A cut above the rest. By: Doug Aiton. 6th May 1995. THE SUNDAY AGE
He sports a scar on his face, smokes a lot and doesn't diet or exercise. So what is the secret of John Waters' success?
He flew into a balmy Melbourne day from Sydney, heaving a camel hair coat and dragging on a stub of roll-your-own, which he kept either relighting or replacing. John Waters is not very politically correct. We wandered up Little Bourke on a public holiday and eventually decided on a place unknown to us both called Janbo, which proved to have succulent roast duck. I had a beer but Waters chose mineral water. He gave up all alcohol about a year ago.
"I think I got it before it got me," he said. You mean, you were alcoholic, I asked. "No", he replied easily, "just drinking too much." He said he finds that he is now a more relaxed person without booze, that he doesn't ever miss it now, but he missed it ``like crazy" when he first stopped.
At 46, John Waters is busier than ever, despite the Australian film industry not being exactly how he remembers it in the roaring '70s. He goes back to the start of the good times, playing Claude in Harry M. Miller's 1970 production of `Hair'. From that time, he was always in demand, both on the stage and screen. He has never really been out of work, and he often has to turn down roles.
He is now playing Sherlock Holmes-type Singapore-based private eye John Stamford in a Nine Network series called `Singapore Sling'.
He is also about to tour, starring in a play he co-wrote called `ReUnion'. His co-stars are Jacki Weaver and co-author Stewart D'Arietta and they'll play in Newcastle, the Gold Coast, the Comedy in Melbourne (May 31 to June 24), Adelaide, Hobart and Perth.
He certainly looks relaxed. He looks, in fact, very much like the John Waters of `Rush', and `All The Rivers Run', and various cop shows, and `Summerfield', and a million others. John Waters must have good genes. He doesn't diet or exercise, he is quite tall and slender (as always), his teeth are still prominent and in good health, his skin is olive, and to me he looks like he is in a time warp. He also still has that fetching scar, horizontal under one eye, but perhaps now fading. A skittish woman once told me she wouldn't be in love with John Waters if it wasn't for his scar.
"Have you always smoked?" "Since I was 13. Thirty three years. I'm quite fit. I can run to catch a bus or train. I'll give up. Perhaps I'll make turning 50 the deadline."
"What's the best movie you've been in?" "I believe `Breaker Morant'. It's not a John Waters movie. It was just a movie with John Waters in it." I couldn't remember him in it, and I think he caught my puzzled look because he explained that he played Captain Taylor, who had offered Morant a way out, which had been declined. The part had been of only two brief appearances.
"What film role did you want and not get?" "That's interesting. I can't remember ever hearing about a film and hankering after a role and not got it. I would have liked to have done the film version of `Children Of A Lesser God' because I did the stage version . . ."
I believe him. John Waters has not been one who has pushed. In fact, by his own admission, he has been a bit lazy, more or less allowing things to happen, rather than pursuing them. He readily admits this. I suspect this might be the reason he has not made the international movie scene, because he is a polished performer and probably our best- looking male screen star. It does not seem to worry him.
"What would be your desert island movies?" "I bought the video of `Dr Strangelove' so I could watch it whenever I like. I like `Rio Bravo' (John Wayne). I'm a Western fan and it's a beautifully crafted Western. I suppose I must be a Kubrick fan because I also like `2001' and `Paths Of Glory'. . ."
"And what is the greatest theatre you have seen?" "I'm not really a big theatre-goer. Not because I don't like theatre, but because I'm a bit lazy at going out. I was first enthralled by theatre in London, as a kid. I saw `Antonio and the Spanish Dancers' at the London Palladium. It must have been about 1957. All these beautiful women with decolletage-type dresses and heaving breasts and flashing eyes. It was the ultimate in all of music, excitement, sexuality, that I'd ever seen. In a theatrical environment, I love big color, big sound. But people saying `Hello Mrs Brown, have a cup of tea' . . . well, I get a bit bored with that."
We got onto the inevitable but rather useless comparison between working in movies and on the stage and television. Waters concluded that "on stage you stand in front of a thousand people and you mustn't bore them, but you must be everything that they want you to be. But both movies and stage have their own anxieties. There is no gain without pain either way. And if you're looking for gain without pain, you're in the wrong business."
"What's the worst film you ever made?" "Ooh, I'd say the film that failed to achieve its brief more than any other was one in the mid-'80s called `Going Sane'. It was a mid- life crisis about a man who works for a mining corporation and goes a bit crazy and leaves his wife and makes love with his secretary. The wife was played by Judy Morris. Judy and I also played husband-and-wife in the last episode of `Homicide', which was cancelled."
"Well, talking of that, what sort of a bloke was Hector Crawford?" "I had great admiration for him. I have hardly worked on a film or tele-movie where half the crew hasn't been trained by Crawford Productions, especially here in Melbourne but also in Sydney. He was very, very charming in his own blustery way. Forthright in his opinions. Sometimes he could be totally wrong. Once I was cast as a baddie and Hector was heard to say `we can't have John Waters as a baddie, John Waters is a hero'. In fact, I'd been a child molester, a murderer, a bank robber . . ."
We talked for a while about Waters' tribute to John Lennon called `Through A Glass Onion', a stage production which he wrote and in which he also plays Lennon. It has been a huge success in Australia, but it lost $200,000 in London, even though Waters and his partner were ecstatic at the end of the opening night when there was a standing ovation with people weeping. He blames, quite simply, the power of the ghastly British tabloids, which got stuck into it.
He believes the idea of an Australian presenting John Lennon was something they did not take to kindly. Did you ever meet a Beatle, I asked. No, he didn't. Well, yes he did. Years ago, before he came out to Australia as a 19-year-old, he went to a Billy Fury concert with his sister Angela in their home town of Teddington. His sister urged him to get anybody's autograph after the show and he came back with ``George Harrison" scrawled on the program.
"I MUST say I felt a little jealous of Bryan Brown, working with Paul McCartney in `Give My Regards To Broad Street"' ``But I thought it was no good," I said. "Terrible! It shows what happens when a man with five hundred million wants to make a film. Beware."
Waters surprised me with his thoughts on accents, many of which he is able to produce given that he's a Londoner as well as an Australian. "My favorite spoken English is by educated Indians, or an ABC-type Australian voice. When they speak well, Australians don't clip all the consonants. The British do, and they sound too pedantic." His example of a fine-sounding Australian is the Sydney television news reader Ross Symons.
"What makes a good actor?" In order to prepare to answer that one, Waters had to call for matches to light, yet again, his never-ending roll-your-own stub. "Well, it's the ability to assume the persona of somebody else. Now that's a tall call for anybody. Judy Davis is one of the best anywhere, ever. Also, Robert de Niro, Charles Laughton. And Ronald Colman. Every time Ronald Colman spoke, I believed him. I imagine they were all difficult people. They would have dismantled their own personality. They'd be like those little fish that cling to the end of a shark. I'm not like that. I'm not that good. I'm a good actor, but I have to work it all out. I think it's a weird thing to do. Bordering on madness. Most people would shit themselves. You need an ego. But you need an intelligent ego. When an actor is nervous to the point of neurosis, I tend to think, you should be working behind a counter. Most of the good actors I know are quite humble people. If you've got big tickets on yourself, you can't see when you're doing something wrong. And directors will not pick it up. I like to think of myself as a story-teller. Whether someone else has written the story or not, it's a nice function. If people say, that guy told me a story, then I've done my job well."
"Does the fact that you're nearly 50 change things?" "The short answer is no. But I have to be realistic. I've just finished being a romantic man (in `Singapore Sling'). It doesn't last as long for women, unless they have surgery. I think it's a bit sick. We don't run the business. The moguls do. If I could look at 70 like Cary Grant looked at 70 I'd say, thanks very much God."
"The only change in you," I said, "is that you're going a bit greyer."
"It doesn't worry me," he said. "Other people tell me this, so I can say it: I think I lack a normal actor's vanity. But under the lights I darken my hair now, because otherwise it's white. I don't yearn to be 25 again other than being able to drink until three in the morning and wake up at six feeling fine.
"Would you like to say a few words about John Lennon?" "I like the fact that out of all the turmoil of the '60s, there was someone who spoke with a fearless and lucid imagination. Up until Lennon, pop stars or rock stars used to say what was their favorite color, or their favorite place for a holiday. Lennon came out and said, `I think the British should stop f. . . . . . up Biafra. Or he raged against materialist values. Of course, he got written off as a lunatic. Apart from loving his song-writing, I could identify. I admired his intellect. He was brave enough to say things that might harm others' careers. He broke all the rules. But he did it with class. I mean, Kurt Cobain blows his brains out and becomes a cult and a martyr. Well, he's just made his first 20 million, Nirvana is an OK rock band, and he's blown his brains out. They like to paint him as a victim of society. I think he was a victim of his own shortcomings. A victim of his own stupidity."
I would like you to tell me," I ventured, "how you got that scar." This time Waters really did think for a long time before delivering his reply.
"When I was a young student in Germany," he said, "I had an argument with the son of a European aristocrat at Heidelberg University, and he challenged me to a duel. And . . ." he gestured towards the scar.
We stared at each other for ten minutes or so.
"Well," he said, "actually, it was when I was gun-running in Algeria. I was attacked by marauding Bedouin tribesmen."
"Tribesmen, plural?" I asked.
"Definitely plural," he said.
We sipped slowly. Me, beer. Him, coffee. I smiled politely. He smiled.
"I was walking along the street in Teddington. I was four or five. I had one foot on the pavement and one in the gutter. A bicycle came towards me and smashed right into me. I suppose it was the handlebars. I was taken to hospital and stitches were put in very badly. I also have a broken nose from soccer."
"What would you ask John Lennon?" "That's a bit tough. I don't know. I'm sure I just would have enjoyed a conversation. I don't see him as a guru with pearls of wisdom. I just like the guy."