The 2/29 Infantry Battalion formed at Bonegilla in Victoria in October 1940. John Roxburgh, an accountant like his father – of the family firm G. H. Roxburgh & Co in Albury – enlisted at age 21 as a signaller and was posted to Malaya, arriving in August 1941. “My father did talk about this stuff,” recalls the youngest of John and Marie Roxburgh’s six children, the actor Richard Roxburgh, “but later on in life, mainly after Mum died.”
By January 1942, the Japanese had reached Muar River, in northern Johor, and John Roxburgh and his compatriots were rushed to reinforce an inexperienced and poorly trained Indian brigade defending the area. Forced to retreat, he was among those who evaded capture, guided by stars through jungle and swamp to eventually rejoin the battalion. But come the February 15 surrender of the British command in Singapore, the surviving members of 2/29 would spend three-and-a-half years among Japan’s prisoners of war.
“My mother hated war talk,” says Richard, the 54-year-old star of TV comedy Rake, in which he plays lawyer Cleaver Greene. “I kind of get it, but I also think, ‘Holy crap: if I’d spent three years working on the Burma railway, and witnessed the things that those guys witnessed, wouldn’t you need to be allowed to talk it out?’ I think a lot about it now, and it’s just a completely different culture in the way you deal with things.”
We’re sitting in MoVida, the Spanish tapas bar in Sydney’s Surry Hills, here to talk about the imminent broadcast of the season few thought would happen – a fourth go-round of Rake. We’re onto our fifth dish while entertaining the prospect of a fifth series about the urbane legal larrikin, whose DNA is partly coded by the blur of a younger, carousing Roxburgh.
“Rox”, as he is known to friends, has had to eat his words that he wanted to leave Cleaver as a “good-looking corpse”. “We stopped worrying about the corpse,” he quips, crisp and declarative and Cleaver-like, notwithstanding that Roxburgh now has to bring his own shoes to set because a budget-ravaged ABC couldn’t spring Cleaver a shiny new pair. “We felt it was a shame to abandon when there was still life in it – that would be an act of creative vandalism.”
For the past 40 years, Roxburgh’s work as an actor and film director and, soon, children’s author and artist, has often drawn him to stories about fathers of sons, and yet little gets written or spoken about his own father, John, who died in 2011, aged 91.
Roxburgh’s episode of the genealogy show Who Do You Think You Are? last year, for instance, sidestepped his dad’s Burma story in favour of the dual tale of a maternal great-great-grandfather, James Watson, who “tried to address the needs of the downtrodden”, juxtaposed with a paternal great-great-grandfather, Thomas Roxburgh, a major slaveholder in the Caribbean, “bloody well addressing his own needs on the shoulders of the downtrodden”.
It was a reasonably engaging episode. “Full of surprises” says Roxburgh, today dressed in a blue check shirt, his beard neatly clipped, perfectly aligned white teeth on full effective display when he smiles. Yet the actor feels “generationally distanced” from his forefathers’ stories, and is not sure what they mean for him. There had been no barrier to telling his father’s story, he says when asked; the show’s producers simply decided to tell his ancestors’ narrative instead.
With Richard’s much older brothers having left home for university, “I grew up in a house of oestrogen with Mum and two sisters”, he explains. Marie Roxburgh, nee Macnuff, Australian-born from a Scottish line, was “a towering shape in my life, for better and for worse. Perhaps the fact that I was the youngest meant I was irradiated by her love. I don’t mean that she loved me more, but the fact that I was the last one leaving home, leaving her alone really was probably very difficult for her.”
The Roxburgh family home, Loma Loma, was a large sandstone pile in Albury, later demolished to make way for flats. Roxburgh is almost 15 years younger than his eldest sibling, Bryce, who became a geologist. In descending order then came David, a science teacher; Phil, a dentist; Aileen, a food technologist; and Liz, a landscape architect, 18 months older than Richard, who would study economics at the Australian National University.
At the ripe old age of 15, in high school, he played Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, the story of a father with a troubled relationship with his sons. His most celebrated early professional stage role came almost two decades later in 1994 as Hamlet, the Shakespearean great with excess father baggage, at Belvoir St Theatre. Today, Roxburgh would like to play Loman again, and King Lear, continuing with the theme of intergenerational miscommunication.
Roxburgh saw his first professional play at 16, a 1978 touring Chichester Festival Theatre production of Othello, with Roy Dotrice playing Iago “badly, I have to say … he was playing up to the fact it was a high school audience”. Roxburgh loved the “smell” of theatre, even as he smelled a patronising performance, but it didn’t seem plausible when it came to university choices. “I thought, ‘I can’t be an actor. What is that? Doesn’t exist.’ ”
John Roxburgh, meanwhile, worked three jobs, doing the books for companies and personal income tax accounts at night as well as a day job. Richard says his father was not a strong presence in his life. Was this a cause of conflict? “I think you accept whatever comes your way as a child. But now I look at his life and I think, my god, you poor fella, having to work like that. Because he just worked and worked and worked.”
Later in life, John started going back to military parade marches in Melbourne and reconnecting with his old mates. Did he suffer post-traumatic stress? “No doubt. Most of those guys did.”
The thought that he might do something creative with his father’s story popped into Roxburgh’s head while reading Richard Flanagan’s book The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
But the idea remains unresolved. “I think I could deal with it, but what can you say really, apart from all the things that war stories finally do say? Which is, Why? The mad senseless brutality of it, the sheer stupidity, the horror. What else could you add to that?”
It is December 3, 2015, in Sydney’s inner-western Haberfield. Episode seven of Rake’s fourth series is being filmed. This is the large Federation-style house of Cleaver’s ex-wife, Wendy, who is allowing Cleaver to sleep on a blow-up mattress because his shabby flat above the Piccolo Bar in Kings Cross has been sold. Talk about your lockout laws.
Caroline Brazier, who plays Wendy, sits up against her dark oak bedhead, her face captured in a frame of grief, having had a fight with her new girlfriend, and mourning the anniversary of her father’s death. Her iPhone beeps. Cleaver has sent her a photo of flowers and a greeting: “Thinking of him today xx.” She calls him: “My father hated lilies … God he loathed you.” Roxburgh, on a phone on the sofa in the next room, pretending to be far away, replies: “Yeah, that’s why I sent you that picture … purely on the basis it would shit you.”
More and more, Roxburgh is deviating from the script, says Adrienne Pickering, who plays Cleaver’s former girlfriend Melissa. Roxburgh says that’s true: he ad libs lines, but sometimes with words that occurred to him a week earlier on a script read-through, ideas that he stored in his back pocket. Cleaver causing chaos is interesting to a point, he says, but then he must get “karmic comeuppance”. It’s easy to imagine men like seeing Cleaver saying and doing the irrepressible, socially transgressive Peter Pan stuff; women delight in seeing painful things happen to him.
Cleaver was partly based on an eccentric man Roxburgh knew who’d frequented the Australian National University union bar – not a student, as assumed, but a blow-in – who once, between blows when being beaten up, sang snatches of song and spouted Shakespeare. “He was this life force, a mad creative energy going into wrong places and causing wrong things to happen, mainly for himself.”
At ANU, Roxburgh himself had been an “indolent, slothful and drunken” student. “I broke free. I went a bit nuts, yeah. I guess it was about having no idea about what I wanted to do and who I was.”
After being accepted into acting school NIDA on a second attempt, he had a comeuppance when dating two fellow students at the same time, without telling the other. The two women had to do an improvisation together, and got talking about the guy they were dating. Needless to say, the women dressed him down.
Keegan Joyce, who plays Finnegan or “Fuzz”, Cleaver’s son, says Roxburgh is a lot kinder than his character. “I think there are moments that they kind of blend into each other when we’re filming … You get this kind of character leak, either way. But I like to think that Rox is definitely not Cleaver, especially for his two young boys.”
In 2004, Roxburgh married actor and later cooking show host Silvia Colloca, now 38, in a Tuscan castle. The pair met on the film Van Helsing, in which she played one of the vampire brides of his Count Dracula. “She’s very different to me – she fires up and burns brightly and briefly and then it’s all fine, you know? And I’m sort of… I’m an old Calvinist grudge-keeper lugging baggage around with me.”
He credits meeting Colloca with settling his life. “Everything seemed possible. I guess I’d had depression throughout my life, not serious, but ongoing bouts of it, which I would sort of medicate with booze and whatever, and all the wrong answers. Which a lot of creative people do, I guess, and a lot of people who are essentially lost. I suppose, maybe, I was essentially lost.
“So, although I think it’s too simplistic to say that in marrying Silvia I was found – because I don’t think life works like that – I do think people can provide you with a sense of home that is critical, and if you find it, you’re a lucky bastard.”
The couple has two children: sons Raphael, 9, and Miro, 5. “My oldest boy, even though he looks like he grew out of my neck, he’s inherited his mother’s tempestuous ways.” Roxburgh loves his family life on Sydney’s northern beaches, and his work in Australia, and wouldn’t risk forsaking what he’s built for himself with an extended period in America. He is “fame shy” whenever contemplating that next level. “I would rather take my eye out with a pencil than have to deal with the big machinery of losing your life to the spectacle of that other world.”
He doesn’t lack artistic ambition, however. Later this year, he’ll make his Broadway debut alongside Cate Blanchett in The Present, an adaptation of a Chekhov play he says is playwright Andrew Upton’s finest hour. He expects to direct his second feature film this year, too: Rita Kalnejais’s Babyteeth, based on her successful Belvoir St Theatre play, which he encountered when asked to take part in a read-through of the screenplay in the father role. He’ll play that role again in the film.
Roxburgh’s first feature as director, Romulus, My Father, released in 2007 and based on Raimond Gaita’s memoir, took seven years to bring to fruition and had budget constraints, but was garlanded in AFI awards, including best film.
Christmas will bring the literary fruition of a father and son’s love with the release of his first children’s book, Artie and the Grime Wave, which begins with a boy whose father has died and whose mother is in bad shape.
Roxburgh had been looking for a place to park his drawings, done with quill and black ink, then had an idea when reading to Raphael.
“The sly amusement of it – I’d be looking forward myself to reading at night. They start to think more like adults, so your humour intersects. Their understanding of scope of narrative takes a huge leap at that age.
“I thought, I can write to that. This is my territory.”