The Shark Net: articles

Wyllie nets killer role

TO THIS day, Eric Edgar Cooke remains a black stain on one of Perth's darkest chapters. Cooke's random murder spree in the late 1950s and early 60s forever shattered Perth's image of itself as an idyllic backwater, forcing a legacy of fear and suspicion upon its bewildered citizens.

While to younger generations Cooke has become a figure of almost mythical notoriety, for Perth's older residents his campaign of arbitrary terror, which culminated in the Australia Day killings of 1963, remains indelibly etched on a collective consciousness.

Everyone, it seems, has a "Cooke story"—a connection which links them to the serial killer but one who remembers that period of unease better than most is writer Robert Drewe. Drewe knew Cooke as the employee of his father at Dunlop and, later, the murderer of his friend and then defendant in the court trial Drewe covered as a journalist for The West Australian.

Cooke forms an integral thread through The Shark Net, Drewe's memoir of his boyhood in Perth's western suburbs, which is brought to life in a three-part television mini-series adaptation of the book, beginning on Sunday on the ABC.

The task of researching and inhabiting the notorious criminal fell to Sydney actor Daniel Wyllie, who was recommended to producer Sue Taylor by fellow actor Ben Mendelsohn, who was originally targeted for the role.

Strangely, it was not Wyllie's first dramatic encounter with Cooke. Four years ago, he played the mentally disabled Fish Lamb in a stage adaptation of Tim Winton's Cloudstreet. Like The Shark Net, Cloudstreet is regarded as a seminal Perth tale, so perhaps it is no coincidence that it, too, features the threatening undertone of Cooke's killings.

To unravel the man behind the myth, Wyllie read not only The Shark Net, but also Estelle Blackburn's Walkley Award-winning book Broken Lives. This exposed John Button's wrongful conviction for the death of his girlfriend Rosemary Anderson, for which Cooke claimed responsibility but the court subsequently made no finding.

Wyllie also met acquaintances of Cooke, including a former Dunlop colleague, and Cooke's widow Sally.

Wyllie said the man he uncovered was not purely evil or psychotic. Instead, he was a complex character scarred by a violent childhood, a disfiguring hare lip and speech impediment whose ego grew in parallel with his notoriety.

"It's an interesting line to tread where you have to balance empathy and the supposed darkness of a character," Wyllie said.

"I met a guy during the shoot who worked with Cooke in the Dunlop factory and he said he was just a bit of a jerk who would come in and say stupid things to try and fit in. So he was a serial killer slash jerk.

"Having done Cloudstreet, I knew what effect he had on Perth's psyche, that he had killed a lot of people, but I didn't know the details until I read the book."

In Sally Cooke, Wyllie found a remarkable woman who was resigned to her unwitting part in one of Perth's darkest periods. According to Sally, Cooke could be incredibly charming.

"It was real double-life stuff because he was kind of a charmer," Wyllie said. "She brought a different perspective and she is a pretty amazing character—she was not at all resentful of having to relive it all again.

"She had no idea what he was doing at the time, she was spared that I guess. She had eight kids to look after so she was innocent and oblivious and was wishing that he would just leave her really."

Wyllie spends much of his screen time prowling around Perth's western suburbs in the dark—a requirement he found challenging because there was little interaction with other actors.

"Cooke was a prowler, a peeping tom and a thief who did a lot of stuff on his lonesome, so I spent a lot of time alone," he said.

"I didn't have to talk to anyone. It was almost like we were shooting two different films. But that was a good way in to the role and it was, dare I say it, fun."

Though The Shark Net is essentially a nostalgic look at Drewe's childhood, the presence of Cooke underpins the loss of innocence and fearful paranoia which enveloped Drewe's world. Producer Sue Taylor said as such it was essential that Wyllie nail the character.

"Dan brought an incredible mix of charm and a sense of alienation and underlying menace and coldness to the role," she said.

"You had to be able to see the human being there as well. It is very easy to do a role as the menacing monster but much harder to mix mythology with reality."

Taylor said she had obvious misgivings about bringing to life the man responsible for tragedy and grief in the lives of many Perth residents. People who were touched by the case are still around and continue to deal with Cooke's legacy.

"But you have to be reminded that it is predominantly Robert's story about the creation of a writer with parallels to the creation of a serial killer," she said.

"It is the parallel of Robert and Eric."

# The Shark Net, ABC, Sunday, 8.30pm. An interview with Robert Drewe appears in The West Magazine on Saturday.

By Melissa Kent
August 06, 2003
The West Australian