Although the role of Samson “Fish” Lamb isn’t the first screen role for NIDA graduate Hugo Johnstone-Burt, as his first lead role in television, Showtime’s Cloudstreet will be the one that puts him on the map.
Since graduating in 2009, 23 year old Johnstone-Burt has had roles in Underbelly: The Golden Mile, the short films One More Day and Crowtrap and recently completed a guest role in Sea Patrol. He also received a nomination for the Out Of The Box new talent award at the 2010 IF Awards.
But it is his performance as ‘Fish’ Lamb, the intellectually disabled central character of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, that is generating attention. To portray a young man whose mind is caught between physical and metaphysical, Johnstone-Burt researched his role at Sunnyfield Independence in Manly.
“‘Fish’ gets caught under a prawn net and he drowns essentially, but his mother brings him back, so it’s a lack of oxygen to the brain that causes his mental disability. I found a girl who had a similar story and I had a chat with her and it was amazing because there was so much fire and so much passion and so much love behind her eyes, which was something that I really wanted to show,” he says.
“I didn’t want ‘Fish’ to be a burden for the viewers, I wanted him to be a lovable character. I didn’t want people to be irritated when they see him onscreen, I wanted them to want to hug him, because I received a million and one hugs at Sunnyfield.”
Johnstone-Burt plays the ‘older’ version of ‘Fish’ in the second and third parts of the Pay TV miniseries, with Tom Russell cast in the role for the first two hours. Tackling such an integral role in an Australian modern classic was a daunting prospect.
“I really wanted to do him justice. I didn’t want to insult anyone and I really wanted to make people proud especially because it’s such a famous book and people have got such specific idea of ‘Fish’ in their head. Obviously I’m not going to live up to everyone’s expectations of how they see him, but I hope I’ve given a portrayal of ‘Fish’ that they’ll like,” he says.
“It was my first lead role and my first chance to really dig my nails into a complex character.”
Johnstone-Burt got the acting bug almost by default, admitting that he only joined his school Drama class because he was a bit of a larrikin at school.
“I figured out that there was this subject that you could do and get marks, and I thought ‘Awesome!’ So I took on Drama and I quickly learned that it was much more than that. You actually had to write essays, much to my shock!” he laughs.
“But I just loved it. I got my first ever merit card of school for my first drama lesson and I thought ‘This is what I want to be doing!'”
At NIDA he appeared in productions of Rabbit Hole, The Importance of Being Earnest and Measure for Measure, eventually being hand-picked by Shanahans Management.
“NIDA made me grow up. I went in a 19 year old kid and I came out a 22 year old man. I know some people will still call 22 a kid but I really grew up in that time, I really matured,” he says.
“There were times when I wanted to tear my hair out and there were times when I thought, ‘This is bliss. I’m getting a Degree out of this.’ There were definite highs and lows, it was a lot of hard work and gave me a fantastic work ethic.
“But it’s all worth it and they’ve taught me so much and I can’t thank them enough for that.”
On the back of his IF Awards nomination and the acclaim for Cloudstreet, Johnstone-Burt is likely to be a name to watch. The young actor is quietly chuffed to have such venerated credit on his growing CV.
“I’m incredibly proud and feel very humbled to be involved in such a fantastic production,” he says. “I saw the full thing a couple of days ago for the first time, and I was in tears and I was laughing and cringing in some points, but it takes you through a wave of emotions. I can’t wait for everyone else to see it.”
Cloudstreet concludes 8:30pm Sunday on Showcase.