How We Do What We Do: John Batchelor with Marika Aubrey
Our next guest is a well-known and well-loved actor with many (many) years of experience across theatre, film and TV. You probably saw him in Red Dog. Or for several years on your telly as ‘Charge’ in Sea Patrol, or even in Underbelly: Razor. And if you missed those, it’s likely that at some stage when you sat in the audience of a STC, QTC, or Bell Shakespeare show, this gentleman was treading the boards in front of you.
A childhood spent in Papua New Guinea and Queensland somehow led to the halls of NIDA and onwards to a career that by anyone’s measure continues to be highly successful. But it is John’s ongoing enthusiasm for his job, positivity in the face of it’s challenges, and above all his commitment to continual joyful learning that struck me most about our chat.
Please join us as we find out a bit about how John Batchelor does what he does…
A Day In The Death Of Little John
Marika: Born in Singapore?
John: I was born in Singapore. My dad was in the army and he got shifted all around the Asian pacific area. He was in Vietnam and Malaysia and Malacca… My mum was taking care of my two sisters and my brother in Melbourne all by herself, and being a nurse as well, and so she packed them all up and moved over to Singapore – and then I came along.
Marika: And you lived in Singapore for…?
John: A year and a half.
Marika: Right, and then you all came back to…
John: Melbourne, until I was three, and almost died. That’s a good story.
Marika: What’s the story?
John: I had bacterial meningitis when I was three years old.
Marika: That sounds serious.
John: Yeah. Super-duper serious. I believe the story goes that my family threw me in an ambulance and I made it to the hospital, the local hospital, and they looked at me and went, “Get him to Melbourne Children’s now!”. On the way there, my heart stopped and the paramedics revived me.
Marika: Wow. Should’ve been dead already.
John: Technically I was dead. And so it becomes a thing… sometimes blocks come along your way and you are like, “man, I made it through that. Surely I can make it through this”, you know.
Marika: I’ve already died once…
John: I’ve already died once.
Marika: I’ll be alright.
John: And it is, and that’s sort of like a little mind-set that I have when really tough stuff pops up.
Marika: Yeah, right. Well, that’s a good lesson to learn at three. [Laughter].
Blame The Black Cape and The Fake Moustache
John: I became a Queenslander when I was six and I stayed there and did all my schooling there until I left to come to NIDA when I was twenty.
Marika: How did a Brisbane boy find out about NIDA? Was there a theatre program in the school?
John: Yeah. At the end of grade ten I had this teacher who turned around to me and she said, “In grade eleven and twelve, you need to do the theatre course”. I had done one play in year ten and she had cast me as the lead of the main villain with the black cape and the moustache and the hat and everything.
Marika: You would’ve hated that… [laughter]
John: Yeah, I just loved it! So I did the theatre program and at the end of grade twelve, the councillors talk to you about what you should do, and the only things I was good at were theatre and maths. I was getting top marks in both. My theatre teacher was like, “you need to go and study to be an actor”.
John: I looked at him with puzzlement in my eyes, going, “I don’t understand what you mean…people are going to pay me to do this?” It didn’t really occur to me that you could do it as a living.
Marika: We almost lost you to being a mathematician. I can’t get over that.
John: Accountancy was definitely on the cards. I auditioned for NIDA and I auditioned for the Brisbane College of Advanced Education (which is now QUT). When I walked into the NIDA audition I was nineteen and surrounded by, you know, people in their mid-twenties with amazing experience and doing these amazing pieces from amazing plays, and I was just…sitting there. I had a piece from ‘And The Big Men Fly’ because that’s the play I did at school, and it was sort of Australiana and pretty…It’s a really nice play, but it’s pretty juvenile when it’s up against Ibsen and Shakespeare…and my Shakespeare was ordinary because I didn’t know Shakespeare. I didn’t like Shakespeare when I was a kid.
Marika: You didn’t know about it?
[pull_left]I looked at him with puzzlement in my eyes, going, ‘I don’t understand what you mean…people are going to pay me to do this?'[/pull_left]
John: I didn’t really understand it…anyway, I didn’t get past the first round, but I got into the Brisbane College of Advanced Education so I went there. At the end of that first year, a lot of my other acting friends were saying, “NIDA’s auditioning now – are you going to do that?”, and I was getting so annoyed at what was going on in my life that I decided, “stuff it, I’ll go and audition”.
John: I knew about one and a half pieces – you were supposed to know three…But my drive to leave Brisbane (not that I hate Brisbane, I just needed to get out because I was in a rut), that drive was so strong that Tony Taylor and John Clarke, who were at the auditions, saw something and they got me into that year. I stumbled through the first day but then John Clarke sat me down and he talked me through a Henry V piece. He taught me what each line meant and then I went home and I studied that and I learned it over and over again and I came back on the recall day and had a great day, had the best day. Smashed it, everything just went really well. So then three years at NIDA… and it was exactly what I wanted, because what I was doing before was university hours and that’s what was getting to me, the fact that you could be there for one hour, all day. It was just…
John: Inactive. And I wanted to do and do and do.
Marika: Then you did and you did and you did.
John: Then you did and you did and did and you cried. [Laughter].
Keep Calm and Keep Learning
Marika: So, positive experience, drama school? It sounds like you milked the shit out of it.
John: Oh, there were massive ups and downs. Massive, massive. There were a lot of people who didn’t like me and what I did.
Marika: What do you mean?
John: Tutors that were just telling me how shit I was and stuff… At the same time, I don’t know if they really feel that way or if that’s a little game that they play, but it certainly pushed me to go, “oh, I didn’t come up to scratch today so I’ll go home and I’ll get better”. Then I’d go and home and make sure I did get better and turn up the next day. And if they smacked me in the mouth again, well, I’m just going to go home and I’m going to get better. Then when I came back in third year and they told me that I was back by the skin of my teeth, a smile was on my face because I was like, “it doesn’t matter, I’m back. Unless I do something really stupid, you can’t kick me out”. So, I worked my butt off in that third year and I found it massively challenging, but I think as a person the best thing you can get is the challenges.
Marika: Yeah. When it challenges you as much on a personal level as it does on a creative level, it’s rigorous training.
John: Yeah, and certainly when you are working as a professional, there are people that you meet who do and who don’t like your work, because its art. People are never going to always like your work. If they do, I guarantee you they are lying.
Marika: I think the earlier we learn that in our careers though, the more…the more, I guess, we will find a sense of relief and peace. Then you sort of go, “you know what, not everyone in the world likes Julia Roberts”, and that’s a fact. So, probably when I’m doing stuff, some people are going to like it and some people aren’t.
John: Yes… but I’ve certainly had enough people along the way – people who I respect dearly – who do like my work and who will come and talk to me and mentor me and listen to my problems and work with me and stuff, because as an actor, as an artist – which is what I think I am – I do not believe that at any stage I have cracked it. I continually try and go, there must be something more. You’ve got to find another gear, add another gear. Martial arts is also very important to me and there is one very old Chinese proverb about the grand master who on his death bed, the second before he has died just goes (John acts as though he understands everything finally, then ‘dies’)…you know.
Marika: Wow. You never stop learning and you never stop looking.
John: Yeah. You never stop. So that’s why I like doing classes.
Marika: And that’s how we met.
John: Yeah, that’s how we met. Working in a class.
Marika: It’s very inspiring for me to see someone that’s had as long a career and as successful a career as you, in a drop-in class. That’s probably the first class I’ve been to in Australia where that’s happened. I remember taking classes at The Actors Centre in London and, I don’t know, it was Meisner or run your monologue or something but there were these old dudes in their sixties or seventies who had been at the RSC and they were sitting there alongside the kids who had just come out of RADA, and I just thought that was incredible… and then couldn’t find anything like that in Sydney for a long time. And I still think we have a ways to go here. I think there could be, certainly, more of it.
John: Oh, there is certainly a way to go.
John: I talk to some of my peers and they just look at me and go, “really? You go to class?”, but for me it’s like, “You can’t be serious! It’s the best fun ever!” You go in there and there is no pressure, it’s just let go and do it. And the stuff that you learn, you know, it’s gold that you then get to take onto the next film set or the next rehearsal room floor. That’s sensational.
How John Does What He Does
Marika: Do you adhere to any particular method or ideology, or do you approach each project as they come?
John: I certainly look at each project for what it is and I know that I have a very structured…I had a very structured way of working, which was very much based in a sort of action objective world.
John: Through each scene, through each beat, through each line even. To a tee of going, “this is what’s going on at this moment”…and that’s, I guess, when I was looking for something different… and I was looking at the Meisner stuff. A lot of his writing connected to me and when I got the chance to meet Scott Williams [Artistic Director of London’s Impulse Company] through the Meisner classes workshops, he talked very much about the bower bird concept of working as opposed to having one method and being very good at it. And I thought, “Oh, that’s me. I’m the bower bird” you know, and that’s why when I met [Sydney Actress and graduate of London’s Impulse Company] Kate Skinner, who was in that class and she asked if anybody wanted to any extra work on it, I said yes. I want to do some more work on this. I want to see how I can bring this idea on to work on a floor or, you know, a TV or film scenario, and so that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been very much interested in that and very much letting go of a lot of the other structure that I had of telling myself ‘this is definitely what is happening in this scene’.
Marika: Being less descriptive and…
John: And just going into the scene. You know, as an actor, I feel like I’ve got a concept of being able to read a script and knowing what’s going on in that scene, or what could be going on, and just being able to trust that. And then going into the scene to actually see and listen to that other person and play with them, then see what comes out at the end. The amount of pressure I take off myself is intense and also, I’m not sort of worrying about whether I did the right thing.
Marika: I think that’s the biggest revelation for a lot of people that come to Meisner, is that it does feel like a burden is lifting in many ways because you release yourself from a lot of the things you feel you should do, and you just play and stay within and listen, and that’s the greatest kind of liberation.
John: I also like it because he reminds me that I’m an actor and while that may sound stupid…
Marika: …you know you have an extensive web presence you can go and look at…
John: [Laughter]. While that sounds stupid, I know that in my time at, especially at Bell Shakespeare, because you do play after play – two eighteen month stints – so it’s a long time to be in one company with pretty much the same people, so you get what’s called a ‘conspiracy’ of actors. You know, “I’m going to do it like this, so that when you do it like that, I can do this and blah blah blah”.
Marika: ‘I’m going to try it this way, so could you do that when I do that?’ [laughter]
John: Yeah, all that sort of stuff, and I know I certainly did it…and after I had done class with Scott, I went into a play straightaway directed by Wesley Enoch, which was a David Williamson play with QTC and Black Swan in Perth, and I took everything onto that rehearsal room floor and at no stage was I anything but an actor. I didn’t say, “I want this to happen like this”. People asked me my opinion about the way that that a scene was going, and I went “I don’t care”…I am in the scene, and I don’t want to know what I think of the scene.
Marika: I’m going to leave that to the director.
John: I’m going to leave that to that guy over there, he’s the director, it’s his play.
Marika: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
John: I just want to be in it and give it the thousand different scenarios that I can bring to it every day and then the director can go, “you know that thing that you did just before? yeah, I like that”. Great, excellent. Then let’s do that.
From Boards to Box
Marika: So you were talking about how you were predominantly in theatre for 15 years and then suddenly you were in film and TV. How did that happen and was it something you designed?
John: It was a little bit of both. I was doing a lot of theatre. I was working with the Sydney Theatre Company and the Bell Shakespeare Company and I did, I think, about eight plays at the opera house, just one after the other, after the other, and they were all awesome, and they were really good roles, you know, I was enjoying them and stuff, but there was just something more that I wanted to do and I kept seeing all these TV and film actors playing those roles and I kept questioning why I couldn’t have a crack at those roles. Sometimes, not always, but sometimes the casting folks would come back, saying they were looking for a ‘name’.
John: Then I it’s just, “oh right, okay”.
[pull_left]I want to play a character that’s got weight, and I want to play a character that’s got heart, and I want to play a character that wants something[/pull_left]
Marika: Which is hard to reconcile when you are someone who is working that consistently with main stage national companies. Because you’d like to think once you’ve done a few roles with an STC or a Bell Shakespeare that you are kind of like, “I’m not crap then, possibly I could be a name”.
John: If you walked down the street after I had just done a play and talked to the people who had seen my play…
Marika: They’d think you were a name!
John: They’d think I’m a name. [laughter]
John: But yeah, if you walk into some suburb of people that don’t go to the theatre then they wouldn’t have the foggiest idea who I was or what I did. So anyway, I was doing Romeo and Juliet with Bell Shakespeare and my agent said, “There is this show called Sea Patrol that’s auditioning on Channel 9”, and I just went, “It’s in the Navy? I know nothing about the Navy…but I know some stuff about the Army”. I remember sitting in an internet café checking out the Navy website, learning all the stuff I could possibly learn about the chief mechanic. My dad was an engineer in the Army so I certainly had a feel for the type of person. They gave me this audition scene and I…I really liked the scene and it was really easy for me and, again, it was during that time I was looking at all the Meisner stuff and I hadn’t done any classes in it but I had certainly took a lot of his On Acting book into that piece and sort of let myself sort of work that piece with his work in mind. Much further down the track Di McElroy told me they thought, “You were Charge. The moment you walked out the door, you were Charge”. And I was the first person they saw.
Marika: Then all of a sudden you were in TV land for several years…
John: I didn’t do another play for six years.
Marika: How did that change your life?
John: It was pretty freaky. All of a sudden, because Sea Patrol filmed for five months and then we had seven months off to go and do whatever we could do, and all of a sudden I started getting these auditions and getting film roles as well. I did a film in Melbourne called The Tender Hook with Hugo Weaving and Rose Byrne and that was amazing working with Hugo every day. Then Sea Patrol went for a second season and then I did a bit of TV in between that and then Sea Patrol went for a third season and then…because you never know until June/July whether you are going again in September. So you are sort of always hanging by the seat of your pants going, “I think we might go again. I hope we go again”. Yeah, and we did and we ended up doing it for five years and then more films happened after that.
Marika: Has Red Dog been another game changer for you, do you think? You are about to go over to pilot season in the USA..
John: The agent that I have in America saw it and wanted to be my agent because of it. The game changing thing is that I love doing film because of it, and the horrible thing about it is I haven’t done another film since.
John: And I don’t understand why. It literally doesn’t make sense to me. I thought we lived in a world where you do good work and you get work, you get work from work. So I try to go and do the very best I can, hoping that people go, “that guys good. We’ll get him to do the next thing”.
Marika: Surely our industry, though, is the one industry where that rule just doesn’t apply necessarily…?
John: Well, it certainly hasn’t applied to me with that film because that film won umpteen awards. I’ve read every film review of it and my name gets mentioned every time and I literally haven’t done another film since.
Marika: So, America is a nice big, bigger stream to swim in, do you think? What do you hope for?
John: Red Dog sort of gave me that place where I felt comfortable in front of the camera. Sea Patrol did the same, Underbelly: Razor did the same. I felt very comfortable in front of the camera. Before that, I didn’t. So now, as opposed to ten years ago, I’ll just go to the USA, and we’ll see what happens. I don’t know if anything is going to happen, but I hope stuff happens. The auditions that I’ve done, some have been hits, some have been misses, but I know that some have been hits…so, I’m not on the wrong track.
Keep It Positive
Marika: You once said in your speech at The Matildas (Brisbane’s theatre industry awards) that if you could be any actor, you would be Ruth Cracknell.
John: Because she is just…she epitomises everything about being a human being and about being an actor. She is a sensational actor. She is sensational, and during the play we did (She Stoops To Conquer at The STC) she was…I think she was in her early to mid-eighties and she was doing prat falls in rehearsals.
John: She was looking for the gag. She knew there was a gag there and she’d go for it hammer and tong. Anyway, I managed to get her aside one day and ask her…because I was still felt very fresh in the world of acting…I just asked her what she’d seen and did she think that I had, you know, anything of what it takes, and during rehearsals one day, she sat next to me after I did this scene where my character Diggory was getting into some foolishness with (legendary actor) Leo McKern’s character on stage. I came back and she came and sat next to me and she just looked at me and she went, “You’re wicked”, and that just…that lit up my life! I got to go to work with her every day and she just wanted to play every day and there was no ‘I’m better than you’ about her and that was what smacked me in the face every day. She wanted to be my mate. Ruth Cracknell wanted to be my mate at work, and that made me want to be better every day.
Marika: You want to be someone’s Ruth Cracknell?
John: Yeah, I want to be someone’s Ruth Cracknell. If…if I do have a great career and if I am somebody that other people look up to then I want to be the one who then smiles back and says, “Yeah, cool. Let’s go and have some fun”, as opposed to, “Yeah. Well you just stand there and mind your own business and when I’m done, then you can come in”. There are plenty of those people in this industry and they annoy the living crap out of me.
Marika: How do you stay so positive? Because you are, inherently, just a really positive, affable, easy to work and be around type person, and there are so many cynical, bitter people…You’ve been doing this for a long time and you are still so excited. You are like a kid when you talk about it! I love that.
John: I think it’s easy to be cynical, that’s why. I think it’s hard to be positive and I much prefer that route, you know?
Marika: [Laughter]. Yes, I do know.
John: There have been times where I’ve been cynical, heaps of times where I’ve been cynical and pretty much…I’ve been lucky enough to meet someone who just goes, “well, change it”, you know. So that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to change it. I wasn’t getting the theatre roles that I wanted so I changed it. I was getting the TV roles I wanted, but there is more now that I want.
Marika: You never stop wanting.
John: Yeah, I can’t rest on my laurels and go, “it’s going to be like this”. We don’t…that’s not our job, our career, our profession is not one that gives…
Marika: …assurances like that.
John: Yeah. So, you’ve just got to everyday. If I’m going for auditions and not getting the roles that I want, then I have to do something about that. If I’m not getting the auditions I want, then I have to do something about that. I can’t sit here and whinge and moan and complain about not getting the auditions that I want because that literally changes nothing. There is just stuff now that I know what I want to do and there is stuff that I know that I don’t want to do, and then there is the stuff in the middle and I go, actually, I have no idea so I’m going to give that a crack. I’m not about filling the screen. I want to play a character that’s got weight, and I want to play a character that’s got heart, and I want to play a character that wants something, and when I read scripts I just go, I don’t think the writer had that character in mind to have a heart, they just wanted somebody else to be in the scene and that’s not me. There are other people who can do that.
John: Because life’s too short.