14 May 2009 - 11:45 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM


Paul Kelly is one of Australia's most loved and respected singer/songwriters, and he finally took the plunge into movies with a leading role in One Night The Moon, director Rachel Perkins' dazzling follow-up to her acclaimed debut Radiance. He spoke to FILMINK's Erin Free about making the transition from music to acting.

There's something strange about meeting salt-of-the-earth singer/songwriter Paul Kelly in a swanky hotel room near Kings Cross; the feeling burns that the interview should be happening up the road at Fitzroy Gardens near the famous fountain, or somewhere off Darlinghurst Road. But despite the modern fittings and sparse white walls, Paul Kelly is still Paul Kelly: honest, unaffected, quietly spoken and articulate in a charmingly off-the-cuff way. Slotting in interview time before dashing off for an in-store appearance at Red Eye Records, Kelly's here at somewhat of a junction in his career; after years as Australia's unofficial musical poet laureate, the singer has made the jump to movies with a lead role in Rachel Perkins' exciting new film One Night The Moon, which uses music and lyrics to tell the sad tale of a child lost in the bush, and the panicked desperation to find her.

Though involved from the project's inception as a songwriter and performer, Kelly's position as a leading actor was never as certain. “It was always a possibility,” he explains. “But it was never a certainty, and it was always dependent on who the director was going to be. The final collaborator was Rachel Perkins, and she was fairly clear in wanting to cast me, so I just said 'Give me a screen test before you commit!' I was a very inexperienced actor. I'd only acted about eight years ago in a play. So having people I knew and trusted working with me was... I felt very safe. And the crew and Rachel were all really supportive, so I was in good hands.”

Despite being a musician known for his understanding of the Australian psyche, and as someone who regularly collaborates with indigenous performers such as Kev Carmody, Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter, Kelly could actually find connection with his character, an ingrained bigot who won't let an Aboriginal tracker onto his land to lead the search for his daughter. “I don't think that character's diametrically opposed to me. You wouldn't be able to act something unless there's something in yourself that you can draw on. I think we're all racist. Show me someone who's not a racist – everyone seems to feel more comfortable with people that are like themselves. So, I can understand that kind of feeling or fear, so it's just a matter of trying to dig it up.”

As well as burrowing into the heart of his character, Kelly also enjoyed the truly collaborative nature of filmmaking, a discipline totally different to songwriting or even performing. “My work in bands is collaborative, but it's so much more collaborative being in a film or a play,” he explains. “When we do a show, we can make a mistake, or mess up the ending to a song, and then you just play the next one. It's just a laugh. But in film or theatre, you've got to get things right. If you fluff your lines or run into the furniture, you're letting people down, so you've got to get it right! It's a greater intensity and concentration that's involved, and I really like that. I like being part of this mechanism of film, and I'm struck by how old fashioned it is, and how cumbersome it is even with all the new technology. There's still a dirty big camera, and there's still a bloke laying tracks and guys putting up lights – it's Mechano! And you're a cog in this machine. And when there are people on a film set doing all these arcane jobs – I still don't understand the names of half of them – I just love the dance of it. Twelve people in harmony trying to catch something, that none of them can do on their own. I like that kind of work, where you're doing something that you couldn't do by yourself.”