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Damon Gameau… Appreciating His Kingdom

By Dan Hutton on February 1, 2013 in People

Photo: Andrew Goldie (

During the month we caught up with former Bondi resident and 2011 Tropfest winner Damon Gameau at Jo & Willy’s Depot in North Bondi…

Where are you originally from?
I was born and raised in Adelaide, South Australia, home of churches and the mighty Adelaide Crows.

When did you make your way to Bondi?
I moved to Sydney to go to drama school, to NIDA, in 1997 and then I lived in various places from Clovelly to Coogee to Randwick before my girlfriend, who grew up in Sydney, decided we should move to North Bondi because all our friends were there and it’s so near the ocean. So I spent two pretty glorious years living on the beach there.

You’ve recently departed Bondi and headed south of the border; when did you head down there?
That was for my girlfriend’s work. We moved down about three years ago and we left the beach and we exchanged it for the mountains. We live just outside of Melbourne in the Dandenong Ranges in a fern forest. It’s kind of the equivalent of Bondi in terms of a good nature-surrounded habitat, which we find is good for the head and good for the soul. I think we’re better people for living out there.

What do you love about the Eastern Suburbs?
You’re not going to get a more spectacular place to live in the world. We couldn’t believe that we could get up most mornings and go for a walk on the beach, maybe have a swim in the pool or jump in the ocean. You’d see the tourists rocking up by the busload and they’d just be looking at this place with such wonder and amazement and we’d think, “God, we live here.” It’s very easy to take it for granted but it is probably one of the most beautiful places on Earth. The clarity of the water and just the lifestyle – it’s pretty special.

Is there anything you don’t like about the area?
Traffic for us on weekends was a nightmare. The parking situation started to do our heads in a bit. And I guess I reached that age where you kind of leave that social bubble and you’re ready to step out with the woman you love and move to quieter surroundings. It wasn’t that we had anything against the area, it was just a natural evolution in the journey I’ve had as a person that that phase was over. It was time to try something different and that involved a bit more space and a bit more clarity and peace, I guess.

In the quieter times as an actor is there a better place to be unemployed than Bondi Beach?
I don’t know if there’s a better place to be. I think it’s a pretty bad distraction. It’s very easy to not get anything done. You want to think that you’re getting on with your own projects and you’re writing things and developing things but when you’re somewhere like Bondi it’s very easy to go, “I’ll just go for another swim,” or “I’ve got to catch up with Macca down the shop and have another cup of coffee.” It’s very easy to distract yourself.

Do you have any favourite local haunts around Bondi?
It’s changed so much. I mean all this up here (Ben Buckler shops) is all new since we were here, I hardly recognise anywhere. We used to go down to Speedos, which was at the end of our street, and they do a pretty good bacon and egg sandwich in the morning when you’re desperate.

When did you decide you wanted to get into acting?
I was probably 20 or 21 and I think I got into acting more as a validation thing. I wasn’t the most confident, secure teenager and acting meant that some people would actually clap what I did. You get recognised for things and I think I drifted into it for those reasons. It felt good to get my ego boosted and the more I learned about it I realised what a craft it was and then I got a bit addicted to trying to work out ways to understand the human psyche and convey that on a screen or a stage. I guess my motives and intentions were not great to begin with but I learnt to love it and appreciate it for what it is in the end.

Did you learn more about acting at NIDA or on the job?
Because of a boom in reality television in the last five years, I think people really have a thirst for naturalistic performances and reality. We’re so used to seeing real emotions on ‘Big Brother’ and shows like that that actors can’t get away with acting anymore. If actors are overacting it stinks. You can just tell when it’s being pushed. I think drama schools have a lot to answer for in a way because they do mould you into a certain performance mode. I think for a lot of people that come out of drama school it takes a lot to undo that. You get great training but I think you learn more about yourself as a human being when you’re thrown into a pressure cooker environment and you’re trying to work out who you are. The more comfortable you are as a person the better an actor you are and whether that happens in a drama school or on the streets per se works differently for different people. I think I learned a lot about myself as a person at NIDA but then I’ve spent a lot of time undoing certain acting traits that I learnt there to try and get more real and more organic in my approach.

How long was it from when you graduated to when you first scored a decent gig?
Well it depends on what you call decent. My first job was the Fantastic Bat Fantasy at the Australian Museum, which for me was a terrific job. The five year old kids seemed to love it but it wasn’t an illustrious career move. My first main job was a production called ‘Equus’ down in South Australia with Marion Potts and Justin Kurzel, who directed ‘Snowtown’ last year. That was about six months after I graduated and Rolf de Heer saw that production and then he offered me a part in ‘The Tracker’, which was my first film. I guess in a lot of ways I was lucky that things happened quite quickly. To have something like ‘The Tracker’ as my first ever film experience was a blessing and a curse because it was one of the most special times in my life but it also set me an impossibly high benchmark for what film making can be. There was certainly a re adjustment after that.

In terms of roles was there one where you were like: “It can’t get any worse than this”?
I think every actor has cringe-worthy roles that they hope no one ever sees and you just pray that they get buried and don’t turn up on YouTube one day. I’ve had a couple of those. I just wasn’t ready and I was such a shit actor and I hadn’t learnt the trade enough. There was a lot of hammy, over the top acting going on.

You’ve turned your hand to writing and directing and you managed to win top gong at Tropfest a couple of years ago; can you tell us about the winning film?
Well the film itself was a chance to fill a void. My girlfriend had this very experimental detox she wanted me to do that involved not a lot of eating so we made it in three days just to keep ourselves busy basically. It was called ‘Animal Beatbox’. I never actually wanted to enter the film but she convinced me to at least give it a go. When it got in it was a massive shock and a bit funny but then when it won it went to another level. I just didn’t expect it. Then I had to deal with all the trappings that come with any kind of victory in Australia. It’s very hard to hold your head up high because there’s a fair amount of curry that can come your way.

What was the basic premise of the film?
I guess I consider myself a card carrying greenie in the sense that I look around at what we’re doing to the planet and it doesn’t fill me with a lot of excitement and there are a lot people making selfish decisions about the way they treat each other or the planet. The film just seemed like a really fun, little silly thing to do about animals. It’s basically just a rap created by reading out and looping the names of different animals and there’s obviously the visual element as well. It was just a very fun, simple little thing with a message about appreciating your kingdom.

Who were the judges that year?
The very respected Jack Thompson, Olivia Newton John, and a couple of other people. I think it was quite a heavy year too. There was a couple of films about cancer so I think when mine came on people sort of went “Oh, hey” and it got a really good reaction because it was a bit different. Any other year it probably would have come last or a bit lower in the order. It just happened to break through that year for whatever reason. I’m certainly grateful and some good things have come of it.

How many times have you entered Tropfest?
Twice. The year before I won I made the finals with a film called ‘One’ that I made with one of my best friends. It was an animation about a number one dice that’s trying to another number one.

What is it about Tropfest that you think has allowed it to scale such great heights and become the biggest short film festival in the world?
I reckon the fact that ‘Animal Beatbox’ can win. I made that film for $80 in three days. Tropfest means you don’t have to have any flash actors, you don’t have to be an amazing film maker, you just have to have an idea and if you’ve got creativity and the action to make it you might have a chance to get it seen by a massive audience. There’s something really appealing about that. It promotes creativity and everyone has a genuine chance, which I think is great.

Before playing Greg Chappell in ‘Howzat!’ were you a big cricket fan?
Growing up I was. And I played a lot at school but I was never amazingly good at it. I just appreciated it as a sport. It’s funny because suddenly out of nowhere I had nine months of complete cricket marathon, which was great because I had heaps of net training, heaps of bowling practice and I was getting paid to ‘rehearse’. I got my eye in over nine months, which was great fun. Doing ‘Save Your Legs’ in India and ‘Howzat!’ with a great group of blokes, making a film about cricket in India and playing these Aussie heroes from the ’70s, they’re pretty fun jobs for a young male. If you’d asked me at 15 if I’d like that to be my career I’d go, “Yes, please!”

Have you had any feedback from Greg Chappell since it screened?
Not since. I had an hour with him before we started filming, which was really great. I know he’s a mad keen golfer and I am too so I’m trying to tee up a game with him. I haven’t heard any feedback though. I know he liked it but I thought he said he would have liked a bit more player development, as opposed to all the focus on the politics. He would’ve liked them to have gone into the back story of the players, which is understandable. I suppose all the players would say that.

Do you plan to stay around here working in Australia or do you have aspirations to go overseas and put on an American accent?
I don’t have aspirations to live in America, I just don’t. As a country it doesn’t suit me. I think if the right job came up I’d go but I wouldn’t go for pilot season. If it was a really good show or film with a great director I’d certainly consider it but I love living in Australia and the more that I’m developing my own stuff, directing and what not, this feels like the place to be at the moment. I’m very comfortable living here and I guess my aspirations of becoming a big acting star have kind of waned and now I’m happy to do great and interesting jobs with great directors.

Have you got any projects coming up in the pipeline?
We’re developing something at the moment based on a book called ‘Sweet Poison’ by a guy named David Gillespie. It’s about the sugar industry and what sugar does to us, how it effects behaviour, how prevalent it is in society and how it’s found its way to every food. It’s like a ‘Super Size Me’ kind of documentary. It’s really fun, it’s accessible to kids and to parents so they can teach their kids about the potential dangers of sugar and how it is being linked to diabetes and to obesity and all sorts of diseases that we’re finding in the world.

Do you have any other acting projects coming up?
There’s one I’m doing at the moment with Rachel Griffiths called ‘Patrick’ and it’s a remake of a 1978 cult Aussie thriller/horror thing about a guy who can kind of control electronic devices with his mind. And I did a ‘Mr and Mrs Murder’, which is a show coming up on Channel Ten with Shaun Micallef and Cat Stewart.

Do you have a career highlight thus far?
In terms of films I’d say ‘The Tracker’ because it was the first one I ever did and I got to work with Rolf de Heer and David Gulpilil, who are two very special human beings. ‘Balibo’ was a highlight just for the story of it and the integrity of that film and how it was handled. So those two are very, very high up there but funnily enough ‘Save Your Legs’, which we just made in India recently, was probably the most enjoyable because I’d never done a comedy before and to be in a country like India with a bunch of guys playing cricket and having carte blanche to really go for it was great. I play a really interesting kind of character, a real knob, and it was great fun to play. To do a flat out comedy with a few poo jokes, there was something really enjoyable about that, really child like.

What does the Aussie film industry have to do to get people to watch Australian films?
Obviously we can’t compete with the marketing budgets of the American films so quite often people don’t know about a film because they’ve got every American actor plastered over the buses. In terms of putting it out there into the world there’s not enough awareness about what Aussie films are. My personal opinion is that they should have an incentive, like maybe making tickets $10 instead of $17 or $18 for Aussie films, or maybe Australians could claim ten Aussie films a year on tax or something. There needs to be some kind of incentive to get families to take a risk, because if they’re in a line and they see a film with an actor they don’t really know from Australia versus a Brad Pitt film they’re going to choose the Brad Pitt film every time because it’s a safer bet. If they’re going to spend around $100 to take a family to the movies we need some incentive to get them to buy the Australian ticket.

Do you support any charities?
The one I do support and have done some work is R U OK Day, which started up a couple of years ago. I do think mental health is a factor in the world we live in, where people are terrified to be vulnerable and they’re scared to admit how they’re feeling. To have a day like that where it’s so simple, it’s great. And I was a Movember ambassador as well. I think that was because of the ‘Howzat’ connection. I was passionate about that because it was about fathers and sons as well as prostate cancer and mental health. My motto was, “Ask your dad how he’s going, and if you’re really close offer to check his prostate.”

Do you have any role models in the industry?
I remember when I was younger seeing ‘Bodyline’ and just thinking Hugo Weaving was the bee’s knees as Douglas Jardine. There was just something about his performance that made me go, “Wow, that’s a seriously good actor right there.” So when I was younger it was him but nowadays it’s more about the personalities I really like, people who really aren’t afraid to be themselves, and for all his trappings even someone like Russell Brand is an influence to me now because he’s so unafraid to just be himself.

Do you have any advice for youngsters looking to make it in the acting/film world?
I just did a talk to a private girls’ school recently about creativity. I did heaps of research and found that there are two parts of the brain, the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere. The left hemisphere is the world we live in now, it’s all about logic, doing things, always being on our phones, thinking about things, constantly distracted by an anxiety. The right brain is utilised when you’re sitting by yourself in nature or you’re out having a surf and that’s where your creativity lives, that’s where your ideas come out. I think I’d encourage people to make sure that they have that balance in their lives, so they aren’t just consumed by culture and constantly checking their emails or Facebook or Twitter because their great ideas aren’t going to come in when they’re in that mode.

In an ideal world, what does the future hold for Damon Gameau?
I can see rug-rats in my future – a couple of little tackers running around. I’d like to see the sugar film hopefully have a large impact on the community in the sense of bringing awareness to people of what they’re putting into their bodies and how that can affect their moods and their behaviour and their relationships, because it is a drug. I hope that it gets the exposure that it deserves and that we handle it the right way. And I hope I keep getting to do really interesting jobs and projects with directors that I respect and that I grow as a human being and learn from them and become better and better as a person so that I can share that with my friends and my family.

Do you hope to become a Tropfest judge one day?
I’ve done that; ticked that box. That was last year. That was with Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush and Toni Collette. I don’t know if I’m going to top that. I think my judging days are done. There’s nowhere to go from there.