Water Rats: articles

Joss McWilliam

HARD yakka… Joss McWilliam supplements his acting with gardening.

Behind the familiar face

THIS is the peculiar irony of Joss McWilliam’s life. If he had a dollar for every time someone said to him, “Didn’t you used to be an actor?”, he’d have enough money to act full-time.

For it is McWilliam’s current fate that he has a face eminently recognisable but not instantly identifiable. It’s a face that gets under your skin. You know it from somewhere, like an uncle you haven’t seen in years.

When we initially meet at Paddington Tavern and shoot some pool, you witness the reaction first-hand. Punters glance twice at him with that “Don’t I know you?” look.

In fact, the imprint of that face comes from a substantial body of work through the ‘80s and ‘90s, including film (The Coolangatta Gold, A Thousand Skies), television (Water Rats, Pacific Drive, Blue Heelers) and theatre (The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, The Real Inspector Hound, Richard II).

Yet the Brisbane-based actor, 45, is eking out a living as a gardener. And despite consistent work with Queensland Theatre Company, he still finds it a struggle to earn a decent crust in his chosen field. Which says more about the state of Australia’s present view of the arts, or the state of our film and television industry, than it does about his talents.

“I’ve been acting for 25 years and I can’t make a living from it,” he says. “And I’ve had work, be it television or theatre, consistently. I’ll have at least one or two shows a year. But it’s a difficult time in this country at the moment. Acting is undervalued.”

Born in Canberra, the McWilliam family later moved to Armidale where Joss’s father was a Professor of Agronomy at the University of New England. The shift to a country town was not one of Joss’s life highlights.

“I was an angry ant,” he says.

“I always felt a great sense ofn injustice in the world… I was the new kid at school. I was ostracised. I decided to get involved in drama.”

Despite having no theatre pedigree, he gave the National Institute of Dramatic Arts a shot, got through to the second round of interviews, and blew it because of a late night before the audition. So be it. He went to London, saw some real theatre for the first time, then settled back into Sydney when he was cast in The Coolangatta Gold (alongside Colin Friels), the now iconic ironman film set on the Gold Coast.

Thrown headlong into the industry, he befriended the likes of Friels, Geoffrey Rush, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe and other luminaries of that extraordinary generation of Australian actors.

“At last count I think I know about eight Oscar winners,” he says. “I’ve met some great people and some scallywags. I’ve always been a journeyman actor and it’s been an interesting journey.”

There is a hint of regret here. Decisions made that shouldn’t have been, others passed by. But the work continued. In 1995, he was cast as detective Martin Harris in the Gold Coast-based soap opera, Pacific Drive.

Much derided at the time, the show has shown peculiar longevity and is now something of a cult in some quarters. For McWilliam, it was 20 long months of much-appreciated full-time work.

“I was married with children at this time and we had to settle on the Gold Coast,” he says. “I loved it.

“We lived on a canal and the guys from the art department would turn up in a boat and take me to work. It was fabulous. You have to remember this was all pre-September 11, pre-George W. Bush.

“I took the show seriously. I think I was the last person on the show to take it seriously.”

At the Paddo, several punters point and shout over the crowd, “Pacific Drive guy!”, and McWilliam takes the recognition with humility. It still seems to bemuse him, the impact of that TV soap.

It also undermines other aspects to his character. In person he has a powerful presence. He’s passionate about not just acting and the arts but local and global politics, literature, his children, aspects of family law in Australia… a genuine polymath.

“I’ve always loved reading, particularly Steinbeck and Kerouac,” he quips.

And yet here are two essential keys to the man. John (The Grapes of Wrath) Steinbeck for his examination of social injustice, and Jack (On the Road) Kerouac for his willingness to explore life to the full, indeed to its outer edge, and the importance he places on personal freedom outside the often silly strictures of so-called “decent” society.

“If you give me the choice of taking the punt or not,” McWilliam says, “I’ll take the punt. I’ve always been like that. I guess I’ve always leaned to the left. I’m what you’d call a bit of a leftie. It’s about finding out what life is all about. I’m happy with where I am.

“If the trade-off is doing ordinary work and being better known, then I’d rather not be better known.

“There is nothing quite like the theatre. To hear 300 or 400 people laugh with you in a theatre. You’re all there, breathing the same air. Everything is charged with emotion. It can be incredible.

“I act, I think, because theatre can reaffirm our humanness.”

He has two shows next year with the QTC. He’s enjoying life with partner Fabia, a Paddington fashion designer. He is teaching acting, or in his own words “guiding” students of acting, as he’s not sure if it can be taught. And there is, of course, his gardening.

“Sure, I’d love more to come along in the acting area,” he says. “But gardening. It’s sweaty. It’s dirty. I love it.”

By Matt Condon
November 13, 2004
The Courier Mail