Surfer’s Paradise

Nathan PhillipsDetermined to get into moviemaking, Steven Spielberg tricked his way into Paramount’s LA lot so often the guardhouse officer assumed he worked there and began admitting the aspiring director every day unchallenged.

As a Warner Bros mail room intern, Terry Semel steamed open important mail (in order to reseal it undetected) to learn about company movements and deals, information he used to rise through the executive ranks to company chairman.

In most industries, trespassing and mail fraud are criminal offences, but in Hollywood such tales are called ‘ambition’. And Nathan Phillips, the 24 year old Sydney actor who charmed audiences in Australian Rules in 2002, subsequently appearing in Takeaway and One Perfect Day, could well be on his way to success in a similar tradition.

Phillips describes how he came to be involved with Under the Radar (in cinemas this week) with a sheepish grin when he spoke to The West during a national promotional tour.

‘I met Evan in Queensland and he asked if I could surf and I said ‘oh yeah.’ I auditioned for it, it felt really good and I got a phone call telling me they wanted me to be in the film. So I drove up the east coast [towards the Southeast Queensland location] learning how to surf.’

Phillips admits he probably wouldn’t have missed the role just because he couldn’t surf, but it’s the closest thing we have in the Aussie film industry to the mythology of Spielberg’s career.

Not that Phillips doesn’t have what it takes to rise to the top. After treading the boards available to most young Australian actors in Neighbours and The Saddle Club and the impactful lead role in Australian Rules, Phillips proved his chops to a lot of film fans.

His role in Under the Radar — as slacker surf champ on the rise Brandon Wilkes — is a world away from the quietly emotional Gary Black of Australian Rules, and it’s because of that difference it seems Phillips understands that acting is about playing people who aren’t you.

‘My last film took me somewhere I didn’t know I could go professionally,’ he says. ‘I completely became my character. When I first started doing feature films, the cast and crew in that particular chapter of my life would tell me; ‘you are Blackie’, ‘you are Trig’; ‘you are the character’.

‘And I do immerse myself in it. The cast and crew don’t know Nathan, they only know what they see. When the camera goes off they see glimpses of my personality, but for the most part when you inhabit someone you’re playing so fully you’re cut off from who you really are. I think you have to be, that’s the only true form for acting for me.’

Phillips comes to life talking about why he loves acting, and there’s something surprising and a little hyper-real about a young Australian male actor so enraptured by acting’s traditional strengths and rewards.

‘Something I’ve learnt is not to judge a character,’ he says. ‘There are plenty of things about Brandon that would make me punch the guy out. But it’s such an enlightening process for me. I’m learning so much about myself, how much I don’t know about myself, all about other people and why we do the things we do.

‘Laurence Olivier just says ‘act’ and then you’ve got Dustin Hoffman saying ‘be’. They’re two great actors with very different techniques. I don’t think there’s any textbook technique in acting, but if you give a performance with conviction, honesty, emotional rawness and truth, no-one can question that. Artists are coming from a place only they know about, and that’s the joy.’

Despite what he calls a ‘lifetime of performing’, Phillips has no formal acting training, doing the traditional rounds of school plays (originally for the chick factor, he says) and studying teaching at university.

To him, acting is almost a logical extension of human communication, likening himself as a village campfire-style storyteller. ‘We’ve always had storytellers, people who’ve passed on the parables of time and I think that’s what [humanity] is about. Acting for me is very much about telling stories.’