February 13, 2013

'We wanted blokes who looked like they'd stood in slips for a long time'

Australian actor and writer Brendan Cowell talks about making films on WSC and club cricket

In the space of a single year, Brendan Cowell has played Rod Marsh in the telemovie Howzat!'s depiction of the World Series Cricket revolution, and also written and starred in Save Your Legs!, a light-hearted tale about a Melbourne club team on tour in India. He spoke to ESPNcricinfo about his year in cricket, and linking the game to his pet theme of the young man's struggle to find himself.

I heard when you were 12 your ambition was to play cricket for Australia. So this year in doing Howzat! and Save Your Legs!, you've done the dream and the reality at the same time.
That's what I tried to tell my dad, and he said, "No, you still didn't play for Australia." But I kind of did. Made an Australian film and then played Rod Marsh. I actually met Rod at the West Indies v Australia one-dayer at the SCG.

I was sitting in the stand and I looked up and he was there, I waved at him and it was like a first date. Then I went up, he said he really enjoyed Howzat!, said it was pretty accurate. So that was good. It's been a very strange and blokey cricket-based year. I'm turning into a wicketkeeper-batsman-actor - that's my new role. I was honoured to be a part of telling the World Series Cricket story. I really wanted to play Rod, I didn't want to miss that opportunity. We've got the same mad head.

Had anyone mentioned your resemblance to Rod before the film?
Yeah a couple of times, and then as soon as the project came up, especially Damon Gameau [who played Greg Chappell] said, "You have to play him." We were actually at the Jane McGrath Foundation Day in early 2012, the day Michael Clarke scored 300, and they'd just announced Howzat! We saw a photo on the wall, Gameau and I, of Greg Chappell and Rod Marsh. So we went and got a photo with it and sent it to John Edwards, the producer, saying, "Casting's all done", as a joke, and then we got the calling asking if we were available. We actually did look a lot like them, so it worked out very nicely.

Trying to capture what it is like to be a club cricket team wouldn't have been too much of a leap, since you've played the game in the past?
When we auditioned blokes it was less about whether they were good players… we just asked them to hold a bat and a ball and tell us about one of their great innings. If a guy was like, "Oh, I made a beautiful 17 runs when I was in the Under-20s..." and take you through it, we'd think, "That's the bloke we want." Then you'd have others who'd shout, "Howzat! Cricket's great", and have no idea what they were doing.

We just wanted blokes who looked like they'd stood in the slips for a long period of time - they've got the banter, they know how to appreciate a great luncheon spread, and they know what cricket's really about, which is standing there with mates and not doing a whole lot. We found a really great bunch of guys who had enough flying miles in the field.

That early scene at the ground in Melbourne felt very true to the club experiences of a lot of guys. Half the team's got there after a big night, the other half is a little bit too keen to play...
Exactly. It's always a mismatch, and you're always meeting new blokes. There's always a couple you've never met before, a brother-in-law of someone and some other dude, and maybe one guy's son, and you just somehow form a team of eight or nine cricketers, and there's a couple more blokes coming in the afternoon after they've taken their kids to soccer, and that's park cricket. The movie talks about what happens when blokes can't make it anymore, and that 20-year dream of the blokes being together starts to fade.

It's fine for some guys whose lives are together, but what about the guys [for whom] that is their life, and they're hanging on, saying, "No you can't move on, grow up, renovate, move away, have kids, do that sort of stuff. What about the Abbotsford Anglers cricket side, with all its premierships and history?" And that's Stephen Curry's character, especially triggered by my character, Ricky Shaw. He's probably the guy you least expect to get his act together. He impregnates a backpacker and loves her and is going to move to the Caribbean [to live in] a fishing village. Curry's character thinks, "If [Shaw is] getting his act together, there's a real problem with this time in our lives", so the India tour is a way of him really saving time and proving that moving on is not a possibility. But of course he's forced to play a few shots of his own on the tour.

"Someone said, 'Are you Mitchell Johnson?' and I turned around and said, 'Yes, I am Mitchell Johnson. I'm a handsome man who drinks Gatorade!' I was pretty happy about that

In your career so far there is this running theme of the young man trying to get things together, in sport or in life.
Yeah, I wonder why that is! I'm not so much a young man anymore, but I do think men are more complex than possibly advertising and society give them credit for. I've explored it in my book, in TV and theatre work. A lot of the stuff that happens inside men, the angry feelings and the rage and also the desperation to make connections and to reach out, and the difficulty of communicating emotionally with each other, and what makes up a man. My friendships with my male friends have never been stronger, and I really value them, but I worry about young men a lot. I've seen a lot of them not make it out of their youth, and bad things happen when young men do bad things to themselves or to others, basically because they feel they can't express themselves properly or reach out, or they'd be embarrassed to admit they're not as powerful as they think they should be. It's something I want to give a voice to.

The game of cricket in the last couple of years has gone through a bit of self-analysis in terms of guys at the high end of the game battling depression and feelings of emptiness at various times.
Yes, the case of Peter Roebuck especially. But also, now you're looking at a new brand of cricketer who is possibly not the old fair-dinkum lad but someone who is more of a brand-conscious metrosexual male coming through in the Australian cricket side. I think it is important than men are allowed to be themselves. I think young boys are beautiful, gentle people, and life gets harder. Save Your Legs! is a lighter way to express those things. It was something I wanted to do to get away from the darker territories as well, that I'm usually involved in, to write this adventure.

How did you pivot from that darker territory into the lighter stuff, and into the game?
It was a case of really committing to a genre. We looked at things like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Bridesmaids and Knocked Up, and thought about those films and those protagonists who are losers who get their act together in the end. You still have the ability to make a comment and a bit of drama in there.

I think Australian men are the funniest men in the world, so it's surprising there aren't more comedies out there. Part of the reason I think blokes play park cricket is to be in the slips and hear their mates go on with a whole bunch of shit. That's why I'd do it. So it was liberating and really enjoyable to write a comedy.

The relationship between Australia and India is also there in the film. The IPL is in there, spicing things up too. A lot more Australians are seeing India and vice versa than they did, say, 20 years ago.
There's a huge Indian community and Bangladesh and Sri Lankan and Pakistani community in Australia, and we hope they really embrace it because it is a love letter to India in many ways. Cricket is just one of the many great ways of bridging the divide between cultures.

When you're in India and you think things are feeling a little strange, you bring out a cricket bat or you talk to a kid about the IPL and suddenly their eyes light up and you've got the whole community around you. You can sit there on the steps of the Ganges having a conversation with a woman in her mid-60s about Bruce Reid's bowling style and his average in the Sheffield Shield in 1986.

It's phenomenal how fascinated they are by the game - it's almost the one good thing that England did for India in their time there. Australians and Indians share a nicely irreverent wonder for life. That's something you can find when you're over there.

Some of the best conversations I've ever had were just crouching down in the street with a few dudes over there. They live very much in the moment, and there's something to be learned from that. You always come back from a trip to India with a sense of how beautiful the simple things are.

It seems in some ways the film is an attempt to make a film as readily digestible in India as in Australia, the cricket being a part of that.
I'm not so involved with the whole market reach side of the movie, and in terms of the script I call myself the writer in terms of facilitating a script for the director. In TV the writer is God, but in film the writer is a means to an end. You do what needs to be done for the film-maker to make his film. It's a director's medium, and this is [the director] Boyd Hicklin's heart, Boyd's vision and Boyd's movie. Whether it can become a Bollywood sensation - I doubt it. If it catches on, it's great, because there's a couple hundred million people there who watch movies. We think it represents India in all its glory, so who knows.

Finally, were there any Australian cricketers you were mistaken for in India, apart from Rod Marsh?
I was kind of offended by a couple of the "Are you David Boon?" questions I got, and then finally, when I was leaving there, and I think it was after I'd been ill and was looking at my best, someone said, "Are you Mitchell Johnson?" and I turned around and said, "Yes, I am Mitchell Johnson. I'm a handsome man who drinks Gatorade!" I was pretty happy about that.

The first reconnaissance I went on to India, I was harassed by people asking, "Are you Ricky Ponting?" and I kept saying, "No, I'm not", and then after I'd had enough of it I said to one, "Yes, I am Ricky Ponting." So then I went into the hotel and when I came back outside there were 85 people standing there wanting my autograph, then chasing me down the street. So that was the last time I lied about being Tasmanian.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here