“Neither look forward where there is doubt, nor backward where there is regret. Look inward and ask not if there is anything outside you want, but whether there is anything inside that you have not yet unpacked.” – Quentin Crisp
Following on from my chat with the divine Emily Goddard, I’m nothing short of elated to give you the next instalment in my series of interviews with artists who inspire me!
Paul Capsis – a man who needs no introduction – was back in sunny Melbourne for a limited return season of Tim Fountain’s Resident Alien at fortyfivedownstairs. The wonderful Cameron Lukey was generous enough to arrange a meeting with myself and Paul, whom I had recently worked with on Johnny Hawkin’s exquisite short film, Joy Boy.
Whilst this transcript is most colourful, my one disappointment is my inability to convey the exceptionally delicious cadence of Paul’s conversation and voice – truly, I’d need some kind of musical notation system!
So Paul, would you have believed when you were younger that you’d one day be an Australian cultural icon?
No. There’s no way in the world I would ever believe or imagine this life that I’ve ended up having. In a way I guess I dreamt about it, but I knew at a certain stage that it was impossible. I thought it was impossible. I really believed that only certain people were able to be actors, singers, artists in Australia. That was my perception. Not people like me. Homosexual. Ethnic background. I really did think all those things were going to stop me. I’m first generation Australian and I didn’t see anyone out there that was like me. I think because I had a working class family growing up in Sydney. My Maltese and my Greek family were both physical hard workers – working class – so I learnt from them that work is work and work is important and you have to do your best, always. And that’s my family’s mantra. I can’t get out of that – at my age of 54, I still have that. It’s exhausting! It means I don’t ever know how to relax.
I guess I’ve managed to work and maintain this long career because I’ve found my tribe. Which is very important. Find your people. When we start out, it’s all daunting. There are cliques everywhere and little clubs, and more so now in 2018 than there ever was when I started out! You need to find your people. Those people who are like-minded, who want to create the kinds of theatre you are interested in or the kinds of film you’re interested in or music or whatever it is. And they’re out there! You really have to persist. That’s my definite understanding of the world.
You’ve said before that you don’t think you’re necessarily the best choice for Quentin Crisp… Why not?
I do go by race – I’m a funny person like that. I actually talked myself out of a lead role in a telemovie once because I didn’t think I was ethnically right to play an Anglo-Saxon. And Quentin for me was quintessentially an Anglo-Saxon man of a different time. So I didn’t see it initially and lovely Cameron Lukey, our producer – it was his idea! That’s what I mean about tribe. We have in our lives, we have a Cameron Lukey, we have a Gary Abrahams, we have a Barrie Kosky, we have a Michael Cantor, we have a Rosemary Meyers, we have an Adena Jacobs, we have Gale Edwards, we have all these – Jim Sharman – all these great people who are visionaries! And I just feel very fortunate that I have come into their space. And they want to make the kinds of things that interest me.
And do you know what I just discovered? Just before he released his second autobiography How to Become a Virgin, Quentin’s talking about all this stuff, and one of the things he says, which I’d never heard about before, was that there was going to be a musical about him! And Quentin suggested Joel Grey to play him! And now for me that’s an irony because in 2017 I lived with Joel Grey! I read about Joel Grey! I studied Joel Grey cause he created the Emcee and I was interested only in his idea of that character! No one else’s modern take on it! I wanted Mr. Grey’s version. So there’s Quentin talking about Joel Grey, talking about Cabaret! Talking about Joel Grey energy! Wigs! I mean it’s just mind-blowing for me! This treasure trove of discoveries, of things you keep finding!
What sort of work are you attracted to?
Well in the last five years more so, I’ve been involved with work that I have found way more interesting than things I did at the beginning of my career. I am doing more challenging, unusual types of things. For example revisiting the Quentin Crisp, which in itself is a challenge. He was a hero of mine. He taught me that homosexuals have always existed. And it’s interesting because I was consciously aware of this figure from the history – Quentin Crisp – an effeminate homosexual who was very public in his persona. And that never ever once tried to hide who he was. So just proving that we are born the way we are and we have always existed and we will always exist. Regardless of what’s going on in the world, what’s happening politically, whatever is going on with religion. Whatever’s going on, homosexuals will always be here. We’ll always exist.
So I think the challenging ones now for me, because I think as much as I like to have fun, I’m more interested in the process than I was before. When I’m in a room now, I watch everybody. I watch how the director works and gives notes, I watch how the musical director works or how the actors themselves work. How experimental people are, how dangerous, how courageous or not courageous… yes, I find it all very interesting now.
Do you find there’re parts of yourself in Quentin as well?
Well there’re things about Quentin and I that are very similar. I feel like with Quentin and I, the most similar thing we have is that we both experienced violence because of our feminine homosexuality well before we both discovered, even understood what sexuality was! We were persecuted. And we both were persecuted at a young age and I identify with him very much in that regard. I also identify with him in his defiance, because I also was defiant. I refused to change myself. I did try, but like Quentin tried, it just didn’t work. No one was buying the act. And then I discovered that I didn’t want to change! I didn’t want to please people! If they hated me, well good!
But people would be angry with him for saying certain things. Things about relationships, things about sex. Even from the – particularly from the homosexual community! And I do identify with him in that regard. I kind of have found myself in a little bit of a similar situation. Outside of the homosexual village. Cause Quentin talked about that, and that still exists! The ghettos! The masculinity. The amped-up, ramped-up hyper-masculine, hating Fems, old, Asian, fat. Real people basically. Anyone real. That existed when I came out and it’s still there – but now I don’t care, I don’t bother. Every now and then I’m invited to do things with the community like a Mardi Gras every now and then or… you know?
And then there was that dreadful postal vote we had to deal with last year, that was an awful time. It’s interesting cause – Quentin – knowing what he would say – he would’ve said “Don’t bother! Wait for them to come around!” And they did! People will get bored and get tired of having to talk about us. I thought of Quentin a lot last year. I thought “This is the very thing Quentin talked about.” Thanks to the Liberal-National government, they forced the people of Australia to think about what two homosexual men got up to in their bedroom! And they had to think about it for quite some time! And they don’t want to think about that stuff! They just wanna get on with their lives! And then we got the vote and it all happened, but you know… we’ll see what happens now! Part of me just wants get on and live our lives. Be who we are, regardless of whether people accept us or not. I still think about people who live in countries that today in 2018 are murdered for being born homosexual. And I only speak about homosexuals, I don’t speak about anyone else. I’m not in the ‘Alphabet Soup’, I don’t speak for lesbians, I don’t speak for transexuals, I don’t speak for bisexuals, I don’t speak for intersex. I just speak about what I know, which is being a homosexual man. That’s all I know about. Don’t know about anything else.
You love reading autobiographies! Do you ever think you’ll write one of your own?
I hope so! As Quentin says “Books are for writing, not for reading.” But I love reading books! I mean, I’m a late-starter – it wasn’t until my latter part of high school that I became aware of writing – became aware of great writers! Books that changed my life, “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, “The Deer Hunter”… And then of course, with my obsessions with people that I admired, I was then reading biographies and so I am still. I guess I would say I’m 85% a biography reader. And also reading about periods in history, which is another thing I’ve started doing.
With Cabaret, I was reading about the Weimar Republic, which I was very interested in with the rise of Trump! A brilliant synchronistic thing happened – the producer had made no connection! I remember saying to him one day “You’re a genius!” He went “What?” I went “Cabaret. Trump. We’re living this. Now.” You know? Smacks of history! Of Hitler and the way the Germans saw this guy who spoke rough and was going to “Make Germany great again!” like “Make America great again!” It’s all there! “Oh he’ll go away.” Well he didn’t. And he’s not. I find all of it fascinating and interesting.
If you could speak to an eleven year old Paul Capsis, what would you say to him?
The first thing I’d say is “It gets better. It really does get better. You have to hang in there. You must never give up! Follow your dreams, follow your passions. It’s ok to be who you are. Life is full of wonderful things. And don’t be afraid. You find your tribe.” That’s what I would say to myself. “One day, you will meet those people.”
Quentin talked about that a lot. His parents never warned him about the world – they never even said to him that one day he will meet hooligans like himself, and the world will be better. And then of course he went to America. And then for the last eighteen years of his life, he was finally happy. Even there he found some difficulties, but overall he found acceptance.
I don’t think he exists entirely in the past. And even though I don’t agree with everything he says – there’s a lot I don’t agree with – I still think he’s an important figure. He would say he wasn’t, but I do think, and I do believe, he was mostly an important figure.
And I wished I’d known him. And I wished I’d met him. And sat with him in a cafe. And just listened to him.
And I think I would have felt very protective towards Quentin… because he would have reminded me of me.
Resident Alien played limited seasons in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, 2018.