Blackjack: articles

The rebel in Friels

HOW deeply Colin Friels must loathe life in the public eye. Cast an eye over news clippings about the actor and you’re left with the impression he’d rather endure anaesthetic-free root canal surgery than subject himself to prying questions.

The interviews he gives are often portrayed as monosyllabic, angst-ridden affairs. And watching him in action on the set of the Ten telemovie BlackJack leaves you thinking this encounter will be no different.

Deep in the bowels of a derelict, pigeon dropping-splattered warehouse that serves as BlackJack’s police headquarters, Friels goes through his paces as rebel cop Jack Kempson.

The ostracised Kempson will learn from his boss (David Field) he’s being demoted for doing the unforgivable – blowing the whistle on a corrupt colleague.

As Kempson, Friels responds to the call of “action” by storming across the set, eyes burning with feral intensity. Slamming the boss’s door behind him, he lets loose with rage.

When Friels breaks for lunch, an hour and countless takes of the scene later, he’s contemplative and insular. You wonder if he’ll back out of the interview.

But not only does Friels finish his meal quickly to meet the interview time, he insists on chatting in his private domain – a trailer parked outside the warehouse.

Far from prickly or resistant to questions about his life on and off screen, he’s disarmingly honest about the triumphs and traumas he’s experienced over the past five years.

He speaks openly about his struggles as an actor, the awesome trial of mind and spirit that came with pancreatic cancer, and the intimacy of his relationship with wife of 19 years, actor Judy Davis , and his family.

“I think the only satisfaction about being an actor is that you can hold the mirror up to nature and I really see that opportunity with BlackJack,” Friels says. “I’m not in demand by any means, but that doesn’t particularly bother me. I’m excited by a terrific cast and crew around me. David [Field] is one of the best and I’m enjoying working with Kate Beahan [whose character, cop Julie Egan, helps unravel a kidnapping case].”

Perhaps Friels’ staunch modesty can be attributed to a hard, economically challenged upbringing. He recalls his birthplace (Glasgow) as a dark, dour neighbourhood that was populated by people coughing and spitting and living in homes with steam running down the windows.

Friels was nine, wearing a three-piece tweed suit, when he arrived with his family in Darwin. The clan had a spell in a migrant camp in Broadmeadows, in Melbourne’s north, before setting up permanent residency.

A truant who struggled to find comfort in the structure of the education system, Friels fell in love with the idea of performing.

Over 25 years, Friels, 50, has been wielding his talents to extraordinary effect in an array of stage and screen shows. But while others see him as breathtakingly instinctive, prepared to lay himself bare for the sake of performance, Friels has suffered excruciating internal battles over his perceived inadequacies.

Such traumas, particularly relating to his work on stage, have been known to leave him in tears. “I used to cry about it, but you’ve got to get over it. I’m just a local actor. It’s not sheep stations for me now,” he says.

The truth about Friels is that he could be a bigger star if he possessed the self-promotional drive and ambition needed to make it on the international stage.

“People used to say to me, ‘What are you doing crap [Water Rats] for’ and I’d say, ‘It might be crap to you but I’m just out there trying to do something good with it’,” he says.

“So much happened while doing that job. I was supposed to die [from pancreatic cancer], for a start. But the illness really straightened me out. I realised I wanted to be near my children [Jack and Charlotte] and missus.

“I hate to sound like a wanker, I really do, but having been ill made me really enjoy life, appreciate getting out of the house and feeling the wind blowing in my face.

“To get up and just see my son and daughter in the morning, stuff like that became so special. I became so much more connected to nature and have no doubt all that has given me a greater love of acting.

“The treatment [chemotherapy] is s—— house, seven months of making you feel so sick.

“And my wife was so bloody amazing, there for me every step of the way, by my side.”

There’s no doubting the relationship is passionate. Take last year’s AVO that Davis took out on Friels after an argument at home, for instance. The couple still lived together and are now happily protesting together against the impending war against Iraq.

A mischievous smile appears and Friels lowers his voice to a barely audible whisper. “Her strength, her support, and her will for me to survive was something I’ll never forget… I didn’t even think she liked me!” Friels slaps his knee, bursting into laughter.

Suddenly, there’s a knock and Friels is told he’s late for the resumption of filming. Moments later, like jelly crystals in water, Friels has dissolved into the role of Kempson.

By Darren Devlyn
March 13, 2003
The Daily Telegraph