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A screen actor since he was 10 years old, Damon Herriman is all too aware of the precarities in his line of work. He speaks to Steve Dow about the ups and downs of his career and his new film, Judy and Punch. “It has a dark fairytale vibe. You can watch Judy and Punch as an allegory or a feminist revenge tale, or you could watch it as a really entertaining fairytale fable, or both.” By Steve Dow.

Actor Damon Herriman

Damon Herriman in Judy and Punch.
Credit: Madman

Roadkill guy changed everything for Damon Herriman. The Adelaide-born actor had spent his first 15 adult years often playing sweet, vulnerable, nerdy guys with side parts and spectacles, from the movie The Big Steal to his recurring role on the television series Love My Way. Then he shed the clean-cut image by rubbing mud on his face and temporarily staining his teeth rotten to audition for the American horror film remake House of Wax.

Starring celebrity hotel heiress Paris Hilton, that film is notable for racking up a multimillion-dollar damage bill in 2004, after a fire – started by a huge candle – burned down an entire sound stage at Movie World on the Gold Coast, forcing the actors and crew to flee. House of Wax also set Herriman’s career alight in the United States. For the past 15 years he has specialised in “creepy, inbred, unwashed” characters – his words – such as neo-Nazi hillbilly Dewey Crowe in the TV series Justified, a “snarly, rattled, flea-bitten little dog” of a man.

Herriman, 49, is still the boyish lad easily traced to his television debut as a child actor in The Sullivans at age 10, playing Frank Errol. Today, in a cinema lounge, he wears a baseball cap, concentrates and elaborates on questions, and enthusiastically offers to spend more time than that allocated for the interview – something, in my experience, internationally successful actors never do.

We first met four years earlier at a Newtown pub trivia night, after I had interviewed his friend, the actor and playwright Kate Mulvany, for The Saturday Paper. Their trivia team, the Big Fact Hunt, did that nurturing actor thing: encourage a trier, this journalist, whose trivia contributions were not exactly pouring forth. Yet Herriman’s sweetness conceals an uncanny knack for going dark: in his new film, Judy and Punch, his Punch beats Mia Wasikowska’s Judy to a pulp, while the demise of their onscreen child at his hands is played for unsettling comic effect, consistent with the gallows humour of writer-director Mirrah Foulkes’s feature debut.

Filmed at the Montsalvat artists’ colony in Eltham, Victoria – which stands in for an inland Europe setting drolly named “Seaside” – Judy and Punch quickly unmasks Herriman’s character as a violent villain, even if the audience is laughing about jokes that the local authorities are mixing stoning witches with hanging miscreants to stop the villagers getting bored.

Uncannily, Herriman is also at the violent nadir of another recent Australian film, Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, an ostensibly darker work in which he plays colonial Tasmanian corporal Ruse, who takes part in the gang rape of a young woman, her baby murdered during this vicious attack.

Does Herriman think both films might cause audiences to reflect on contemporary domestic violence? “I think it would be hard to watch them and not have that response,” he says. “Certainly The Nightingale, which is focusing on a very dark time in Australia’s history, there’s no question the film will elicit a response in that way. Judy and Punch will also, I think, do that, but it is tonally a lighter film. It has a dark fairytale vibe. You can watch Judy and Punch as an allegory or a feminist revenge tale, or you could watch it as a really entertaining fairytale fable, or both.”

Shooting Judy and Punch initially proved a trial: the cute, wiry terrier hired from a “dog acting agency” would walk off set when action was called and refused to eat food it was offered. When the unimpressed dog was required to run away with a string of sausages, the sausages had to be tied to its collar to complete shooting of the scene.

So much for Herriman’s gently persuasive ways and childhood career ambition: “I think my dream of becoming a vet would have been killed in that first day of shooting,” he says with a laugh.

His and Wasikowska’s baby, meanwhile, was played by twin girls, who were adorable, says Herriman. “They got to know me, and we were all getting along great, then there’s a scene where Punch has to yell at the dog, running away with the sausages. Me suddenly yelling gave them a fright, and from that point on, they couldn’t come near me without crying.”

Perhaps those twin girls had an intuitive sense of what US film directors Quentin Tarantino and David Fincher came to understand: that Herriman, as fresh-faced and sweet as he appears even now in middle age, might make a convincing cult leader. Each director cast Herriman as Charles Manson; Tarantino in his latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and Fincher in the second season of the Netflix crime thriller series Mindhunter.

It was Justified’s Timothy Olyphant and actor Nicholas Hammond, who plays Sam Wanamaker in Once Upon a Time…, who first suggested Herriman as a potential Manson to Tarantino. When Herriman met the director, they talked about Justified – Tarantino is apparently a fan – and the character of Dewey Crowe. Herriman says, “[It] was a weird thing: ‘Wow, Quentin Tarantino watched this show; he knows the name of the character I played.’ It messes with your head to even think that.”

I ask Herriman if his interest in Manson stemmed from how the cult leader was able to control minds. “Having read and watched everything I could find about him,” he says, “I still don’t know who he is or what made him tick. He would contradict himself so much: he would seem like the craziest guy in one interview, then he’d seem completely sane in another. Then he’d talk about ‘playing crazy’; ‘I’ll just do my crazy Charlie’.

“You see footage of him pulling faces and doing weird dances; that side of him is a performance. But that doesn’t mean he was sane, either. I think he probably had a bunch of different mental disorders.

“As an actor, playing characters that are layered and very different from you are both very appealing things. He has so much going on, certainly, I would hope, very different from me. It’s kind of a dream world.”

 

Born in March 1970, Herriman moved with his family from Adelaide to Alice Springs in 1973, when his father, Noel, got a work transfer with his insurance agency. His parents were married for 11 years but separated when Damon was five. The couple eventually divorced in 1978, and Noel got custody of the two children, Damon and his older brother by two years, Steven, who later became a diesel mechanic.

His father “was certainly strict enough”, recalls Herriman, “but I was a well-behaved teenager. I didn’t go out drinking or taking drugs or going out to parties. I was a bit of a class clown; that was the extent of my misbehaving.” Herriman’s mother, Margaret, the first in the family to move back to Adelaide, would remain close to her sons throughout their childhoods. “She’s very accepting of people and non-judgemental,” says Herriman. “My mum taught me empathy.”

Herriman’s father would prove a driving force in his younger son’s acting career: in 1975, Noel had begun amateur acting with Apex Theatre in Alice Springs at the same time as voicing unpaid local radio commercials. Three years later, Damon’s first acting role was playing a son to his father in a series of chocolate commercials, for which he used his normal speaking voice, already so “deep and gravelly” that the boy “sounded like a 90-year-old woman”.

Cassette tapes of those chocolate commercials would light a fuse when Herriman, his father and brother returned to Adelaide that year, from where Noel posted the tapes to television production houses such as Grundy and Crawford. On a work trip to Melbourne, Noel decided he would retrieve the cassettes as a pretext to seeking auditions for his son.

At Crawford, casting director Helen Rolland told Herriman snr there were plenty of child actors living in Melbourne, thanks anyway, but once out on the street, he plucked up his chutzpah and went back. Just give the tapes a listen, he insisted. Crawford’s did, and offered Damon a general audition for The Sullivans, one of the most popular TV shows at the time. The production house rang back and offered a role.

Damon temporarily moved to Melbourne to begin filming. Did he feel starstruck? “It was definitely a big deal,” he says. “I remember the whole thing being joyful. I did it in two stints over a couple of years.” Herriman felt like the proverbial “kid in a candy store”: “That period from 10 to 12, in terms of percentage per year, I’ve probably worked more than I ever have.”

But Herriman became self-conscious in his teens, giving up acting for a few years until 1988, returning to the screen in The Flying Doctors. Success would prove an elusive beast: from 19 to 27, he maintained a job at the same insurance agency where his father worked, before landing a limited continuing role in All Saints.

In 1999, Herriman won a green card in a lottery, sold up all his possessions, threw a party and announced he was moving to the US to seek acting gigs. On the cusp of turning 30, he planned to stay a year in Los Angeles. But he failed to get auditions.

To make ends meet, he took a job as a bicycle courier – and ended up on the side of the road in despair, crying. He phoned a female friend, who said there was no disgrace in coming home. He did, 10 weeks later.

The worst part of that naive first US adventure was that Herriman had also left behind a girl in Australia with whom he had fallen madly in love three weeks before his departure. The relationship resumed upon his return but faltered due to a “number of factors”, he says. “I left Australia a buoyant, optimistic version of myself and I came back a pathetic, depressed guy who didn’t know quite what he was going to do with his life. I’m sure that didn’t help.”

Herriman would clock up three trips of about three months’ duration each before striking this current purple patch of American roles. Does this peripatetic life, split between the US and Australia, leave much room for relationships?

“I’m single at the moment,” he says. “I started going [back] to the States at the time I guess I would have been settling down, which was around 34, and I’ve been coming and going ever since. It’s definitely not ideal for relationships because I am away half the year, so it’s very difficult, especially for the other person, because they don’t get to do the moving part. Usually if they’ve got a job they can’t come with you, but you just suddenly disappear from their life.

“It’s tough on them, and on me. I had a girlfriend recently for a couple of years and that probably did suffer partly because of the distance, for sure.”

This year, after a decade and a half of channelling a series of deadbeats and vagabonds, Herriman is playing Paul Allen Brown in the US TV series Perpetual Grace, LTD, the son of characters played by Ben Kingsley and Jacki Weaver. Brown is a criminal with a childlike attitude to the world, a crossover between the sweet and unsightly, and may signal a subtle shift away from Herriman’s parade of underclass antiheroes, although that was already under way when he played gay Mardi Gras activist Lance Gowland in last year’s ABC telemovie Riot.

“From when I was a kid, my dad really taught me about not being affected by being an actor or people recognising you or wanting your autograph,” Herriman muses. “That was drilled into me really hardcore: ‘Don’t be a big head, don’t brag, don’t boast.’

“It bugs him now how much I quote him back, because he’s such a proud dad that he happily will brag and boast on my behalf. I’m like, ‘Dad, you’re doing the opposite of what you taught me.’ He’s like, ‘Can I post this thing [about Herriman’s career] on Facebook?’ ‘No, Dad, it’s bragging. You told me not to do that.’ ”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 23, 2019 as "Justifiable cause". Subscribe here.

Steve Dow
is a Melbourne-born, Sydney-based arts writer.