Underbelly: articles

Guy Spence as Sid Kelly with Clint Foster (right) as Tom Kelly on the set of Underbelly Razor.

From crime time to prime-time TV

EVEN before he steps into make-up, Guy Spence has the kind of face that tells a story.

The broken nose, the weathered skin, eyes that cut straight through you, the effects of a hard life.

Playing gangster Sid Kelly in Channel 9's Underbelly: Razor may not seem much of a stretch for a man who has a colourful past of his own.

But as the 52-year-old talks about the chance this minor role has given him to change his life, that face transforms, those eyes sparking with what could lie ahead.

Of course, you won't hear this self-confessed "rough head" boasting or getting beyond this break he says has given him a new lease on life.

"I'm on fire, I'm alive. I want to get up, go to work. It's the first job I've ever wanted to go to," Spence says. "I take care of myself quite well and things are just rolling together. I'm all right. Things are okay."

It wasn't always that way for this one-time career criminal, who began his descent into the real underworld from the age of 13.

Jailed 10 times over 12 years, Spence admits he wasted the natural sporting talents (he was a gifted league and union player) which could have saved him.

"It was my decision," he says of the bad choices he made back then.

"There didn't seem much fear in me about that stuff (illegal drugs and violence)."

Meeting Brian Dunbar, a former drug-dealing bikie and founder of Knockabouts, a casting agency for "authentic underworld characters", helped Spence "turn a corner".

"I stopped using dope, that helps. Stopped drinking, that helps too. I just learned different tools than the ones I was using."

With more than 70 "knockabouts" on his books, Dunbar knows better than anyone how "your past can become your strongest asset. It's hard for us because we get judged. Most people who know you've got a colourful past won't give you that chance. This is about helping other people, giving them hope," Dunbar says.

About Spence, Dunbar adds, "What can I say ... he's done us proud — him and Clint [fellow Knockabouts stablemate Clint Foster, right]."

For Spence, acting began as a distraction, "just a hobby".

"I took it with a grain of salt. I don't look at it as if I was going to land a major role or get my own TV show," he says.

Cast in his first role playing "Kicker" Kelly, Spence is in familiar territory but admits the job has taken a surprising toll on him.

"Because I don't use those tools anymore, it does seem to take it out of me. It's like I need to go into the old tool bag to play Sid, then put them back away again. I was coming home (from set) and falling asleep in my seat."

The brutality of this savage character, who shopped his violent skills between the Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh camps, is on bloody display in the September 18 episode, which is a recreation of the Battle of Blood Alley.

Phil Jeffs (played by Felix Williamson) sparked the brawl thanks to his practice of selling heavily cut cocaine at pure cocaine prices. It all came to a head on the night of May 7, 1929, in Eaton Ave, Kings Cross, when another gang, fed up with Jeffs' dishonesty, challenged him and his thugs to a fight. The battle raged for 30 minutes and nobody was left unscathed.

While learning the art of stunt fighting was a thrilling challenge for the novice actor, he warns against glamorising violence.

"It can be savage like that. In jail, things are okay and you're all right until something goes down. Then you realise, 'That's right, I'm in here'. You're always vulnerable, whether you feel it all the time or not."

Despite his transformation, the father of two is keeping a level head about his showbiz prospects.

"There's talk of a few things, but TV people do that, don't they? They talk a lot, but I always say, 'Show me ... ring me when that's ready'."

By Holly Byrnes
September 14, 2011