Damian Walshe-Howling // Renowned Australian Actor & Film Maker // Wearing our Aspen Boots
Hi Damian, can you start by taking us through the incredible journey that is your career?
Sure! My first real job in TV was Blue Heelers in ‘94. I was about 23 years old, I played a young cop called Adam Cooper and I was very lucky to get that role. I stayed on for about four years, then I decided to take a leap of faith and move on. I walked out of playing a cop on Heelers, and walked into two film roles. The first one was He Died with a Felafel in his Hand – I played Milo. The other film was called A Wreck, a Tangle, which in a way was the first film inception of the book Candy and I played Benjamin.
My next major break was Underbelly. Benji was such an interesting character to play, a life changing role, in so many ways. It was such a fascinating time in Melbourne’s history. Channel 9 was taking a real risk with it at the time, it was so explicit in all its ways. It was life changing. Because it was banned it got a whole lot of attention, then people started watching it in LA, and it won an AFI Award.
I did a role just before Underbelly, in a short film called Saturn’s Return. Me and Joel Edgerton played gay lovers, it’s a really beautiful film, and we became quite good friends working on that. Joel and his brother Nash have been really supportive of my film making career, they encouraged me from the first time they met me. So in 2007 I made my first short film, The Bloody Sweet Hit, it was the first thing I ever wrote or directed, it did the festival circuit and it did pretty well. Off the back of that I made another short called Suspended, and Nash did some editing on that, so he helped me in a practical sense as well with support.
After Underbelly, I did a TV series called Terra Nova, which was a dinosaur show on Fox. There were about 13 producers, including Steven Spielberg…although we never saw him on set! And that was my first job in the US. Then I won a competition through the Lexus Short Film Series, and was able to produce the film, Messiah, which I made with David Gulpilil. That did the festival circuit too. Those films have all done really well, so now I’m working on developing more of my own stuff.
Tell us how you first discovered acting
I basically grew up in the theatre, my mother was acting at La Mama – which just burnt down. Mum was acting there from 1969, she just did her last show there. She’s 71 years old and she directed a show called Hope Song, and it did really well – she’s a powerhouse! It was a sad day for us when the theatre burnt down. They’ll rebuild it of course, but La Mama was my babysitter, I grew up there. I was always fascinated by performance, I watched them rehearse existing shows, but also develop their own work. That process of developing their own shows really led into my fascination with how storytelling works. I get really inspired on set, because everyone there is inspired in their own way.
And you teach as well?
I teach at Brave Studios at a the Cotton Mills in Footscray. I teach an advanced acting course. In an art form, teaching is really more about facilitating. Of course there are skills that you bring to the table, but it another sense it’s just facilitating a co-created space with the students, where you’re all looking after each other and everyone is encouraged to fall on their face if they have to, it’s safe. That’s one of the big things I’ve learnt from working with good directors. If the actors feel secure, they can really go for it. If a director takes risks, then the actors are more likely to take risks too. It’s problem solving on the run – and that’s what life is. I’ve always studied the craft, but I’m letting a lot of the ABCs go now.
We know that costumes are a huge part of being in character, do you have any good stories about any costumes on-set?
Funnily enough, finding the right shoes to step into for a character is so important. I remember for Bikie Wars I was given a new pair of boots. They were going to bust them up a bit, but the boots were from a cheaper store, and it was all just wrong. I said I’d rather buy an old pair at an op-shop, that had been worn in and had the story in them. So eventually, we did just that. For me, those boots were important. They needed to have a certain feel. What that does is hard to explain, it’s abstract, but it definitely feeds something into how comfortable you feel playing the role.
So what do you wear when you’re not in character, when you’re just being you?
I guess my style is…comfortable. Jeans and t-shirts and sneakers or boots. I really enjoy expressing myself through clothing though. It’s something we all do. I’ve travelled in India a bit, and in one area they have this saying “we dress for the gods”. They dress to express what they are. We are here, we’ve got this life, if you feel it, why not flaunt it.
What do you look for in a good pair of shoes?
Firstly, comfort. Something that makes me feel strong and supported. I like chunky boots, or rustic style boots. I also wear kicks, sneakers, casual shoes – it depends on my mood but I’ve had my Wild Rhino’s as a staple for years now.
And lastly, what’s next for you? What’s the big dream you would love to achieve?
The big dream has changed so much for me. Really, the big dream is to be happy. Just to be fulfilled, to be collaborating on different projects. It used to be some external idea of measurable success, a certain amount of projects or whatever. Now, I’m just so grateful to be breathing and working doing what I’m doing. I’ve had a real shift with that in the last few years. I think that before I was comparing myself to a dream and that can be dangerous. Dreams are beautiful. They’re imperative, they drive you. But if you have that dream, your psyche is firing and working towards it anyway, so you can have a balance between doing the work, and living the rest of your life. I count myself very lucky because I’ve chosen a life that’s artistic, and I love that.
BANNER IMAGE OF DAMIAN AND DAVID GULPILIL ON SET FOR MESSIAH: THUY VY 2016