Current Issue #488

Colin Friels interview: knowledge comes in blows

Colin Friels interview: knowledge comes in blows

Colin Friels is returning to an Adelaide stage for the first time in many years to perform in the State Theatre’s production of Mortido, a new Australian work by playwright Angela Betzien. Friels discusses his love of theatre and his disdain for rehearsals (among other things) in this expletive-laden interview.

“It’s hell,” says Friels, when asked how rehearsals are going.

“It’s like dragging your arse through hell, doing a play. I do suffer an addiction to theatre. Once I’m doing a play, I think I never want to do another one as long as I live. It is torture to do them.”

It’s a little surprising to hear that one of Australia’s most prized actors doesn’t particularly enjoy rehearsing. What keeps him working, however, is his passion for the art. Many know Friels for his film work, Dark City, for example, and his AFI winning performance in Malcom, or his work on television, starring in the BlackJack telemovies, and picking up a Logie Award for his role in Water Rats.

However, it’s live performance that he’s especially passionate about.

“I love theatre,” he says. “But I don’t love what some people do to it.”

What kind of people?

“Narcissistic little shits who live in cliques. They’ve all been to Melbourne Grammar or whatever – not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

He elaborates that he thinks the “postmodern thing is just a limp fucking excuse not to do any work”. It isn’t the publicly-funded system that provokes his ire. “I know people who work in the subsidised system who are dedicated, hardworking people,” he says. “They don’t take that for granted and piss it up against the wall. They don’t shit in their own nest. They don’t lose an audience overnight.”

What is it then?

“I think it’s the current wave of narcissism”, he says. “You see, I work horses. Many years ago, when I was about 17, I thought I was the greatest rider who God ever put breath in. I’d just ridden the best I thought that anyone had ever ridden. This beautiful old man, one of the great horsemen, came up to me, and said, ‘You think you looked pretty good, did you?’ “I said, ‘Yeah’. “He said, ‘What about the horse, you dumb little shit? We’re here to serve the horse, not your petty fucking ego. So you can fuck off, or change your ways.’

“Knowledge comes in blows. With great horsemen you don’t see the rider, you see the horse. Great plays, you don’t see the petty fucking ego maniac director. You see the play.”

He is much more optimistic about Mortido, the new piece he’s rehearsing for, which opens Friday, October 16 at the Dunstan Playhouse. When I speak to him, he sounds quite keen to be leaving his native Sydney (“Sydney is a shithole. I’ve had to stay here over the years because of the kids. It is not where I would choose to make my home”), and coming to Adelaide.

“Adelaide is a beautiful place. I started my life there. After NIDA, I was in the South Australian Theatre Company for about 18 months.”

This was around 40 years ago, when he was “a 20-something-year-old in the new arts centre, in the Playhouse. I had an old house in Mile End – rented it from an Italian family.”

He’s been back to Adelaide since then, but not for some time. “It’s the first play I’ve done in Adelaide for many years.” It was his passion for the writing that attracted him to the project. Mortido is a new Australian play by Angela Betzien, who has won several awards for her work in the past.

“The concept of the play is to take these wankers who stick cocaine up their nose in Sydney, take that gram of cocaine, or whatever, two, three grams, whatever they stick up their nose – I’ve never indulged, myself – and follow that cocaine back to its source, Bolivia, Mexico, some poor wretched third world country. Show the devastation those people are put under to get the cocaine to the wanker’s nostril.

“Angela’s fantastic. I think she’s a marvellous young writer. God, that’s what it’s about. You want to make sure they get through. She’s a good kid, and I thought, I may as well do it.”

His mind turns again to the dreaded task of actually doing the play.

“Then I’m doing it, and you give it everything you’ve got, but fuck.” There is something in the acting that he still enjoys, though. “What is beautiful,” he says, “is learning the craft, and trying to do it well”.

“What little grain of the human condition can you shine a little light on? I love painters – guys like Matisse – who had unbelievable dedication to enlightening the human condition, just to make us feel a bit more human.

“If you don’t feel a bit more human when you leave the theatre, you’ve wasted your time. Everyone has wasted their time. That’s a few hours of your life you don’t get back. “I’m fortunate that I get offered some beautiful plays. I’m in the theatre all next year with two plays. “I just can’t turn them down.”

Friday, October 16 to Saturday, October 31
Dunstan Playhouse

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