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Long before Australian actors were celebrated in the US, Anthony LaPaglia was forging a solid career in theatre and movies. But, he says, his rise to stardom could not have been more unexpected. By Donna Walker-Mitchell.

Anthony LaPaglia’s pioneer spirit

Anthony LaPaglia in Annabelle: Creation.
Credit: JUSTIN LUBIN

Anthony LaPaglia is the accidental actor – a man who has achieved huge acclaim in Australian and American film, theatre and television, but whose success has surprised himself more than anyone.

“This career was not planned. Far from it. I did not come tap-dancing out of the womb,” LaPaglia, 58, says in his trademark raspy voice with his inimitable deadpan delivery.

Famous for his roles in critically lauded Australian films such as Lantana and Balibo, a starring role in the American TV drama series Without a Trace and a Tony Award for Best Actor in Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge on Broadway, LaPaglia’s career is widely admired within the industry.

In his latest effort, he plays former toy maker Sam Mullins in the supernatural horror film Annabelle: Creation, opposite fellow Australian Miranda Otto.

Today, LaPaglia is looking sharp in a dark navy blue suit, with a white shirt, no tie and his dark hair slicked back as he sits down for an early lunch in West Hollywood, just south of Sunset Boulevard.

After he gives his order – a turkey club sandwich and a wild berry smoothie – LaPaglia looks out the large windows to the stunning view over the city he calls home, still seemingly marvelling at how his career has evolved.

Growing up in Adelaide and attending Norwood High School, the son of Dutch model Maria Johannes and Italian auto mechanic and car dealer Gedio “Eddie”, LaPaglia never gave acting a second thought, preferring to focus his attention on his beloved sport of soccer.

“I hated drama class and I’d duck it as much as I could just to go and play soccer,” he says. “You see, coming from Adelaide, I thought you’d have a better chance of becoming an astronaut for NASA than becoming an actor. Then, after I started to become successful, someone went back to my drama teacher at Norwood and asked her about me. She said, ‘You could have picked any kid in my class who was going to go into acting and I would have thought, ‘Okay, but not him.’ ”

Reflecting on his childhood, in a “very blue collar” environment, LaPaglia spent his teens dreaming of something bigger than his Adelaide surrounds. He moved to Sydney when he was 19.

At 20, he dabbled in acting, a move he thought might impress a potential girlfriend.

“That’s when I got introduced to it a little bit,” he says. “Usually you do something like that because you want to date someone, and that was me. This person was very interested in theatre so I kind of got an introduction to it in a small way.”

Still not sure of what he wanted to do with his life, LaPaglia packed his suitcase in 1982 after he decided he was going to move to the Big Apple. “I really had no idea what I was doing, but I thought, ‘Why not?’ ”

LaPaglia embraced life as a twentysomething in New York City.

“When I first started out in New York, I was basically a bartender who went to acting classes. I didn’t really think about acting career-wise,” he says, shrugging.

However, something in the young LaPaglia was changing and he began to like acting more and more.

“I was really enjoying myself and then I started going to classes more often just because I wanted to. Not that I ever really considered making a living out of it and, to be totally honest with you, I didn’t care. I was in my 20s, I was in New York and having so much fun. I mean, I wasn’t getting any sleep and I was doing, well…” His voice trails off a little. “I was doing what you do.” He laughs.

In 1987, LaPaglia landed a role in his first off-Broadway production, Bouncers.

“That’s when I started thinking, ‘Okay, maybe I can do this.’ Then I started doing more theatre and that led to movies. Back then, there was very much a separation between movies and TV. Of course, my aspiration was to do theatre and movies. Doing television back then was like the poor second cousin. That has totally turned around now.”

While the young LaPaglia was finding some success in his new-found profession, it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. Trying to land roles in the highly competitive film industry, he went to multiple auditions, never securing the elusive callback.

“I made the mistake of going in with an Australian accent,” he says matter-of-factly. “You have to remember this was around the time of Paul Hogan [and Crocodile Dundee] and it was a big thing, all of this shrimp on the barbie type of stuff. So I’d have to do 20 minutes of Paul Hogan and then I’d read and then I never heard back. I got quite frustrated. Then one day, I went in and they said to me, ‘Where are you from?’ I said, ‘Brooklyn.’ They said, ‘Great, let’s read’, and I got that job. That taught me not to be Australian,” LaPaglia says.

Unlike now, where Australian actors are a dominant force internationally, LaPaglia says there were very few expats going to auditions in New York and LA.

“There weren’t any other Australians when you went to audition. Actually, no,” he says, quickly stopping to correct himself mid-sentence, “there was one. In my travels, I met Deborra-Lee Furness somewhere way back then. Maybe there were a couple of others, but I never met them, just Deborra. It was a disadvantage to be Australian back then, so from that point on, I was either from New York or Brooklyn, and it made my life as an actor much easier.”

LaPaglia notes how much the landscape has changed since those early days in New York in the ’80s, in terms of Australian actors trying to make it big in the United States.

“Now, especially, I look back and I think you go to a different country – and I know America is Western, but it’s a different culture to Australia, it really is. I kind of liked that. I accepted the culture of America and I really dove into it. The difference I see now with Australian actors who come here, they tend to cling to each other a bit more, you know, safety in numbers. They don’t seem to get out there with Americans that much and I think they probably should. I mean, they call it the Australian mafia now. I was here before all of that, so I’ve never really been part of that. I built my career here, not there,” he says.

LaPaglia’s accent is an authentic blend of American and Australian, although he sounds more like the latter except for an occasional rolling of his “r’s” and in his delivery. Forthright and honest, LaPaglia loves the luxurious life success in the US has afforded him, but that doesn’t mean he is blindly accepting of every facet.

Take the current political climate.

“Oh boy, where do we start?” he says, laughing loudly then shaking his head.

He points to a nearby television that has the volume down but is tuned to CNN and featuring a story on President Donald Trump. “The most depressing reality show I’ve ever watched,” he says, not skipping a beat. “We don’t have enough time, because honestly we’ll be here until after dark.”

As his speech picks up pace, he adds: “Don’t think it can’t happen in Australia either. Pauline Hanson is still there, and in fact she’s emboldened by all of this.

“Look, what happened with Trump getting elected is a reflection on how bad politics and politicians are here. I think people got so fed up with this backspin every time you ask them something. This is why I think Australia better be careful. Politicians need to just stop answering a question with a question. When you get asked a question, answer the damn thing!” he says, raising his voice several decibels. “You are representing the people. Politicians now are only interested in getting elected or re-elected so they’ll say and do anything to have that happen.”

LaPaglia, having lived in New York for many years, says he is familiar with Trump’s ways. “I’ve known of Trump since I moved to New York in 1982. He’s always been this person. He’s always been an idiot and, to be honest, a reprehensible human. He is what you think he is and he’s not smart. I hate that they keep saying, ‘He’s a great communicator.’ If you like two-syllable words, he’s a great communicator. You realise how fed up people get with politicians and how little they trust them, and for good reason. You can’t look at Trump. You’ve got to look at the climate that allowed him to even get a foot in the door.”

Clearly, it’s a subject LaPaglia is passionate about. He chuckles when he recalls an interview with CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper and Trump supporter Jeffrey Lord when Cooper said the pro-Republican commentator would apologise for Trump under any circumstances.

“Anderson Cooper goes, ‘You would apologise for Trump if he took a dump on his desk.’ I thought, ‘This is it! This is the moment I have been waiting for. Someone to call this shit out’,” LaPaglia says. “This is a guy who cares about one thing and one thing only – Trump. The thing is, he doesn’t even like being president. You can see it. It wouldn’t surprise me if he walked away himself.”

In fact, LaPaglia has been so dismayed by the current political climate he has pondered moving home to Australia.

“This is the first time in the 30-plus years I’ve lived here that I’ve considered not living here. I never thought I would, but I might. It depends if he does a second term.”

Recently, LaPaglia spent time back in Australia filming the crime thriller mini-series Sunshine.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in Melbourne lately,” he says. “I’ve been working there. I just finished Sunshine for SBS, which was really good. It was great being in Melbourne and I had an amazing experience there.”

Another bonus of being in Melbourne is it’s the home town of his fiancée, Alexandra Henkel. The actor made headlines in April when he announced he was engaged to 28-year-old Henkel. LaPaglia split from his wife of 17 years, actor Gia Carides, in 2015. The couple have a 14-year-old daughter, Bridget.

Speaking of his most recent trip to Australia, LaPaglia smiles before taking a sip of his smoothie.

“[Alexandra] is from Melbourne and her family is there so she has a wide knowledge of the city. One of the things I love most about Melbourne is it has so many great restaurants per square foot. It’s incredible. But while I was there, it wasn’t like I was doing anything exotic. I was just kicking around, meeting friends I have there and catching up. That’s the main thing I like to do when I go back,” he says.

As for when the wedding day will be, LaPaglia says the couple haven’t decided on a date.

“I don’t know,” he says. “One thing at a time. Getting the engagement part was enough. I’m taking a break for a minute.”

One thing he’s not taking a break from, though, is his career. Looking back, LaPaglia says he’s had “extraordinary luck in the stuff I’ve gotten to do”.

Although the final details are still being worked on, LaPaglia will probably return to Melbourne soon, this time to take on his first directing role in the adaptation of the The Rugmaker of Mazar-e-Sharif.

“Steve Bastoni introduced me to the book and then asked me if I wanted to direct it and I said, ‘You know what? I actually do.’ ”

LaPaglia realises it will be a challenge to direct, but it’s a challenge he’s eager to take on.

“For someone who didn’t ever think about making a living out of this, 35 years later, just the fact that I’m still doing it is incredible to me,” he says. “There’s a tonne of stuff I’ve just been very fortunate throughout the whole of my career to do, and you know what the greatest thing is?” LaPaglia smiles. “It continues.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 12, 2017 as "Saint Anthony". Subscribe here.

Donna Walker-Mitchell
is an Australian journalist based in Los Angeles.

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