Interview: Mark Coles Smith - right place, right time
In a insightful interview, actor Mark Coles Smith talks to Screen NSW on his challenges playing Tilly in Last Cab to Darwin, for which he has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor at this year's AACTA Awards, his experience on Modern Family and his learning from screen legends Michael Caton and Jacki Weaver.
Last Cab to Darwin has been a box office success at home, why do you feel it is resonating with audiences?
For me the film succeeds in celebrating friendships that are not dependent on similarity in age, heritage or cultural attitudes, as it beautifully considers the question of how we can choose to live our lives. It finds here an audience best placed to recognise its distinctly local qualities and on first glance leaves the impression of being a piece of classic Australian cinema.
Tilly’s character faces many conflicts with racism, alcoholism and with family. What attracted you to the role and what was your process for preparing for it?
In some ways it feels any Indigenous subject matter can be inherently political and there were many opportunities in Tilly’s story to be accused of reinforcing negative stereotypes. What intrigued me was whether I could ignore those fears and portray his imperfections as fully as his talents, and encourage an audience to see his journey as one of hope, regardless of race. The other notable attraction was getting to go on the road trip itself. After spending a few years in the city it was great to be back out in the country. My process in preparing for it is intentionally un-described.
Your character, Tilly, is an Arabana man from Oodnadatta and your heritage is from Broome and the Kimberley. How did you find the challenge of acting as a man from the Oodnadatta mob?
In the end, the challenge I inherited in representing a young man from another region and language group was not to do with how a wider audience might receive the portrayal, but more personally, whether or not I could feel my representation respected the circumstances of that appropriation in the opinion of the Arabana people. I hoped this approval could be achieved by indicating I cared about Tilly when searching for and sharing his story, and through choosing to make his joy and determination more important than his fears and failings in reflection of the Arabana peoples. It was in particular this challenge that became one of the most convincing influences in establishing my commitment in the ways to care for and consider the role.
You also spent time with the community and the kids and youths in Oodnadatta, can you tell us how that experience was and how that informed your portrayal of Tilly?
Being welcomed and included in the community offered me an immense sense of support with the role and gave me access to a range of inspirations while preparing for it. The kids coached me in terms of dialect, popular phrases and the demonstration of actual footy skills, all the while reminding me of the value in brandishing a sense of mischief and charm I might’ve otherwise been at risk of neglecting under pressure.
In the film Tilly also plays an AFL match in front of a packed stadium. We've heard you had never played a match of AFL. What was it like playing a pro footballer in front of a full crowd?
One component of performing is the ability to ignore the ways you feel it might be criticised when visible to an audience and instead concentrate solely on expressing your instincts and imagination. I think this happens, partly through being confident in your capacity to do so, but, since I have no demonstrable talent in the area of football, the match in question is remembered as an emasculating trial of embarrassment leaving me in the tender dependence of good editing. If anyone asks me, ‘what’s the biggest difference between myself and Tilly?’ I might be found admitting ‘Tilly can actually play football.’
You also starred opposite Michael Caton and Jacki Weaver. You spent a lot of time with Michael, can you tell us what it was like to be in a film with these two icons of Australian cinema?
Both Michael and Jacki are so obviously talented that you automatically want to work harder as an associate in their company. Aside from his patience and generosity on set, Michael also showcased an enduring level of control and concentration. I try to learn through watching and listening to others, and collaborating with Michael on the moments between our characters, as we shot in sequence across the locations and landscape of our story, was full of chances to learn something.
You also had a cameo in Modern Family when it filmed in Australia. Can you tell us what that experience was like?
Brief, unexpected and delightful. Two days on set, the second of which was across my birthday. Was hard not to have fun with it.
Do you feel these recent roles have opened any doors for you on the international stage?
I’m not sure. I think it’s possible yes, everything I’ve worked on leads to new possibilities. But I don’t spend a whole lot of time speculating about that in particular, because I’m too lazy to develop a strategy when considering it. I seem to subscribe to a faith based system of hoping to be in the “right place at the right time,” which some could criticise as irresponsible and underestimated, but it’s worked out for the time being.
What advice do you have for aspiring actors?
Maybe it seems obvious and common, but I’m convinced the simplicity is easy to overlook, “believe in yourself.” Cultivate your own version of mindfulness and humility to reinforce your sense of self, and seek to be honest in discovering what acting means to you. And if you’re intent on enduring the pursuit, take care of yourself while you undertake it. There is a curious balance needed between connecting to your sensitivity and also achieving resilience in the face of a competitive and highly critiqued medium as you distinguish the intersection between art and business.
You're currently filming U.S. series Hunters for the SyFy Network, can you tell us about that?
The shoot draws to completion in mid December and is rumored to air Season 1 in March 2016. Other than that, I can tell you I’ve once again found myself in the company of a very talented cast and crew, I look forward to the series finding its audience and I’m enjoying getting to try something new with my character.
Last Cab to Darwin will be available to rent and buy on DVD, Blu-Ray and Digital on December 9th.