Actors go full out to show violence of Underbelly
THE cast of Underbelly, 13-hour drama to premiere next Wednesday on Channel 9, is being driven to bring brutal authenticity to its telling of a well-known story.
A bone-chilling southwesterly whips across Port Phillip Bay.
Les Hill, on the fringe of a Williamstown park, stands in the shadow of a giant eucalypt, his shoulders hunched and hands in his pockets in a futile bid to beat the cold.
When Underbelly’s director demands quiet on the set, a warning cast and crew are about to film a take, Hill straightens his back.
An extraordinary transformation takes place as he dissolves into character to tackle a disturbingly violent scene as deadly underworld figure Jason Moran.
When the director calls “action”, Hill and Callan Mulvey, who plays Jason’s half-brother Mark, radiate a chilling menace. They stride, shoulder to shoulder, towards Gyton Grantley, who has been cast as dopey-eyed crim Carl Williams.
It’s a scene based on real events in 1999 and one that explains the roots of Williams’ vendetta against the Moran clan.
The relationship between Williams and the Moran brothers had been declining. The drug dealers had had spats over drug prices, the quality of Williams’ products and who was the rightful owner of a valuable pill press.
In the scene being filmed in the park, an agitated Jason berates a cowering Williams. He punches Williams, kicks him when he hits the ground, then presses Williams’ face hard into the gravel-laced footpath. The beating over, Jason turns to walk away, but decides the job is incomplete.
He reveals a handgun, pulls the trigger, and leaves Williams moaning on the ground with a stomach wound.
The encounter turned Williams from “loose ally” of the Morans to darkest enemy and sparked an escalation of violence in Melbourne’s underworld. The brutal attack on Williams sent drug rivalries spinning into a series of bloody paybacks. The ultimate cost was 33 lives.
Hill, Mulvey and Grantley perform take after take of the scene until the director is happy with the result.
Never has legendary Peter O’Toole’s comment that acting is “nothing more than farting about in make-up” seemed so absurd.
The cast of Underbelly, a 13-hour drama to premiere next Wednesday on Channel 9, is being driven to bring brutal authenticity to its telling of a well-known story. That means portraying violence as realistically and forcefully as possible.
The park scene in the can, Hill and Mulvey seek refuge from the blistering wind in a trailer parked at Williamstown beach.
Hill’s take on Jason Moran is that he was like an undetonated explosive, a tightly coiled individual who could throw verbal grenades and, without warning, fly into physical rage. In Underbelly, Jason is forever taunting Williams about his weight and lack of smarts.
The series portrays Williams as almost laughably stupid.
“If you’re going to do justice to the story, you can’t be skimping on anything,” Hill says, warming to the task of explaining how excited he is to be in the show.
“You can’t be pulling back in the fight scenes. I have quite a few of those scenes in this and because nobody is being precious, that has allowed us to go a bit harder in how we portray it. It has to look real.
“I’ve got some bruises on my head and scuffed knees, but it’s all worth it.”
In the early episodes of Underbelly, Hill also faced up to the challenge of performing sex scenes.
“On a very base level,” Hill adds, “you are naked in front of people you do not know very well and you are trying to replicate this sexual experience and trying to keep it real and respect the person you are working with.”
Hill and Mulvey concede there’s pressure in dramatising the lives of real — rather than fictional — characters, but were desperate to play the Moran brothers from the moment they were invited to audition.
Because both are Sydney-based, the actors immersed themselves in research about the gangland wars before testing.
Neither met any of the figures who are brought to vivid life in the series.
“I spoke to a few people who met Jason and police, and (to understand him) really depends on who you talk to,” Hill says.
“Some said he was a loving father who doted on his kids, but had a short fuse.
“I think the writers had done enough research for me. I didn’t really want to start digging into the lives (of surviving characters). This is still raw and fresh. Some will probably like the show, some won’t. There’s no way you can please everyone. The families will see things they think are not accurate, but it is a dramatisation of events.
“I think I’ve found a bit of a connection with Jason and (understanding) the way he was.”
The Moran brothers attended a private school, but neither was academically inclined. When he left school, Jason discovered an appetite for hard drinking while working in an abattoir, a jewellery shop and as a plumber. Mark, apart from making a name for himself as a top suburban-grade footballer, described himself as a part-time personal trainer and chef. He specialised in cooking up amphetamines.
“He was, in one way, a guy who took pride in himself and came across as a gentleman,” Mulvey says of the late Mark Moran.
“I want this to be as true as possible, but you’ve got to keep in mind Mark is not with us any more and this is painful for some people.
“I want to do the best job I can, but it’s difficult without meeting and spending time with (the person you are playing). Mark was so underground… under the radar.”
Not so Jason Moran. “(Being low-key) never crossed his mind,” Hill says.
“He just did his stuff… did what he did and to hell with everything.”
In Underbelly, some of TV’s best-known faces play some of the underworld’s most notorious. Vince Colosimo plays slain standover man Alphonse Gangitano, Kevin Harrington is crime patriarch Lewis Moran and Caroline Gillmer his wife, Judy. Kat Stewart plays Carl Williams’ foul-mouthed ex-wife Roberta, Damian Walshe-Howling is Carl’s partner in crime, Andrew “Benji” Veniamin, who was shot in self-defence by Mick Gatto (played by Simon Westaway) in a Carlton restaurant in 2004.
Robert Mammone has the role of drug lord Tony Mokbel, and Madeleine West, who impressed in the Foxtel drama Satisfaction, is Mokbel’s partner Danielle McGuire.
Rodger Corser, Caroline Craig and Frank Holden are cast as cops trying to unravel the truth behind the series of brutal slayings. Underbelly is produced for Nine by Screentime, the company that also made the acclaimed telemovie The Society Murders, which explored the killing of Margaret Wales-King and Paul King by her son Matthew.
Like The Society Murders, the filming of Underbelly was shrouded in secrecy.
This prompted some underworld figures to try any means to glean information about scripts. Some called the Guide seeking plot details and locations.
Roberta Williams turned up on set during filming eager to see some action and hoping to meet actor Kat Stewart, apparently keen to offer tips on gangland life.
Stewart was not on set that day and won’t comment on the impromptu visit, but says she felt the pressure of playing a real person.
“In terms of meaty scripts and a rich full-blooded character, it doesn’t get much better than this,” she says.
“Roberta is a dream role. It’s a huge responsibility to do justice to her.”
Though Hill and Mulvey will play a huge part in the success of the series, the first episode belongs to Vince Colosimo, who brings steely-eyed grit to his performance as the “black prince”, Gangitano.
In the opening scenes, standover man Gangitano revels in his self-styled image as the Robert De Niro of Lygon St, an immaculately attired, classical music-loving pill-popper, who punches, kicks or shoots first and asks questions later.
Some say the beginning of the underworld war can be traced to Gangitano’s murder of criminal Greg Workman on February 7, 1995.
Months later, on December 19, 1995, a maelstrom of violence is said to have changed forever the face of Melbourne’s crime scene.
The 20 or so people inside The Sports Bar in King St had no inkling of what was about to unfold. Gangitano led Jason Moran into the smoke-filled bar with a simple goal — to let the operators know that protection money wasn’t negotiable.
The violence unleashed by Gangitano in just 10 minutes shocked even Moran.
A report of the incident says that when the brawl was over, the maimed and wounded were scattered around the club like broken puppets.
One would never see properly again; another, a woman, would take her food through a straw for months while the bones of her smashed jaw knitted together.
A third, a South African tourist, would never forget the cold, expressionless eyes of the men who broke pool cues and wooden chairs over his head and body. It makes for a powerful, albeit sickening scene in Underbelly.
Moran started to view Gangitano as a liability and believed he had to go. And that’s what happened in June 1998, when Gangitano was shot dead in his Templestowe home.
The Gangitano funeral in West Melbourne was huge. West Melbourne was at the time renowned for parking inspectors relentless in their pursuit of people who overstayed their time or parked illegally.
But mourners who had double-parked or occupied no standing zones to attend Gangitano’s funeral service returned to their vehicles to discover no infringement notices had been issued.
By Darren Devlyn
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