Don Hany has carved out a niche playing ‘ethnic’ characters in Australian film and TV but brace yourself – there’s a risk we might lose him to “colourblind” casting agents in the US.
8 May 2014 - 10:51 AM  UPDATED 24 Feb 2015 - 10:27 AM

The actor Don Hany is a fixture in the local television drama scene but when Healing opens in cinemas today, it will be his first leading role in an Australian film. Hany plays Viktor, a man in a low-security correctional centre in the country, nearing the end of an 18-year sentence.

“Being a jail movie, people might assume it’s gritty and hard blown but it’s actually a bromance and a chick flick,” Melbourne-based Hany says, laughing. Viktor’s “bromance” is with prison officer/case worker Matt Perry (Hugo Weaving), who is in charge of acclimatising Viktor back into society.

Viktor is a shutdown man with a reputation for being tough when we meet him. Then he’s given responsibility for the rehabilitation of eagles, owls and other birds – and their reintegration into the wild. Aided by Matt’s friendship, a wedge-tailed eagle, and reconnection with family, Viktor softens and that change is the spine of the drama.

There is frequent tension but overall, Healing is typical of the heart-felt work of director Craig Monahan (The Interview), who wrote the script with Alison Nisselle after she read a newspaper article referring to the real-life raptor rehabilitation program run by the Healesville Sanctuary and Corrections Victoria. (There is very striking footage of the birds: imagine the face of an owl filling the whole screen to get the idea.)

“That program has been incredibly successful and of all the prisoners that have participated, none of them have reoffended,” Hany says.

He found many aspects of the script worth exploring: the similar responses from birds and humans to being caged and the challenge of returning to the outside world once prison has become home; the large number of incarcerated men with mental illnesses; and the difficulty some men have expressing emotions.

Hany is utterly charming during the 30 minutes I spent with him as part of a press junket. He laughs frequently and chats effortlessly, often not finishing his sentences.

When I’d first sat down, he immediately started talking about Viktor’s Iranian ancestry. He is an actor who is often asked to wear one of a variety of ethnicities on his sleeve and Monahan was open to Viktor being from Iraq, like Hany’s father. Hany declined the offer.

“I loved the idea of revealing aspects of Middle Eastern culture, like the love of poetry and nature, without making a religious or ideological statement,” he says of playing Viktor.

He further explains: “Culturally, his obsession with cleanliness, the protection of an underdog, the hatred for drugs and that sort of things is specific to Middle Eastern culture but not to a specific religious denomination.”

Hany made choices about Viktor’s physicality, culture, accent and background after consulting with members of actress Alin Sumarwata’s family – they married in 2011 – and their friends. He describes them both as “half and half”: he is half-Iraqi, half-Hungarian and she is half-Indonesian, half-Persian. He also mentions they are developing projects together, which is good news.

This year Hany worked in Vancouver, performing the lead role of a trauma surgeon in the US military/medical pilot Warrior; he’s yet to know if it will be commissioned as a series. He’s done other stints in North America and it reminded him again how “colourblind” the US is in its casting habits compared to Australia, resulting in drama that has a less homogenous look.

I’d arrived armed with questions about his go-to-for-any-ethnicity status and the previous night I’d watched his episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, SBS’s series about ancestry. Suddenly, I felt like focusing on this aspect of him made me part of Australia’s problem. I asked if he gets bored talking about ethnicity. He likes to get those questions out of the way first, he replied.

“I owe all of what I’ve done to the endeavour of giving voice to minorities,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. “But we’re all from somewhere else aren’t we, except for indigenous people.”

He’s played Iraqi (in the feature Lucky Miles and the SBS series East West 101), Russian (False Witness and others), Greek (Tangle), Bulgarian (Underbelly), Czech (Offspring) and plenty of other nationalities, but has given more performances where he’s Australian and ethnicity doesn’t feature.

“We [Australia] are isolated, have an innocent approach to things, are a blank page culturally,” he says. He points out that our quarantine regulations are very strict but that defensiveness about our natural habitat doesn’t extend to our culture. He fumbles for words but it is clear that he wishes Australia had a deeper love for the arts.

Ten minutes later he emphasises that he owes everything to Australia: the country and the film and television production industry allowed him to develop and hone his artistic sense and gave him a career.

He describes his father as “a product of the government at a time when it was throwing everything at bringing new Australians here”. He also says, sounding amused and proud, that he’s “a rare, beautiful, desert flower” that is thriving in this society.

His parents came to Australia when they were younger than he is now – they separated long ago. In Who Do You Think You Are?, the program makers concentrated on his mother’s side of the family in Hungary – a family she has since cut herself off from – because it was deemed too dangerous to go to Iraq.

“The show is a gift but it is a big decision to agree to do it because you’ve got to accept that you are going to become the emotional custodian for your family. You make all these promises to yourself that you’re not going to be a blubbering mess, but you know it’s coming because you can sense what your family is going to experience watching it.”

For years, Hany tried to avoid telling anyone he was an actor, preferring to talk about his love of permaculture or of doing carpentry.

“I always felt like I needed to talk about something else because the discussion would end up at “What would I have seen you in?” and “Is it really a job?”  Only recently I’ve become comfortable with the idea that I can’t be deceptive about it any longer.”

Healing is in cinemas now. Watch the trailer below.