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WENHAM, DAVID: GETTIN' SQUARE

David Wenham adds a low-life Gold Coast druggie to his repertoire of screen characters in the new Australian drama/comedy, Gettin’ Square, morphing his well groomed good looks into an unrecognisable, misshapen, mullett-haired, badly dressed misfit. And he loved every minute of it, he tells Andrew L. Urban.

Two flat whites sit between us as David Wenham takes a seat in the café of a Sydney hotel to talk about Johnny ‘Spit’ Spiteri a character in Gettin’ Square that is attracting all the attention, even though he isn’t the lead. Considering the impact he makes, I begin our interview asking him how constructed ‘Spit’.

First of all, tell me about building ‘Spit’ ….
I was extremely fortunate because I had a strong foundation – it was very obvious from the first time I read the script, the potential for the character of John Spiteri. It was so beautifully observed and constructed. I could see the character off the page…the rhythms of the character were pretty apparent to me. I had a very clear mental picture of who this person was. And Jonathan [Tipletzky, director] shared that view. Then it was just a matter of turning it into a three dimensional reality.

What specifically in the script gave you this sense of him?
The dialogue is all you’ve got to go on. The big print doesn’t mean much to you as an actor. It’s the voice . . . It’s very hard to pull off what Chris [Nyst, scriptwriter] has done, which is to have different voices. You can see that on the page. Most scripts that come an actor’s way, they’re pretty much homogenised characters. The way the sentences are constructed are all the same. But that’s not life, we don’t all speak the same, we have different syntax and all that sort of thing. And Johnny Spiteri had a specific voice.

What about the physicality of him…when you put them together, what impact did that have on your picture of him?

Oh, huge. You know, some people work from the outside in, others inside out…With this one, the physical attributes of the character were extremely important. Costume, hair and make up all helped…and I was very particular about the look, I knew what I wanted. I think I drove the costume and make up department slightly round the bend at first because I was SO specific about who this character was. So I went shopping in the op shops around the Gold Coast looking for specific articles of clothing. The moment I put those on, I knew how the character should move – those articles of clothing helped me achieve what was in my mind.

In Johnny Spiteri’s memorable and hilarious courtroom scene, when he upends the lawyers with his street cunning that hides beneath his bumbling, drug-dazed persona, there is a real risk of taking it just over the edge. How did you approach that risk?
I think it wasn’t just that scene…it was in all the scenes my character and a few of the other characters were in. It’s a very fine line with many of these characters. But I think as long as the character is always rooted in a reality…. And you, Andrew, know more than anybody when you’re walking around with a microphone [for Front Up, SBS TV] there are extraordinary people out there. But if you believe in the character you’ll go on the journey with them.

And what about Spiteri’s journey, did you analyse it?
Well, I did think about that at first, but then I threw it away because I thought that’d possibly be counter productive in terms of how I get there. I was always aware of the risks and the potential pitfalls of the character…it’s a strange character in a way. He’s one of society’s shunned ones. He happens to be a junkie, a guy with a habit and not somebody that society will embrace and feel for and empathise with and understand. So I had to create a character that the audience … would want to go along with him and understand, care and feel for…and laugh with. 

How did you find getting into character for every take? Did you go in and out of character on set?
Um….phew….it’s a strange one to talk about the acting process, because it’s not … even on the days that I worked, it always changed. No easy answer to that. Although we did spend a couple of weeks in rehearsal, they were more discussion to make sure we were all in the same movie. We didn’t get up on our feet and say the lines… Actually, most or all of the stuff you see on the screen was basically created on the day. Which I found extremely liberating, especially for comedy. Totally spontaneous. The courtroom scene we shot in a day, everything, even all the coverage. It helped…and the adrenalin nourishes creativity. 

So you find him a character easy to slip in and out of? And enjoyable?
Yeah, I did. It was somebody I had a total grasp on. I knew where I could push him, I knew where he wasn’t comfortable. And yes, I loved it. I was a pig in mud there (laughs).

The story of Gettin’ Square:
Barry Wirth (Sam Worthington) has done eight years inside for a murder he claims he didn’t commit during a robbery in which his major accomplice was the Aussie Gold Coast gangster Chicka Martin (Gary Sweet). He reckons it was crooked cop Arnie DeViers (David Field) who verballed him. Now he’s out on parole and wanting to ‘get square’ and look after his younger brother. His best friend Johnny ‘Spit’ Spitieri (David Wenham) is still hooked on drugs but also trying to ‘get square’ and is a go between for Darren ‘Dabba’ Barrington (Timothy Spall) who offers Barry a job in his so far empty Gold Coast restaurant. The tough new Criminal Investigation Commission is after all of them, and Barry has to stay out of trouble – but still ‘get square’.

Published October 9, 2003

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David Wenham as 'Spit' in Gettin' Square

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