Victorian College of the Arts graduate Rodney Afif talks about his role as Iraqi refugee Youssif in Michael James Rowland’s excellent new feature film, Lucky Miles, as well as providing some tips on how to handle acting for the camera, and a tantalising preview of his next project with the Eleventh Hour Theatre Company.
How are you?
Good, good… (sound of a young child)… sorry Brendan, I’m just trying to run away from my son who’s trying to talk to me…
Yeah, I think I’ve lost him. (Laughs) I think… yep, ok mate.
I’ve got you for twenty minutes so I’ll try and keep things nice and brief. I’ve got a few questions that I’ve prepared so we’ll play it by ear.
Not a worry.
So to the first question – when did you first receive the script for Lucky Miles and what were your first impressions on reading it?
Well I met with Michael (writer/director Michael Rowland) at a cafe in Fitzroy, and he discussed the character with me, and I kind of responded to his description of the character of Youssif and I said ‘Ah yeah that sort of sounds like me’, and then when I read the script my suspicions were affirmed. I felt that he was well within my range and that he was my type, so I felt pretty confident that I was going to be cast in the role and that came about, so yeah… that was about March of 2006, so I got onboard fairly late, and I’d been associated with it for a fairly short time before the film went into production.
He’s a great character. He’s got a lot of range to his character and he’s got a very full back-story as well that’s suggested rather than really openly expressed. How was it to work on a character like that?
Ah, it was interesting because you know, I’ve… being an actor of Lebanese ancestry and Arabic extraction I’ve played quite a few roles as, well, one type of asylum seeker or another, and I’ve actually played an Iraqi asylum seeker previously, so I was pretty aware of the general backstory with Iraq, the likely conditions in Iraq prior to this man’s possible escape from Iraq, so it wasn’t something that was entirely alien to me, it wasn’t something that I had to heavily investigate in an intensive way, because I’ve been associated with Iraqi refugees and Iraqi stories for quite some time with previous projects. It was… so for me it felt like a culmination of a few years of associating myself with the plight of asylum seekers once they enter Australia, and particularly the plight of Iraqi ayslum seekers, given the conditions in Iraq.
Just in relation to that I read in the press kit that one of your fellow actors, Majid Shokor, served as a consultant with you on the Iraqi background and I’m thinking in particular of the scene on the ridge where an Iraqi Republican Guard knife is brought out, and I love that moment. It’s a small moment, but was it things like that where having Majid onset really helped?
Oh yeah. Well, Majid was incredibly valuable to me, I mean, I knew Majid previously, I’ve worked with Majid on two or three previous projects so it was a bit ‘Oh, how are you Majid’ and it was nice to come into contact again. And I was a big advocate for him to get that role, and for me it was fantastic having him on set. Majid is an incredibly engaging man, and speaks very clearly and very lucidly about the events in Iraq around the time that he left Iraq, and speaks clearly about his position on how things stand at the moment. Of course the other thing about Majid was that he coached me in the Arabic language and I absolutely couldn’t have done it without him – he was a very patient and painstaking teacher. So yeah, Majid was one of the primary sources on set in terms of cultural resource, but of course all the other Arabic men on set were all Iraqi. Majid was a refugee, plus two others, and of course on the other side there was the Cambodians. Michael James Rowland, the director, one of his personal friends, Thorl, was one of the Cambodian men, he was also the cultural advisor for that part of the story. So I think Michael… had investigated the whole script really, really well, because certainly when Majid first read the script and we met afterwards he was quite delighted, because Majid translated the scenes from English into Arabic, and Majid sort of said to me day ‘How does he know we talk like that?’ So obviously Michael had struck a chord very deeply.
Congratulations on the accent work, by the way, it was pretty damn good.
Well, thank you for that, and of course I guess I had… I was speaking English with an accent but also I was speaking Arabic and that needed to be an Iraqi accent, in particular Basra, and I’m not sure how successful I was with that.
What I really enjoyed about Lucky Miles was that it simply told a story and it was free of agenda, where we see the consequences of global politics rather than arguments about displacement or people-smuggling. How do you think that these issues in the context of Lucky Miles will translate for audiences?
Well I’d hope and I’d expect that audiences of all political persuasions will feel invited to come and watch Lucky Miles without feeling like they’re being preached to, or accused, or implicated. Like I said, I’ve been in a lot of… I’ve played a lot of asylum seekers of one sort or another in the past few years, and many of the projects I’ve been involved with have been accusatory, and have attempted to implicate and shame Australia, in relation to Australia’s attitude and legal incarceration of asylum seekers. I would hope that Lucky Miles actually leaves an open invitation for anyone to come and watch and actually rather than see iconic, good, suffering refugees on screen or on stage, actually, you know, enjoy a drama where they’re seeing genuine relationships between people who are not of Anglo Australian extraction, and actually come to see them as human rather than all-suffering, you know, the type of news footage we see of people experiencing extreme duress, either in war-zones or in detention centres, and to actually see these people as human. And I think that’s the triumph of Lucky Miles – the word’s got out that its a comedy, and I think that’s a good thing, I think if we can invite people to come and watch a comedy about these special types of Australians then it’ll be a triumph for the film.
I think so too, because the kind of struggles that the people in the film endure and the humour that they demonstrate is what people typically think is quintessentially Australian, and it just goes to show that its really not, that that kind of thing is free of culture, in a sense.
Yes, yes, I think that comedy is a common language.
The scene where you repair the clapped-out old ute was a highlight for me.
What were some of yours on set?
Some of the highlights? Gee… it’s um… very often the highlight was the end of the day when I was snugly tucked up in bed. It was an arduous shoot. The conditions were extremely cold and dusty, and difficult. It wasn’t an easy ride in those terms. It was a lot of fun to work on, but a tough set… we had some pretty tough days.
It’s a rough environment.
It was rough and it was cold. We shot this time last year –
– and on one or two occasions we had to be immersed in the ocean or a water hole and it was extremely cold. But I guess on set, yeah, I guess one of my favourite things was hanging out at the shed, the surveyor’s hut. You know, in terms of the narrative of the film it’s a different narrative, it’s the narrative of my experience on set. I think that was a fun time for us, the weather was fine, we had an indoor refuge (Laughs). They were nice days in the shed, and I guess the scenes where we drove the ute around, that was all fun stuff. But, you know, its a weird thing, you have a completely different chronology or narrative of the shoot, and sometimes you mix that up with the narrative of thefilm, and sometimes the two just don’t meet, you know, so you’re watching the film and you feel like its coming towards the end of the story, purely because you know that you shot that scene that was maybe the last scene you shot for the film, so, sometimes your memories sort of are at odds with your experience of actually watching the film… So I don’t know if I had highlights. I guess any time where we didn’t have to drive too far over rocky, rocky four-wheel-drive tracks, and we didn’t have to get too much bulldust up our nose, and we didn’t have to immerse ourselves in water – anything that didn’t involve those things was a highlight.
I notice that you’re a VCA grad. Many of our readers are VCA drama students –
Are you a drama student, are you?
So just a question for us, I guess – how did the training carry over for you in terms of preparation for the film, or is it something that’s become much more organic for you since you graduated from the college?
Well, you know, film acting and tv acting was a mysterious dark art when I left VCA, for me, there was precious little of it at VCA, I think in our – are you third year?
Third year, yep.
I think we had a few weeks of afternoons with Bud Tingwell, which was valuable, but I don’t think it was enough. You know the emphasis on theatre is very strong at the VCA and continues to be so, which is great, I think officially acting is acting, it doesn’t really matter whether its film or tv, but I think it’s really valuable to get some more training outside of theatre, because ninety percent of the work that most graduates will do will be tv or film, or ads or whatever, very, very little of it will actually be theatre, so I think its important to do your time in front of the camera. For me I think, my experience, my first year tv gigs I just had no idea what I was doing, and by the time I’d see the product onscreen I’d think ‘Oh Christ, the camera was there!’ You know, I had no idea where the camera was, I had no idea where the mic was, film acting is incredibly technical. It actually requires you to be very aware, very aware of what everybody’s job is on set. It probably starts with being aware of where the camera is, what the frame is, what the shot is, and then it goes on from there. I don’t think you can stop learning, because there are so many people on set doing very specific and important jobs. I think for me, ultimately, with this film, well not ultimately hopefully, but certainly at this point anyway, I feel like my awareness had expanded to a degree where I was aware of what everyone’s job was so the shock of seeing myself onscreen was far reduced, because it actually came close to how I imagined I was being seen anyhow. I think ultimately its all about reducing that gap between how you think you’re being seen and how you’re actually being seen. And I think that’s about awareness. And growing your awareness on a set, I guess it’s just experience and I’ve been lucky enough to have that experience.
That’s a great breakdown actually of some of the crucial technical differences between stage and screen. To another question, however; in regards to Lucky Miles and the Australian industry, how important do you feel it is that our cultural expression expand to include more roles of the type seen in this film given the country’s changing demographic, and do you think that Lucky Miles could represents an important step in this direction?
Ah, whether it represents an important… well, possibly it will, you know, my wife is a Kiwi, and she sort of said to me ‘It’s kind of an international The Castle‘, I think its a better film than The Castle just between you and me, but anyway, you know I hope it does have that appeal where The Castle had the whole grassroots suburban Melbourne family, I hope Lucky Miles can strike a similiar chord where people of all demographics can come and feel like yeah, this is an Australia that they recognise. I think Michael James Rowland, the director, one of the things he’ll say is that he went to school in suburban Adelaide, and he went to school with all these people. In fact, the cultural advisor, the Cambodian cultural advisor Thorl, Michael met him at school. So I think its probably the reality for many, particularly urban Australians that you will, your experience of people in Australia will be that they come from all, all corners of the globe. Did that answer your question?
It did, yes. We’re just on the twenty minute mark, so I just want to ask you one more question. Now that Lucky Miles in is the can, are there any projects coming up for you that you’re excited about, or that you can talk about?
Yeah, I’m going to start a project with Wil Henderson and Ann Thompson of the Eleventh Hour Theatre Company, I don’t know if you know them.
Yes, they did a production of A Winter’s Tale last year, I believe.
Yep, that’s right. So we’re starting a development in August, and we’re rehearsing and putting together I think Othello and The Merchant of Venice, I think we’re going to rehearse from around mid-October to Christmas. So that’s my next project, which I’m extremely excited about, because its theatre, which I enjoy, and its Shakespeare, which its always fun sort of wrapping yourself around that language.
Are you set to play Othello?
I believe so. We’re not sure exactly how we’re going to pitch the whole thing, you know the two plays both being Venetian plays and both being about racism, I guess there’s a number of ways you can talk about that in relation to Othello, but I think its a particularly interesting one if we do discuss it in terms of Arab relations with the West, and I guess in that scenario I play the Arab. I believe that’s what we’re going to do.
Do you mind me putting that in the interview?
About the Eleventh Hour?
About the possibility of you playing Othello.
Great, I just wasn’t sure; if it isn’t finalised, then I wanted to check.
It isn’t finalised, but it is a possibility. I think it’s something we’ll… yeah, I think it’s fine to put that in the interview, because I it follows that they’re the kind of roles that I’ve played in the last ten years or so; I’ve played those bridging roles, Australian writers or people putting on projects, where they use me as the Arabic aspect when discussing Australia’s role with the Middle East, so I think it follows fairly well that this might be the role that I assume yet again.
Rodney, its been a real pleasure talking to you, and congratulations on Lucky Miles.
Thank you, thank you, yeah, its a fun film, I really enjoy. I’ve seen it three times and I’ve loved it every time. Thank you for the questions, it’s been a lot of fun answering.