When Robert Menzies had to withdraw from playing Clov in Endgame, it was Tom Budge who stepped in to fill the role. In doing so, he makes his Sydney Theatre Company debut in one of the biggest shows of the year. And, as Carl Nilsson-Polias discovered when he spoke to Tom during a break in rehearsals, there's a very good reason why this film and TV regular hasn't been on the Sydney stage in over a decade…
How did you come to be an actor?
I've been doing it since I was 15. As little a kid I wanted to do it, but my parents weren’t too keen. But I'd look in The Age in Melbourne every day for the open call auditions. I was doing this as a child, at age 10, every morning. And there'd be advertisements for cattle calls for things, "Beauty and the Beast: The Musical needs 10 year olds", so I'd go off and audition for it. And then my parents would get a call from someone saying, "Can you thank Tom very much for coming in but this time..." and things like that. They finally broke and let me properly pursue it when I was about 15 – they didn't really have much choice in the matter.
What was their objection?
They're not from this world at all and, I guess, they felt it was a weird environment for a child. They weren't stage parents in any way, completely the opposite. They thought that I should be an adult before doing these things, quite rightly – I wouldn't want my kids to do it, I don't think.
By the time I was about 17, we’d had some tragedies in the family and the acting work was my saviour, absolutely my saviour. I dropped out of high school in my last year, I was working, loving it. And at around 18 I did my first feature film, Australian Rules, and from that point it was my whole life.
My first theatre production was at Belvoir St after Neil Armfield had seen me in a film and asked me to audition for The Lieutenant of Inishmore. I didn't know anything about Belvoir or Neil at the time, I was just in Melbourne thinking, "Oh, it's some play happening up in Sydney." Other people eventually said, "You know, that's a really cool thing." I was just all about the job.
I had a pretty spectacularly dramatic incident five weeks into that Belvoir season, where I had, essentially, an adrenal overload onstage at the end of the night. It was a very physical production, I was smashing my knees into the stage every night and getting my hair unintentionally ripped out by Dan Wyllie. My body was pretty broken by it all. And so I had this adrenal overload at the final curtain of the show, in which my whole body started seizing up and I thought I was having a heart attack. They take me to St Vincent's and I'm there covered in stage blood from the show, no shirt on. And with me the whole time was my partner at the time, Rita Kalnejais, who was in the show, and I was saying, "Tell my mum I love her!" and all that kind of stuff. I have to tell the hospital, "Not real blood! Not real blood! Heart attack!" So, they put all the sensors on me and then they come back to me with a paper bag, and they say, "Look, we know it feels like a big deal for you, but you're not having a heart attack, you're having a panic attack." It was the first time I'd ever had one of those in my life and I was completely freaked out by it. I think I missed one show and then managed to finish the run of the show, with great difficulty. But from that moment I thought, "Theatre is just too dangerous for me." I'm not exactly sure, but I think it was about nine years where I didn't do theatre. I was like, "I'm not going to do that, because I'll die." I mean, there was a year of therapy and antidepressants to reprogram my brain because this adrenal overload meant I suddenly started having panic attacks all the time. So, I had a year where I barely left the house apart from seeing the psychiatrist. I got better, panic disorder cured, but theatre was another frontier. Because I'm not formally trained as an actor, my only programming is "go for it" every night, like you would for a take for film and TV. I used to get really frustrated (unfairly in hindsight) if another actor wouldn't give everything every time. Of course, I got broken because of that attitude to an extent, but it was all I knew. So, I really removed myself from theatre, didn't even go see it.
About three years ago, I got stone-cold sober and I'm married and my whole life is very secure and safe and happy and healthy. And I thought, "Hmm, it'd be nice if just a little bit of theatre popped up."
Were you looking for the danger again?
No, I just felt safe, so I no longer thought that something huge was going to happen if I went there. Kate Mulvaney called me up about a reading at Melbourne Theatre Company of her play Rasputin.
One of the Cybec Readings?
Yeah, one of those. And I said, "Yeah, OK." So, I went along to this thing where you rehearse for a day and then put it on that night. And I really, really loved it. It was a great play. So after that, I asked, "Can we make this play happen?" And the response was, "Well, yeah, we're trying, that's the whole point of it all." I was just so ready to do it. It didn't seem too dangerous, I wouldn't have to go to a place that would mess me up or anything.
Rasputin didn't get picked up that time, but eventually Iain Sinclair and I had a meeting about The Beast by Eddie Perfect, which was this big comedy. I thought, "Great! I can clown around…". And I wanted my first show back to be a big show. I didn't want to pop into a smaller theatre and damage myself if only a small number of people were going to see it, you know.
And I know how egotistical and ridiculous it sounds, but I was like, "If I'm going to do it, I want thousands of people to see me broken and destroyed! I want it to be a dramatic death!" Anyway, I was so fine, not even the slightest little flare up. It was an amazing cast and I felt very safe and that I was really back. You know, you monitor anniversaries of the previous disaster – "Oh, it happened five weeks in" – but I got over all that stuff.
The idea in my head now is that it'd be a nice thing to do one big show each year. I don't know whether I could do back-to-back seasons like so many people do brilliantly. I just always choose some stupid physical character trait that will eventually decay me, you know. In Endgame, I've already got this fused leg and I'm already thinking about the exercises I'm going to do to keep my body solid through the season.
How is it coming into a show like this to replace Robert Menzies?
I met with Andrew a year ago about this show. I thought the play was brilliant, I thought I could bring my own clown version to this role, as well as it just being beautiful and written incredibly well. But then the role went to Robert Menzies and I was honoured to have even been considered – it's one of those rare moments where you go, "Oh, he'll be f***ing amazing!" And I'd actually been talking to Julie Forsythe about Endgame – she's doing it at MTC right now, she's in the bin right now – and so when I got the call from STC, there was no question. I had to ask my wife, but there was no second guessing. And it's amazing to be back in Sydney. There's so much great passion, energy and value put on theatre in this town.
You mentioned the clowning aspect of Endgame. I imagine anyone who saw Waiting for Godot here in 2013 would understand how clowning and Beckett go together, but what's your take on it in Endgame?
There's so many different kinds of clown in it. Even within the one character. I'm realising that there's no template with this. When you read it at first, you might think there is, but when you get to the specifics of it you realise it changes every 20 seconds. The play begins with something that everyone could recognise as a kind of clown routine – moving the ladder back and forth – but then it switches into (almost) naturalism, for a moment, then I'm playing straight man to Hamm's laugh riot. I'm still getting comfortable with the changes and it as a general form feeling OK. But there was a gross shock to begin with of not having a simple, gradual through-line of a single 'clown'.
Hugo Weaving was talking the other day about how Beckett doesn't give actors an easy motivational bridge between moments.
Exactly, as an actor your first thought is, "Why do I start talking about this? Why do i do that?" And Hugo's right, most of the time there is no connection. But you get this creepy feeling – and this is a bit romantic and dramatic – that Beckett's ghost is standing over you reassuring you that it is all there. Once you get it all down and you learn everything and you've done it a bunch of times, you'll be able to stand back and it'll be clear that something that happens two-thirds of the way through might not relate to what happened immediately prior but it does relate to something that happened for a second in the first third. And so you can find a complete through-line from one moment to another moment, it's just really complicated. It feels seriously bizarre to begin with. I don't think Beckett is messing with the actors, even if people assume that. I think it makes perfect sense, it's just beyond my intelligence as to how he created it. It keeps you at arms length, so it never gets too bald.
It must be satisfying to dig into text that is so complex, so layered and multidimensional.
That's the genius of it. You feel that there are conscious triple meanings in each line. It's staggering. I'm a bit of a philistine, I've never really tackled any of these great works, and it's been a real joy to be allowed into something like this, into a brain like Beckett's. It's fascinating. It's beyond philosophy. It's not just rumination, it's very personal.
That's right, Beckett's actually embodied it. It's not the espousing of philosophy just in language, it's making it happen through action – the people in his plays live that philosophy.
Yes! And it is so deeply personal, these things that he's extracting from his life and putting out there. Look, you could read his biography and then say, "Hamm and Clov are Beckett and his wife." But, in practice, it doesn't help you, because no one can completely zoom in on and recreate the characters from someone else's life. So, Hugo and I have to find our own version of a relationship, which takes time. I'd never met Hugo before this, and it takes time to get through all the normal personal stuff to something else.
How do you do that – go about building a relationship with another actor – especially when you're playing characters that are so close to each other?
In this case, the initial thing was easy, because I'd weirdly just worked with Hugo's son – the amazing, lovely Harry Greenwood – last year on Gallipoli. He's an incredible young man, divine. And having spent time with him you just make the assumption that at least one of his parents has to be amazing. An amazing, open-minded, divine individual. So the odds are pretty good and there's a strange kind of familiarity in that small way. Given that I had about 10 hours' notice between getting the job and the first reading, Hugo's the perfect person to greet you in that situation. Warm and generous.
It's interesting, we did our lines looking at each other just now, because Hugo realised that he never really gets to look at me in the show. None of them really look at each other much. So, as actors, it's useful to play around with both to see what we're each doing, because the voice and the face aren't always doing the same thing.
On this matter of listening and looking, I'm interested in your music background as well, in how it feeds your acting. There's a lot made of Beckett's musicality. Do you see it?
We've been talking about how it's jazz. It's loose, things can pop up from nowhere. But, like jazz, you learn the standard before you start improvising. So, we're still finding the standard.
In terms of how my music and acting interact, I feel that there's definitely a rhythmic aspect shared across both. And, with this character, I've got one fused leg (who knows, this will probably change) and the other leg does all the work moving around, so it's entirely possible that he could have a beat based on that, even when he's standing still. And that's comforting to me as a musician.
Are you still playing music?
It's been a couple of years since I did a proper gig. My singing voice hasn't been the same lately, which feels like fate saying that I should put music to one side now. I can't do the music and act at the same time – I can't write songs while I'm working as an actor – it just doesn't work for me. They’re different parts of the brain, or the same, so they argue.
What else have you got on this year?
You seem really OK with that?
Yes and no. There's usually a week or two where I'm completely comfortable with the physical recovery. But when it ticks over that last day, I'll be like, "I don't deserve to eat." My wife almost gets a tear in her eye, "You do deserve lunch, you're lovely, of course you deserve it." But I haven't done anything. It's an ancient thing in the body, you know, I haven't sown the seeds, I haven't killed anything, I’ve just played video games or whatever busying activity it is. So, no, I don't really handle time off well. At all. The dream is to always have something coming up. Hopefully one day it might happen. But I also took two years out, completely, to play music and tour with that. I focused on something else entirely and enjoyed it.
I've had moments of questioning what the point of acting is. In film and TV, you can feel like a cog in the system – the editing, the camera angle, all of those decisions that are completely separate to you that can change everything. So I've found that I really need to collaborate and invest – I'll have options for lines, ideas for scenes that I'll prep the night before a shoot day – so I feel like I've got ownership, even if I just put in one new thing. And theatre is the best version of that, its so collaborative. You feel like it's really yours.
And you're the one communicating it to the audience every night.
Yeah, it's so lovely! It's what I'm supposed to do.
Endgame, 31 Mar - 9 May 2015, Sydney Theatre
Rehearsal photos of Tom Budge and Hugo Weaving in STC's Endgame are by Lisa Tomasetti