Fireflies: articles

Jeremy Sims

In like Sims

Busy? This wild man of Australian acting never stops, but he will slow down for a yarn and a sherbet (or two).

Jeremy Sims, lightly bearded, wearing a brown jacket and beige cords, bustles out of the Sydney Theatre Company’s rehearsal studio and dashes off to get himself a Coke. A Coke? This was definitely not in the brochure.

Sims is supposed to be one of Australia’s wild men of acting. A polymath actor, director and producer who works hard, plays hard and romances hard. He has a reputation (“mostly deserved” he admits) to uphold.

This is a bloke who, earlier this year, drank 10 schooners of beer, drove his 4WD through a stop sign and almost hit a police car. (Sims was fined $800 and lost his licence for six months.) And here we are, sitting in the bar at The Wharf, where he is working on a revival of David Williamson’s The Club; it’s 6pm and he’s nursing a soft drink.

David James, a former Play School presenter who was at NIDA with Sims and remains one of his closest friends, had good-naturedly warned: “You’re interviewing him in a bar? Oh my God! You’ll have a good time—there aren’t many subjects he doesn’t have an opinion on—but tell the wife not to wait up.”

Another close friend and colleague, playwright Reg Cribb, had only that afternoon joked: “You’re going for a beer with him? Oh, that’s trouble. But it’ll be a good starting point.”

“You’ve been talking to David James?” says 37-year-old Sims incredulously. “F——ing hell. Well, you’ve got a fairly slanted picture of me already.”

So perhaps he can tell me what happened after the 1990 AFL grand final, a story to which James alluded? Sims laughs: “That’s when Collingwood won, wasn’t it? Mate, if David thinks I have any recollection of that day whatsoever he’s kidding himself… “

James describes Sims as a “traditional Aussie boy who loves his Aussie rules in winter and cricket in the summer”. (Sims disagrees: “Obsessed is a better term.”)

Both James and Cribb describe him variously as headstrong, competitive, stubborn, generous, blokey, loud, boisterous, irreverent, silly, self-confident and “very, very, very single-minded”.

James also reckons he’s one of the best self-taught chefs he’s ever encountered: “Anyone who has even half a working relationship with Jeremy would be able to tell you a story of a great meal that he’s cooked.

“His cooking mirrors his personality and his stage work; there’s a sort of adventurous, almost experimental streak to it. He’s not afraid to try anything.”

Angie Milliken, with whom Sims has appeared on stage in The White Devil and The Herbal Bed, says he’s a man of extremes, the sort of bloke who, if he’s on a health kick, will jog and run and exercise 50 hours a day. If not, she says, he’ll be trying to destroy himself 50 hours a day.

“He is a force to contend with; smart, surprising, always a challenge, full of wonderful contradictions… and a real theatrical animal,” she says.

Nevertheless, when a young couple sits down not far from us, Sims looks a little pained: “I hate talking about myself in people’s earshot. Hey, how did you get here? Did you drive? I was thinking we might go to a pub or something.”

Things are looking up.

Jeremy Sims was born in Perth on January 10, 1966. He had his first taste of “stardom” in primary school when he was picked to read the weekly Storytime segment on ABC Radio—a job he did once a fortnight until his voice broke at 15.

It didn’t, however, fan any latent acting flames: “My parents were both doctors and acting was the last thing they wanted me to do. It was the last thing I wanted to do; I wanted to be a cricketer.

“I spent my whole life playing cricket—I was in the state squad when I was 15—and that’s all I ever wanted to do. It was only when I started getting hit in the head regularly that I realised my reflexes weren’t quick enough.”

In the meantime, the ABC job had introduced him to many theatre actors. This, in turn, saw him appearing in a couple of plays for the now defunct Western Australian Theatre Company before his teens.

“It introduced me to coffee and naked women,” Sims recalls with glee. “I did a play with Honor Blackman [who played Goldfinger’s Pussy Galore] in which she had a nude scene. But because it was Honor Blackman they had a body double for her arse who used to spend most of her time backstage.

“I used to sit in the body double’s dressing room and her top would fall off one shoulder. She was totally unselfconscious about it so I’d sit there drinking coffee with this nude model. Of course, I was too young to appreciate it. It was only when I got to 14 or 15 I thought, ‘I’ve seen all that stuff already.’ “

Between completing high school and enrolling in law at university, Sims worked on an oil rig. “I’d recommend my first two years out of school to anyone,” he says.

“After high school I was smoking a lot of dope and surfing and didn’t want to go to uni. I got good results and all that but I think my father thought the class of people I was hanging with wasn’t very good.

“He happened to do the medicals for a place called Barrow Island off the north-west coast of WA. He said, ‘What if I got you a job on an oil rig?’ I said yes but I didn’t think he would. A week later I had an interview and the day after my 18th birthday I flew up there.

“I learned everything about male Australian culture that I ever needed to know in that year,” he says, laughing. “There was a whole bunch of people up there that I had never met before, being a private schoolboy and all that stuff.

“It was great—I saved $11,000 in a year and that was ‘84. So I went to Europe for a year and spent it backpacking.”

It was not until he returned to Perth and started studying law that the acting bug finally bit. His degree went by the wayside: “I was a couple of years older than the people around me… you know when you go to uni and join one of those groups and it’s all about drinking wine and cheese and having parties and shagging girls and politics and philosophy and theatre and poetry and all that crack? I F——ing loved it.

“I played John Proctor in The Crucible and played Guildenstern in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and I realised that it was much more fun than law and, if you’ve got half a brain, which I knew I had, you could get away with it forever.”

He attended NIDA and, immediately after graduating in 1990, got a job on Chances, a racy Nine Network soap that put his face (and more) into the public arena. Since then, he has worked regularly on stage and screen. In 1995, he formed a theatre production company, Pork Chop Productions, with his then girlfriend, actress Kym Wilson. In 1996 he starred, with Ben Mendelsohn, in David Caesar’s grim tale of suburbia, Idiot Box. This year, he appeared in the comedy Ned, completed a yet-to-be screened ABC telemovie, Fireflies, and directed and produced Reg Cribb’s play Last Cab to Darwin at the Opera House.

The Hero of Waterloo hotel in The Rocks is a quick walk from the STC. It is even quicker when Sims—a hustling, bustling, nervous ball of energy—is leading.

A Coke? Nah. Sod that. He orders a James Squire and immediately barrels off to find a suitable spot to continue the interview. The far corner of the pub’s small restaurant is chosen and we settle in with a schooner apiece.

Is the not-drinking thing anything to do with his altercation with the police earlier in the year?

“No, no,” he says, “although that’s probably part of it. The bottom line is that it takes an awful lot of creative and emotional energy to do something like Last Cab to Darwin to get a show up from scratch… and then to direct that thing and to know that you’re going to the Opera House with a brand new Australian play that could well be complete crap. It just drains me.

“The other side of that is that I play too hard… my creative and destructive extremes. But there was a certain point where I realised I wasn’t enjoying it. I was actually just getting hammered and being useless the next day. It also becomes harder to get the amount of joy you used to from a few beers. You’ve actually got to do it till five in the morning to think you’ve pushed any buttons.

“I’m just discovering that that’s one of my patterns and it has been for a long time. I, um, think I was pretty tired and emotional by the end of that whole period… so I’ve just been on the wagon for a while and running every morning and going to the gym and just trying to be healthy.

“I’m trying to get to the point where I can look at all this adventure and find it fun again as opposed to a kind of pitched battle, which I tend to do… and that’s not healthy because I find that I start to really see, in many ways, how pointless life is as well.”

Coming from someone who, since graduating from NIDA, has never been unemployed—practically unheard of in the local industry—the word “pointless” sticks out like a Coke on a journalist’s bar bill.

“Shoot me if I start comparing myself to Orson Welles, [but] I understand really well… that pointlessness that washed over him once he’d done two or three projects that people loved and he reached a certain age? I’m sort of struggling with that… why do I want to go through all the troubles for another two years to get a new project up again? Is it because I want to make the world a better place? Is it because I want to make a lot of money? Is it because I want to continue this hedonistic lifestyle I’m leading?

“Or is it because I want to keep working with my close group of friends, my tribe, because that’s what I get satisfaction from? And the more I work the more I find it’s the last one that actually has any significance.

“In fact, Welles found that it was when he separated himself from his collaborators and started to work on his own, once he’d cut off all of those ties because his ego was so big, um, that was when he found himself miserable and unable to create any more because he didn’t have people around who understood him.”

And is that where Pork Chop Productions, came from? “Yeah, yeah, definitely. It was always a way for me to be able to assemble a family around me. I come from a background where our family is not particularly close, you know. There’s me and my sister and my mum and dad, and they’re from England.

“We all love each other, but we’re just not your European arguing, kissing, holding, hugging, making-up sort of family. It’s much more upper-middle-class English doilies and ‘stiff upper lip, my good man’.

“The great thing about the people that I met at NIDA was that here were all these people who do hug you and kiss you and tell you they love you or protect you or stand up for you and love you even when you’re an idiot… I’d never really come across that before and so, to some degree I wanted to keep that community together.

“But, of course, being a control freak and hating to be told what to do, I also wanted to be in charge of it.”

Sims describes his life—his diary is full for the next 2 1/2 years—as a “mad existence” and he gets through it, he says, by being like a shark—”you’ve just got to keep moving”.

It works, just, but many things have fallen by the wayside. Not least of which his personal life. “What misses out is my commitment to relationships. That’s probably what suffers most. I haven’t been able to keep a relationship going for more than a couple of years at a time. I’m very selfish, that’s the bottom line.

“For instance, I just went down to Melbourne and spent the weekend with my daughter and I watch the amount of commitment it takes… everything takes a back seat to it.

“There is no doubt that, in a stupid way, me having a daughter I get to see once a month for a weekend while I pursue all of these things is incredibly selfish and also incredibly perfect.”

The casual revelation that Sims has a child, China, aged three, is in keeping with his somewhat disarming honesty, but is also tempered by a reticence to be drawn any further on the subject.

“The thing is,” he continues, “my work comes first… if you really want to make beautiful things, then you have to live it and breathe it and do it all day every day. It’s not a part-time job.

“So many people in the theatre actually do work nine to five. That’s bullshit. Let them F—— off and work in a bank… If you’re going to put on a show, then you really should be sleep-deprived at the end of it and going mad. Otherwise you haven’t made a F——ing effort.”

It’s quite a tirade for someone who ranted earlier about acting not being rocket science. “Pretending you’re somehow superior to other artists because you can cry on cue is bullshit… if you don’t have aspirations to get more involved in the artistic process then chances are you’re a wanker.”

It seems a good enough time to turn the tape off and adjourn to the bar proper where we listen to Michael, the pub’s resident pianist with the Tom Waits voice. “Same again?” asks Sims.

It seems churlish not to, really. We can always go back to the Coke, er, tomorrow.

The Club previews at the Drama Theatre, Opera House from August 23; the season begins on August 28.

By Keith Austin
Photo: Quentin Jones
August 23, 2003
The Sydney Morning Herald