John Jarratt was known to audiences Australia-wide for his appearances on television, starting as far back as A Country Practice and the 1979 mini-series, The Last Outlaw—in the lead as Ned Kelly—and more recently in McLeod's Daughters and Better Homes and Gardens, a lifestyle program he presented with his then wife Noni Hazlehurst. He also appeared in such seminal Australian movies as Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Odd Angry Shot and he recommended his younger NIDA alumni Mel Gibson for a role alongside him in 1977's Summer City, a huge flop. (Jarratt had graduated in 1973, Gibson in 1977.)
Mick Taylor is an impersonation of my father
Nobody would have expected the left-leaning actor to earn worldwide acclaim for his portrayal as Mick Taylor, the brutal bigot and serial killer in Greg Mclean's Wolf Creek. Jarratt and Mclean have now made a sequel, Wolf Creek 2, which departs from the original with its third act interrogation scene between Ryan Corr's policeman and the ever-manipulative Mick.
Quentin Tarantino, who is a huge fan of Jarratt's talents, had been keen for the actor to star as Stuntman Mike in Death Proof, though his fellow Grindhouse director Robert Rodriguez insisted on Kurt Russell for the leading role. Tarantino made up by writing a small but memorable part for Jarratt in Django Unchained as an employee of the Le Quint Dickie Mining Company alongside Tarantino himself, who famously appeared with an Australian accent.
I sat down for a chat with Jarratt at last year's Venice Film Festival, where the deep-voiced 61-year-old constantly chuckled/cackled in that malevolent Mick manner. Interestingly, Wolf Creek 2 had premiered on the Lido the day after Tracks, which stars Mia Wasikowska as Robyn Davidson and releases here on March 6. Jarratt, as it happens, has a connection to that film.
You could have appeared in Tracks.
Long ago when I first got together with Noni they wanted her to play Robyn Davidson. Then Noni suggested I could play the journalist, but it fell through.
We couldn't imagine you playing this nice, calm character now, so ingrained is Mick on the cinematic consciousness. Still, you're more like that guy in real life, quite a lefty.
I am, yeah. I've got six children and I'm a family man. I don't drink; I don't smoke. I'm pretty boring.
You weren't boring in your youth, though.
No (cackles). These days I don't get drunk but if someone has a go at me about it, I get up and dance on the table and say, “Okay, you're so drunk, you get up and do that.” I tend to think you can still make an ass of yourself without getting drunk out of your head and you're less likely to punch someone in the mouth. (chuckles)
And you're probably going to live longer as a result too. You're looking pretty fit.
I'm 61, yeah, so I've got to look after myself. That's important.
What was it like working again with Greg Mclean?
We're really good mates. We get on extra well. We spent four years working on the script. He'd write it and I'd tell him what I thought about my bits. We have a tremendous shorthand.
What's it like to play this guy who is actually so far removed from yourself. He must hate the boat people.
Oh, yeah, he loathes 'em. I'm comfortable with the character, of course. I'd done it already and knew how it worked. Though the first time I did it on Wolf Creek, I was scared stiff. I worried that the funny voice and the funny laugh could either be fantastic or like a Warner Bros cartoon: Foghorn Leghorn or something.
As for the differences between me and him, Mick Taylor is an impersonation of my father, who is a big, larger-than-life Aussie coal miner type of bloke, very funny, always holds court. Mel Gibson says he's the funniest Aussie bloke he ever met, but my dad wasn't evil. He came from the '50s when everyone was wogs and dagos and chinks. It was a time when Rolf Harris was singing, “Let me abos go loose, Bruce”. So it was a very different time but Mick Taylor hasn't moved very far past those times in that kind of racist way. A lot of people in the bush are like that so that's kind of where he's at, only he's an evil serial killer.
What's the appeal of Mick and the Wolf Creek scenario internationally?
It's about a serial killer though he's not unlike any serial killer around the world and it just happened to be in a scary place called the Australian outback. I think there's a familiarity around the world about the outback with [Crocodile] Dundee, and it's very filmic. There's the cowboy aspect, which makes it kind of romantic.
Are you scared of snakes? How comfortable were you in the outback?
I spent all my childhood in the bush so I'm not scared of snakes or spiders. I'm not scared of much, to be honest. I'd be scared if a shark started eating me from the legs up, but I don't have many phobias. I don't like being locked up in a cupboard or in an enclosed space. I'm a little bit claustrophobic, if anything.
Was Ryan Corr scared of you?
I don't think so, but I'd give him plenty. I used to tell him, “You're a guy in your 20s and you can't even beat an old bloke like me. I can belt the crap out of him. I'm pretty fit for an old fella.
How do you keep fit?
I walk, I do cross training and I do weights. Bryan Brown's better than me at it. He's got the body of a 20-year-old, the bastard!
He's one of your mates?
Are you still friends with Mel Gibson?
Yeah. I stood by him a bit through all that crap.
The media can be brutal.
It's not every day that you have an argument with your missus and someone puts it on the internet.
You've been through that how many times now?
Oh, I've been through it a few times, but they never put it on the net, thank Christ!
How close are you with Quentin Tarantino?
We're not bosom buddies or anything. He comes to Australia with a movie and I'm always invited along. He showed a movie of mine that he loves—he's got the only print in the world of Dark Age (a 1987 horror movie set in the outback) that screened at Popcorn Taxi. We've had drinks. I've been to Los Angeles and he likes going to grubby little diners. We're not sending emails or anything. He doesn't do that anyway; he's a bit old fashioned. I like him; he likes me. We've got a mutual admiration society going on, I suppose.
He always raves on about Australia in our interviews. But could he really handle the conditions in the outback with the blowflies and the heat?
Oh yeah, he can. When we did Django Unchained he blew himself up seven times in dirty, dusty, hot, horrible conditions. (chuckles)
What do you mean?
Well, he does everything in camera. So he was standing there, and in front of him was this huge pit with explosives in it. Beforehand he said (mimicking Tarantino's American lingo), “I don't want anyone coming over and fussing about.” And then he blew himself up, BOOM! (chuckles) and then he got up and as a director he says, “Hey, how was that? Was it good for you? Did it look like the explosive came out? Yeah, great. Ok, let's do it again. Why? Because we love makin' movies.” And he did it seven bloody times and the first take was good enough. He's a tough guy; he really gets into the fray.
How was his Australian accent?
I helped him with it. But unfortunately I wasn't there on the day that he undid the backpack and the first thing he said was something like, “Shut up blick”. He said black with a South African accent and I wasn't there to fix it, but the rest of it is bloody spot-on. And from that second on everyone said that he couldn't do the accent, so it was a real shame. It's a hard accent to do as you probably know. “Somebody stole my baby” [imitating Meryl Streep, cackles]. Meryl can't do it.
Can you tell me about your 2012 movie Shiver.
I played another serial killer who was nerdy and buck-toothed. I'd never played an American before. The movie hasn't done that well. It didn't get a cinema release, though has played at 22 festivals.
What's happening now?
I'm directing and acting in a thriller called StalkHer. It's a two hander with me and Kaarin Fairfax (Bed of Roses, You're Skitting Me), a brilliant actress who took time out to raise two daughters on her own, basically. The byline is, 'He chased her until she caught him'. It all takes place in a kitchen at night in a hot, steamy Queenslander house and he thinks he's stalking her, but it turns out he's being manipulated and she's actually stalking him. It's kind of a cross between Misery and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Do you want to work in America again?
No, I like working in Australia. When Wolf Creek did well ($25 million worldwide), everyone said to go to LA. But I want to make my own movies here. I love Australia. I don't want to live in LA.
Wolf Creek 2 is in cinemas now.