OLD school. It's not a bad & description of Sam Neill and Bryan Brown, bona fide antipodean acting legends. The two men, born 12 weeks apart in 1947, have known each other a long time. They have worked together, but not as often as you might thin
Sam and Bryan. Having spent a few hours with them on location, and listened to them spar like an old couple, it seems right to use their first names. They first met, Bryan thinks, at a party in Sydney, not long after Sam made the film that brought him to international attention, Gillian Armstrong’s 1979 adaptation of Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career. A year later, Bryan would have a leading role in a film credited, like Armstrong’s, with putting Australian moviemaking on the map: Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant.
“Yes,’’ confirms Sam about meeting at the party, “and you were impressed because I left with three girls.” “Yeah,’’ Bryan says, “and I just couldn’t get a look-in, which you know has always been my problem compared to Sam. I mean, he’s such a ladies’ man.’’
Sam, who has been married to his second wife, Noriko Watanabe, since 1989, takes cover behind a greater legend: “Do you know the first time I met Jack Thompson?’’ he asks Bryan.
“It was a lunch in Double Bay for a film we were doing, The Journalist, and we were all there and had just finished our first course when Jack excused himself and headed towards the bar. There were a couple of good-looking sorts there … Next thing, Jack disappeared and never came back. He just evaporated with these two girls.’’
Bryan offers: “He was probably just trying to get out of lunch with you.’’ Sam thinks about this. “He never saw his main course …’’
It’s lunchtime on the Old School set, too, and we are sitting in the shade of aged trees on the fringe of a rugby league ground in Little Bay, in Sydney’s southeast. Both actors are in character: Sam in muted slacks, shirt and sports jacket as retired detective Ted McCabe; Bryan in a checked lumber jacket, T-shirt and tracksuit pants as ex-crim (although exactly how ex is part of the drama) Lennie Cahill. “He never wears anything else,’’ one of the extras had said earlier of Bryan, an observation that more or less holds up throughout the eight-part series.
Bryan remarks that, since signing on for the project, he has noticed when people use the words old-school. “I’ve seen the term come up so often in reference to politics, football … either you start to see it because you’re involved with the words or it’s a time when those words are starting to be used.’’
Sam looks at him for a little while. “Do you think there’s a connection, since you’re affected, between Asperger’s and aspersions?”
“Sorry,’’ Bryan quizzes, “Asperger’s and aspersions?”
“People with Asperger’s just throwing aspersions willy nilly.’’
“You are saying that’s what I do?”
Sam smiles and says nothing.
“So have I got Asperger’s or aspersions?”
It’s a good-natured exchange that suggests the personalities of the two. They both are laconic but Sam, who had a serious stammering problem in his youth, is smooth and reserved, while Bryan is rougher around the edges and more animated. It’s a combination that works well on the screen, though both characters are allowed lots of room to surprise. For this, the actors thank director Gregor Jordan, who Bryan worked with alongside Heath Ledger in the popular 1999 crime caper Two Hands.
Old School has its origins in Paul Oliver’s 2003 short crime comedy Lennie Cahill Shoots Through, with the great Tony Barry in the title role. Oliver is co-creator of the new series, with Steve Wright. Their idea was simple but tricky to execute: an ex-cop and ex-crim work together to try to solve one of NSW’s greatest unsolved crimes: a $5 million armoured car robbery, in which both men were involved.
The series opens with a flashback to the heist, which turns into a shoot-out between the robbers and the police. Ted is shot but survives; Lennie, who does not fire a shot, is the only member of the gang arrested.
A dozen years later, Lennie is released from prison, and pensioned-off Ted is waiting for him. The men are not friends, but agree to co-operate in their mutual interests. Ted wants to find out who shot him; Lennie, seemingly the only gang member not to have died in suspicious circumstances in the intervening years, wants to find out what really happened that day, and just maybe still collect his never-delivered share of the loot, a crisp $300,000.
It’s an odd-couple set-up that could turn into a buddy movie cliche, but Jordan, the writers and the two stars deliver something more profound. Like the BBC crime-comedy series New Tricks, Old School is at least in part a lesson, in our youth-centric culture, about elderly dogs having life in them yet. It’s also entertaining and funny. When Lennie queries being charged $1000 for an illegal gun delivered in a brown paper bag — “It’s a basic sandwich, not even a gourmet one” — the reply is: “That’s Sydney.’’
The supporting cast is strong: Sarah Pierse as Ted’s wife, Margaret; Hanna Mangan-Lawrence as Lennie’s granddaughter Shannon; Damian Walshe-Howling as the handsome chancer who woos her; Mark Coles Smith as the decent bloke who protects her; and Peter Phelps an ambiguous presence as the boss of Ted’s old cop shop. And Harry Greenwood is excellent as computer nerd Zac, who helps Ted and Margaret after their bank account is hacked.
“I think once Gregor came on board that helped a lot in making us feel comfortable about it, Bryan says. “Enormously,’’ Sam agrees.
Bryan elaborates: “He had a vision for how the piece should be and he’s very good with crime and very good with crime comedy.’’
“I think it shifted a bit,’’ Sam adds. “It is a bit more nuanced that it was originally thought of — Bryan the larrikin, me the pine-cone-up-your-arse accountant-type.’’
“You’ve just made all the accountants turn off!’’ Bryan near-shouts, before continuing: “It’s actually about a relationship between two people who are very different, and how that develops. One of the things that Gregor always wants — always — is that it must be real; you’re not playing into it, you’re not being hammy, you’re not being corny, you’re not commenting on yourself or the other person, it has to be real. Within that, how they behave allows comedy to come through and allows their relationship to develop.’’
Not that Ted and Lennie are likely to become mates, their alter-egos agree. Even so, part of the charm of the series is watching two men who are natural adversaries come close to something like friendship because they’ve both lived long enough, and seen enough, to know that neither of them are among the world’s real bad guys. There’s a scene halfway through where Lennie is having a tough time emotionally. Ted says, with obvious discomfort: “Do you want to talk about it?” Lennie is aghast. “No!” “That’s good,’’ Ted replies. Old-school indeed.
So, what about Sam and Bryan’s relationship? We are talking on the final day of an intense 10-week shoot that saw the 66-year-olds spend a lot of time together, often in unpleasant circumstances. “Yes,’’ Sam says, “you do have that anxiety on a long job like this — given we end up in f..king skips covered in industrial waste and in the sewers of Sydney in close quarters — that a long and close friendship could be under duress. Will it snap? We’ve got a day to go and it still seems to be reasonably …’’
Bryan interrupts: “I still think exactly the same about him as I thought before.’’
Sam laughs uproariously: “That’s very good.’’
Sam Neill was born in Northern Ireland and raised in New Zealand, where he lives most of the time and runs a hobby vineyard, Two Paddocks. Hollywood called afterMy Brilliant Career and in 1981 he landed the lead role as the son of Satan in Omen III: The Final Conflict. He’s made about 70 films, many in Australia, but it’s Hollywood blockbusters such as Jurassic Park (released in 1993, the same year he starred in Jane Campion’s The Piano) that allow him to indulge his taste for wine.
Bryan Brown was born in Sydney and raised in the southwestern suburb of Panania. His first film role was in the 1977 Stephen Wallace short, The Love Letters from Teralba Road. Less international than Neill, his is the familiar rugged face of Australian film and TV miniseries, from The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, The Odd Angry Shot, Newsfront, The Thorn Birds and A Town Like Alice to Winter of our Dreams, Dirty Deeds (alongside Neill) and, mandatorily, Baz Luhrmann’s Australia. He met his wife, actress and filmmaker Rachel Ward, on the set of The Thorn Birdsin 1983.
When it’s suggested that, of the two, Bryan is more likely to be cast as the bad guy, Sam, the one with the matinee-idol looks, seems a bit disappointed. “No, I’ve played lots of bad guys and I think that’s been a useful thing. You can’t go on playing good blokes all the time and it would be very dull to do so.’’
Bryan chips in to offer support: “Put a gun in Sam’s hand and he becomes Clint Eastwood or someone: he just goes bananas and a whole other person emerges. Or put him behind the wheel of a car and he thinks he’s some great V8 driver or some bloody thing.’’
Sam has nothing to say to this.
Bryan agrees he has played a lot of crooks and what’s more he likes it. “What attracts me is there’s usually more to them that just the stereotypical thing of being a crim. Either they’re honourable within that or they’re fighting for something they believe in, rightly or wrongly. So they’ve usually got a bit of steel in them.’’
Both actors acknowledge and applaud the cultural ascendance of long-form television, thanks largely to American cable series such as The Wire, Breaking Badand Mad Men, and the influence this is having on local filmmakers and their financial backers.
“They’re definitely tackling stories they weren’t tackling years ago, particularly when reality TV was so huge,’’ Bryan says. “You take a thing like The Slap (the ABC series based on Christos Tsiolkas’s novel). I don’t know if anyone would have dared to have bothered telling that. But now people are prepared to take on good stories that are happening in our contemporary world, and that’s great for actors, great for writers, great for directors.’’
(The ABC’s production partner on Old School is Matchbox Pictures, which madeThe Slap for the broadcaster in 2011.)
Sam offers that he’s addicted to Breaking Bad. “Just great characters.’’ Bryan nominates Mad Men and “all those Norwegian ones”, The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge. “I reckon one of the good things about watching shows as an actor,’’ Bryan goes on, “is when you like a show it’s usually because you go, f..k, I’d like to play a character in that, I want to be in that story.
“I always look at Mad Men and go, ‘I want to be in there, I could bullshit myself in there, I could play a real good bullshitting character’. I look at the Roger Sterling character and I go, ‘I wouldn’t mind doing that, let me tell you’.’’
Sam, who has been listening patiently, looks Bryan up and down. “I don’t think you could pull off the suit. I mean, look at what you’re wearing now, look at it. You couldn’t pull off the suit.’’ “I’ve worn suits,’’ Bryan says.
Sam and Bryan have been earning their keep as actors for almost 40 years, and as far as they are concerned the push to work until at least 70 suits them fine. There’s no crime in growing old, after all. “I like doing it, I like acting, I’m really lucky to be able to do it for a living,’’ Bryan says.
Sam makes a rare interruption. “What’s the alternative? Golf? F..k!’’ Bryan continues: “The game we’re in, it’s really a game of the imagination, it’s play. I mean we’re little kids when we’re out there. It’s like being at school and someone says, let’s go play cops and robbers. It’s playtime, how could you not like it?”
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