In the world of Australian film and television, few people have spent more time on our screens than Angus Sampson. By Kate Holden.

Actor Angus Sampson plays a stubborn mule

He’s kind of famous, it turns out. Two young men exclaim, “Oh, him! That guy. He’s funny!” as I’m waiting, and Google him up. An hour later, a spry radio personality bursts upon us for 10 minutes, pumping his hand (“You made a kid laugh, back in the day, so thank you!”) and angling hard for his phone number. A passing friend’s kids seem mesmerised by the guy. True, he is wearing Aviator Ray-Bans. 

He does seem a little bit Hollywood, even here in a scrappy seaside cafe on a warm weekday afternoon, a torn paper bag in front of him and caramel slice crumbs on his fingers. “I didn’t think you’d say no if I got a couple of these,” he says kindly. 

Angus Sampson is bigger than you’d expect. Tallish; a pretty buff beard, sharp little bootlegger haircut. Heavy forearms, heavy eyelids, sharp mind. He ploughed across the empty forecourt in front of St Kilda’s Luna Park with a black labrador on the end of a leash as if he were waterskiing. Halted smiling and easy to greet me. Crisp blue shirt open three buttons at the top (“I got it in Korea!”); digital print copy of his new movie in a box in his hand, the perfect prop. Sunshine glinting off the gold rim of his sunnies. 

He’s been up since dawn doing publicity; at cocktail hour he hasn’t had breakfast yet. It’s been California (where this Sydney boy now lives with his family), then Australia; Japan, Korea, Japan again; Finland, England, Finland; Singapore (he pauses for breath), Bali for a birthday party, now Australia again to launch the film. Away from his family for seven weeks. “It’s not good.” They lost his luggage in Bali; too stonkered to leave the villa, he wore paper undies begged from the masseuse. His voice has gone from gruff to bottom-of-the-river gravel.

But Angus Sampson is, tiredly, shining. His new film, co-directed, co-written and starring him, The Mule, has just been released. “It’s about a first-time drug mule who’s informed that, without evidence, the police have to release him after seven days, so he tries to not go to the bathroom for a week. And people go, ‘Oh yeah, I know what kind of movie that is.’ ” But, “dare we dream”, he says, it’s more in the vein of (and shares a producer with) the classic Chopper

Locked in ABC-land I haven’t had a clue, but once I begin looking it turns out this chap has been in just about every damned bit of television and film made in this country in 20 years. He’s directed a lot, done renowned improv on Thank God You’re Here, voiced a bird in an animated film, sported a hideous “no-mo” for cult hit 100 Bloody Acres, co-hosted RRR radio, played Nene King’s partner in Paper Giants; oh, you’d know him if you saw him. Dude has worked hard. Part Sir Peter Jackson, part Levantine princeling, perhaps a touch of Mafioso, Sampson has the kind of face, with its big-lipped schoolgirl smile and hooded eyes, that evokes velvety, receding caverns of injury and thoughtfulness on the screen, but disappears into that of his film character – a spin doctor, a boyfriend, a madman, a dope. As the enthusiastic radio guy proclaims, he’s a gun actor in a gun film. “Gun” means great. 

“This is a dance,” he says good-humouredly, gesturing between us, when I confess I’m not really going to write about his film. He’s keen to impress that he’s inquisitive about people, as much as desiring to promote his work. “Being curious – one of the things I’m attracted to in life, people who are interesting because they are interested. And if you’re interested, it means that you acknowledge that you’re seeking things still, to evolve or learn more things…” Then something about a praying mantis.

Sampson is sweet. He rarely interrupts. Gallantly buys the drinks (“if you’re supporting the film, I’m supporting you”). He tosses chivalrous flattery into his conversation and thanks the admirers studiously for their compliments. “Love you,” he signs off a phone call to an investor. It might be luvvie but it seems sincere, and a nice effort since he must be tired out of his mind. “I’m a bit out of whack, jet-lag-wise, but I’m not telling you that to sound like a wanker, I’m telling you because it may explain my verbose diatribe.” 

So he embarks on a halting, fastidious ramble about responsibility. “I made this movie because I wanted to have more responsibility.” Looking for more ballast? “I probably wouldn’t have made this film if I didn’t have a family.” We talk of the famous high rate of illegal downloads of 100 Bloody Acres. “People are breaking the law to hear a story. Imagine living before the internet, in a place where you actually sit down and people tell you stories; imagine you’re entrusted with that…” And later, “I’m attracted to dynamic humans, and it’s my responsibility to find those people.” 

There is something earnest and conscientious about Sampson, even though he’s droll. He’s bothered by, even almost reproachful of, his success: “It doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t make sense that I’m an organism, an animal, on the cover of Where the Wild Things Are, my favourite book of all time. That I got to do that. That my favourite film in the world is Mad Max and I’m in the next Mad Max. I can’t rationalise it.” But he’s worked bloody hard for it all. We talk of encountering creative people, of coteries, of the duties of gratitude and opportunity. Things you mustn’t complain of, but are hurt by. The dog dozes peacefully at our feet. The sun’s still warm and the gilded afternoon is like a spell. He walks me to my car. 

What’s it all about, then? Why an actor, not an academic? “I wanted endorsement. Doesn’t every performer? You’re trying to get a sense of the human condition. Or you want to root a lot of blokes or pick up a lot of chicks, or be paid for pouting. I don’t know what it is. But the most interesting ones are those who are trying to seek some commonality.”

Golly. Is it chaos? Destiny? Fortitude? He laughs, big gruff voice, strolls off with the dog. “You know the answer to that.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 22, 2014 as "Work like a Mule".

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Kate Holden is the author of The Winter Road, winner of the 2021 Walkley Book Award and the 2022 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Douglas Stewart Prize for Nonfiction.

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