He’s worked with Oscar winners, directed a hit film and now brings to life the story of a revered Indigenous Australian. By Peter Craven.

Is there anything writer, actor and director Wayne Blair can’t do?

Wayne Blair, who is currently directing Walking into the Bigness at Melbourne’s Malthouse.
Wayne Blair, who is currently directing Walking into the Bigness at Melbourne’s Malthouse.
At 42, Wayne Blair seems to have done it all. He has played Othello, been directed by the great Philip Seymour Hoffman in Sam Shepard’s True West, and himself directed films: most notably The Sapphires, which tells the story of a group of Aboriginal women singing for the troops in Vietnam. The most popular Australian film of 2012, The Sapphires was produced by Hollywood giant Harvey Weinstein and has led to Blair having an international career. He’s just finished filming Septembers of Shiraz, starring Adrien Brody and Salma Hayek as a couple of liberal American Jews caught in the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fundamentalist revolution in Iran in 1979.

Now Blair is directing Walking into the Bigness at Melbourne’s Malthouse, which focuses on the life of Richard Frankland, an Indigenous renaissance man who has done everything from being an investigator in the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody to writing films and playing music. He’s a friend of Blair’s and he’ll be making music as part of the show about him. 

Blair is looking weary as he emerges from rehearsal, a bit jet-lagged, a touch dazed. He’s enthused, though, about Septembers of Shiraz, which he’s been filming in Bulgaria. “Oh yeah, it was great. It was a lovely film to do.” And he’s characteristically modest about the lustrousness of the gig. “It was a matter of my agents and of being in the right place at the right time.”

And how does he see this story of a couple caught up in a time of war? “It’s a story of what they were then and what they’ve become now. I wouldn’t say it’s a psychological story: it’s a story of who we are as human beings.” 

Blair is an unassuming-looking man and it’s difficult to reconcile this with the pure chutzpah and extraordinary know-how of his film version of The Sapphires. Apart from anything else, it has a flawless performance from Chris O’Dowd – the comedian who has done everything from Bridesmaids to Calvary and who recently played Lennie to James Franco’s George in Of Mice and Men on Broadway. It’s hard to imagine anyone not being moved by the interplay between O’Dowd as the Irish no-hoper and Deborah Mailman as the leader of the band. Or the moment when the “stolen” one (Shari Sebbens) asks the Viet Cong officer for permission to pass over his land in the immemorial language of her people. It’s a film everybody and her grandmother weeps over and it is difficult to tally the wizardliness behind it with the slightly dazed man before me picking at his salad.

I ask Blair if he knew The Sapphires would take off in the way it did. “I had no idea,” he says. “I just wanted to tell the story of these four people and I’d been involved with the stage show and I had this responsibility.” Then – a moment later – there’s the killer line that is also the money line. “I just had one goal,” Blair says. “To get it into every living room in Australia.” He talks about the four women and their story and “the populace of Australia” and adds, almost as if it’s an embarrassment, “and I suppose a lot of Australia did see it in the end”.

Big-time filmmaking might seem a far cry from Walking into the Bigness. Here Blair is, back in Melbourne for Richard Frankland. What’s the attraction? “Well, we’ve been friends for 15 years and I’ve spent so much time talking to him on the phone and in person about his childhood in Victoria. The show is the story of the melding work of what puzzles young people and how they become old people and what we gain from time. “Then on top of that, you’ve got Richard’s music.”

Music was the conduit of emotional release in The Sapphires and with Walking into the Bigness there will be the added – slightly unusual – factor of Frankland playing his music to illustrate the stories he and Blair have shaped into a script. It’s a story that takes Blair back to his own Queensland childhood. Music has always been in his background – the Aboriginal tenor Harold Blair was his great-uncle – and at school he played in a band called Black Dove, which performed INXS covers, none too wonderfully, he recalls. 

Blair initially did a degree at the Queensland University of Technology in business, majoring in marketing, though he later did an arts degree in which he studied acting. He worked with Bangarra Dance Theatre, then got a part in Neil Armfield’s production of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, which took him to New York. There he met British-born expatriate Paul Thompson, who was teaching film at New York University, and who told him his future lay in directing. “So I saved up and did the course.” There’s an air of never-having-looked-back about this but in Blair’s case there’s been plenty of looking sideways – particularly at the different mirror of acting.

He played Othello for Bell Shakespeare with that cunning actor Marcus Graham as his Iago – the mesmerising, easier role. 

“It nearly killed me, that year,” Blair says. “I played Othello a hundred times. It’s a role where you have to put yourself through the process of believing a lie and killing your wife. That’s the year I also had to do Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train at Belvoir. There was the psychosis and that involved killing eight people.”

At some level with Blair you feel that for him acting is like the memory of good and bad dreams. “It sounds painful and in some ways it is painful. You have to recall painful moments that exist somewhere as memories in your body.” 

One highlight of Blair’s acting career – which can’t have done his directing any harm either – was when he was cast by Philip Seymour Hoffman as one of the two brothers (Brendan Cowell was the other) in True West, a colour-blind production for the Sydney Theatre Company. He muses on the audacity of the decision, an Australian black man in that archetypally “Western” American play. “It took someone from outside to make that relatively simple decision,” he says. Hoffman, arguably the greatest American actor of his generation, is a haunting figure because of his premature death in February this year. So what was he like, this man I heard described by a seasoned theatre watcher as having, with his Willy Loman for Mike Nichols on the New York stage, given the greatest performance the man in his 70s had ever seen?

“Philip was all heart, very understated at first, even diffident, very kind and generous. He’d walk in with a muffin and coffee and then after what looked like hesitation, he would be at you and at you, he would make you work. Every moment that you were on stage had to count, it had to be real.”

The truth of his character in True West wasn’t a pretty thing for Blair to find lurking in himself. “Once again, he was a passive-aggressive character.” And Hoffman was not interested in the glamour of any actor’s self-image. On the other hand, Blair knows what it’s like to feel the pure pleasure of acting, the way it can make you soar. And negative reflection is necessary to that. “If you want to feel good about acting, you have to allow yourself to feel bad.”

So what’s the joy of the thing like? He sparks up in a quiet kind of wonderment.

“It’s like jumping off a cliff,” he says, “And being alright, being able to dive, to fly. It’s like a drug. You might get it five times in the course of a performance. You might get it once. But there’s nothing like it. There’s no feeling on earth like that.”

Directing is a different thing for Blair, not a lesser satisfaction but a more collaborative one. “As a director, you have more control and that’s very satisfying in a different way. You establish control and you have to gain people’s trust to do that. But then once you’ve got that trust, you can relax and learn to control people less. Once everyone’s on the same page and understands your vision, you can let people collaborate so that you’re talking the whole thing through with the actors and producers and it becomes a collective effort. You learn so much by all doing it together.”

Blair talks with a kind of joy about what it was like travelling blind – or rather travelling without language and having to improvise communication with his film crew when he was making Septembers of Shiraz. “Eighty per cent of the crew could only speak Bulgarian. They had no English at all so you communicated in all sorts of ways. Sometimes it was a bit like telepathy. But it worked.”

The Sapphires was an opposite process, as he knew the original stage work so well and it was all a matter of translating a great story into a show that would transfix the attention of the nation and, beyond that, though Blair doesn’t say so, the world. 

He is aware with Walking into the Bigness of the potential danger of doing a stage show both with and about an older man, universally revered, who is also a good friend.

“Of course it’s a risk doing a show with someone you know well,” he says, “There’s the possibility it won’t gel but, you know, if I were a betting man – which I certainly am not – I’d say it’s going to work. It’s not, after all, just Richard and me. It’s all that storytelling, that drama, that music.”

Elements, of course, which cohered to the world’s delight in The Sapphires. I said to Blair that very experienced international directors had told me that the most difficult thing on earth to do was a musical and that the reason why the My Fair Ladies and Olivers and West Side Stories were so challenging – and the reason, by way of corollary, why the Moss Harts and Hal Princes were geniuses – was that infinitely tricky transition between words and music. In a way that’s interesting, Blair doesn’t know what he thinks about this even though it’s the field he’s made his own. “I don’t have an opinion about that,” he says, just a bit stiffly.

He’s also a bit hesitant when I ask him, as an afterthought, about his personal life. He says to me, poker-faced, “I’m just keeping it simple. I just want to finish this film off, see the editing through and then I’ll have a baby.”

For a second I think he’s serious and ask him about partners. He backs away. No, no, he’s just joshing – no plans, no revelations. What he doesn’t have a reticence about is his influences. “Stephen Page of Bangarra and Neil Armfield. They gave me a really good line of work. It’s those guys who got me going; I just owe them so much.”

Blair talked about being a Queensland boy, working at Sizzler, working at Video Ezy. He talked about his father, who had been in the army in Vietnam and who became a taxi driver who never lost his iron work ethic.

“Sometimes I think I could go back to Queensland and get a real job but you know… I just enjoy travel and working with people and telling their stories.”

Somehow with Wayne Blair you feel he’s walked off that cliff and knows he’s flying and isn’t sure why. But he likes it and you get a strong sense that he thinks, “Why the hell not?”

Othello, Philip Seymour Hoffman, a great big Aussie film that’s become a legend. And now a Hollywood career. Somehow it all seems to stretch before him like a bit of a mystery he’s happy to dive and fly his way through.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 2, 2014 as "Which Blair project?".

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Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.

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