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DUIGAN, JOHN : LEADING THE MAN

His sister Virginia wrote the script, and director John Duigan fell in love with it - in Sydney, Duigan talks about his latest film, The Leading Man - and about casting Jon Bon Jovi in the title role - to ANDREW L. URBAN

The Leading Man is a complex story about relationships, power, love and manipulation. Felix Webb (Lambert Wilson), a successful English playwright with a new play in rehearsal, The Hit Man, is dithering whether to desert his perfect wife Elena (Anna Galiena) and family, for Hilary (Thandie Newton) a beautiful feisty young actress, who has just been cast as the star of his play. He loves both of them and his decency holds him back from walking out. The director, Humphrey Beal (Barry Humphries) has also cast a better known American star, Robin Grange (Jon Bon Jovi), in the co-starring role. Grange is a charismatic but dangerous young man, who quickly exploits the situation by offering to seduce Elena, as a kind of love therapy. But if that weren’t enough, Grange proves to be an expert manipulator who insinuates himself into all their lives, like some corrupting fluid.

Q: How come Jon Bon Jovi?
A: He wasn’t on my list of candidates initially: he was suggested by the casting director who’d seen him in Moonlight and Valentino. I had a look at the small part he played in that film and thought he had real presence. So I went over to Los Angeles and sat down with Jon. I was immediately impressed by the fact that for him acting is a really serious intention - it’s not something that he’s come to lately. He’d been having private acting lessons for five years, in Los Angeles and New York, from very good acting teachers. He’s completely serious about it. As soon as we started to read together, I could see that this was an extremely talented guy. And I thought he would be great for this because he’s already an established star, albeit in another medium. So the idea of him coming over to England with all that flavour of success from Hollywood is going to ring true.

I think it was quite difficult for him in the early days when he came for the beginning of the rehearsal period because we had a cast of well established and experienced actors. I remember on the first day, the first read through, there we were at this table with all these quite big names from the British theatre scene and I knew they were all quite curious why we’d chosen to cast somebody from a music background in this very difficult role. Jon came and took his place quietly and the read through began. The atmosphere became quite electric because Jon had prepared already and he knew his part verbatim. So he was performing the lines already. By the end of it, I could hear the other actors getting together in a group, their approving murmurs. They were thinking, this guy is really good."

Q: What elements attracted you to Virginia’s script in particular?
A: The different levels of reality…the writer, Felix, manipulates people in his fantasy world on paper, then tries to do it in real life and they behave unexpectedley. Under the duress of his problems he’s unable to discriminate between the two. The other characters also start to blur between life and fantasy…to use lines form the play in their relationships, so that the lines take on extra meanings. It becomes difficult for us to tell reality … perhaps Grange really does fall in love with Elena…I also found the irony and the humour very appealing. It’s obviously a Faustian story in some ways; Felix does a deal with a Mephistolean character…and it’s also a tragedy.

Q: What about the casting of Barry Humphries?
A: Barry is a friend of Virginia’s, and he’s a very urbane and sophisticated guy, who’s done a lot of straight acting before Dame Edna, especially in England - he’s currently back on stage as Fagin - and he enjoyed doing it.

Q: The film has a solid atmosphere that is distinctly English….
A: Yes, it has a strong sense of place: I was conscious of the fact that not many films have been shot lately in the centre of London. We didn’t have to invent reasons to show central London because it’s set in the West End, and Grange has just arrived here from the US, so he takes an interest in Westminster, the Parliament, and so on. It sets up the film is the same way as filmmakers use aerial shots to set up Manhattan…I wanted to use London as a silent character.

Q: I found Felix an unlikely man to have two women so in love with him…
A: Well, he’s emotionally vulnerable and that’s attractive to women. Also, remember he’s a huge success, a big artist in the league of a Pinter, say, clearly an important man. And that’s also attractive. I wanted a man in contrast to Grange…he’s the opposite of Grange’s methodical, calculating persona.

Q: Virginia’s script was originally set in New York, I gather, and you suggested the change to London.
A: Yes, I’d seen the script develop and eventually I said I’d like to direct it, if it could be relocated.

Q: Why to London?
A: It’s a sophisticated script, so it would have been harder to finance it in America. It’s not conventional. And it didn’t require too much adaptation. Both Virginia and I are familiar with the London West End scene…the Grange character became American, to remain an outsider.

Q: In that context, what do you think of American cinema ?
A: I think it’s pretty widely recognised that the wit, finesse and character development that was evident in American films in the 30s, 40s and 50s has vanished under the perceived requirements of frantic pace. It is assumed that if you ask the audience to engage with characters, they switch off. But that becomes a self fulfilling prophecyu and you tend to breed audiences who can only deal with that sort of film. The hope is that the success of films like The English Patient and Shine, to name two recent examples, will inject more awareness into studio moguls that there are audiences seeking complex cinema experiences.

Q: With a home in London and Sydney, are you likely to make any more films in Australia ?
A: Yes, I’m seriously thinking of returning to the central character in The Year My Voice Broke and Flirting, and I’m talking to Kennedy Miller about that. But next year I would like to make a film called Head in the Clouds, about a relationship between two people, one of whom is extremely idealistic who believes political and social roles are important. The other believes that the primary duty is to explore the self and to maximise its potential, with political and social action as secondary. The tension between them is exciting…

Q: Is that your own script?
A: Yes.

Q: After the premiere of The Leading Man, can we have a drink?
A: Yes, come and find me at the Marble Bar.

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John Duigan with his Leading Man


John Duigan on set

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"I think it was quite difficult for him in the early days when he came for the beginning of the rehearsal period,"


"Barry is a friend of Virginia’s,"


"I could see that this was an extremely talented guy."







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