In 1975 a team of guerrilla filmmakers came together to make Pure Shit, a searing portrait of heroin addicts in Melbourne. All these years later it remains the most vivid and rawest depiction of drug abuse the Australian film industry has yet produced (I have written previously about the remarkable circumstances surrounding the film, particularly how it was was made, lost and rediscovered). A trailblazing lead performance from actor Gary Waddell grabbed the audience’s attention with a stranglehold and never let go. He was nominated for an AFI award for his troubles.

Thirty seven years later, Waddell stars as the rough-as-guts neighbour from hell in Rolf de Heer’s deliciously offbeat domestic drama The King is Dead!, the standout Australian film of 2012. It is now screening in limited release; you can read my review here. Waddell plays King, an ice addict who lives in a disgusting hovel where drug users and layabouts cause great frustration for their average Joe and Jane neighbours, the film’s protagonists, who are eventually pushed to the brink of desperation.

Many years spent writing about cinema has taught me to be careful about hyperbole. Phrases like “best of the year!” or “greatest of the decade!” are to be applied with caution. However, there is no more succinct way to express my thoughts on Waddell’s all-encompassing incarnation of King than this: in 15 years of film reviewing I have never seen a performance quite like it.

An intoxicating contradiction lingers at its core. King comes across as a unique and electrifyingly unpredictable character, angry and erratic on one hand and lackadaisical and air-headed on the other. Yet Waddell also conveys a striking sense of familiarity, a sense that all of us have met somebody like King at some moment in our lives, if only through a fleeting encounter on the street or at a train station. What if we followed that person home? What if we lived next door to them? If you need a context for his character, think the same ball park as David Wenham in Gettin’ Square but deeper, darker and expertly nuanced to fluctuate from humour to malice and back again.

I had to know how Waddell did it. I had to know what strange forces he channeled to create what instantly became one of my favourite performances from any actor in any Australian film. So I met with the man himself, visiting from Sydney, at Melbourne’s Young and Jackson hotel. We had a beer and Waddell talked candidly about working with Rolf de Heer, the long time he spent disbelieving in himself as an actor and how substance abuse self-sabotaged early phases of his career, amongst many other subjects.

Waddell gave me a call the next day, to clarify one detail. “I’ve always had two dreams,” he said. “To be a working actor and to be the number one ticket holder for Collingwood.”

When I think about your career in broad terms, two films immediately come to mind. First there’s Pure Shit, made in 1975, which is still a roaring film to watch today. Now there’s The King is Dead! That’s a 37 year gap and I don’t recall seeing you in other big, meaty, powerful performances. Am I missing something? Do I need to go back and have a look at other films?

I think Oz (1976) was a very good film. I played the headline in that, the bikie. I thought Stir (1980) was a pretty good film, which I did with Bryan Brown. You know, my career, I sort of sabotaged it a bit. Besides the substance abuse, I actually thought for a long long time – until around ‘86, ‘87 – that my career was one of the greatest con jobs I’d ever pulled off. I never thought I could act. I actually believed that for a long time. I thought I was getting away with something and people hadn’t worked that out yet.

So you sort of thought you were acting to be an actor? Or pretending to be an actor?

Yeah. I had no idea until an actor said to me – and he was a trained actor – that what I did on film was what most people go to school to learn. That I was unique in a certain way and there weren’t many people like me. Then I started to believe in myself and I wanted my career back. It’s taken a long time to get my career back.

Do you reckon it’s back on track now? The King is Dead! is definitely going to help.

I think it’s one of the best roles I’ve done. I had a lot of time to work that character out. I had the luxury of having that time, I think it was about 15 weeks. When I first met Rolf, it was January the 21st and I’d been given the role. The script had been emailed to me the day before. I read it and thought about it every day for those 15 weeks. A lot of actors are insecure and I’m no different. I was thinking: am I going to be able to pull this off? Am I going to be able to give Rolf what he wants? I thought about the voice. I thought about the way King moved. I thought about how I would portray an ice user, cannabis user, drug user. Rolf said to me “I know you did this like 36 years ago but I really want you to play this part.” Every time I act, I’ve got to create a different character and I don’t want to ever look similar. I want to look totally different. And I think I have, in this character. The more I look at it the more I think god, I got away with it, how did I do that? I surprised myself with some of the scenes, because I look really fucked up. Some reviewer on a blog wrote that I was obviously either stoned or shit-faced all the time.

That’s a massive compliment, right? That he actually believed you were drug fucked?
Yeah (chuckles) but I took it the wrong way when I first saw that. I thought this guy thinks I’m on drugs! I wrote back and I said mate, just wanted to let you know that I haven’t been involved with anything like that for 30 years. I’ve got a really nice wife, a daughter who’s in third year uni, and Rolf de Heer is very anti-drugs. I thought this writer was saying that this guy took a lot of drugs to create this character, and I was thinking well, I haven’t.

You said that in some scenes you surprised yourself and thought along the lines of how did I do this? Or, where is this coming from? That’s what I was thinking while watching the film. I thought where on earth is this coming from? How did you channel the weird energy required for King? How did you get into the zone?

I talked with Rolf about how I like to work. He asked me “do you want to rehearse?” (and) I said nah, not really. I don’t mind sitting down with all the other actors and having a few drinks, you know, laughing a bit and spending some time together. But really, I told him the way I worked. Like I said to you, I thought about the character for 15 weeks. I think my wife thinks I’m nuts sometimes, because I talk to myself, going through lines and thinking about how I’m going to say them. Trying to grasp the essence of King…I said (to Rolf) I’m not sure how it will work, but I’ll go try this process for 15 weeks. I will turn up on set, meet everybody, and on that first day – when I speak my first word – with all the crew around me, and I’ve put on my costume, and everything else — I have become King.

And on the subject of becoming King, your in-character voice sounds completely different.

I worked it out with the sound guy, James Currie, who is an amazing human being. I’ve gone (Waddell puts on the voice of King, deep, throaty, bogan-like) “gday, my name’s King. I’m yer neighbour.” I sometimes went back to him to hear it. To assure myself that I knew exactly the way King was going. I could have played that character totally different. I could have played the character like a fucking heavy. That’s what I’m known for – playing heavies. Stuff like that. I wanted the audience to actually like him, because he’s a victim of his own circumstances. He has created these circumstances but on the other hand he hasn’t. He’s got a lot of rough friends and all of a sudden the situation has gotten out of control. Because he’s taking drugs, and for other reasons, every day folds into every day. He’s not getting better – maybe he’s getting worse. He’s a totally shambolic and fucked up human being. There was a lot of back-story and to portray it right you need to give the character some sort of respectability.

In terms of the character and his socioeconomic environment, how he was raised, where he comes from, etcetera, this is someone who has undoubtably lived a rough life. From what you said to me before the interview, there are some broad similarities in terms of you bringing something of your own life and experiences to the role. 

Without a doubt. I think some of the best actors in the world bring some of their off screen presence with them on screen. Sometimes it has to be like that. You watch a lot of stuff in Australia and see these guys playing tough guys and there’s nothing tough about their eyes. They don’t sell it to me. I don’t believe it. With my acting I think people believe it, believe I am that character. In Black and White, a film I did in South Australia with Robert Carlyle, I play a nasty vicious copper and I belt up David Ngoombujarra. The only other time I’ve played a copper was also with David Ngoombujarra in his first film, Breaking Loose (1988).

Going back to the early era, Pure Shit. Was this a period in which you were living on the streets?

When I was 18 I was a street kid. I got taken off the streets by a counsellor from the Buoyancy Foundation. They had a place on Elizabeth and Collins street on the seventh floor. We got coffee and tea and biscuits and stuff like that. That name, Buoyancy, was all about keeping people afloat. She was very worried about me so I ended up living in their house. There was a group of about eight people, and they were university students.

I became a part of the Carlton scene…I was introduced to people and started living in totally different circles. They introduced me to art. I went to exhibitions. I saw Henri Cartier-Bresson up here at the museum. Then I started hanging out with anarchists in Fitzroy, who had a free store. I did my first play — I think it might have been 1972 — called The Weight at a place called La Mamma. All of a sudden I was acting! I was doing plays and that kept on going through the years. On my Facebook profile, I wrote under ‘education’: three years at the Melbourne university cafeteria.

So around that time, in the lead up to Pure Shit — a film that’s become infamous in Australian film and drug culture — was that a period in your life when you were using substances?

No, not that much. Sort of recreationally. I was living with people who weren’t really involved in that scene.

So not everybody was getting mashed between takes?

No. There was no shooting up. We could never have created the film if it was like that. That’s a myth.

When you starting living on the streets — well, before we go further, is this something you talk about? The circumstances that led to that sort of life? Or is it something you regard as private?

I chose that life. I hung around with three people who I haven’t seen since. One of them was a guy called Alex. Another was a guy called John who had half of one leg missing, and his girlfriend Barbara. I never slept rough. We always found somewhere to sleep.

Every actor, I suppose, has roles they aren’t particularly fond of, or not as fond as others, upon reflection. Are there are roles you regret? A film or part you consider your worst?

I don’t want to offend anybody by naming a worst film I’ve been in, and I’ve enjoyed being in every one of them. I love doing this. To me it’s an incredible luxury to be able to get in front of a camera and get paid for it. I absolutely love it. I love the atmosphere, I love the people, and I love creating.

The King is Dead! is a domestic horror film about people who are pushed to the brink. Viewers will inevitably have different avenues of thought as to what it’s essentially about. What’s your take on what the film means? Is there a message to it?

It’s about how you can unwittingly move into something you think is fantastic, then your whole world is turned upside-down by the insanity happening on one side of the fence. You think, this is good. This is interesting. But interesting becomes a nightmare and the nightmare doesn’t stop. So it becomes a question of what people do and how they react. You see weird things on current affairs shows. Some neighbours have shot each other and killed each other and had incredible years of feuding. Like old style feuding, going back through history. There are still feuds going on in the Middle East for things that happened hundreds of years ago. Maybe somebody fucked somebody’s wife and it hasn’t stopped, or they stole a chicken or something. So when you think about it this is also a historical piece – a glimpse of our life now in the context of things that have been going on for centuries.

In terms of working with Rolf de Heer – who is one of my favourite Australian filmmakers – what’s different working with him in comparison to other directors?

Rolf is an incredibly focused human being. He’s an egalitarian. He’s a humanist and he adores actors. He’s got an incredibly generous nature. He treats everybody exactly the same, it doesn’t matter who you are.

When directors believe in you, it builds you up so much. I remember on about the fourth day, I had to eat this hamburger. Rolf never wanted to lose it; he wanted that scene with me and the hamburger. He went over to me and he gave me a hug, which is very unusual for Rolf, and he said “I love you Gary Waddell.” I said something like: “well, don’t tell too many people.”