Daniel Henshall on ‘Ghost in the Shell’, Bong Joon-ho and life after ‘Snowtown’
For me, your performance in Snowtown was the most exciting breakout male performance since Michael Fassbender in Hunger. Why aren’t you getting as many lead roles as Fassbender?
(Laughs) Thanks mate. The first few years after [Snowtown] I kind of feared the work because of the expectation that I put on myself, and I had led myself to believe that everyone was thinking that. I didn’t want to mess with that performance. It was seen as something – maybe a significant contribution to film in recent years, or whatever. And I was so afraid that I wouldn’t get close to that ever again. So I didn’t work a lot the first couple of years. Prior to Snowtown, I’d usually been cast as the likable loser. So in the beginning it was hard for people to place me or know what to do with me, and [that] probably went hand in hand with my fear of working. I said no to a lot of things. I worked probably three days in eighteen months after that film came out, and then got to a point where I was desperate to get back out, so I started saying yes to anything. And slowly over the last couple of years the confidence has come back and I’ve started putting myself out there a lot more. But there has to be a role for you and you have to be right for the role. And the opportunities in this country are not as many as in the States or even in the UK.
I was a big fan of Fell. Matt Nable was great in that.
He’s a machine. The film didn’t get the response… people who saw it had nice things to say but it didn’t translate into being seen at a cinema, or being released even. I’m maybe biased but I’m just disappointed for Matt and Kas [director Kasimir Burgess] and Marden [Dean], who shot it, although he got lots of work [off the back of it].
Are you getting offered many lead roles in Australia?
They’re not flooding in, but there’s been a couple. But it just hasn’t worked out for availability reasons or maybe I didn’t think it was right for me at the time.
I know your Snowtown director Justin Kurzel is producing a feature called Ivan Lendl Never Learnt to Volley for his brother, Jed.
How good’s Jed Kurzel. All his scores. I mean I’m biased [but] Slow West is great, the Macbeth soundtrack… It’ll be interesting to see what he does with that film [Ivan Lendl]. They’ve co-written it but he’s done a lot of the writing, and it’s a really great concept.
Are you angling for a role?
No, he’s going to cast European on that one. It will be shot in Europe, all throughout Europe. The premise of that film is based on a real story. I don’t know if I should say anything, but it’s cool. Clever. The funny thing is that both of those boys were proper junior tennis pros.
I hope Justin Kurzel gets to make Peter Carey’s The True History of the Kelly Gang, too.
Yeah, I think we all do. I’d love to do it if there was something there for me. Justin's primed for a western. He loves that genre. That’s a perfect match. And with Shaun [Grant] adapting the book, they work well together. It’s a cracking yarn. Shaun’s been on it for a time. There was a different director attached a while ago but it kind of resurfaced last year I believe.
You’ve got the beard to play Ned Kelly.
I’m too old to play him mate, and not tall enough. He’s 25. Six foot and 25. They were all young. There’s a couple of roles in that one which would be juicy.
You’ve been on the AMC series Turn now for about three years.
Yeah. About to go and shoot In January for the fourth and final season. It’s been a busy year. That’ll take me to May in Richmond, Virginia, which will be great. One last hurrah. It’s a good bunch of people.
Are you glad you signed on?
Yeah I am. It was tough in the beginning being away for so long from friends and family and this cultural landscape. And I came from a pretty energized creative space. I’d just finished Fell, which I’d loved being a part of. It was a lovely experience. I met my wife on the show. She was the costume designer. So I came from that straight to Turn; it was a bit of a shock to be halfway around the world shooting this thing. At the time you go for the pilot. The pilot was great, you have an idea about what the show’s gonna be like, and they get you in and you sign your life away before you even get the job. And at the time, [it was] like why not? It’s a job, it’s somewhere else. I get to dip my toes in [to] what it’s like to work in another country for a time and work in another space that I probably wouldn’t have visited.
Is it a relief to be finishing up?
Somewhat. It hangs over your head. You’re not sure if you’re going to be available and potentially turning down offers because of a commitment you signed three years ago. However it’s been great to know that you’re going to finish something on a certain date and have this much bank in your account. And the show ending frees both my wife and I to make decisions for ourselves and have a little bit more control over our destiny. As an actor or as a crew member, you’re a gun for hire and you go where the work is good. That means being apart from your loved ones a lot, which is part and parcel but, yeah, it is a relief mate and it’s nice to know that we’re ending it before we do it, so we can fully embrace the final season.
What have you been up to this year?
Started off by getting married – that was here where we shot Fell out in Warburton on New Years Eve – and then went back to Virginia and had a couple of weeks together there and finished the season out there. My wife went out to New Mexico to work on a film there and then I went to New Zealand to work on Ghost in the Shell. Had a little role in that one.
That looks really interesting.
Yeah. Aesthetically and tonally the film looks bang on. The production design, costume design, makeup design is all so good.
How did that come to you?
Just went for an audition up in Sydney when I was here before going back for the third season of Turn. Just through normal casting. That was really good fun and I’ve got family in New Zealand. It was nice to work back in the Southern Hemisphere. Australian crews and New Zealand crews [have] that common sentiment: no fuss, get the job done, very relaxed, hard working. There’s a [sense of] collaboration that feels very comfortable and conducive to not just having a good time but getting it done and getting it done well. Then I did a film in Korea that took us to New York and Vancouver: Okja.
Bong Joon-ho is an amazing director.
Bong’s great. And he’s a lovely man. Very specific. Very, very confident but [he] doesn’t come across as cocky or cavalier. Very calm, very sure of what he wants, and very detailed and specific. He only shoots what he’s going to use in the edit. Doesn’t do any coverage. I’ve never worked like that before. You’re trimming the fat before you’ve shot it, which is very brave, because when you get into the edit, if something’s missing you haven’t got it. He’s been planning it for four years that meticulously.
Was that another audition?
No, Bong was on the jury of the Camera d’Or at Cannes, and Snowtown played at Critics Week and he came and saw the film and came up to me after the film. Obviously they can’t communicate their feelings about the film, but he gave me his card and said ‘yeah, I’d like to work with you’. And that was 2011, and his next film came and went and I thought, ‘ah, it’s just one of those things that happens.' I was 27 or 28. It was kind of my first film and I didn’t know how any of that stuff works. Anyway I got a call last year around June-July, saying – ‘director Bong would like to meet you, he’s very interested in you for a part in his next film.' I was like, fuck, right. Five years on. I was in Australia at the time, so I took myself out to LA and caught up with him, and he’s such a generous soul, and a bit of a clown. He had a broken foot at the time, and he just stood up and hobbled over and said: ‘A kangaroo broke my foot.' And I went, what? And he said, ‘sorry, sorry, Dad joke.'
Did you get to read the script before meeting him?
No [I] just turned up. He’s very secretive with it. Conversation went well. He’s very specific and detailed and well planned out, so he goes for the people he thinks are going to suit his film. He’s trying to create a cast of people that are going to give that [world] a lot more detail and colour. I don’t know how he saw Snowtown and then cast me in this film, because the roles are quite different. There’s something similar in the characters but very minimal. A physical presence that might be similar. I was a little bit thinner than I am now and he wanted me to get close to Snowtown weight, which was 12 kilos heavier than when I met him. So I think he wanted that bulk. Like a little teddy bear maybe (laughs). He explained what the film was about and I think adjudicated on the spot that the interview was going to go well and that he’d like to cast me. Then I got the script about a month later and had a read.
What did you think?
It’s a heightened reality, archetypal characters, really big themes. He co-wrote it with Jon Ronson. Big themes, very dark, very funny. And whacked [out]. It’s set in our world. It’s a film about good and evil and in the middle of this to and fro – the good and the bad – is this pig and the girl that raised her.
It’s been interesting to see him move from films like Memories of Murder to these big sci-fi films like The Host and Snowpiercer.
I think he’s going to step back. He was saying that he was sick of working on such big productions and wanted to step back and make a four-hander in Korean in a room.
You’ll have to learn Korean.
Yeah I’d love to get back into one of his films, man. He’s good to work for, I really enjoyed it.
There are some huge actors in that film.
I don’t work with Tilda Swinton in the film and I don’t work with Jake Gyllenhaal and I don’t work with Shirley Henderson. But I do get to work with Paul Dano and a guy called Steven Yeun. We had a lot of time together in Korea off-set, so we got to know each other very well. Paul’s great, man. He’s everything you want him to be: incredibly insightful, dry as fuck, funny as shit, passionate about film and storytelling, literature, music. Loves food. Very cool to work with too: very respectful, very focused.
Do American actors know about Snowtown?
Yeah, it’s been a creeper in the States, but it’s been really lovely mate. Walking on to the first table-read of Turn, Jamie Bell turned to me and went, ‘love your work mate’. [I was like] ‘Oh, thanks mate’. Paul had seen the film. A lot of people have seen that film and they’re very interested in Justin’s work, and Adam [Arkapaw]’s work, who’s killing it at the moment.
Do you have anything lined up beyond Turn?
Not really. We’ll go and live in New York. That’s the plan. Stace my wife got a visa to work over there. So she’s been working over there so we could spend time together. And we didn’t know how long Turn would go for at the time. It’s much better working in the same country where you’re two flights away rather than halfway around the world. It’s more our city than LA is. And the opportunities are pretty good at the moment. Snowtown’s always mentioned, anywhere in the States. If I go in for an audition, if I go in for a meeting, someone will inevitably mention that.
That must be gratifying.
It was a spectacular thing to do and I’m incredibly proud of it and proud of the people who worked on it. It’s something I did five years ago; the stars aligned and thankfully it worked. And if it hadn’t worked the experience would have outweighed the response and I think still does. It was such a wonderful creative, collaborative, intense three or four months. It’s taking me a few years to get over but someone slapped me in the face one day and said: mate, it’s done, it’ll always be there, stop taking yourself so seriously. It’s not all you, mate, there are so many other variables involved. Just do what you can do and hope for the best.