Barry Otto is an icon of Australian entertainment. He has worked in the performing arts for almost 50 years, is known for roles across stage and screen, and at 73 is still on top. He is currently in the play Seventeen at Belvoir, will feature in the Australian film The Dressmaker, out in October, and also stars in the Queen Victoria Building’s 2015 advertising campaign, which features notable faces from Australiana arts and culture. I chatted with Otto about his career, family and not slowing down.
Tell me about Seventeen at Belvoir.
There’s John Gaden, Peter Carroll, Maggie Dence, [Anna Volska] and Genevieve Lemon. It was written for us. We’re all in the 70s, we look our age but we’re playing when we were 17 and graduated from high school and just stepping to adulthood. So it’s fun.
How did you prepare for this role?
Well, I think you just play it like how you feel and what’s written for us. It’s a new play and it has gone through five drafts, so it’s always a challenge.
You must get asked to play so many roles. How do you decide which ones to proceed with?
I like to learn from my roles. There have been good roles that I’ve been offered and then others, when they may be smaller than that, you still learn from them. It’s like starting all over again. You never know it all as an actor. You can’t get up yourself. I think even though I’ve been an actor for a long time, it still feels like starting all over again. You get just as nervous and it’s new and needs to be fresh all the time. It’s a challenge because it’s f—ing around with your emotions at times – we [actors] are suitable cases for treatment!
Do you prefer stage or film?
I love the stage, [but] I do love films. A film is not easy either, but in theatre you get to do it every night, eight times a week. There are different people there. When performing, I think you improve and you discover more about your character than you did in the rehearsal period. Theatre is what I know most because that’s where I started. I’ve got a lot of great memories [from screen], like Nicole Kidman played my daughter in the mini-series Vietnam George Miller made 20 odd years ago. So I have to look back sometimes and think, “Oh, I’ve been around for a long time.”
Have you seen many changes in the acting world?
Now actors are trained. A lot of young ones know they want to be an actor from an early age; it’s out there on television for them all to try – from acting, music, dance or whatever. I didn’t know I wanted to become an actor. It was all art, art, art until my sister did a one-act play in Brisbane and I thought that was such fun. I was 19 when I started doing one-act plays. It was amateur theatre, but it was of a very high standard. I wasn’t trained, so it took a long time [to learn].
What has been your favourite role you’ve ever played?
I think somewhere between Uncle Vanya and King Lear. I’ve had a lot of great roles. There is a couple I would like to revisit but I don’t know whether I’ve got the sort of energy to play Lear!
You feature in the Australian film The Dressmaker. What was that like?
We finished shooting it and now it’s being sort of edited and music added and all that. Kate Winslet is the lead. I think it’ll be very good. It has a terrific Australian cast. It’s a great story and it’s set here with country people and real characters. I play a hunchback with scoliosis of the spine and I’m virtually crippled. The hunch was built on my back and it was physically difficult. But it was a great character role. It will be out later in the year. It also stars Judy Davis, who directed me in Barrymore – the first thing she directed for theatre. I had bullied her into directing me!
How did you convince her?
She said, “What if I f— it up?” I said, “You won’t.” I’ve known Judy since NIDA days. But she was just brilliant. I knew she would be. I wanted her sensibilities. She has just got incredible intuition. That was a highlight.
What was it like to work with Kate Winslet?
Great. She is lovely and she is so beautiful too. She doesn’t always make films that are big blockbusters. She is always looking for a challenge as an actress.
Tell me about the QVB campaign where you feature in it with your daughter Gracie.
The campaign involved people from within the arts, covering dance, music, acting, directing and artists. We were picked out and asked to be part of it to celebrate this wonderful building. It’s an incredible piece of architecture. We spent a whole day shooting [the campaign] and it was nice for me to be able to do it with Gracie.
Do you get to do many projects with your daughters?
I have been involved with Gracie when she was at film school. She would find something for me to play – some old madman or whatever [laughs]. Miranda is a lovely actress and Gracie has made about four or five short films and won awards. I think the two of them have got more talent than me! I’m very proud of them. I have a son too, 29-year-old. He is a cricket coach with NSW Cricket and a schoolteacher.
When your daughters decided to go into acting, what advice did you give them?
I didn’t really – I didn’t have sort of a lot to advise. I wanted them to do what they wanted to do. I had no restrictions. They grew up around the theatre so it was in their blood.
You’ve had an amazing career.
Yes, for a Brisbane boy from a working-class family. I’ve sort of got to do what I wanted to do. At first I was a commercial artist in Brisbane – one of the top ones. I did all the big fashion ads when they illustrated fashion. So I always wanted to be an artist, deep down. I always thought I’d starve in a garret as a serious artist. But I’ve painted all my life. I exhibit every five years or something.
What has been your biggest career highlight?
Gosh. I guess the children, really, and my wife, Sue.
Will you ever slow down and retire?
No. I’ll always be tempted until they say, “Oh, he’s a bit too old, isn’t he? Still wants to act. Does he?” I don’t know. I guess it’s such a big chunk of my life. When I look back, I think my life has gone very quickly. You truly don’t realise how old you get if you stay in the profession as long as I have.
WE WENT TO The Tea Room, QVB
WE ATE a high tea.
WE DRANK English breakfast tea.