Australian Screen

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Wayne Blair

Ray Argall interviewed Wayne Blair on 17 June 2009:
Wayne invited us to interview him at the Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney where he was a resident director. Wayne grew up in country Queensland and toyed with a career as a rugby player before realising his passion lay with acting. Wayne now works on both sides of the camera; he is well known as an actor and loved by the actors he directs, including the young performers he’s worked with on Lockie Leonard (2007–current) and Double Trouble (2007).

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Where are we?

OK, we are in Surry Hills in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. This is the Belvoir Street Theatre, home of Company B theatre company. And I’m an associate artist here.

Yeah, come, come for… I started out acting. And I’ve been fortunate enough to work at Company B a number of times. And in the last two or three years I’ve done – They have two theatres here, an upstairs theatre, 320 people, and a downstairs theatre of 83. So I’ve directed, as a director, a couple of downstairs shows. And fortunately being an associate artist I’ve just been in the right place at the right time, and have been able to direct a show upstairs now which is called Ruben Guthrie (2008). I mean this is where the show is at the moment and this is where I spend most of my time really, in Sydney, which is great. It’s great to be affiliated with this sort of company. It’s the best really.

How did you get started?

I did a Bachelor of Business when I finished school because I just wanted to stay in Rockhampton and be with the girlfriend at the time. So that was it really. But I was still okay at business, I wasn’t the best, I just got sounds, I did the degree. And it just came from the blue. The acting, it just came out of nowhere. It didn’t just come out of nowhere, it was building. And then I thought, 'Shivers, I don’t want to be 30 going, “I should have done this” or “I should have done that”.’ I didn’t want to have any regrets. So I just went, 'You know what, if the time is right, the time is now.’ And I think I was 21, 22, 23. And I went and went for it. And I went for it in a big way.

On collaboration

You know, you have the vision. You have to be open and receptive to everyone and answer all their questions. You know, what colour shoe or what this, or hairstyle or… I suppose coming from a sporting sort of background, having a little bit of a team, having a little bit of a community there – that’s what I enjoy the most.

I’m still trying to work it out, whether to have the best people or a team of champions or a champion team. You know, basically it’s their film as well, and if you can be a good planet and have a lot of satellites around you and listen to every one, I think that’s the key.

An interesting working relationship

Definitely Kylie du Fresne, the producer. I mean, Kylie didn’t actually know I had the money for Black Talk (2002). And I wasn’t pitching this thing to her. I had the money and I wanted a producer. And we sort of started out there. And we sort of started out together. She had a bit more experience than I did, heaps more actually. So we formed a friendship and she’s great with story with me. So that’s been great.

And Murray Lui, the cinematographer, we’ve done two or three films together now and he just grew up the road in Townsville. So I think that collaboration was successful because we’re nearly the same age and had the same sort of – liked the same movies. And got each other and laughed at the same jokes, quite heavily.

What do you do when you're not working?

I have to admit I like to go home a lot. I like to, when I’m not working, I like to see the oldies or the cousins. That’s my pastime, is family I suppose. And just keeping fit. I’m not a big gym junkie but I sort of like to sort of breathe a little bit of good air and starting to get a little bit more skinny.

What personality trait makes you good at what you do?

I don’t know, you’re just a good listener. And you’re a good sponge as well, I dare say. But then you just have to have the right nous. You have to guide people and say, people have their opinions. And then you just have to say, 'Okay, I’ve listened, now this is the way we’re all going to do it. This is what we’re going to do today. We’re all going to do it this way.’ But you take everything on board and then you give ownership over to people and then guide them through.

Advice for young players?

Follow your instincts I reckon, and you’ve really got to want to do it. And if you really know you want to do it, don’t be lazy. Don’t be lazy, but you have to find the right balance with everything I think. It’s in moderation. But, once you get it – I love it. I have to admit, I just absolutely love it. I’m very fortunate to do something I really love.

How is your work-life balance?

I’m still working that out, Ray, to be honest. It’s hard. I find it hard. I don’t have any family. Have the girlfriend, but – I find it, acting, theatre, directing, is very taxing and you have to have good time management skills. You have to be good on yourself. Stop the partying and stop all that sort of stuff. And sometimes the best business deals are done on the 19th hole. And I’ve learnt to be better on myself.

Following your passion

I found like with sport when I was growing up, especially with cricket and rugby league, and being a young Aboriginal fella in Queensland in the ‘80s and having been good at something, great at something, you had a little bit of ah, street cred, at school. And you still got the slang terms and racist terms and you still had your fights, but you still could beat everyone at cricket or rugby league.

So when I got older, there were people all around Australia that were sort of as good as me or better than me. And you had to train, keep training, or do weights back in those days. Anyway, to get better you had to keep training. I liked it social, I loved the fun about it. I just didn’t like training. They were the things I wasn’t passionate about. I started getting passionate about acting and storytelling and movies and things like that.

Learning from people

I suppose the key for me with those sports, what it taught me about was – I don’t know, it’s just having a nice little team and having, you know, you’re not the centre of the universe, even though you might think you are, you’re definitely not. And you sort of have to rely on other people. And just the camaraderie-ship and just, you’re all aiming for a common goal and people are different. And you learn things from that.

People: you’re just observant of people and what people are like and how people can react. Especially in a country town, you get it all really. So it sort of helped my storytelling. Every time I get angry or sad or happy, I usually just 'Use this Wayne, use this one, remember this, remember this’. Remember how I feel and hopefully can inform an actor of how they can be able to feel. Give them permission to be something.

How did you start making films?

I was living in Sydney. I got to Sydney in ’99, 1999. And at that time, also I still am, I was acting. And I saw an advert for the Uncle Lester Bostock Scheme which is at Metro Screen which is for new Indigenous filmmakers to produce their own five-minute story. And I had a story. I didn’t think – I thought filmmaking was for someone else, to be honest. I was just so into the acting side of things.

So three or four weeks later I found myself, you know, writing and directing my first short film. So I actually got to learn the process of making a short film really, a short story. And I did it the next time with a 10-minute story. And because of the acting side of things, and I’d been in a little bit of TV, I did Mullet (2001) by that stage, so I’d been in front of the camera but I sort of was always pretty observant about what was happening around me. So, do you know what I mean? It just felt like something right. And then it just sort of flowed.

Was making films a gradual process?

I just sort of jumped into it a little bit. A little bit of ignorance is bliss. And I just went for it. I didn’t sort of question much, and I trusted a lot of people. That was the key at that early stage. It wasn’t like I was eight and I was into film and I was working at – I played rugby league and cricket. I was from the country. I didn’t really – I wasn’t interested in film. And the films I loved were like – you know, I loved Monkey (TV, 1978–79), or I loved The Karate Kid (1984), or I loved ET (1982). Everybody probably loved those films as well. So, do you know what I mean? I had a – I loved all that stuff. I loved watching things like that. But I didn’t grow up – wasn’t born with a camera in my hand.

With the directing side of things, getting behind the camera, I just went, 'This seems like a good idea.’ And I really liked it. I loved it actually. And it wasn’t a chore.

Getting better

I found one thing. The way I got better was by doing it again and again. And getting a camera in my hand, no matter what really. Just a little mobile phone or something, I don’t know.

Showing to an audience

You’ve got a good piece of theatre or film or a piece of art, not everyone’s going to like it. But it’ll resonate. And it’s good when people laugh and feel sad when you laugh and feel sad. Not only in places like Rockhampton or Sydney, but in Berlin or Los Angeles or Cloncurry or Longreach. You know what I mean? It sort of has that same feeling and I think that’s the best. When you sort of give it over and people can relate to it.

Evolving as a director

You learn on the job, I reckon. And then you sort of have a breather and then you learn again. So that’s been great, to continually do it. And also, I dare say, just to give you more confidence and just to work on another person’s story is great, and seeing what they have and a new interpretation of something.

Working more in TV

It was scary at the start, but it’s been great. It’s been the best thing for me, to work on other people’s stories, and to work with different actors and very experienced actors. I found it great. It’s been a sort of revelation. I’ve enjoyed it immensely. I never thought I could do it but yeah, four years ago. But love it now.

Working with young people

And with those kids, sometimes you’ve just got to tell 'em, 'Don’t do that, or don’t do that around me.’ And sometimes you are the little bit of the teacher or the parent on set. But then you can just use that to your advantage and then you can just be their friend. You become sort of the adult and then you become their friend on the spin of a dime.

If you can do that I think you’re fine because you just need to do that with young people. Then they know where they stand because if you don’t tell them they’ll never know. When they’re balanced, but they still listen to you, they want to be the best they can be, I like that. And then you have – there’s a time when you just have to just shut up for a day or two and just let them find it themselves.

If you were starting over, would you do things differently?

Not really. I think I’d listen more. I’d try to listen and try to take things in. I’d read a few more books. And I’d watch a bit more European cinema. That’s about it.