Interviewing Noah Taylor is an interesting gig. Having been stung a few years ago, he is reluctant to meet you in person, so what ensues is a meeting with a shadow – exchanges late at night on email, and on phones in hotel rooms 2000 miles apart. One’s visual references are varied. One minute when he is describing his dislike of modern art (“I have a complete phobia of it”), we are in Milan and Brighton (where he lives), and it is Mr Taylor in Shine that seems to be on the other end of the phone: a wild-eyed, restless ball of energy. Further down the line and we are conversing while he is on a train back home. He is describing his detachment from social media (“I am too old for it”), and it is the comical Mr Bucket from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that springs to mind, that expressive face and furrowed brow, his brain whirring too quickly, as you get the impression it often is.
If I have a beard in civilian life then occasionally someone will yell out ‘fuck the Lannisters!’
His multifaceted roles are perhaps an apt reflection of his own life. Although most well known as an actor – in particular for his role in Shine as the troubled young David Helfgott, and more recently in cult US TV series Game of Thrones – Mr Taylor is also a talented musician and artist; a man with many strings to his bow. The elder of two sons, Mr Taylor, 44, was born to Australian parents in London, but moved to Melbourne when he was five, where he lived in St Kilda. Bizarrely, for someone who comes across as such a sensitive soul, he wanted to join the army before becoming an actor. “Boys naturally gear towards that kind of thing, crawling around on the floor on all fours, but I’m a coward at heart,” he explains wryly.
It was after he left school at 16 that he fell into acting, without any formal training, and was cast in his first major role a year later, in The Year My Voice Broke, directed by John Duigan. This was followed by Flirting, alongside Nicole Kidman and Thandie Newton, where he played the sweetly awkward young Danny Embling discovering love. Yet it was his raw vulnerability in Shine as the young piano playing troubled genius that cemented his name as one of Australia’s leading actors of his generation. With roles as diverse as Hitler in Max, the harrowed band manager in Almost Famous, and a father undergoing a mid-life crisis in Submarine, he is equally able to show raw vulnerability and master the comedy turn with a simple sideways glance or raise of his eyebrow.
A few years ago, however, he seemed to quite simply disappear, go to ground, only to bounce back three years ago in more roles than ever. What happened? “I took a few years off from acting to pursue music and assumed I could just slip back into it,” explains Mr Taylor. “But actually it was like having to start from scratch, which was a bit humbling, but probably quite healthy. I think I’m more comfortable doing it now and enjoy the sort of roles that come with a bit of age. I actually find it more difficult now these days but that’s maybe to do with taking it a little more seriously.” He is now the busiest he has ever been. With six forthcoming film releases, his next, out in January, is Mindscape, a psychological thriller about a detective who can enter people’s memories. Others include Predestination, a sci-fi psychological thriller; The Double, by Richard Ayoade, about a man driven mad by his doppelgänger; and Epic, a comedy shot in Georgia, made by an old friend of Mr Taylor’s, Ben Hopkins, about a director trying to make a film about a former Soviet Bloc country’s national history. Taylor plays “an obnoxious B-grade action move star past his prime.” Then there is The Menkoff Method, a “good old-fashioned Aussie comedy” directed by David Parker, who wrote the classic Melbourne comedy Malcolm, in which he plays the villainous Russian Max Menkoff. As for Game of Thrones, he remains, as you might assume, very tightlipped. “I can’t say anything or they’ll kill me.” And he certainly wouldn’t be the first.
It is impossible now to pigeonhole Mr Taylor, and he seems to relish in taking on these multiple and very different personalities. Which, then, does he enjoy the most? “It’s good to try and stretch your limits doing the more demanding, difficult roles, but they can be taxing on you and those around you,” he says. “These days I like to try and do comedies and slightly over the top villains, which is kind of a form of comedy. As far as favourite roles, I enjoyed playing a Texan serial killer in a fairly obscure film called Red, White & Blue, which is a great film but a bit too heavy for the art film crowd and a bit too arty for the gore brigade so it didn’t get much of a look in.”
But certainly since Game of Thrones, famous for its obsessive fan base, he is recognised more and more. “I wasn’t really aware of the whole phenomenon until I actually started working on the show. I don’t watch much TV and I’d never come across the books, so it wasn’t till a while into filming the series that I realised it was kind of a big deal to a lot of folks. If I have a beard in civilian life then occasionally someone will yell out ‘fuck the Lannisters!’ [the evil family in the series, for those living under a rock], I’ll give them a thumbs up and that seems to be enough. I’ve never really had trouble with fans; most people are pleasant enough and I know what it is to be a fan so I try and be polite and friendly if approached, but really it doesn’t happen much.”
His multifaceted roles are perhaps an apt reflection of his own life.
Having come to the UK in 1998 for work, he ended up living in London, before settling in Brighton, a seaside town of faded Georgian splendour, freedom, windy piers, day-trippers and night owls. For him, it is oddly reminiscent of where he grew up. “It actually reminds me of St Kilda. There are still lots of big bums in Brighton, it’s rough around the edges, with a mix of dreamers and junkies. There’s some beautiful architecture and I enjoy the slightly tatty seaside holiday resort feel of the place,” he explains. “It could do with a bit more glamour and some more decent restaurants, but that’s true of most cities in the UK outside of London.”
He is clearly attracted to the more genteel side of Britishness, citing The Savoy hotel, Jermyn Street and the country’s ‘ancient’ establishments as things he warms to. However there is a part of Mr Taylor that will be forever Australian. “I miss the beaches, the bush and the openness of the Australian psyche and landscape,” he says. Although he doesn’t consider himself an expat as he “hates that expression”, Taylor confesses that he now considers Brighton very much home. “I have grown to love it, I have lived here half my life. I don’t attach much importance to nationality, but I am quite patriotic, and am still thoroughly Australian.”
Although Mr Taylor, who goes back to Australia once a year to visit friends and family in Melbourne, confesses that he feels like his home country is increasingly less and less like the place he left. “Everywhere changes, it is one of those weird things about living in another country for a length of time, you go back and after 20 years it is radically different. You can see it in the attitude… it is a lot more materialistic now, it used to be egalitarian, but there is a lot more money obsession. I think this is because the recession didn’t really touch Australia and people have got it pretty good there. During the previous government, under John Howard, it became a lot more anti-immigration and hard line, like under Thatcher, with selfish attitudes.” He also feels that Australians can err on the side of complacency. “Australian and British life is markedly different for a variety of reasons, the weather and personal space being a part of it. Life is pretty hard for the average Brit, and Australian life is a dream for many; Australians don’t know how good they’ve got it really.”
Downtime is spent focusing on his other loves, music and art, perhaps where he feels he can be most himself. “Film is my work, it is not just for the fun of it, it is very much working for other people, with other people. As I am a control freak I like music and painting as it is entirely my thing.” His art is on the dark side: ghoulish images punctuated with death and murder. He seems, if his pictures of blood-spattered bodies and multi-breasted she-devils are anything to go by, like a very tortured soul. “People often say my art is dark, although I never see that myself, even the ones that involve hangings. A lot of those ones are based loosely on historical events, like bush rangers, but for the main they are, I guess, what you’d call unconscious or subconscious images that float around my head. I tend to repeat myself a lot which I fought against for a long time and then came to the conclusion there was a reason for the images being so insistent, so eventually I just went with them.” He had a sell-out show at the Olsen Irwin Gallery, in Woollahra, last January and is currently working on an exhibition at London’s Lawrence Alkin Gallery, due to open in March.
People often say my art is dark, although I never see that myself, even the ones that involve hangings. A lot of those ones are based loosely on historical events, like bush rangers…
Music is also a big part of his life. While he was taking time out he focused his energies on this, but even that has undergone a metamorphosis, mellowing a little, like Taylor himself: “I’ve played in and had numerous bands since I was a teen. Probably my favourite is my current band The Rhinestoned Immaculates, a kind of a freaked out, droney, country western band, but I think we’ve run our course now; they were quite chaotic and violent shows, always resulting in damage both to my guitars and eardrums. I’m going to do something a little bit more refined and romantic next.”
It seems, like his music, Taylor has grown into himself. Having spent many of his years a little tortured, finding his way, he is now riding a wave. He shot to fame early, then disappeared, went to ground, laid low, to get whatever it was that was needed out of his system. Now, back and stronger than ever, he has come full circle. Married to Dionne Loehr, an Australian fashion designer, he is also father to a six-year old girl, Martha, by a previous relationship. Does he think his star is rising, that he is eclipsing the Chris Hemsworths of this world? “Not that I am aware of. I am not really a competitive person, I was just very lazy about my career in my twenties and thirties. Now that I am a parent and middle-aged, I am a bit more driven.”