! Yeah he sort of ends up a bit of a survivor in a way.
How do you prepare for such a complex character – did you visit any prisons?
Mark: Yes Xavier [Samuel] and I went out and visited medium security prisons. Xavier and I actually went to High School together and we’d been wanting to work together for a long time. So that was pretty great seeing the personalities in that place, within those restrictions, and I learnt a lot about how they keep themselves going and entertained, creating normalcy in what is essentially a really abnormal environment. So in terms of preparation the first thing I thought was ‘what’s he in prison for?’ And he was there for killing his child, and anyone in the prison system who does anything to children is at extreme risk. From that sense he’s coming into it as the lowest status of everyone, and then I just thought, essentially if you’re in that position you just want to make friends. So he’s just trying to make friends with everyone and he just doesn’t have a very good way of doing that. And he’s just that person that always makes the wrong choices. Just always makes the wrong choices.
He shouldn’t trust his instincts.
Mark: Yes, that’s right! Anything he thinks he should do he shouldn’t. And his journey in some way is actually making some good choices towards the end of the film. The trick with the preparation I think was we liked the energy of him being a more extreme character, but then keeping him grounded as a real person. And in someone who is actually struggling with something very real.
Absolutely, not a caricature. And just going back to your history with Xavier, I’m curious about your time in High School together, were you kind of ‘the acting guys’ who always did plays and things like that?
Mark: Well we didn’t really have a drama program at our school, we actually just had one teacher who put on these shows, and he was just very gifted at it. We started acting in High School, just doing bits and pieces together, the school would do one play a year kind of thing, and they were good plays, we weren’t just doing ‘The Sound of Music’. We went to an all-boys school so the other great thing about doing the plays was they’d get girls in from our sister school to take part so that was a bit of a thrill for us as well [laughs]. We’re sort of heavily involved in each other’s lives so to be able to play two people who slowly become good friends, and without it being too overt, it was really pleasant for us to do that. And we both travel around so much it was nice to be in one place together for five weeks.
And I think the chemistry really came across on screen as well.
Mark: Thanks, yeah, he’s over in LA at the moment and I really miss him.
You’ll have to join him soon! The scenery in this film was incredible, where in Victoria did you film?
Mark: We filmed in Keyneton, about an hour and a half out of Melbourne. It was actually very close. It is beautiful and if you’ve got Andrew Lesnie, an Academy Award winner [for Lord of the Rings] shooting the film, he can make anything look amazing. It was a bit of a thrill working with him – I was a closet “Lord of the Rings” fan and I would just keep asking him questions about Viggo Mortensen, and then he got grumpy at me so I had to can it [laughs].
Was acting something you always wanted to do?
Mark: It was never a conscious decision, like you know the people who at six start performing – I didn’t have any of that. It was actually more the ideas that kept me interested in it. And that does go back to those High School days, of being introduced to different ways of thinking about the world, and thinking about people within the world, and how we all exist. And that’s plied in with literature and films and plays and things. It was more just being really interested in that aspect of things. So I started doing it in High School and just kept going. I don’t recall ever making the decision, just kept following those thoughts and that way of thinking.
Going back to the theme of animals helping to heal people, I’ve done some work with the Greyhound Adoption Program in Victoria and they also have a prison program in minimum security prisons where, as part of their rehabilitation, inmates look after greyhounds to help them transition from racing dogs to pets, and quite a few prisoners have gone on to adopt the greyhounds they were looking after once they were released which is great. I’ve also seen research where children who have experienced intense trauma respond the best when they are given a small animal to care of. What do you think it is about the human/animal relationship that is so healing?
Mark: I think a lot of it has to do with responsibility. If you’re in a situation where you’re responsible for this creature it slowly shifts your psyche. For example – someone like Shane who would always think of himself as a victim – suddenly he’s in charge of taking care of something, he’s responsible. And so I think that has a really powerful effect because that means you have value. This greyhound or this bird would potentially have a bad life if you didn’t look after it, so it means you have a place you have a purpose. I think that has a large part to do with it, and I guess kids who have been trauma, that feeling of being so out of control, I imagine just being present with something is not going to let you down is such a comfort.
They say never work with kids or animals and this film had many of the latter, was that aspect difficult.
Mark: Well I didn’t get to work with the birds so much as I was more of the rat guy [laughs]. I think the thing about animals and children – although they do say that – there’s something about it that’s actually really great as it forces you to be really present. You never know what the bird’s going to do, you have to respond to what the rat’s going to do, there’s no acting involved with those things, there’s no pretending – it’s just an actual exchange. So I think it’s great. In the case of the birds those eagles can seriously hurt you. They are dangerous wild creatures and you need to respect that. I think it adds a deepening of your understanding of the characters and a respect for man vs nature and your place within that circle.
So you’d work with them again?
Mark: Absolutely. I don’t know, it would be weird if you were best mates with a chimp – I think that might be a slightly different story. If you have to shoot every scene with a monkey, that’s maybe where the saying comes from [laughs].
“Healing” is now playing in Australian cinemas and will be premiering in the US at the Seattle International Film Festival.