Underbelly: articles

Roy Billing's personal reasons for role in Underbelly

ROY Billing has personal reasons for putting in a convincing portrayal of a misery-dealing mafia boss.

It's been said the performers who make the job look the easiest are the ones who work the hardest. You suspect Roy Billing is one of those actors.

He's a respected character actor — fearless in laying his soul bare on screen.

As a result of being so unpretentious, Billing immerses himself so completely in roles you never sense he's acting.

His skill has never been on greater display than in Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities, in which he can be seen gradually adding layers of depth to his portrayal of Robert Trimbole.

Based on his research, Billing (right) set out to play Trimbole as a self-effacing everyman — drug kingpin one minute, average family man the next.

"Criminals are people who step over a line none of us (law-abiding citizens) would, but their lives outside that are pretty much like ours," Billing says.

"They shower, eat, drive cars, have friends and family. You drag them (the Underbelly audience) into that world, get them onside. Then you spin them around and show them this guy (Trimbole) is really menacing. That's where it gets scary."

Inhabiting the shoes of a character who spreads misery through the drug trade hasn't come easily to Billing, whose screen credits include The Dish and Rabbit-Proof Fence.

It's clear Billing has strong feelings about the effects of drugs when you read a column he wrote about the loss of his son, Simon.

Billing wrote of his son's descent into despair: "A suicide affects people much more than an ordinary death… I know that.

"On the morning of October 26, 1995, my handsome, personable 20-year-old son, Simon, left his place of work in Auckland, New Zealand, and walked for about half an hour into the city.

"He found his way to the top floor of a parking building and, according to witnesses, walked to the edge of the building and, with his hands by his sides, continued walking over the edge, plunging to the ground.

"Simon had lived with me in Sydney for some time and, over a period of time, had developed symptoms of schizophrenia.

"He heard voices in his head, very real to him, which fed messages of self-loathing and apocalyptic prophecies about the end of the world. His diary, discovered after his death, was a disturbing insight into a sad and tortured mind.

"His illness was triggered by the use of marijuana and other so-called recreational drugs and it was the drug abuse that tipped him over the edge.

"He'd go for a while into counselling and then the cycle would start again.

"A suicide leaves the bereaved with so many unanswered questions, with guilt, with so many 'what ifs' and with so many 'if only I'd…'."

Not surprisingly, Billing's own tragedy played on his mind when he was asked to audition for the role of Trimbole.

He couldn't have contemplated the role, Billing says, if he'd believed the show was glamorising the drug trade.

"It just doesn't glamorise (drugs)," Billing says.

"It (the criminal lifestyle) catches up with them all in the end.

"My son had gone through developing schizophrenic symptoms as a result of smoking dope. I thought, here I am playing a guy (Trimbole) who pushed marijuana. What happened to my son is the end result of what Bob (Trimbole) and Terry Clark (played by Matthew Newton) do. That's the human misery element in all this.

"Of course, I was thinking, 'Can I do this (role)'? And then I think, 'I'm an actor and this is what I do _ hold a mirror up to life'.

Do you think gangland drama Underbelly glamorises drug use? Have your vote in our Poll Box below.

"I've had these personal experiences, but I've got to play Bob for what he is. There is a scene where he's trying to justify it all to Allison (Anna Hutchison). It's the drug dealers' excuse, 'I don't use the stuff, I only sell it and people make their own choices'. The rationale is that dealers don't see themselves as evil. If I played Bob as a caricature, as an evil mafia guy, it wouldn't be believable.

"But it (marijuana) is still seen by some as a soft drug. It's much stronger now because of all these different things in it. There are no safe drugs."

Anyone with personal problems can call Lifeline on 131114 or the Victorian Statewide Suicide Helpline on 1300651251.

March 04, 2009
Herald Sun