Damian Walshe-Howling is an actor and director known for playing tattooed killer Benji Veniamin in the TV series, Underbelly, winning him an AFI Award in 2008, as well as hosting the shows Crash Investigation Unit and Customs. He has produced a short film, MESSiAH, which premieres on June 14 at the Sydney Film Festival after he was named one of four winners of its short film competition from more than 4000 entries. The film is the result of Walshe-Howling’s 2015 win at the Lexus Short Film Series, a competition run by Lexus international in partnership with The Weinstein Company. Walshe-Howling, 45, tells Kate Waterhouse about what inspires him, how he became a film director and the day he almost died on a set.
What does it mean for you to have your film show at the Sydney Film Festival?
It is an incredible honour to share MESSiAH at the Sydney Film Festival because it exposes my work to some big names. To have the Global Premiere of MESSiaH in my home country allows me to share this with family and friends, which is even more special.
What inspired you to produce MESSiAH the new short film?
I actually overcame my self-doubt and entered my film on the very last day on the competition. I decided to take a punt so I was left with 36 hours to turn a treatment around. I couldn’t turn down the opportunity presented by The Weinstein Company and Lexus. Unfortunately funding for short films is rare so I had to jump on board. Funnily enough the competition theme was anticipation so it fitted well with my last minute approach.
What does screenwriting for a short film involve?
The process begins with a lot of brainstorming initially by sitting down and deciding what angle to go with. Initially I write about themes that interest me and what I’m curious about. I have written 3 to 4 films so far and I need to be really curious about the subject. The greatest challenge is actually getting my bum in the seat to write but once I start I’m off. I began writing Messiah at the beginning of Nov and did not have a full script until end of January. The process really involves playing with it, rewriting again until you are happy with it.
How did you enter into filmmaking?
After 25 years of acting professionally it was quite a natural progression to move into the writing and editing space. My mother was also involved with stage theatre in Melbourne so I grew up in a creative household. Growing up surrounded by lots of story telling led me to being curious about the field.
What do you hope to achieve with your Film work?
I hope to achieve what is happening right now – I love what I do and feel very blessed to be doing this right now. I will continue to work with short films and see where this takes me.
Do you enjoy screen writing or acting more?
Both screen writing and acting have challenges that I enjoy. I gain enormous fulfillment from both to be honest. They both require a lot of time to craft a finished product, which I am proud of.
What was your favourite acting role?
This is hard for me to answer because there have been so many great roles across stage, film and TV. I would have to say that my Underbelly would be one of the favourites though. I also really enjoyed acting on stage in the Glengarry Glenn Ross theatre production. I played a captivating role as Ricky Roma.
Which series did you enjoy working on the most?
Ah, I cannot pick just one! Again, Underbelly because it was so well crafted and I think it engaged a lot of Australians. I also have really fond memories from working on the 2001 comedy He died with a falafel in his hand. The Reef was about a great white shark, which capsized near the Great Barrier Reef. I actually almost died by stepping on a stonefish while we were filming. We had to stop production for a day and the cast went waterskiing while I was in hospital.
What attracted you to the Underbelly role?
Well the offer was very enticing [Laughs]. The story was really strong so intuitively it was going to be a great series. An early reading of the script showed that the series would be powerful as humanity was at the heart of these characters.
What is the best thing about your job?
I do have a pretty great job. I am very blessed to do what I love. I know that is so cliché but it is that simple. It is important for me to enjoy what I am doing because I have to dedicate a lot of time. The industry allows me to unleash my creativity and you are always collaborating with fantastic people. Along the journey, I have met some wonderful mentors who have been collaborated with me to drive my vision
How did you get your first career break?
My first break relied on knocking on a lot of doors and being patient. I also picked up the phone to hassled people. It was a fine line between pushing my desires and not over doing it. I learnt a lot in terms of knowing when to try to push the door open and when to look elsewhere. The biggest learning curve for me was understanding the benefit of creating your own work. For many years I didn’t do that because I was too afraid. The opportunity to create my own short film is so amazing because it means that people believed in me.
If you didn’t go down the career path of acting, what alternative career path do you think you would have taken?
I could see myself doing something with photojournalism or psychology. I have actually studied photography. I worked on the framing of MESSiAH with my director of photography, Denson Baker. I have found a simpatico with him as our minds met visually.
What is your favourite film of all time?
I am quite the movie fanatic so this is not easy to answer to decide on one. My list of favourite films changes all the time. Star Wars would have to be on my list because I am quite a die-hard fan. Dead man walking with Sean Penn is another incredible film. I also have to mention Beasts of the Southern Wild, which is a highly inspiring mad film.
How would you describe yourself?
I am a little bit nutty for sure. Luckily I am also very chatty and I am naturally quite curious about the world.
What do you do outside of work?
I keep busy with lots of things. I enjoy socialising with family and friends. I have learnt to play the harmonica and can also play the drums and didgeridoo. When I find time I also go surfing at my favourite beaches. I also value my alone time – I go to the cinema alone all the time. I find it a lot easier to cry when it is just me.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years time?
Honestly I don’t think in terms of future projections and things like that. I went to this lecture where a Buddhist monk was presenting. A guy in the audience asked the Buddhist monk if he believed telling the future. The monk said ‘no’. The guy asked ‘why?’ again. The monk explained that he couldn’t even take care of this moment let alone 5 to 10 years. I tend to agree with this rationale.
What is the best advice someone has ever given you?
I was taught to remain curious by my parents and family. I try to apply this to my life and have a mentality to continue exploring.
Who do you look up to?
I suppose I look up to different people at different times. It changes with who is in front of me and what I’m doing at the time. I would say my parents are always at the top of the list though. They taught me everything I know and continue to inspire me everyday.
What is next in the pipeline?
It is very exciting that I will be working on the new series of Janet King. Also, there is another TV series, which I will be involved with however I am not allowed to say any more about that one. Travel is also on the cards. I want to get inspired so I probably will dedicate about 4 to 6 weeks in time traveling to experience some new wonders.
WE WENT TO Nomad restaurant, Surry Hills
WE ATE Split pea hummus with spiced chickpeas and flatbread; Nomad charcuterie with pickles; jersey milk haloumi with tomato and oregano
WE DRANK Still water; Sunday Road pale ale
DAMIAN WORE Nudie jeans and T-shirt.
I WORE a Goodnight Macaroon dress.