From playing a libertine rocker in Californication to writing music and lyrics for Matilda, Tim Minchin is a man of many talents.By Steve Dow.
Tim Minchin turns his talents to stage musical Matilda
Red leather pants. Redheaded Tim Minchin says he was born to wear them. His legs got their big break in season six of the American TV dramedy Californication, starring David Duchovny as an oversexed, alcoholic author. Minchin plays rock’n’roll maniac Atticus Fetch, and Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones his bodyguard. Minchin reckons he and Jones are two musicians pretending to be actors. In Minchin’s case, that’s understating the expanding shapes of his talent.
In the wilds of a Los Angeles house party in one episode, five bare-breasted model types lie languidly around a bed, one blonde blowing dope smoke into the ginger rock god’s mouth. Minchin, his Australian accent flecked with English enunciation to play Fetch, looks in heaven as oestrogen rains down. About the only truth here, however, is that British-born, Australian-raised Minchin really does live in Los Angeles now.
While Jones long ago swapped drugs and promiscuous sex for gym junkiedom, Minchin skipped the “wild man” path altogether. Growing up in Perth, studying arts and writing scores for musicals, teenage Minchin hoped to earn a living playing in piano bars. Ten years later, he donned a rock mask to rescue his stagnant career, with stellar results. In 2013, as Atticus Fetch, he played at being the middle-aged rock god cliché he thankfully never became.
The reality: Minchin and his wife, Sarah, also his first girlfriend, have bought a mid-century modernist bungalow, “the least ostentatious house in the Hollywood Hills”, with a sliding door onto a small pool. He’s collecting vinyl and has bought a turntable, piping records through a public address system connected to his home mixing desk. On the cusp of 40, “hips a bit fucked”, Minchin has ditched jogging and does circuits in the yard.
Son Caspar is five, doesn’t know many non-Minchin songs, invents his own. One is “Smash Rock”. Another is “Again, Again, Again.” But his most promising hook, wandering the house on live repeat, is: “Something that was easy before, aw, aw.” Caspar moves between rooms, revving his mouth guitar with “na, na, now, now”. Tim and Sarah yell: “You’ve got to give us a break.” Big sister Violet, 8, calls: “Dad, he has to stop.”
Violet was scared at four by a senior actor yelling when her father took her to rehearsals of the then pending West End hit Matilda, based on the Roald Dahl story. It’s an empowering tale of a girl learning through reading to question adult assumptions. Her father composed its musical score. Violet’s critical thinking began at five, when she questioned the idea that Jesus returned from the dead.
A 2013 New Yorker profile on her father confirms that atheism defines him stateside. This is America, where presidential candidates prostrate themselves before church lecterns to get elected. “As if Obama’s not an atheist. It’s fucking clear as day – he just screams atheist,” says Minchin, who was born in Northampton when his Australian parents were on a sabbatical in Britain.
Minchin attracts atheist groupies. “You hold people up too high, they’ll always let you down, because they’re human. I’ve been quoted many times as a fan of Richard Dawkins. I’m not a fan; he’s an evolutionary biologist who wrote a good book. I do want people to be a fan of me – you’re allowed, because I’m an artist – but for these people, it’s meaningful. That’s where the rubber hits the road; people really get hurt by this stuff.”
Dallas and Arizona are the closest he’s come to the Bible Belt. “I would do great shows in Alabama, I guess, but I’d have to be careful because of open-carry gun laws.” He grins.
In 2002, Tim Minchin moved from Perth to Australia’s east coast to play in cover bands. This Blasted Earth, a musical he co-wrote with Travis Cotton and fellow University of Western Australia alumnus Toby Schmitz, earned him $7.50 for four months’ work.
Solo with piano on stage at South Melbourne’s Butterfly Club, the rock’n’roll nerd reality never left him: the private schooling where teachers laughed at his clever gags rather than dismiss him from class; the same girlfriend since university (in one song he notes a brief break-up that would disrupt the narrative flow); the partiality to red wine and avoidance of drugs; the 9.30 bedtime on a quiet night.
Minchin struggled to get noticed. His 2004 income was $13,000, not including the live music world’s cash economy and social worker Sarah’s bigger salary that mostly got the couple by until his Edinburgh Festival Fringe breakthrough in 2005. There, close to turning 30, he played a white piano, made over with attention-grabbing rock-god eyeliner, make-up and crazy hair.
He subverted audience judgements, weaving “fuck the motherfucking Pope” into baroque banter, breaking binaries of high and low art, satire and emotion, colliding with some public anger with a play on the word “nigger”. He dropped that reference and a later song that told parents, “Do not feed doughnuts to your obese children.”
“I thought it was too close to bullying,” he explains.
The venues got bigger. “Nothing kills comedy like arenas,” he sang. He remains much better known in Britain than Australia. Now he has scored another musical, Groundhog Day, as well as the DreamWorks Aussie animation Larrikins, which he will direct.
Sydney will see the Australian opening of Matilda this August. Then, in 2018, Minchin will bring the family home, probably settling in Sydney’s beachside Bronte. Here he will pursue serious acting opportunities. Don’t hem Mr Minchin in.
Leaving behind the faux-English libertine rock god Atticus Fetch, Minchin’s latest TV role is as the angry Northern Irish ex-convict Smasher Sullivan in The Secret River. He has one naked woman at his disposal, but this time it’s shocking. Natasha Wanganeen plays a Darug woman tied up as Smasher’s sex slave in the ABC mini-series based on Kate Grenville’s Man Booker-nominated novel.
It’s a story of first contact, violence and dispossession in the early 19th century, set on the Hawkesbury River but primarily filmed in Victoria. Minchin, as Sullivan, will lead a dawn massacre of Indigenous people.
“I do hope people watch it and they are shocked. Because they need to be – we need to be,” says Minchin.
In 2013, Minchin turned in critically lauded performances as Judas in a new stage version of Jesus Christ Superstar, and with his old acting comrade Toby Schmitz in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead for the Sydney Theatre Company. Material success has meant he can spend time doing what he loves; indeed, returning to Sydney for the latter role actually cost him money. “Now I’ve convinced myself I could possibly have something to offer, among my other, broad aspirations.” On the money question, having spent many years broke, he now ponders having too much money and how to live ethically. But he wears a nice long grey designer coat and sometimes flies business class.
“I’d nudge Tim into the ‘genius’ category,” says Schmitz, “because he’s a wordsmith, and he’s not lazy; he’s got some kind of gene that makes him bounce out of bed in the morning. He must be insufferable to live with. But he has got a brain that just fizzes.”
Schmitz is alluding to Minchin’s obsessive love of exercise, which raises Minchin’s deeper self-criticism in the mirror. He buffed up in a Santa Monica Boulevard gym for nude bum scenes in Californication, and we’ll see distant Minchin penis in The Secret River (unless he’s emasculated on the editing floor), but he perceives he looks in worse shape off camera than on.
“I don’t want to make too much of a fuss about this. I don’t think we should all be obsessed with our weight, and I think it’s pathetic, but I’ve just got a bit of body dysmorphia. I look at the mirror and I think: ‘Oh, I’m fat.’ Every single time, for my whole life. I look back at photos and think: ‘Fuck, you weren’t fat; what a waste of time.’ Even now, when I’m quite fit, I go, ‘Fuck, oh fuck.’ ” He was “chubby as a kid. I identify myself, in my head, even though half my brain knows I’m being silly, as basically a fat person who just keeps it under control.”
Growing up, his talents got plenty of parental encouragement, even though his siblings and their father Dave, a vascular surgeon, and mother, Ros, never said “I love you”. “We adore each other. I say ‘I love you’ to my wife and kids 20 times a day. It would be just fuckin’ awkward if my immediate family [parents and siblings] and I started using that language. It just doesn’t belong to us.”
Minchin is close to his siblings: big brother Dan, a guitarist who helps manage the non-profit aged-care company Silver Chain; Kate, a comedy promoter for Live Nation; and the youngest, Nel, a television and online producer. “My baby sister has an incredible voice. She writes songs that will never see the light of day, because my shadow is a bit daunting.”
Minchin insists he’s “quite quiet” at home and that he can occasionally get into “quite a strange mood” before a big concert. “I go through periods of my life when I have a lot of pressure, and Sarah then has to be quiet and not bring too many of her issues. Vice versa when she is feeling stressed, looking after the kids and moving house.”
Over the years Minchin has tempered his desire for vengeance. Three years after receiving one bad critique in a sea of bouquets for his Edinburgh debut, he penned and performed “The Song for Phil Daoust”, a ditty jokingly set up as a means of cathartic forgiveness from artist to journalist, yet serenading the Guardian critic who savaged him in a one-star review. “La la la la la la la, I hope one of your family members dies,” sang Minchin. Now he says: “I sort of regret writing that song because it’s lasted a lot longer than I thought it would.”
Minchin has always held a diffident mix of confidence and self-doubt. “I’ve been lucky to do what I’ve done the past 10 years,” he says. “It was a bit hard on the self-esteem, as you saw, when I did that doco [Rock’n’Roll Nerd, charting his British rise in the three years beginning in 2005]. I was a slightly different type of dude to what I am now. I was a little more defensive because I’d done years of people saying ‘no’ to me, even though there were people saying, ‘Fuck, you’re so talented.’ ”
During his Edinburgh debut, he learned that key reviews make or break an international career. “The reviews I got you couldn’t buy. That’s why you notice the nasty ones. You’re vulnerable. No one needs whingeing artists. I’ve never felt I had a right to be an artist. That’s my problem, that’s why I’m such a late bloomer. I didn’t really believe I was allowed. That’s why I never went for a grant and never took the dole. I never felt society owed me being an artist. The Phil Daoust song came out because I was so easy to hurt, because it had been tiring.”
In 2009, Matilda director Matthew Warchus came to see Minchin perform at London’s Bloomsbury Theatre, and was convinced he’d found his composer when Minchin performed “White Wine in the Sun”, which imagines Minchin’s grown daughter coming home for holidays.
Coincidentally, a decade earlier, as a jobbing freelance artist, Minchin had sought permission from Dahl’s estate to stage a small Matilda musical with his own music for Barking Gecko children’s theatre company in the Perth suburb of Subiaco. Misunderstanding his humble intent, they asked if he was interested in writing the definitive score. Spooked, Minchin backed off. Asked the same question in 2009, one half of his brain thought, “Why don’t you get someone proper to do it?”, and the other, “You’d better fuckin’ get me to do it.”
“We’re all complicated monkeys,” he says, revealing he is also a “little bit synaesthetic”, where the senses become mixed: Monday and Wednesday are blue and green; Tuesday and Thursday are yellow and brown; autumn conjures the numbers three and seven. He didn’t have to read a lot of Roald Dahl books to get “Dahlness”: instinctively, that means “angular, minor key” on piano. Yet he can’t read musical notations.
Songwriting seems worthwhile only if it’s complicated, even frocked in pop. “I always want to take an idea and unfold it and fold it in on itself and flesh it out and take it sideways, turn it inside itself. I hate songwriting; I find it hard. Everything I write, at the time of writing it, I loathe. I look back and go: ‘Oh, it’s fine.’ I find it hard because I’m not very satisfied with one idea. Getting away with shit is perhaps my only talent.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 28, 2015 as "Once upon a Tim". Subscribe here.