Over the past few years, Australian audiences have become very comfortable with Ewen Leslie. He’s currently that actor — the one popping up in everything from acclaimed big-screen dramas to long-established TV series to limited-run comedies and miniseries. With parts in The Daughter, Janet King, Rake, Top of the Lake and Sweet Country all to his name since 2015, blink and you definitely won’t miss him. And with his upcoming starring role in Safe Harbour, that won’t change in 2018.
That said, there’s a reason Leslie feels so familiar, beyond seeing his face with increased frequency. An adaptable talent, he can pierce the screen with his intensity in one performance, play the Aussie everyman with aplomb in another, and make a character’s pain and sorrow feel palpable in yet another. And, with 50 film and TV credits spanning 25 years in the business, he has been a near-constant presence on our screens dating back to 1993 — and on our stages, thanks to and a lengthy and applauded theatre roster as well. One of the country’s hardest-working actors for decades, his resume is littered with appearances in high-profile efforts, whether popping up in the first season of Lockie Leonard and appearing in Redfern Now or featuring in big-name, locally made movies such as The Railway Man.
It was an iconic 1990s children’s series that gave Leslie his first acting role when he played Guido in Ship to Shore. Skipping the Australian acting rite-of-passage that is the soap opera circuit, his 52-episode part helped sew the seeds for his lengthy career. As he explained in a 2017 interview with Cinema Australia, “We were a bunch of kids hanging out on a film set but you’re also working. It was an amazing experience and to see the filmmaking side of things first-hand was a real eye opener. It taught me so much and that’s why I originally thought I wanted to go down that path.”
Post-Ship to Shore, smaller parts became his forte — but Leslie’s versatility would keep shining through. In the early 2000s, it was on display in brief roles in Wild Kat and All Saints, plus a lengthier stint in Love My Way. In TV movie Mabo, he played a junior counsel for the plaintiffs in the country’s groundbreaking native title case, while the likes of Wonderland, Deadline Gallipoli and a voice role in comedy No Activity would all follow.
At the same time, the big screen beckoned. 1998’s Marcus Graham and Kerry Armstrong-starring Justice might’ve marked his film debut, followed by the first of two Matthew Newton-directed efforts with 2004’s Right Here Right Now, but it was Jewboy that kickstarted Leslie’s big screen career. At 52-minutes, it straddles the line between short and feature, with Leslie playing an Orthodox Jew abandoning his faith after the death of his father in a considered and compelling performance. A film of quiet moments, which screened at both the Cannes and Sundance film festivals, it’s also one of big revelations about how to live one’s life.
From there, Leslie wandered the streets of Sydney in Three Blind Mice, as one of a trio of naval officers on shore leave, then portrayed one half of a complicated connection in Sleeping Beauty. The pain evident in both movies evolved from simmering to blistering in Dead Europe, his next standout, in an emotionally dense account of a photographer’s trip back to his Greek ancestral homeland made by Jewboy director Tony Krawitz. The Mule would then see Leslie in crime comedy territory, and though he proved the best part of whimsical romance The Butterfly Tree, it’s The Daughter that has resonated as the most influential film role in his career.
That’s understandable. When director Simon Stone took his own reworking of Henrik Ibsen's The Wild Duck from the theatre to film, he took Leslie with him. It’s a heart-wrenching part, playing a rural husband and father trying to find another job after the local timber mill closes down, all while coping with family revelations after the return of a childhood friend. It’s also a highlight of Leslie’s prolific stage resume, which has also seen him tackle both Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Hamlet with Stone. Other notable roles include Riflemind under Philip Seymour Hoffman’s direction, Richard III and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
Today, after working his way up the country’s stage and screen ranks, it’s hardly surprising Leslie is everywhere audiences look. It might be to him, though. Speaking to Inside Film in 2017 about his work in Top of the Lake: China Girl, he noted, “To find myself on set with Jane Campion, Nicole [Kidman] and Elisabeth [Moss], that was a pretty crazy experience.” This year, more Rake is on his agenda, plus the Brisbane-set Safe Harbour and TV drama Fighting Season. And, in cinemas, he’ll soon be making an inimitable imprint in stunning Aussie outback western Sweet Country, as well as starring in The Nightingale, the eagerly-awaited second effort by The Babadook’s Jennifer Kent.
Already used to seeing Leslie on screens? Prepare for much more where that came from.