By Sacha Molitorisz
Noah Taylor shuns the media, avoids lead roles and dismisses his talent as
In the fickle and cruel world of show business, some successes are easy to
comprehend. Those of Cate Blanchett and Peter Weir, for instance, two
Aussies who are gifted and intensely determined.
Then there’s Noah Taylor, whose success is harder to understand than
Australia’s tax laws. Sure, he has talent and charisma, but here’s a man who
never attended drama school, rarely gives interviews and has admitted he
doesn’t like acting. Especially his own.
In an industry that thrives on spin and schmoozing, that’s bad. Worse is his
decision a few years ago not to play any more lead roles. Only character
And yet those parts keep coming. Turning 36 this weekend, Taylor, who lives
in London, keeps landing one pivotal supporting part after another. After roles
in Almost Famous, the two Lara Croft films, Vanilla Sky and The Life Aquatic,
he has done it again with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which opened
In the Tim Burton remake starring Johnny Depp, Taylor plays Mr Bucket, the
unemployed father of the story’s young hero, Charlie Bucket. The script is
based on the famous story by Roald Dahl, who also wrote Tales of the
Unexpected, which is a perfect description of Taylor’s career: a tale of the
So what is the secret of his success? Born in 1969, Taylor grew up in the
Melbourne seaside suburb of St Kilda. His parents divorced when he was 14.
By his own admission, his childhood was unhappy. After leaving home and
school at 16, he didn’t even contemplate studying to become an actor.
“I didn’t think about drama school,” he said later. “I came up with the
philosophy, and I still do believe it to a certain extent, that [if] people would go
from school to a theatre school to the theatre, dahling, when are they going to
learn about anything apart from luvvies? So I thought no, go out, have a really
difficult life, hang around a lot of bars, study humanity up close. That’s the
theory. That’s what I did.”
In 1987, at 17, he starred in The Year My Voice Broke. For Taylor, it was more
like The Year My Career Broke. Not only was John Duigan’s film a hit, but
Taylor’s turn as Danny Embling in the coming-of-age classic established him
as a talent in demand. It also pigeon-holed him as a perpetual Aussie
In everything from the 1991 sequel, Flirting, to 1993’s The Nostradamus Kid,
to 1996’s Shine, and right up to 2001’s He Died With a Felafel in His Hand, he
played a variation of a boy becoming a man.
“Creative types seem to want to project their personality onto me,” Taylor said
in 2001, in one of his rare interviews. “I’ve done a lot of biographical stuff and
reminiscences of other people’s youth, which is not entirely interesting to me.
Because it’s such a small country, you do a few roles like, say, Jack
Thompson or Bryan Brown, and you get indelibly stamped as representing
this aspect of either people or the nation’s character.”
Taylor, who has always railed against being stereotyped, said this during an
interview to promote He Died With a Felafel in His Hand, the comedy based
on the John Birmingham novel.
Taylor played the unsettled lead character and, during the promotional tour,
announced Felafel was likely to be his last lead role for two reasons: he didn’t
like the pressures of selling a film and he preferred character roles.
“I’ve discovered I much prefer doing smaller character roles,” he said. “It’s
much more like a job. And you get treated much more like someone who’s
Taylor hates promoting films largely because he detests interviews. His
aversion to questions hit a peak in 1993, when a writer, Antonella Gambotto
from Mode magazine, portrayed him as difficult, bored and self-obsessed.
Further, the story implied he was a junkie.
“I have just been burnt,” Taylor said in 1996. “I have revealed myself
occasionally to journalists and regretted the way they have written it.”
The problem is, if you don’t give many interviews, the media will pore over
every utterance. And when you make a confession, it’s big news. That
happened in 2001, when Taylor admitted to Melbourne’s Herald Sun that he
was a recovered drug addict.
“It is a taboo subject, and I’m getting into risky territory now because it affects
my career and all sorts of things,” he said. “Drugs are a problem for young
people in every country of the world. And yes, I had a drug problem for a
while. I sought out help and I would advise anyone who does have a drug
problem to find help.”
Taylor must have regretted his admission as soon as he’d made it. His
reluctance to be interviewed is unfortunate, because Taylor is thoughtful and
intelligent. Unlike many actors, who spout platitudes and/or nonsense, Taylor
can be revealing and provocative.
“I can’t do all sorts of roles,” he told Time Out in 1997. “I just do stuff I can
empathise with. I’m like a damaged prostitute: if you want something slightly
broken, slightly soiled, you can get it right here.”
He can be funny, too. In the same interview, he described his method as more
about alchemy than acting. “You need the right combination of vodka to
double espressos to take you to a certain state,” he said. “Then you dose up
on vitamin C to get young.
It’s homeopathy, really. Hit-and-miss, though. Sometimes you turn up and
you’re speaking Swahili.”
So he hates interviews – and he hates acting nearly as much. “A poncy, stupid
profession” is his description. After Shine, he said: “[Acting] became morally
acceptable to me as opposed to this vacuous, sucking, succubi kind of
industry, which is how I feel about it as well.”
Specifically, he has a problem with his own acting. “I think a lot of the stuff I’ve
done, I’ve done really badly,” he has said. “Even if people have said it’s good.
Because I’m cringing at the back of my mind. That’s not to say they’re bad
films, they’re just not my cup of tea, aesthetically or intellectually. I like Bunuel,
I like Fassbinder, Herzog.”
Certainly the Lara Croft films aren’t Fassbinder. But Taylor seems to aim to
extend himself wherever possible. In 2002, he attempted one of the most
difficult tasks open to an actor: playing Adolf Hitler.
In Max, a drama about the Fuhrer’s ambitions to become a painter, Taylor
starred opposite John Cusack’s art dealer. As usual, Taylor’s performance
was well received.
Indeed, Taylor’s low opinion of his work is in contrast to the high esteem with
which he is regarded by critics and directors. The film critic David Stratton
describes him as wonderful; Scott Hicks raved about Taylor after directing him
in Shine; and he’s a favourite of the director Cameron Crowe, who cast him in
Almost Famous and Vanilla Sky.
“He is possibly the most accomplished screen actor in the country,” Bob Ellis
said after directing him in The Nostradamus Kid. “He has an intimacy with the
camera which is rare in the world. He is also very reliable, is always good on
Ellis explained Taylor’s dislike of acting thus: “In his usual perverse way,
because he is so good at it, he thinks little of acting. Because he has an
absolute gift for it, he regards it as no accomplishment at all and prefers to
think of himself as musician or something. It is a pity.”
That’s precisely it. Taylor’s on-screen nonchalance is so convincing because
it’s not an act. He is nonchalant. He is not voraciously ambitious, but
indifferent about a profession for which he has considerable talent.
With his troubled countenance and tattoo-covered arms – covered with make-
up for the bath scene in Shine – he brings something to the screen other than
ego and vanity.
In an era of undeserved celebrity and manufactured success, he’s an
interesting bloke with charisma, talent and a chequered past. A genuine
character who prefers character parts to lead roles and then prefers not to