Last Man Standing: articles

McMahon, Corser, Passmore

McMahon with Last Man Standing co-stars Rodger Corser and Matt Passmore.

Last but not least

It takes a lot more than a dry spell to get actor Travis McMahon down. Kylie Miller reports.

As with many in his profession, Travis McMahon knew early he was destined to be a performer. Such was his confidence in his direction that aged eight or nine he confronted a primary school music teacher who decided against casting him for a role in a play.

‘’The boy who got it wasn’t right,” he recalls, indignation still tight in his voice, although mingled with amusement.

“I think I didn’t get it because I just used to muck up in class. (I said), ‘You didn’t give me that because of other things.’ And she said, ‘Yeah, well that’s the way it’s going to be.’

“It was a tough lesson for a child who already knew his path in life would not be academic.”

Acting is just a chance for adventure. It’s a chance to look at the world through someone else’s eyes, to experience it all,” he says.

Adventure—grabbing life’s opportunities with both hands—is important to McMahon.

The firstborn of “protective” middle-class parents, he attended the private Scots School in Albury where his father, Peter, taught economics. Mother Driz longed to be an actor but worked as a nurse in between raising four sons. Now she reads audio descriptions of theatre for the vision impaired.

McMahon says he didn’t so much struggle at school as “bust out” rebelling against the discipline required for academic success.

After school he enrolled at Wollongong University and spent two years studying creative arts and acting, split by a year working as a bus boy in Sydney.

In 1993, on his second attempt, he was accepted into the prestigious National Institute of Dramatic Art acting course. He felt he was on his way.

Three years later, at the end of his final year, he was horrified to learn that the drama school had cancelled its traditional Melbourne “agents’ day”, showcasing its graduates’ talent.

So he marshalled his classmates, hired a minibus and organised a road trip. In the audience at the Malthouse were Robin Nevin and Tom Gutteridge.

‘’And that’s where it all started for me; they were casting Kid Stakes.”

Nevin cast McMahon as Barney in the Melbourne Theatre Company production. For the young actor it was an affirmation that he had chosen the right career, giving him “invaluable” confidence.

‘’Going to the bank teller in Acland Street, the first time I got paid, for me it was a pretty special moment.”

I’ve been warned he can be nervous in interviews, but McMahon, 33, seems relaxed as he swigs a beer in the bar of a city hotel.

Publicity is part of the job, he says, but talking about himself doesn’t come naturally.

“Some performers seek it out and I don’t. If I’m asked, I’ll do it to help the show.”

He chuckles as he tells stories of youthful misadventure; of hitching up the coast with a mate, sleeping rough beside the road and learning the next day that they failed to pick up a ride because the police had warned motorists not to stop for hitch-hikers after a jailbreak in the area.

Another hitching adventure wasn’t so lucky. Or perhaps it was.

He awoke as he was driven down a deserted bush track well off the promised route. He used his wits and took a chance, escaping a potentially dangerous situation unharmed. Fortunate, he concedes, but all part of life’s big adventure.

On this Friday afternoon he can barely contain his excitement about a forecast of weekend snow and the chance to test a pair of “virgin” skis delivered that afternoon by a rep for Swiss company Stockli.

“They look bloody sick!” he beams, and for a moment it’s as if that precocious child is back.

McMahon has recently moved to Smoko, near Harrietville, on the Great Alpine Road, where he spends his days outdoors; running, skiing, mountain biking and “just stepping back from the city vibe”.

He hums with health and fitness.

Later, he is off to the footy with his co-stars from Last Man Standing and some competition winners from Shepparton.

Winning the role of Bruno Palmer in Seven’s local drama had the added appeal of bringing him back from Sydney to an Aussie rules culture, he says.

The devoted Essendon supporter struggles with his character’s on-screen attachment to Richmond, but relates to his friendships with his mates. “As for the deeper stuff, I don’t like to think too much about similarities as the more you have of them, the less acting you’re doing.”

Last Man Standing’s executive producer, Ewan Burnett, says McMahon was the last of 40 actors auditioned for the role, and the last of the male leads to be cast.

‘’We didn’t want a complete loser or a complete doofus,” Burnett says.

The actor who played the unluckyin- love nurse had to be attractive, but also gauche and with a comic flair.

“He came in and it was just a natural fit,” he says.

So much so, in fact, that coproducer and series writer Marieke Hardy could barely contain her glee.

‘’I had to leave the room to have a bit of shrill screaming time,” Hardy confesses.

Previously, the producers had considered character actors for the role; “less physically gorgeous specimens” of the “little bald man” variety who would trail along behind Cameron and Adam being hilarious, she says.

McMahon, who had earlier auditioned for the role of Adam, was thought to be “too spunky”.”

Travis plays it so beautifully,” Hardy says. “It could easily have gone down the path of cardboard cut-out character number one, but he’s a very intense actor, very serious and disciplined.

He’s obviously got a strong comic feel but he never goes for the easy laugh - he analyses very deeply what his character would do.

‘’The naivety he infuses allows Bruno to get away with morally ambiguous behaviour, she believes.”

He really gets away with some things that if Cameron said it you’d really think, ‘You prick!’”

And although Hardy put him through excruciating moments—such as a recent scene where he masturbated on his virgin girlfriend—McMahon never complained, albeit turning occasionally to deliver a wry grin during script readthroughs.

‘’I’m crazy about him. I think he just did such an amazing job as an actor.”

In 1997, soon after he finished Kid Stakes, McMahon won his breakthrough role in Good Guys Bad Guys, an unconventional crime series from Melbourne producers Roger Simpson and Roger Le Mesurier.

After three difficult auditions he was cast as Reuben Zeus, a drycleaner with Tourette syndrome, a rare neurological disorder characterised by involuntary sudden movements, or tics, and inappropriate language.

‘’I remember coming out of the auditions with a headache, thinking, ‘Oh, this role’s going to be full-on’, trying to wrap my head around Tourette’s.”

McMahon threw himself into researching the role, absorbing books and documentaries and spending time with afflicted people. He created a map on the wall with notes showing what happens in the brain.

“I’d wander around late at night on football ovals, swearing and ticking and doing stuff.”

He felt strongly that he had to give the role his all, knowing that if he had any doubts it would mess with his performance.

He won accolades for his effort and, the same year, landed a role in a Halifax f. p. telemovie, working with Rebecca Gibney and Guy Pearce.

Aged 26, and a year out of drama school, he was pretty pleased with his life.

‘’I thought it was going all right. I was genuinely excited to be working and in television ¿ I was really happy to have that job, to be able to act.”

The good times didn’t last. After two years of regular work, Nine dropped the series. For McMahon and his co-stars, the decision was a surprise and a disappointment.

‘’It wasn’t a great time, professionally, after that, for me,” he says.

“There was a perception that I was working, Good Guys was still on, it was still a great show. All of a sudden there wasn’t a lot of work.

‘’After living well and doing a lot of work, the first time that happens to you it is a little bit confronting. Especially if you start running out of cash and you are still on TV.”

Having bought an apartment during the first season—“I thought, ‘That’s it, all the responsible stuff is done!’ “—McMahon hadn’t prepared himself, mentally or financially, for unemployment.

There followed a string of cash- flow jobs: an early-morning paper run, working as a bicycle courier in Sydney—“that was a tough job”—and as entertainment co-ordinator in a strip club.

He had a few guest roles, including one playing a violent misogynist in an episode of Blue Heelers and another in Stingers.

To his relief, the acting kicked in again in 2000 when he was offered a role in the international touring production of Cloudstreet, which kept him employed for a year. Acting has paid the mortgage since then.

Although it seems unlikely given its disappointing ratings, McMahon expects to find out this month whether Seven will commission a second series of Last Man Standing. He loved working on the drama and hopes it will go again.

“Experience—that’s exactly the word. I enjoyed and appreciated the opportunity to gain experience. I just love working in this industry and going to work every day with good people and good scripts, and that has to be a step in the right direction.”

He has recently finished directing a year 11 production of Kid Stakes at his former high school in Albury, and talks about a film he shot in Adelaide a couple of years ago, a privately funded feature by first-time writer-director J Harkness. Harkness cast him after seeing his work in Good Guys Bad Guys.

McMahon is eager to plug Shot of Love, his first feature, which he describes as a “complex love story” in which he plays a drug dealer. “It explores the themes of love and intimacy and drugs.”

He is proud of the film—although he later admits he would say it was good even if it wasn’t—the same pride he feels in his first professional theatre role, Kid Stakes, and television job, Good Guys Bad Guys.

‘’I love doing what I do. I would like to direct some more. I would like to get a role in another film and see where that takes me, shoot another season of Last Man and just quietly keep working on the very early stages of a project that ideally will be a film.”

The project he refers to is a novel about violence.

Why violence? “Why? It’s just a feeling that that story has got legs and should be told. The idea is to start work on the book and see how far I get. I don’t know how much talent I’ve got as a writer. I’m not too enthused about that, it’s just the beginning stages.”

Should it unfold the way he hopes, McMahon would engage an experienced writer to develop a film script in which he could star. “If you are gonna get something up, you might as well get something up for yourself!” he laughs.

In the meantime, acting is part of life’s colourful journey.

“I just naturally love life. I just naturally do and gravitate to things that make me feel good when I do it. Acting is how I express myself at the moment. It is a very big part of my life.”

And while he doesn’t know what came of that primary school teacher, he reckons he owes her thanks.

“It’s my first passionate memory of the arts and a first step on what has already been an incredible journey ¿ and there’s plenty more juice in the tank!”

Last Man Standing screens on Tuesdays at 9.30pm on Channel Seven.

By Kylie Miller
August 18, 2005
The Age