In the perennial TV battle between good and evil, one of Australia’s hottest new actors Rob Collins admits he’s sometimes found barracking for the bad guy.
Which is just as well since Logie-winner Collins plays bad brother Waruu West in the ABC’s hit sci-fi series Cleverman, which returns to TV screens for a second season on June 29.
It’s a role that won Collins — along with his gig opposite Jessica Marais in Ten’s The Wrong Girl — Best New Talent at this year’s Logie Awards.
Although Collins, who is of Tiwi Islands descent, now spends much of his time filming in Melbourne, he maintains a home in Darwin with partner Laetitia Lemke and children Rachel, 4, Blake, 17, and Jordan, 20.
He talks to NIT about taking up an acting career late in life — he was 31 — and the whirlwind six years that has seen him star in Disney’s The Lion King as King Mufasa and now some of the biggest shows on TV.
Cleverman has been called groundbreaking. How do you think it is changing the face of Australian TV?
Without question it is. It’s this unique blend of Aboriginal storytelling, wonderful cast, wonderful writers, wonderful production and it’s just one of those perfect blends of different elements that have come together to create this wonderful thing. But I think at the core of it (is) it’s an important Aboriginal story driven by an Indigenous creator and with a majority Indigenous cast so I think that’s what has made it universally successful.
Filming the second season, did you feel you knew your character better than in the first?
Yes and no. All the groundwork has been laid so you know who your character is but the circumstances are completely different now and he faces a new set of challenges. So you are always kind of open to change as the character. I know what he is and I know what he wants, but how he goes about getting it is different day to day.
What sort of relationship do you have with your character Waruu West? Do you love him? Do you hate him?
I love him. It’s weird to talk about a character that way because he’s me, but I really feel for Waruu. It can be easy to broad-brush paint him as a bad guy, but the best bad guys are the ones that have heart. They genuinely believe in things and want things. They just get a little lost along the way and I think we can all identify with that and I really identify with Waruu’s journey. He’s severed all his ties to his community, to his family; he’s a self-made man really. He’s had to build himself from the ground up and you have to respect that in a person. He rightly believes he’d be the Cleverman. He was passed over and like most characters he has flaws and he has failings and unfortunately they lead him down this dark path. I feel close to this character.
Are you the guy, when you are watching a movie, say Batman versus the Joker, who is barracking for the Joker?
Of course I am. Especially watching the fight scene from season one (of Cleverman). It was like I was watching the State of Origin. Even though I knew how it ended, I was like “Beat that boy, beat him!” Yeah, it’s like watching a footy match for me — and I’m on team Waruu of course.
You picked up Best New Talent at the Logies – has that changed your life?
It has and it hasn’t. Maybe there will be more noticeable change in the coming months. It’s certainly nice to be recognised in such a public fashion, but I have to say by and large it feels like life as normal. We’re only a few weeks since the Logies, but who knows maybe towards the end of the year and into next year there will be more of a change. But as far as I’m going now, there’s been no demarcation point — no “I have a Logie now, there’s paparazzi, there’s all these offers”. That hasn’t happened. I’ve continued a steady stream of work that I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in and I’m just plugging away.
No paparazzi pack?
No. I don’t know whether to be grateful or offended by it, but I think mostly I’m grateful.
Where are you based now? Do you still live in the Northern Territory?
Yes. I fly in and fly out at the moment. Most of my work has been in Victoria but we are still based in Darwin, which I love. I love going back home. If I had my cake and I was to eat it too, I would be based there forever. I love Darwin. I love my home and always miss it when I fly away. But I’ve had a nice run, a nice year and the family has been able to be settled at home and I’ve been able to fly in and fly out and do this stuff.
How much time would you spend in the NT?
This year I reckon I’ve spent most months of the year out of town. If I had to add it all up I reckon I would have spent two and a half, maybe three months, if that, at home. There’s a lot of time away.
I was reading somewhere your family thought you were always destined for stardom as a kid.
That was my cousin Grace who lives in the Tiwi Islands. It was nice to hear her say that. I got into acting late. I was always creative. I always did something creative, whether it was sketching — that was my first love — I used to draw everything. Then it was music. So I was always destined, I reckon, in hindsight, to do something creative. But as a kid there was no sort of inkling to suggest I would follow this path. I was 31 when I decided to do acting full time. Before that I was just a typical kid in Darwin who was interested in footy, fishing and girlfriends. All the stuff kids are interested in in small towns, probably big towns too. It was a decision I made later in life to commit to acting.
What made you make that final commitment?
I don’t know. My brother and I did an acting for camera workshop just for something to do. We were both at that point where we wanted to do something new and have fun at the same time. So we did this workshop. We had a blast. I kind of kept pursuing bits and pieces around town. It kind of just grew. And I did a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream…and I spoke to a wonderful director, Marcelle Schmidt, who had spent a lot of time at WAAPA (the WA Academy of Performing Arts) and then we started talking about NIDA and doing theatre school proper. From that conversation I started to think maybe it was something I could have a go at. From that point I actively got ready for NIDA auditions and was lucky enough to get accepted and I haven’t looked back.
Has it been a hard slog six years or a fairly comfortable journey?
There have been some really genuinely tough times. That time at NIDA. But I’m earning a decent wage now so it makes a huge difference especially when you’ve got three kids. At NIDA you don’t have the opportunity to work so we were a single-income family. My wife was working at the ABC and Ultimo and she was supporting us. NIDA was a tough time. Long hours. It’s a drama institution, it’s not set up for families. It sounds like a really obvious thing to say, but it became really obvious when I started there. So the fact our daughter came along in the second year of NIDA was kind of crazy. But it’s been wonderful as well. There were genuinely tough bits, but there were genuinely wonderful bits as well. The last six years has been a wonderful mix of both of those things.
Was some of your earliest work Centrelink ads and things like that? Was that fun or not?
Doing arts in a small community is super fun because as a small community of people you end up doing really interesting projects and you get roped into doing really interesting things. The Centrelink roleplay was fun. I had this sort of sadistic pleasure out of being the cranky customer to teach the Centrelink workers how to defuse potentially risky situations. It was important work, but I used to set myself a little task of trying to make people cry. If I had done that then that was a tick for me and I had done my job. Not many people did cry I have to say, but I did strike some genuine fear into people. The Centrelink stuff, I was lucky enough to get work there, but I did everything. I did a radio play once, I did a small one man show, so even though there’s not a lot of work on, you do have a lot of creative people making their own stuff and I think that’s what makes it more interesting.
Do you prefer stage acting or screen?
I had always thought that I preferred film acting, but there are things about both mediums that I really love. In the theatre I love investigating character and text and having the time to rehearse. You don’t really have the time in TV. But in TV they are really quick days, you become really adept at absorbing scripts from day to day because everything changes so fast on a film set. It’s a good skill for an actor to have to be able to adapt to those things really quickly. There are pluses and minuses with both. I wouldn’t say I prefer one over the other, but I have to say I’m really invested in the film and TV aspect of my career at the moment because I’ve been lucky enough to be part of some really great shows. Film acting takes a lot of skill that I don’t fully have yet so I am really enjoying the chance to spread my wings, make mistakes and keep developing and getting better.
What do your children think of the show?
They love it. The four-and-a-half-year-old doesn’t watch it because it is a bit too scary and she doesn’t like seeing Daddy as an angry man onscreen because he’s not, generally. But the other two – they are really into it. They love the sci-fi. Just like everyone else who seems to plug into the show, they are really enjoying it and they can’t wait for season 2.
* Cleverman season 2 premieres on the ABC on June 29.