It’s a warm New Year’s Eve in Bondi and Ewen Leslie is mulling over all he has to be grateful for as he prepares to enter 2020, the year he’ll turn 40. His older child, Elliot, can’t see the fireworks from their vantage point in the beachside suburb where they live, so Leslie hoists him up on his back, the four-year-old’s hands covering his father’s eyes. Leslie laughs, but this is what being a parent is all about: sacrificing your own desires for those of your kids. So long as Elliot can see the fireworks, his father is happy.
Leslie treasures this moment, a photo of which has been filtered in black and white and added to his artfully curated Instagram account. To him it represents not merely his love of fatherhood twice over but the idea that you can’t always see what lies ahead.
A few months later, he marvels at just how prescient that image was. Leslie and his partner of 18 years, film producer Nicole O’Donohue, together with Elliot and their one-year-old daughter, Eve, have packed up their rented Bondi home and dashed to digs at Culburra Beach on the NSW South Coast, to be closer to O’Donohue’s family during the enforced social isolation of the coronavirus pandemic.
There had been speculation a second season of The Gloaming, a crime-supernatural crossover series on streaming service Stan, owned by Nine Entertainment Company (publisher of this magazine), in which Leslie plays the angsty lead male detective, was about to go into production, but a decision on that has been delayed. Season one, which premiered in January, was generally well received by critics. Leslie and The Gloaming cast and crew are hardly alone in their uncertainty: in March, the COVID-19 pandemic forced 79 Australian film and television productions to be halted or delayed.
“The fact the industry is completely shut down removes any sort of hustle, because I couldn’t work if I wanted to,” says Leslie via Skype. He’s sporting a stubble, his cleft chin visible after hiding behind a full beard for many recent roles. His dark hair – with a slight dye of lighter colour – has grown in lockdown, and he pushes the strands back behind his ears. “There’s this strange, macabre solace you get in the fact that it’s bad for everyone.”
While Leslie won’t be calling his agent any time soon, he’s about to slide onto screens here and in Britain in two key roles. These, together with the success of The Gloaming earlier this year and The Cry on the ABC in 2018-19, look set to catapult him from an actor lauded as one of our finest by critics and his contemporaries but not yet a household name, onto a new plane that might just change all that. Both productions showcase an acting range that can cycle through intensity and vulnerability, from drily funny to menacingly still.
The first, premiering on the ABC on May 31, will see Leslie as a dashing but conflicted Australian war hero aiding British atomic testing in outback Maralinga in 1956 in comedy-drama Operation Buffalo, from the creator-writer-director Peter Duncan of Rake fame. Around the same time, he’ll be on British screens as drunken hermit Crosbie Wells in the six-part BBC 1860s gold rush series The Luminaries, filmed in New Zealand and based on Eleanor Catton’s 2013 Man Booker Prize-winning novel. Both roles should burnish a growing northern hemisphere reputation that Leslie was considering capitalising on by moving to Los Angeles, but didn’t.
What stopped him?
“Well, we had a kid, first and foremost, a little boy, and also, I started getting a lot of work here. It just became easier to send over tapes,” he says. “The idea of moving across with my family and knocking on the door, I’m just not sure I’m completely up for that.”
Leslie’s longtime friend, performer Tim Minchin, is glad Leslie didn’t follow the LA-route. “When he does get that role that makes him a household name in America, it will be because they wanted him,” says Minchin. “That is the position to be in. But I think he’s gone beyond needing to be there.”
Those in theatre and film circles have long known about Leslie’s talent, through a career in Australia that spans nearly two decades. Critic Alison Croggon called his Richard III performance for Melbourne Theatre Company in 2010 one “that will be talked about for years: it marks the ascension of a remarkable actor”. Fellow actor Toby Schmitz, who starred with Leslie in The Wild Duck by Simon Stone with Chris Ryan (a reworking of the Henrik Ibsen play) at Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre in 2011, notes of his friend: “He’s a humanist, in that he’s a student of humans and how they tick, which means his job as an actor is not really even a job; it’s just an extension of his human curiosity.”
Leslie has been nominated seven times for Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) awards, winning in 2017 after Jane Campion cast him as Pyke, husband of Nicole Kidman’s Julia, in the detective series Top of the Lake: China Girl. He’s also attracted attention on the big screen, with stunning lead performances as photographer Isaac Raftis in Tony Krawitz’s 2012 feature adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’s novel Dead Europe, then as mill worker Oliver Finch who tragically rejects his child in The Daughter, Simon Stone’s 2015 feature film based on The Wild Duck.
“That was the best male acting performance I saw that year,” says Minchin of The Daughter. “There was no gap between Ewen and the greatest actors on the planet. There just isn’t. Except in modesty.”
Sam Neill, Leslie’s co-star in The Daughter and in Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country, in which Leslie played stockman Harry March, a racist and rapist, is similarly effusive. “I hold Ewen in the highest regard, both as an actor and as a bloke. He is a very fine, understated leading man. I [also] very much appreciate his excoriating wit at his own expense.”
Yet not so long ago, Leslie had been a hard sell for lead television roles. When director Glendyn Ivin was keen to cast him as ship’s captain Ryan Gallagher, facing moral dilemmas over towing a refugee vessel on the Timor Sea for the four-part 2018 drama Safe Harbour, SBS “wasn’t over the moon”, recalls Ivin.
“It’s not because they didn’t see him as a great actor, but he was not a network name and hadn’t played many leads on television. So he was a bit of a risk, but as soon as they saw the [raw footage] coming in, they were over the moon, they could see why we wanted him there.”
Leslie imbued Ryan with a moral ambiguity that was crucial to the unfolding, drip-feed narrative; a likeable everyman in a no-win situation. The performance paved the way for an international gamble in Leslie’s career. Ivin was subsequently in discussions with the BBC to direct The Cry starring Jenna Coleman, a four-part series about a missing baby, adapted from Helen FitzGerald’s novel. The British broadcaster had seen Safe Harbour and requested Ivin’s lead actor. Leslie wouldn’t even have to audition for the role of political spin doctor Alastair, the manipulating, sociopathic and narcissistic husband to Coleman’s character, Joanna, in the series, to be filmed in Glasgow and Melbourne.
Ivin, who had been working in Melbourne, flew to Sydney to talk to Leslie about the role. He and Leslie had dinner, then walked along the Bondi headland. Ivin says Leslie accepted that night at the beach that everyone would hate his character, and possibly hate him as well. “When it was on air here, Ewen would be out walking Elliot in a stroller, and women would be looking at him and pointing,” says Ivin. The series launched in Britain in 2018 and on the ABC in February last year.
Leslie’s partner confirms the actor’s anxiety. “As it was about to come out in the UK, he really panicked,” O’Donohue says. “It took me a while to understand that fear. It wasn’t just, ‘Oh, someone hates me on Twitter.’ It’s like, ‘Are they going to see the depth in the character?’ ”
Friend Toby Schmitz has always called Leslie “the worrier” and recalls that when they shared a home in Sydney in the early 2000s, the actor was an insomniac, who would pace the room and rub his hands when worked up. O’Donohue says Leslie hasn’t changed. “Oh, he’s still a terrible insomniac. He’s absolutely an overthinker. I’m like, ‘No, you’ve just got to relax and enjoy and be in this moment.’ ”
There has rarely been a misfire in Leslie’s career, although theatre blogger Kevin Jackson wrote that Leslie and Jacqueline McKenzie were either miscast or misdirected as Brick and Margaret respectively in Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, again directed by Stone, at Belvoir in 2013: “Both the actors appeared bewildered,” he noted, despite the pair being two of his favourite actors. A reviewer at website Crikey chimed that Leslie seemed “antithetical to the role”, and that his pairing with McKenzie “beggars believability”. Leslie and McKenzie would, however, be part of a more successful ensemble a few years later in Safe Harbour.
From the age of one week, Ewen Leslie’s parents began taking him with them to the local cinema in their hometown of Fremantle, south of the Perth CBD. His father, Norm Leslie, is a photographer and a former head of photomedia at Edith Cowan University, while his mother, Susan, was a social worker in women’s refuges. Ewen is the eldest of three children, older brother to Jamie and Annie.
“Ewen as a baby was blessed with an ability to spatially remember things,” says Norm. “He’d hear a song and then he’d be singing it in the pram. His recall really comes through when you see him do Shakespeare, which he’s bloody good at.”
Given his father’s university role, Leslie had access to camera equipment and would make his own home movies: “Action films, where I was the lead guy living out his dreams that were never going to come to reality,” Leslie recalls. “At school I’d put together plays that we’d perform at lunchtime.”
His professional acting career began when he was 12, after Susan saw a newspaper ad for auditions for the children’s television series Ship to Shore, filmed south of Perth. Instead of attending school in years 8 and 9, he was tutored on set.
While Leslie was bored with the long days and learnt early that acting could be repetitious, he was excited by movies and trailers. With his acting earnings he bought two video players, teaching himself to edit, cutting trailers for films. But returning in year 10 to formal classes on a theatre scholarship at what was then known as John Curtin Senior High School, he lost his way. He wasn’t among the popular kids at school – all the peer groups had been formed in his absence, and he was behind in maths. He began wagging school. “I’d leave my house in the morning, tell my mum I was going, then just go hang out in Fremantle. I’d sit in the local cinema and watch all the trailers that were on TV screens in the foyer. Eventually my parents figured out I was doing this. I was kicked out of my theatre scholarship.”
Norm and Susan were worried, but had some sympathy. “He’d worked two years as an adult, then goes back to school at 15, where you’ve got to put your hand up to go to the toilet,” says Norm. “So he found all that pretty strange. But he begged his way back in again.”
At the age of 17, Leslie was accepted into the acting course at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) – one of the youngest students ever to enrol – and by third year, still 19, he was cast as Hamlet. Eamon Flack, the current artistic director of Belvoir St Theatre, where Leslie would take over playing Hamlet from Toby Schmitz 13 years later, trained at WAAPA a few years after Leslie. “Ewey was quite legendary because he’d played Hamlet,” recalls Flack. “He was much talked about by the teachers.”
Chris Edmund, who headed WAAPA’s acting department for 26 years, remembers the time. “It was easy for him to access the whole range of emotions. Hamlet is a student going through the loss of his father, and aspects of him are quite adolescent: his hotheadedness, his inability to have mature relationships. Ewen’s youth really worked for that intensity and volatility.”
Leslie graduated at 20, then moved to Sydney. Acting gigs were not readily forthcoming, but in the harbour city he quickly bonded with a gang of theatre pals when fellow WAAPA alumnus Travis Cotton introduced him to Schmitz, another actor from Perth. The trio shared the top floor of a two-storey terrace in inner city Surry Hills, above a leathergoods retailer, and would, according to both Schmitz and Leslie, put their audition appointments on the coffee table in case another of the three was interested in the gig.
“They were always clear the scarcity of roles sucked, but rather than squirrel away scripts and smile through gritted teeth and pretend, like so many people in our industry do, they went to each other with wrists bare, you know?” says Minchin. For his part, Leslie says he “was never really competitive with those guys”.
The house-sharing trio were “farcically bad” at paying their weekly rent of about $50 to the shop’s manager downstairs, who would let the arrears slide, says Schmitz, satisfied if one of his tenants had an audition in the offing: “It was nearly a squat and probably illegal, but they were very fun years. There were two rooms, with an almost crawl space above, and Ewey probably did the longest stint [sleeping] up there, with no door. If someone wanted to smoke bongs and watch TV downstairs, you just had to cop it. If you could convince a girl to come back there, you’d have to scoot them past the dead mouse in the toaster.”
Leslie laughs at the memory. “That ‘crawl space’ was my bedroom! There was a ladder up there and it was an open attic. You’d be asleep and wake up at 2am to Toby and Travis coming back and just go, ‘Oh god.’ ” Leslie worked behind the bar at the Old Fitzroy Hotel in Woolloomooloo, while performing in plays in the co-op theatre located in the cellar of the building.
In 2002, Leslie met Nicole O’Donohue – Nic – at the Old Fitz. At the time, she was running errands for a nearby film post-production house, aiming to become a producer. Within a month they were an item. Leslie acted in two short films O’Donohue produced, The Mechanicals and Katoomba. “I’m going to spend a lifetime getting to know and understand Ewen,” she says on the phone. “He’s mysterious. But he’s so generous and a lover of people, and he’s always surprised me. We’ve found a great balance of friendship and love.”
In 2003, Schmitz wrote a comic play, Chicks Will Dig You, casting Leslie against type as Sebastian, a cad and a rake advising his friend on seamy ways to pick up women, which was performed at Belvoir’s downstairs theatre. In 2004, Schmitz and Travis Cotton’s play This Blasted Earth: A Christmas Miracle, a satirical musical scored by Minchin, was performed free at the Old Fitz. Leslie played urchin Timmy – wearing callipers – and a bushranger, Scarlet Fergus.
“One of the funniest things I’ve ever seen was at the Old Fitz,” says Simon Stone, who would become a regular theatre collaborator with Leslie at Belvoir. “Josh Lawson wrote a play about Shakespeare called Shakespearealism. Mark Priestley and Ewen played the two characters. I had never seen an actor [Leslie] quite as effortless in his comedy.” In 2006, Leslie was sharing a house with Priestley, known for his role as Dan Goldman in the TV series All Saints. In 2008, Priestley, who had suffered anxiety and depression, took his own life.
Leslie’s eyes moisten now. He recalls Priestley’s partner, the actor and playwright Kate Mulvany, asking him to edit a video for the wake. Leslie went to where Priestley had been staying and found 50 tapes of footage Priestley had filmed. Leslie rang the Sydney Theatre Company, where he was only a short way into rehearsals for The War of the Roses opposite Cate Blanchett, and asked for a week off to edit highlights of footage of Priestley, and footage by Priestley of his friends.
Leslie was also in the midst of a one-year separation from O’Donohue. “I’m not sure if it was a sobering moment, but when Mark died, I was at a crossroads in my life,” he says. “Nic and I had broken up, I was living alone, but I was week one into what I knew was a huge opportunity for me professionally in The War of the Roses. I took Mark into that experience with me, and although he was gone, I felt his presence during that show. He’s never far from my thoughts onstage.”
A shirtless Ewen Leslie is running through the desert, playing fictional character Major Leo Carmichael in the upcoming Operation Buffalo, a man writer/director Peter Duncan wanted to portray as “running out his demons”, amid a real historical moment when prime minister Robert Menzies allowed the British to detonate bombs in the Australian desert, denying the existence of the Indigenous people – terra nullius – who were living there. “The start of this whole journey for me was madness,” says Duncan. “This is Dr Strangelove territory. ‘We’re going to drop a bunch of atom bombs in your country and claim it to be victorious.’ ”
Leslie has also portrayed real people such as lawyer Bryan Keon-Cohen in Rachel Perkins’s 2012 telemovie Mabo, about the Indigenous rights campaigner Eddie Mabo, the same year the drama Devil’s Dust aired, about the late asbestos campaigner Bernie Banton, in which Leslie played ABC journalist Matt Peacock. “Ewen’s got a social conscience,” observes Norm Leslie. “I suppose that comes from us a bit.”
Growing up, Leslie spent time in women’s refuges with his mother when she was engaged as a social worker, while his father wrote critical pieces for the academic journal Continuum on the strident expression of national pride when naval forces sailed to fight in the 1991 Gulf War, on images of the 2001 Tampa crisis and asylum seeker children allegedly being thrown overboard. “My dad is very left-leaning, and I suppose growing up that did have a big influence on me,” says Leslie.
Norm responds, saying, “If Ewen wants to do roles that make us proud, we certainly are,” before going on to pitch his son as a potential James Bond.
“People would just assume Ewen’s feeling good about himself, but he’s quite a neurotic person.”
Writer and director Simon Stone.
Vicki Madden, who wrote The Gloaming, calls Leslie “Australia’s answer to Cary Grant”. She would like to see him in a lead comedy role: “The minute the camera stops rolling, he’s actually really funny. He takes the piss out of himself.”
Minchin witnessed Leslie’s comic timing when they both starred with Schmitz in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead for Sydney Theatre Company in 2013. “He can be absolutely hilarious and yet because of his incredible hooded brow and his massive voice and his lustrous beard, he’s tended to get these roles of very serious guys.”
Simon Stone, who has directed Leslie the most, says the actor feels pressure and nerves but is then light and relaxed during performances. “There’s this wonderful quality where he’ll try and trip himself up so he can find something new,” says Stone.
“He is prone to great bouts of self-doubt, which most people find astonishing, looking at his career. People would just assume that guy’s feeling good about himself, but he’s quite a neurotic person.”
Leslie concedes that he tends to talk himself down.
“I feel that that’s healthier than talking yourself up. I like the fact there’s a part of me that really wants to get a role right and is constantly trying to nut it out, but I can tie myself up in knots.”
Meanwhile, Leslie’s Operation Buffalo co-star, Perth-born Jessica De Gouw, who has been based in London for seven years, has been lobbying Leslie and O’Donohue to relocate. “I’m trying to convince them to be my neighbours. I think he absolutely has a career here waiting for him if he wanted to make that move, especially on the back of The Cry, which was a massive hit here, and next The Luminaries.”
Jan Chapman, who co-produced The Daughter with O’Donohue, concurs there would be opportunities for Leslie in Britain and the US: “I’d be surprised if he didn’t move into an international arena.”
Before COVID-19, the family had been considering a move to Britain next year. Will Australia lose him to London? “It’s hard to say in this age when we’re going to be able to work overseas,” Leslie says. “It’s such a bizarre time.”
Playing his prospects down, however, is straight from the Leslie playbook, as Schmitz attests: “I say this with complete love, but Ewen is one of the most charmingly ambitious cats I’ve met.”
Behind the urbane, modest exterior, an international star awaits.
Steve Dow is an arts writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.