Heart of the matter

Barry Otto has been an actor for more than 30 years and with two new films out he again demonstrates why he is one of our most respected thespians. He spoke to KAREN KISSANE.

THE Sydney taxi driver was laconic but nosey. Who was I going to interview? An actor? Oh yeah, which one? Barry Otto? “Heard of him but don’t know him,” he pronounced. “What’s he done?”
Well, he’s the manic depressive Roy in the film Cosi, and the evil father and the passive son in Lilian’s Story, and he was Doug Hastings, the forlorn dad of the brilliant young dancer in Strictly Ballroom . . .At this point the guy in the driver’s seat turns around, his face luminous, and blurts: “I love him! I loved him in that role. He was the sacred holder of the inheritance.
Everything in the son came from him. Even though he was despised, he secretly went on doing his little pot-bellied hoofing at night when no one was watching. That’s me! That’s my life story!”
Which only goes to show. You can spend 30 years in theatre doing everything from Shakespeare to Puss in Boots; you can play the lead in an arthouse film that wins international acclaim (Otto was Harry Joy in Peter Carey’s Bliss); and you can be hailed by your colleagues as a
great (and an untemperamental great, at that, for which said colleagues are doubly appreciative).

And none of it will earn you any cred with the man in the street. It is for his everyman roles on film that Barry Otto is best known and loved.

He accepts the news of the taxi-driver’s accolade gracefully but later it becomes clear that he’s feeling a bit suffocated by Doug’s success. “I did Doug and they say, `Well, Barry’s really good as a weak, sensitive old man’ and when another script comes along they say, `Barry for the broken down man’.

They wouldn’t think so easily of Barry playing Lilian’s father, this evil monster, or playing my policeman’s role in The Custodian.”
It’s one of his three gripes about how he’s regarded in the industry, the other two being how offended he feels at still having to screen test (“Why don’t they just look at my last three films?”) and how grieved he was when the big film offers failed to roll in after Bliss.

Talking about it, he suddenly has that disappointed-by-life Doug Hastings look about him: “I thought, What did I do wrong in Bliss? I won best actor (the 1985 Sydney Film Critics Circle Award), and it won best film (AFI awards). But maybe a lot of people in this small industry didn’t like Bliss. It was a black comedy ahead of its time. I dunno.”
To interview Otto is to see a master at work. He does not so much tell stories as act them, slipping effortlessly in and out of character. Talking about his role in Jackie Chan’s next action movie, A Nice Guy, he tries to describe working with a crew of 70 Cantonese and scripts that were written the night before each day’s filming. He gives up on language and jumps to his feet, firing off an authoritative stream of babble in the Asian cadence. How did he play Puss in Boots, way back in 1972? “I was all in black. I was a slinky Puss, ” he says seductively, sliding his hand along an imaginary tail.

Otto, 55, lives with his second wife, Sue Hill, and their two young children in a huge terrace house of faded grandeur in Sydney’s inner west. (“When an actor lives in this suburb, it’s a declaration he’s an ordinary bloke,” the taxi driver had said – but maybe he was projecting again.) He was right in that Otto’s start in life could not have been more ordinary. He was the only boy of three children whose father worked as a butcher. They did not own a car or a house, but the fact that they had to rent turned out to be a godsend for Otto.

As a child he would stand beside his mother when the landlord, patriarch of a Brisbane sawmilling family, came to collect the rent. The man gave him a job when he was 18 and he and his daughter, May Thompson, became Otto’s mentors. Otto calls May, now in her 80s, his godmother, and has named his second daughter Gracie May. (His older daughter is actress Miranda Otto).

It was May Thompson who introduced Otto to theatre and encouraged him to exploit his drawing talent by studying graphics. He became a fashion illustrator for the Myer Emporium in Brisbane and moved into professional acting from amateur theatre.

Thompson also gave Otto a taste for material luxuries. Asked whether his history shows how hard it is for working- class kids to get ahead without the sort of help he had, Otto says: “But I was determined, too. I was going to live in a house like May had. We had none of the things she had. I hated our house as a kid. Just hated it. This house is full of antiques upstairs; all my film money went on buying oak, carved oak.”
His is the house of a hopeless romantic. The cracked and peeling paint is hardly visible between the dozens of beautifully framed antique paintings and photographs that cover the walls.

Out in his big timber-lined studio (a former coach-house) in the backyard, the walls are also lined from floor to ceiling with photographs and paintings, and some of the canvasses are his own. Otto loves to paint; he says his style can be compared to the pre-Raphaelites. The results on view today are watercolors of luscious maidens in period dress.

The studio is also where he writes. He hopes that his script about a trans-sexual, tentatively entitled “The Man in The Little Black Dress”, will be made into a film next year. The idea, he says, “came out of meeting a trans-sexual, who I didn’t pick as a trans-sexual, driving a taxi in Sydney.

It was a man who had become a woman. She was a very plain woman, not all dressed up with lipstick and high heels and false nails. She had socks on, and a blouse, with her hair in a little knot at the back.

“She told me that she’d been a man for 45 years and was a woman now and had had a divorce a year ago with her wife and was paying off the taxi licence . . . The story she told me was so funny, so absurd and so touching and courageous.

“When I got out of the taxi, I thought, `I’ve never played this person.’ I wanted to write a really funny, compassionate story.”
It’s not hard to imagine Otto in the role. Much as he may sigh to hear it, he has a gift for portraying male vulnerability in a way that inspires compassion rather than contempt in the audience. In Lilian’s Story there is sympathy rather than disgust for Lilian’s brother, his spirit so crushed that he does not help his sister in her direst need; there is sadness rather than impatience for the loopy Roy in Cosi, who is either barking orders or cowering childlike under the bedclothes.

THERE was going to be a question for Otto about whether he had allowed his portrayal of Roy to career into caricature, but he raises the issue first. Angrily.

It turns out that Age reviews had accused him of just that, most unfairly, he argues. Cosi, a warm and funny film, was based on an experience of the director Louis Nowra. As a student he was commissioned to direct a play with inmates of a psychiatric hospital. The film’s larger-than-life characters were based on these real people, and Otto and the other actors spent time in mental hospitals researching their roles. If they seem over the top, perhaps it’s because most of us only meet those of the mentally ill who have been medicated into a wooden semblance of calm.

“What is a caricature?” Otto asks. “A caricature is a send up of the real thing. In fact I would pale alongside many of them. Some people think . . . they’re not like that, and I say, `Excuse me; I’ve done the research!”‘ The barbs bit deep because if there is one thing for which Otto is renowned in the trade, it is his professionalism. He is meticulous in his preparation for a role. Mark Joffe, who directed him in Cosi, says, “He’s incredibly generous.

Cosi was a big cast and he managed to gel them all together.

He was the leader of the cast and he did it with style.

“As an actor he’s got a wonderful range. He can do drama and comedy, he has a wonderful sense of timing and of the absurd. And he doesn’t take himself too seriously, which is . . . a rare quality in an actor.” Nadia Tass, who directed him in a theatre version of Cosi, agrees. “I think this is a guy who belongs with the very, very top actors of the world, people like Gielgud.” Ruth Cracknell, who played Lilian, says simply, “He’s lovely, just lovely. That’s all.” Asked about his weaknesses, Tass says she found none; Joffe pauses a moment, then offers, “He has incredibly bad taste in clothes . . .”
Otto has been generous with today’s performance too. He has talked for three hours, meandering seamlessly over his personal and public life but offering only what he is comfortable with, gently resisting being steered.

He relaxes utterly only when a stage is created for him.

The photographer sets up studio lights in the old coachhouse, creating a pool of light in which Otto is asked to sit, centre- stage. He slowly swings one leg as the discourse becomes a monologue, the actor at ease before his audience, playing to it while appearing oblivious of it. The scene lacks only the curtain.

Cosi and Lilian’s Story are screening now.


1994: Green Room award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for Cosi.

1992: Film Critics Circle of Australia award for Best Supporting Actor in Strictly Ballroom.

1992: AFI award for Best Supporting Actor in a Leading Role for Strictly Ballroom.

1991: Green Room award for Best Male Actor in a Leading Role for The Marriage of Figaro.

1986: AFI nomination for Best Actor for The More Things Change.

1985: Sydney Critics Circle award for Best Actor for Bliss.

1985: AFI award nomination for Best Actor for Bliss.

First published in The Age