The Frail Man
Benito di Fonzo
June 16, 2006
Gallipoli's Mark Lee resurfaces in a new play about "what makes us so insular".
Mark Lee shot to fame as the fresh-faced hero of 1981's Gallipoli. On the eve of a lead role in a new play and his feature directorial debut, I asked where he's been.
"I've had a great 25 years! I've worked in music, theatre, film, and I began to develop as an actor, which I wasn't, to be quite honest with you. I got through Gallipoli on a reasonable looking mug, a lot of enthusiasm and some great people around me, not technique, not any great talent. Because Peter [Weir] and Mel [Gibson] hit the stratosphere after that they always say, 'What happened to you?' With Mel, realistically it was Mad Max 2; with Peter it was probably Witness.
"It was one of those things that turns in your favour, so over the time I've gone back to school. I love doing this, I've found a play I really enjoy."
That play is the Sydney premiere of Anthony Crowley's thriller The Frail Man, in which Lee plays the CEO of Australia's largest IT company, who is pursued by a detective (Jeanette Cronin) in the investigation of the murder of a young Muslim woman.
This story is interwoven with the tale of two runaway convicts.
"The play looks at our roots, our beginnings, what makes us so insular," Lee says. "We came here in pain and degradation and tried to make the landscape anything but what it was; that defines many of the problems we face today, an island nation of Europeans in Asia, and it looks at that using the corporate structure, by looking at the echelons of power and at its zenith how it's manipulated."
Another work that tackles corporate machismo is Lee's feature directorial debut The Bet, which opens at the Sydney Film Festival. In it, Matthew Newtown plays a young stockbroker who makes an ego-filled bet with a wealthy friend (Aden Young) over who can make the most money in 90 days. It then follows the effects of this obsession on his personal life.
"While The Frail Man is a big metaphor for Australia, The Bet is a moral tale set in the corporate world," Lee says. "I had to learn about the stockbroking world, sit with stockbrokers, watch them work. We had to work out a way to keep the veracity but make it visually exciting."
Among the ways Lee and editor Jason Ballantine ( Wolf Creek) achieved that was by ditching the fluoro-blue tones of corporate tales for a warmer look.
Lee moved to directing when he realised there are only so many spots on All Saints you can do. "As you get older if you haven't hit a certain niche your choices are fairly minimal, you find yourself sitting in the same casting agents looking at the same people for a 50-worder going 'this is insane, I've been doing this since 1967.' So I took an overdraft and funded my first short. I found there were certain things I had a knack for."
What made him want to direct The Bet? "I'm now in my late 40s and started directing fairly late and found I loved it. Had I been offered Zombie Nymphomaniacs In Chains 2, would I have taken that? That's the question you ask yourself. As it turned out, this had a wonderfully strong structure."
It's quite a change from the post- Gallipoli years when Lee worked as a labourer. "I did that on and off for nearly nine years. It's nothing special, and it was good; it got me fit, got my head straight. I started doing different roles rather than wallowing. I [also] played in pub bands: the Idle Poor, One Way Ticket, Waterfront. I don't know how good we were but we had a ball."
Lee's joy in projects such as The Frail Man and The Bet has taken care of any regrets. "I went through a phase. I stupidly once said to a friend that sometimes I feel [ Gallipoli is] an albatross I'd shot and hung round my neck, I was so disgusted with talking about it. He chastised me by saying, 'We should all have such as albatross,' and I went, 'Yeah, fair enough.' "
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