Ewen Leslie has had a cracking couple of years. A graduate of WAAPA (Western Australian Academy for Performing Arts) and with film credits such as Jewboy, Kokoda and the forthcoming Dead Europe under his belt, he has also been blazing a trail and collecting Helpmann and Green Room awards like pocket lint across the Australian stages, in stellar productions such as Richard III, Hamlet, The Trial, and most recently, a remount of Belvoir’s The Wild Duck, directed by Simon Stone and opening at the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne in just over a week’s time. Everguide and I managed to grab him from rehearsals for a short while to talk about ducks, revolves, mates and theatre and stuff. This is the unedited interview with Ewen Leslie, which originally featured here at Everguide. The Wild Duck is showing until March 17 at The Malthouse.
The Wild Duck is opening soon. How’s it feeling?
Good. We’re in the second day of rehearsing. We did it a year ago in Sydney at Belvoir, so we’re only rehearsing for a week and a half. It always feels kind of weird when you step back into something, and all of a sudden something that felt really kind of good and comfortable for four or five weeks all of a sudden feels, you know, weird. But its coming together, it’s a great group of people and the director Simon Stone is really great, so it’s good fun.
It’s a remount obviously, you don’t have the opportunity to re-investigate too much.
In terms of production and design and stuff its essentially the same. The good things in terms of acting and the scenes and stuff, you do try and do some new stuff, chuck some new stuff in there and see if it works. We all kind of said, ‘well, if one person can’t do it we won’t do it’, so all the cast members were in. If it was just about doing it exactly like we did last time beat for beat then it wouldn’t seem entirely worth it.
It would defeat the purpose, surely. Where would the fun be?
That’s it. So in rehearsals you’re really chucking as much stuff at the wall as you can and seeing what sticks and what works, and then putting it into the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne we’re kind of seeing what happens.
You’ve been getting a lot of critical acclaim over the last few years. Has that been a distraction for you in any way at all?
The last couple of years, especially down in Melbourne… I did Richard III a couple of years ago, and then the follow up year we did Hamlet, and they were such great opportunities and I was stoked to be given the chance, but they were two very different… I mean, when we were rehearsing Richard III, I don’t think there was too much expectation in the sense that it hadn’t sold too many tickets, you know. Of course I didn’t know any of this, but once we opened and word of mouth got out, it went really well, whereas Hamlet was sort of the opposite – we were pretty much sold out before we even started rehearsals, and that brings other sort of pressure and stress. I don’t know. Its kind of hard to… there’s some stuff you read that are really lovely things, you kind of go ‘well that’s great’, then continue doing the work, you know what I mean? And kind of see what happens, because every show and every experience is completely different, and there’s so many factors at work that I guess I’ve always had the sort of viewpoint of ‘well, I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing’, and do the best I can in every situation, and just see how it goes.
A very sound approach, I think.
Because of the nature of the beast, what acting is, what is it to talk about your work – is it difficult?
It is, kind of… because so much of the time it comes from a personal place, to go into the situations you’re in you’ve kind of got to delve into yourself a bit and find the place within yourself to invest into the role and the scenes and stuff. I suppose it can be a pretty tricky thing to talk about it at times. And even sometimes I kind of get the feeling that there are some things you do want to talk about, and other times where you sort of go, ‘well, I think I might kind of keep that to myself, because that’s my method or way of working’, and you want to make sure that it keeps working for you. But every show and every experience… The experience of doing this show is so vastly different to doing Shakespeare, like Richard III or Hamlet, and the experience of working with Simon Stone is so vastly different than working with Simon Phillips who directed those shows. You constantly sort of adapt yourself to who you’re working with and the people that are working around you. Different actors work in different ways and it feels like it’s a constant negotiation. And a compromise, and not in a bad way, but you’ve got to best work out how your way of working is going to fit with someone else’s way of working and how all the actors fit with the director who’s doing the show.
And that’s really at the heart of ‘play’, isn’t it, that negotiation.
Yeah, totally. And the great thing about Simon Stone in this show that we’re doing is that he encourages spontaneity. I mean, every director does, but in terms of the text, when we’re on the floor anything we want to chuck in or add in, he’s open to that. And he might not always go, ‘that’s great, keep it in there’. Indeed, over the last couple of days I’ve done things where he’s gone ‘No’, but at the same time that’s specific to this play with him, as opposed to doing Shakespeare where you can’t start making up lines in ‘To be or not to be’ where people aren’t going to be too into it.
You’ve got that rigourous superstructure to Shakespeare that you need to fit into in most cases.
What’s great about watching you play is that you never seem to hold back – when I saw The Trial at the Malthouse, I remember thinking Joseph K would die of exhaustion before he got to the heart of what was happening to him. I could see you really working, breathing. I remember thinking what a challenging experience it must have been, especially off the back of Richard, to have these tough roles complementing one another.
Yeah, that was tough. We did that show The Trial in Melbourne, then we did it in Sydney, then we did it in Perth. So by the end of it I think I’d done it seventy three times. That was an especially tough one because I didn’t get to leave the stage, ever, which means that I didn’t even get to sort of, it sounds silly to say, but I didn’t even get to drink water. But with Richard III there were a few moments where I could get off stage and have a quick swig, and in Hamlet he goes to England so you get a bit of time off stage to weigh up how its going, where something like The Trial felt like running a marathon every night.
Given especially that you don’t have that opportunity to step off, and that stage revolve being so relentless in that, one slip in concentration and you would have found yourself walking into a wall, surely?
There actually was a bit in the set where we called it the Mincer, where there was a point in the revolve, and because it was so close to the wall if you misjudged an entrance and came in too late or too early you could get seriously injured, between the scenes. I mean, technically it was all sort of worked out to the nth degree, but it was a funny one to do because off the back of Richard III, so much of that play (Richard) was him kind of attacking people, I was constantly coming at people and they were having to deal with the character, whereas with The Trial it was the complete opposite. I’d lie in the bed for twenty minutes before the show even started, and then I’d wake up and all of a sudden there were all of these people just constantly coming at me, attacking me, so in a way it was the absolute flip-side of my experience with Richard III.
They’re interesting companion pieces on reflection, I think. What does there have to be in a script or in a director, for instance Simon Stone, for you to jump at a piece of work. Have you ever though twice about something you’ve said yes to?
It changes. Sometimes it’s a director whose work you don’t know, or haven’t seen that much of, and then it can kind of be about the play and the role, you say ‘oh, well I would love to that role, I would love to do that play’, whereas with something like The Wild Duck, we didn’t have a script. We had the original Ibsen play, a five act, sixteen character period piece that went for three hours, but Simon’s take on it was ‘here’s the play, here’s the plot, but I’m going to condense it down to six characters and its going to go for eighty minutes, and although its completely the same story and plot, its actually going to be completely rewritten and contemporised. Stepping into that situation, you’re literally saying yes to something you have no idea what you’re going to get handed on the first day of rehearsal. But looking at that scenario, I’d seen a lot of Simon’s work where he had done that sort of stuff, and the cast… I stepped into this situation not knowing what the script was, but it was completely about the people. It changes from thing to thing
The unknown is a great place to start working, isn’t it?
Completely. And even when we started rehearsals on this a year ago, we only had three quarters of the script – Simon and Chris (Chris Ryan, co-writer) had an overview of where it was it was going to go, and that was a really exciting process to be a part of.
Simon has a daunting intellect – it must have felt good to know that he’s there four or five steps ahead, as you’d hope from any director.
Completely. And even when you approach something in a script where you go ‘I don’t quite get this bit’, or ‘can we possibly change this line’, he’ll say no, and give you a very detailed , very well thought out reason as to why it is and why he wants you to say it. It comes down to trust. You want to work with people that you trust, and people that excite you, and the idea of doing this with Simon ticks all of those boxes.
The Wild Duck is the latest in a kind of progression of plays in recent years, not just from Simon Stone, to take existing works as the starting point for theatrical exploration. Why do you think that there has been this resurgence in classic texts that are being re-animated and made new?
I’m not entirely sure. I suppose… that’s a really good question. I couldn’t tell you for sure… maybe they haven’t been seen or haven’t been done a lot, where they feel there’s a need I guess to reinvent them, but also to tear them apart a bit and make them… I mean, what Simon’s done with The Wild Duck, he just gave it such a great sense of immediacy. I mean, I haven’t seen Thyestes, which is just opening in Sydney –
Thyestes is a great piece of work.
I heard it was awesome. I suppose there is something in these works that Simon wants to look at the central plot and the central ideas and turn them into pieces of work that become very contemporary, immediate, and something that people can kind of relate to and get excited by.
A strange question, maybe, but what’s the most audacious thing you’ve seen a fellow performer do onstage?
The most amazing performance I’ve seen recently is Cate Blanchett in Gross Und Klein at the STC. She was amazing, I mean she obviously is amazing, and I’ve worked with her once before and seen her, but in this she was just extraordinary. And it seemed so sort of brave. I’m friends with lots of actors, and the great thing is you get to see your friends push themselves and do stuff – when you see a friend do something they haven’t done before, and they’re doing stuff that you know is not in a safe place for them, it becomes a really inspiring thing to see. And it makes you kind of want to push yourself to do the same for yourself. So I really can’t wait to see Thyestes.
Getting back to The Wild Duck, I understand there’s an actual duck in the production?
Yeah man. We are dealing with ducks.
What are the challenges involved with that?
We had ducks that we used in Sydney, but there are a couple of ducks now at the Malthouse that – look, obviously the challenges are that its completely unpredictable as to what they’re going to do onstage, you know? But I guess it adds another sort of element of danger and spontaneity on stage that’s a lot of fun. The ducks are never in danger, you know what I mean, but it doesn’t really care too much about the script, or clucking over one your lines.
You’re old mates with Toby Schmitz. What’s it like to share the stage with the history you have together (Schmitz and Leslie were housemates after graduation from their respective acting schools), and how much leeway do you have with one another when it comes to feedback or critique of each others work?
We’ve always been really sort of supportive of each others work, and I guess the great thing with this play is that we’re playing guys who are really old friends, who haven’t seen each other in eighteen years. So, the obvious temptation there is to get on stage and just play Ewan and Toby. But it then becomes about the fact that we haven’t seen each other in eighteen years and we’re trying to reconnect and we’ve become very different people from when we last saw each other. He becomes a really sort of exciting person to be doing that with, because although we’re playing people that are so much different to ourselves, there is so much history there that we can sort of secretly feed into it.
What’s the roadmap for you beyond The Wild Duck? Do you have signposts through the year of stuff that’s coming up?
I shot a film called Dead Europe that I did right after Hamlet. It was shot over in Europe, so I kind of secretly went off and I was really stoked to be a part of that, and I loved the novel, so I literally… I mean, we finished Hamlet on a Saturday night, and I flew to Sydney on the Sunday and started rehearsals on the Monday, and we rehearsed for two weeks and then we immediately started shooting. It was an awesome experience. I play such a great role, from such a great novel, but I also got to go to Greece, Paris and Budapest and it was one of those ridiculous sort of jobs where you just go ‘you’re kidding me’.
When’s that scheduled for release?
I’ve no idea. I think they’ll certainly want it to come out this year, they’re editing it now. I’m going to do some voice, ADR stuff tonight so I’ll sort of get to see my first bits of it but hopefully it’ll be good!
Ewen, thanks so much for chatting to us today, I’m really looking forward to catching The Wild Duck. All the best for rehearsals and for your opening.
Not at all man. Hope you enjoy the show and hang around for a beer after.
The Wild Duck opens at the Malthouse February 17. Directed by Simon Stone, with Ewan Leslie, Toby Schmitz, Eloise Mignon and Anita Hegh. An edited version of this interview also appears at http://everguide.com.au/arts-and-culture/theatre-and-musicals/interview/ewen-leslie-wild-duck.aspx