An audience with actor Brendan Cowell
The pub is a strange place to meet someone when you’re trying to prove you’re not just a blokey bloke, but that’s where Brendan Cowell takes me.
It’s hardly calculating. But then, you get the impression the 37-year-old actor doesn’t really care. We’re at the Dove & Olive in inner Sydney, a short walk downhill from the Belvoir St Theatre, where Cowell has been performing.
The pub is across the road from a giant, brutalist public housing block, but the bar is packed with the bearded children of the middle class. Cowell is sporting three-day growth, shiny and moist after stepping off the stage. He has on a graphic T-shirt, blue jeans and sneakers. His Aviator sunglasses are on the table next to the beers. Wuthering Heights sits neatly wrapped in his headphones. I restrain myself from making a Heathcliff joke.
Cowell is one of Australia’s go-to bloke actors. He played flannelette-clad DIY bloke Todd in SBS’s Life Support, hell-raising cricket bloke Rick in the 2012 big-screen cricket comedy Save Your Legs! and troubled bloke Tom in pay-TV drama Love My Way.
True to form, he is eating chips and steak, medium, with Jack Daniel’s Original BBQ Sauce. Bloke to bloke, he tells me, he’s not all that impressed with the way he’s perceived as a bloke. “You read that ridiculous suggestion in the reviews: ‘Here he adds another blokey role to his canon of knockabout Aussie guys.’ ”
Cowell is a serious, impassioned talker. When he latches on to a topic he speaks at length, and his already bulging eyes jump out of his skull. “If you’d watched everything I’d done you would have seen meth addicts, you would have seen a couple of gay guys.”
He throws in a theatrical pause, looking out at the audience of public housing flats over my left shoulder.
“But also, there are a lot of guys in Australia who are blokey, so it’s probably good to reflect that,” he says. “I don’t think I’m playing blokes in a one-dimensional way. I’m not just ‘let’s have a meat pie and watch the footy’ type of guys. I’m playing guys who have lives, jobs, ambitions, fears and possibly a little bit more to them than meets the eye.”
Cowell is not one-dimensional. He’s an accomplished playwright and has written and directed for film and TV. His debut novel, How It Feels, was published by Pan Macmillan in 2010.
He’s just finished an as-yet-untitled follow-up novel and splits his time between Newtown and London. Cowell waxes lyrical about the city, his “favourite place”, where he’s been working on a pair of TV concepts for Channel 4 and the BBC: “An original show exploring themes of alcohol and sexuality and a man in crisis, set in Soho; and another one kind of about a literary figure.”
Right now, though, he’s licking his steak knife, having just finished a performance of Australian playwright Michael Gow’s new play Once in Royal David’s City. He plays Will Drummond, a middle-aged theatre director struggling to come to terms with his mother’s terminal cancer. Engaging and thought provoking, it’s serious theatre: I know this because it left me feeling like I should probably read up on this Bertolt Brecht fellow, and also call my mum.
Cowell says the company originally had Richard Roxburgh in mind. But having seen him earlier in the week, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role. He has done a matinee and night show today, almost never leaving the stage in either. You’d think he’d be worn out, but when I ask him about the play being a new experience, he launches into a speech that touches on the joys and trials of acting, the limits of language and Brecht.
“The frustration with cancer is similar to the frustration with another monster called capitalism, and these are two things we may never be able to defeat.” Cowell is looking at the audience of flats again. “We must continue to fight both of them and continue to live anyway.”
The material strikes close to home for Cowell, who describes his own mum as his “muse”. He was born and grew up in the southern Sydney beachside suburb of Cronulla – his Twitter bio reads “actor writer director dj shark-fan”. His mum, Yvonne, is a nurse at a Sydney private hospital and his dad, Bruce, is an accountant.
He started writing poetry and performing when he was in high school, though it didn’t stop him also playing basketball, rugby league and cricket. Still a cricket tragic – “I fucking love it” – he was a handy leg-spinner but a bit too aggressive with the bat.
Cowell’s parents split up when he was 14, which he says left him “quietly relieved”. He saw his dad on weekends, when they went to footy and basketball games or “had a cappuccino”.
Cowell is still close to his dad, and they share a mutual passion for rugby league and red wine. “The majority of our conversations centre around the Cronulla Sharks and shiraz, really,” he laughs. “But it’s hard: men need a way in. Unlike women, we’re not going to go right in and start talking about the big issues. With men it’s about being together, it’s not so much about what we say with each other. It’s about being together. Men like being together.”
It’s his mother, Yvonne, whom he reflexively refers to when I ask him whether he finds Once in Royal David’s City emotionally exhausting. He’s an undeniable mummy’s boy. “I can’t actually even contemplate not having my mum here,” he says. “I mean, I can think about it for about two and a half seconds before I turn away from the thought.” After I spoke to Yvonne, she texted me: “alex also bremdan is fun to be with and interesting Yvonne cowell [sic]”.
It’s his mum who’s still the first to read everything he writes, whom he credits with his success as a writer: “I spent a lot of time with mum waiting in the car for my sisters to come out of dance classes where we’d do spelling competitions and we’d read books and I’d make stories up. She was always pushing me to see shows and listen to jazz music and get my head outside of Cronulla and have an imagination. So I guess I owe a lot of what’s happened in my life to her.”
Cowell and his mum “decided together” he would go to Charles Sturt University in Bathurst after he failed to make the cut for the National Institute of Dramatic Art and the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. Cowell made a bigger splash at CSU than he could have at drama school. In first year, he played the lead role in the third-year production, Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love. Cowell runs over the name, and the story, with relish.
After a stint writing and performing at Woolloomooloo’s Old Fitzroy Theatre (Yvonne made the costumes, of course) his career took off. Life Support earned a cult following and Love My Way garnered critical acclaim.
He has, meanwhile, kept his mates back in Cronulla, whom he visits “a few times a year”. That’s not to say that there hasn’t been some friction between the world of the theatre and the world of Sutherland Shire. Cowell’s 21st suited his inner performer. “I had an undercut, I was wearing a midriff top, and I had gay and lesbian people at the party making out on the dance floor, which was largely populated with schoolkids and their parents from Cronulla. I was fucking loving it.”
How It Feels, with its thinly fictionalised depiction of drugs, booze and suicide by the beach, also left some in the shire unimpressed. It took Cowell three years to complete and he struggled with some of the more confronting passages. Again, it was Yvonne who encouraged him to dial it up.
The book launched him into his work with Suicide Prevention Australia, a role he takes seriously. He lost “a bundle of mates” to suicide during high school, but was hit hardest by the death of his close friend Bart, who shot himself in the head with a hunting rifle very soon after Cowell’s 21st. He’s still trying to make sense of it.
“Are we worried about each other or do we just do that ‘she’ll be right, no worries’ thing because we don’t want to make it a deal in our own lives? Being young, being a teenager, is really stressful. Being a man is stressful,” he says. “Maybe guys feel like they have to be that macho guy and they don’t want to be that guy, they actually think music is beautiful and they love that show and they want to say stuff. I think it’s a big shame in this country that it does take 10 beers for us to communicate with each other.”
Cowell himself is no stranger to a beer, and we down a few as the conversation goes on. “I’ve been guilty of getting insanely, stupidly, woefully drunk,” he says. “Many, many times.”
And many of us have seen him – for years part of the furniture at the Courthouse and the Carlisle Castle in his home suburb of Newtown. For all his writing and acting success, it’s not like Cowell moves in the chintzy world of Australian showbiz. “Sydney really feeds on that ugly piranha pool of everyone trying to be a shiny celebrity drained of any substance,” he says.
Cowell, who split amicably with long-time girlfriend and fellow actor Rose Byrne in 2010, has been single and ready to mingle for a while. Right now it’s just him and Jim, the Jack Russell he shares with Belvoir artistic director Ralph Myers, in his Newtown pad. But he’s keen to meet someone.
“I’ve been out with quite a few actresses and I don’t really care what anyone does, really,” he says. “But I’m writing and I’m going for auditions so I’d like to go out with someone who’s doing something a bit different. It’s not an anti-actress thing, I’d just love to go out with someone who is in a totally different world.”
Cowell tried hook-up app Tinder (and Grindr) for “research purposes” while writing his latest novel in London. The app allows users to hook up based on mutual friends and proximity, selecting matches by swiping photographs they find appealing. He is an enthusiastic fan but laments he’s too well known to use it in Sydney.
“I think it’s great. You say, ‘No, I wouldn’t have sex with you’, ‘Yes, I would have sex with you, we chat, you make me laugh and now I might have a coffee with you’. That’s great, that’s exactly the order it should happen. I think Tinder’s cracked it. It’s a virtual representation of going to a bar,” he says. “You don’t go into a shop unless the shopfront window is appetising. And then you find out it’s got so many different levels and parts to the department and you’re so impressed by the shop, but it was the shopfront window that got you in, let’s admit it.”
Later, I speak to his mother. She explains: “Brendan loves the ladies and the ladies love Brendan. I think it comes from growing up in a house with just me and his two older sisters.”
When I ask her to explain both his personal appeal and his success as an actor and writer, she pauses for a split second. “Well,” she says, “he’s just an ordinary bloke, isn’t he?”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 22, 2014 as "Playing the man".
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