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Holding the Man star Ryan Corr is following his success on the big screen with a turn on the stage.

By Steve Dow.

Arcadia actor Ryan Corr puts personal drama behind him

Actor Ryan Corr rehearsing Arcadia for Sydney Theatre Company.
Credit: HON BOEY

Ryan Corr previously graced a stage three years ago, playing a shock blogger who documented his active sex life in American playwright Laura Eason’s two-hander Sex with Strangers. Now, having just turned 27, he’s back starring for Sydney Theatre Company, rehearsing Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, and playing a more refined amorous chap. This fellow seduces intellectually.

For a long time, Corr was best known for years of hardscrabble in fast-paced television dramas. His work ethic has been underscored by his appearance in more than 60 episodes of Packed to the Rafters and the first season of Love Child. Then late last year came the game changer in his career: his first lead feature film role, and a lauded one at that.

Playing Tim Conigrave in the film based on the actor and writer’s memoir, Holding the Man, earned Corr a best actor nomination in the 2015 Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards. And after 14 years on stage and screen, GQ Australia named him breakthrough actor of the year last November. Accepting the award, he called for formal recognition of “everyone’s right to love openly and freely”.

Corr describes his role as Conigrave as “the most profound experience I’ve ever had professionally and personally”. He still gets messages daily from people who were touched by his portrayal. 

At the film’s wrap party, director Neil Armfield revealed to Corr the gig was his from the outset, even though the young actor had to endure roughly 15 auditions before he was finally cast alongside Craig Stott. Armfield knew it was vital to find two leads who created a spark, because their characters were real people, vividly rendered in the best-selling memoir that Conigrave willed himself to complete even as he succumbed to AIDS-related dementia. 

“Craig stood there, said the first line, and looked into me,” Corr recalls now, sitting on a balcony sofa at the STC’s Wharf bar. “I was caught off guard.” 

In pre-production and off set during filming, the pair held hands to build an intimate rapport. “When I walked into a coffee shop I’d been in before, this time holding Craig’s hand, the energies that were put onto me, the way I was looked at, completely changed. It was a raised eyebrow, it was sniggers… That was very new for me,” recalls Corr. “To experience homophobia firsthand was a bit of a shock. I found it massively offensive.”

Stott has spoken of feeling safe and at peace while acting alongside Corr. “I fell in love with Ryan,” he declared at the Melbourne International Film Festival last August. “I still am.”

‘I’m a little quirky’

Sporting a beard, dressed in a blue T-shirt, jeans and brown boots, a pendant around his neck, Ryan Corr’s eyes are a piercing green. At 180 centimetres, he cuts a Byronesque, romantic figure. Tellingly, the character actors he cites as his idols – Tom Hardy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ryan Gosling, Joel Edgerton and Daniel Day-Lewis – all edged their careers towards leading roles. 

“I’m a little offbeat; I’m a little quirky,” says Corr, over a chicken salad during his lunch break while rehearsing Arcadia. “I’d like to think I’m more a character actor, or at least, I aspire to be.” 

Corr’s medium-sized but meaty role as Private MacDonald in the BBC drama Banished, set in the penal colony of Sydney, has gained attention from international film directors, including a Swedish director in France whom he won’t yet name. Meanwhile, he’s just filmed a small role as a shell-shocked lieutenant in the Mel Gibson-directed film Hacksaw Ridge.

There’s no one “theorem” for acting success, says Corr. It’s an apt choice of word given he’s now rehearsing a stage role as English tutor Septimus Hodge, aged 22 then 25, in Stoppard’s Arcadia. First staged in 1993, the play might be read as a love letter to 20th-century scientific advancement while still championing arts and soul. 

It switches between contemporary times and the early 19th century, in which Hodge, a fictitious friend of the Romantic poet Lord Byron, holds to a Newtonian view of universal order even as his prodigiously brilliant student, Thomasina, aged 13 and then 16, begins to question such mechanistic determinism. 

A century before her time, Thomasina is dabbling in ideas foreshadowing the second law of thermodynamics – entropy of the universe – as well as mathematical feedback that prefigures chaos theory or, more accurately, deterministic chaos: patterns still emerge, despite disorder. Thomasina draws a diagram of heat exchange that undermines Newton’s laws of motion, and her drawing survives the centuries. “So the Improved Newtonian Universe must cease and grow cold,” Septimus responds in 1812 after studying her efforts. “Dear me.”

There’s a detective story and a Wilde-esque comedy of manners to help audiences digest the science, yet Stoppard seems to have left little character direction on the page for actors. But for Corr, a slow read of the play revealed hidden clues about characters in the dialogue. “You’d be surprised.” The play’s British-born stage director Richard Cottrell, 79, has directed Stoppard before and is a “Shakespeare god”, says Corr.

Corr has learnt that rhythm within Stoppard’s work is critical – sentences as long as eight lines are spoken on one breath. He doesn’t feel “stage fit” yet, to cast his lines unimpeded as far as the back row. Corr’s drive to rehearsals sees him reciting tongue twisters, and the cast spends their first hour under the tutelage of a voice coach. “It’s like stretching. You can’t do a marathon unless you’ve run for a month and got fit. It’s very similar vocally.” 

Corr is in awe of his co-star, Josh McConville, who has just completed a five-month national tour as Hamlet for Bell Shakespeare, playing 29 venues. It’s a role Corr, too, would like to tackle.

Early rebellion

Ryan’s first role was a sight gag, essentially. His father, a drama teacher, cast his six-year-old son as a melted, shrunken witch in a Camberwell Girls Grammar production of The Wizard of Oz. “I buggered the blocking every night,” Ryan recalls. Films turned him on to acting: The Shawshank Redemption (1994), a favourite of his father’s, and Gibson’s Braveheart (1995). “They made me feel something, whether bad or good.”

Born in January 1989, Corr grew up in Melbourne’s East Doncaster. His father also coached basketball for young athletes with disabilities and is currently head of sport at Rossbourne School in Hawthorn, which caters for students with learning disabilities. His mother, until recently, was an occupational therapist.

In grade five, at Milgate Primary, Corr auditioned for a musical called Kids at Sea, playing a character named Sir Basil. Like Septimus Hodge, this first speaking role required an English accent. Basil also sings a song called “Superstition”, and Corr’s father helped him make a cape and create choreography. The validation Corr got from schoolfriends and adults sparked his ambition.

But his ample charm could be divisive. “I was a little shit at school,” he ventures. “Some teachers loved my cheek and tenacity. If I believed in their subject, I’d work really hard. That really drew a line between them and the teachers who thought I was a little shit.”

What was he rebelling against? “I was anti-authority. I’d always say, ‘Why?’ If I was told I was talking when I wasn’t, I’d say, ‘I was not.’ I’d quite happily sit there and argue with the teacher. I was rebelling against…” he takes a deep breath. “I don’t know. When my parents divorced [when Corr was 11] it had a profound effect on me. I felt the splitting of the family dynamic made a difference; not everything is peaches and cream.” 

So when did he stop being a little shit? “Oh, I still am a little shit. There’s a part of acting that allows you to be a little shit.”

At 13, Corr landed his first professional role, in The Sleepover Club for ABC TV. He began turning up on set with lines only half learnt. “The director pulled me aside and said, ‘Don’t you ever do that again.’ ” At 17, Corr auditioned for the National Institute of Dramatic Art. There he knuckled down to study “because I was doing what I wanted to do”.

His sister, Alyce, now 23, has mild cerebral palsy. She is studying to be a psychologist. “She’s grown up getting operation after operation, opening up her muscles, breaking and rotating out her bones,” says Corr. “She’s a massive support and point of understanding in my life. The tables have turned: I’m now getting advice from her.” 

Alyce is also openly gay, and Corr cannot recall her sexuality being an issue in the family. Her experience helped form her brother’s openness to playing gay. 

But the stress of life not so long ago ran the actor very publicly off the success script. In 2014, Corr pleaded guilty to possessing 0.26 grams of heroin. He was placed on a 12-month good-behaviour bond with no conviction recorded. The court found he had neither taken the drug nor had the implements to do so. 

Was that a life experience to use in his craft? “The fact is a circumstance in my life, where I made a mistake, was caught out and put into the public eye. I very much tried to stand next to it, own it, and take responsibility for it. If it’s added anything to acting, it’s strengthened me, my character and ability to stand next to who I am.”

The experience of being followed by photographers and being reported as being in places he hadn’t visited means Corr now avoids reading about himself, including reviews. 

“Those who know me, know and love me. Those who work with me, know my work ethic and what I believe in. The love and those people who like to work with me didn’t waver once, despite my having made a mistake. It was an isolated incident, and I was having all these theories thrown out against the person I was. That was really confronting. I had to toughen, get a thick skin.”

Into Corr’s life last year stepped girlfriend Kyla Bartholomeusz, a singer and dancer who performs in musical theatre. “She’s calm. She’s the most full of light person I’ve ever met. She gives me utter happiness. That’s something I’ve been searching for in my young-man life for a long time. She floated in when I was least expecting it, and she’s blown my world apart.”

Receiving his GQ award, Corr, who speaks with rapid-fire, articulate passion, thanked the believers who “help me when I hesitate in my own belief”. 

When has he hesitated? 

“Every day. All the time. There’s a huge part of being an actor that’s self-conscious, that leads you to believe you can be a fraud, or you’re not doing enough work. It’s constantly self-reflective and neurotic.” 

Does he get anxiety about public speaking or performing? “Very much so. I’m an anxious person. I’ve sort of got generalised anxiety disorder. I’ve seen therapists throughout my life to try and clamp hold my centre and know who I am. It’s very exposing. 

“I like to think I’m present and in the moment and empathetic and don’t try to put on a layer of who I want people to perceive me to be. I don’t judge people, so I don’t like to be judged. I know I’m a good person. My process in the last three years has been holding that centre more, and having the confidence in the person I am.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 23, 2016 as "Corr values". Subscribe here.

Steve Dow
is a Sydney-based arts writer and the author of Gay: The Tenth Anniversary Collection.

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