Underbelly: articles

Aaron Jeffery

Aaron Jeffery piled on 15kg for his role in Underbelly.

Aaron's fire in the Underbelly

PEOPLE keep asking me, 'What evil lurks in you to play such bad characters?' There is no evil in me, I just wear tight underwear," the late actor Dennis Hopper said.

Hopper's tongue may have been planted firmly in his cheek, but the Blue Velvet star's throwaway line draws attention to the process an actor goes through to bring darkness to the screen.

Playing bikie-turned-police informant Frank O'Rourke in Underbelly: Badness presented Aaron Jeffery with a monster challenge.

Jeffery, who in addition to Underbelly has been filming a controversial role alongside Jordy Lucas in Neighbours, has an impressive set of acting tools.

He's shown depth and versatility in productions including Blue Murder (arguably Australia's best TV production), McLeod's Daughters and the feature films Beautiful, The Interview and X-Men Origins.

But his performance in Underbelly is something else. Like jelly crystals in water, Jeffery appears to dissolve into the role.

O'Rourke is like an undetonated explosive - a tightly coiled, impatient individual who can throw verbal grenades and, without warning, fly into physical rage.

Jeffery was so determined to bring authenticity to the role he resorted to junk food to stack on 15kg.

"I based Frank on a couple of things," Jeffery says.

"I made this decision that Frank was a silverback gorilla. And a nephew kept coming into my mind, so I based Frank on a combination of my nephew and a gorilla. And I'm sure my nephew will love that, because he's a real hard case.

"Once I made the decision to put on weight, I stopped training and started eating. It's funny - once I told my body that I was going to stack it on, boom, it just happened."

A week before filming, Jeffery spent time with the show's make-up department to add extra dimension to Frank - including a mullet and fake tattoos.

"He's a character who is not afraid of anything," Jeffery adds.

"He is at a point in his life where he wants to change, he wants to be responsible. It's a huge thing for him to do. He clearly has a lot of trust issues in dealing with the police."

There is little doubt Jeffery's real-life experiences have helped boost his stocks as an actor.

New Zealand-born Jeffery had a troubled adolescence and was penniless when he arrived in Australia at 17. He slept on the streets or on factory floors before finding his feet in Sydney.

Jeffery had a stint as a Kings Cross bouncer, where he carried a gun, albeit without bullets.

"Absolutely, that experience, doing door work for seven years, helped inform the role of Frank," he says.

"Frank, though, has got way more energy than I ever had. Yes, I had the 'piece' (gun), thought I was Don Johnson, but at the end of the day I was a big teddy bear."

Jeffery graduated from the National Institute of Dramatic Art in 1993, then scored roles in Water Rats, Fire and Blue Murder. Before agreeing to play Alex Ryan in McLeod's Daughters, Jeffery had a break from acting to study theology and work as a farmhand.

He wasn't afraid of toil, lugging hay bales, repairing fences and working farm machinery. He was so suited to farm life that workmates dubbed him "the human tractor".

He felt he needed time in the bush to reconcile a difficult past, including childhood sexual abuse.

Acting, he believes, was his salvation.

"Acting was a huge circuit-breaker for me because it enabled me to express feelings I didn't understand and to let some steam out of the valves. After going to acting class, I would feel much better because I had some form of release."

Asked how he dealt with the trauma of abuse, Jeffery says: "I really believe they (those who do wrong) will have their own justice. I've lived on the planet long enough to see it happen time and again. Ultimately, you get to a point where you see that no matter how horrific your childhood was, you have much more insight and depth because of the pain you've been through.

"Therapy has always been a really important part of my life. Therapy and acting, they bleed into each other. We are all human, all of us fallible. As you get older, you grow and learn. I've always been inquisitive, wanted to know why I was the way I was. A lot of great acting coaches tell their students they have to do therapy, because as an artist you have to know who you are to tell a story, know about the darkness inside yourself to bring it out in a character."

Jeffery's character in Neighbours may not arrive with the force of a Frank O'Rourke, but the actor has relished the challenge of playing a man who is not all he seems.

Bradley Fox is a journalist who makes an instant impression as a newspaper's deputy editor in Erinsborough.

"When Bradley comes in it's all roses, but there are a few things that happen that send things pear-shaped," Jeffery says.

In contrast, Jeffery's life is settled and he's never happier than when playing dad.

The father of Ella-Blu, 9, and 10-week-old Sophia loves life on the NSW coast and says he's loath to take on acting work that will keep him away from his family for an extended period.

"At the end of the day, fame and money don't really cut it with me," he says.

"None of that matters if you can't be around for your children."

By Darren Devlyn
September 11, 2012