Spanning the years from 1915 to 1927, it depicts the Melbourne gangster who courted the press with his criminal exploits, and who gained notoriety for robberies, murder and thwarting police. Such is his infamy that he has already been portrayed in Power Without Glory, an opera, a feature film starring David Atkins and Jacki Weaver and even a minor role in Underbelly: Razor.
But the diminutive Daperis, who has appeared in Holly’s Heroes, Carla Cametti PD, The Cup and Small Time Gangster, very nearly missed out on the role. Or rather, they nearly missed out on him.
“They didn’t want to see me initially. I couldn’t get a look in because they were casting it out of Sydney and I don’t know Mullinars (Casting) in Sydney. I have a good relationship with the Melbourne office but I gather they’re very separate. So it took a lot of my agent’s hard work in Melbourne to at least put me down on tape,” he says.
“They were even reluctant to see the tape, and said ‘If you really want to do it, then do it.’ Then the next day I was in Sydney and there were probably a handful of us left. About two months later I’d forgotten about it, I thought it was all done and dusted and I got a call for a final audition.
“The final call was a screen test with three cameras, full sound, a little set and some co-actors. We shout a couple of scenes and there were four of us left and they chose from that. A month later we were shooting.”
Daperis concedes he didn’t watch the feature film with David Atkins, preferring to create his Squizzy as a man small of frame but big in presence from source material.
“There’s limited stuff online but that was my first port of call. But the Underbelly team has great researchers and I think they go from series to series so they gave me mountains of work. One of them was written by an ex-Victorian Police detective who’d written a piece on Squizzy. He came in and I had a meeting with him and the director,” he explains.
“Joe Pesci in Goodfellas was a small man in a world of criminals but was the most vicious out of all of them and people were scared of him. He was something similar to what I learned about Squizzy. He was small and had his muscle (men) but he didn’t rely on them.”
To fit with the Underbelly brand, Squizzy carries the trademark flashy crims, with lashings of music, period costumes and plenty of attitude. Squizzy is attached to three women across the series, played by Camille Keenan, Elise Jansen and Gracie Gilbert.
But it wouldn’t be Underbelly without doses of violence and flesh. Daperis admits the sex scenes were the first he had ever done on screen.
“I’ve never done anything like that before and it was an interesting experience. Anybody who tells you it’s just like any other scene on the day is way too comfortable with themselves!” he laughs.
“I’ve never seen the other Underbellys but I know from doing interviews it’s obviously created a very sexy name for itself. But I think doing a piece in the 1920s is a bit different to doing a modern-day piece.
“I can only comment on what I know and it’s certainly sexy but not done with any gratuity, I don’t think.”
Recalling the closed set, he couldn’t wait to get through it.
“It wasn’t closed enough! It’s all a bit of a blur, I was just waiting to get my robe back on!”
Daperis has been acting since he was five and whilst Underbelly has a knack for catapulting its stars into the limelight, he is an actor with his feet on the ground. For him, it is all about the work.
“I love creating a character and stepping out on set. That’s the part I enjoy but that’s also the biggest challenge. It’s nerve wracking when it’s a big show and an iconic character. You want to do it justice,” he says.
“It’s not necessarily a (hope for a) bigger profile or fame or recognition. What I truly want is that having been given a great opportunity, I hope I’ve done a good enough job and it’s respected and therefore other opportunities might be thrown at me. But I hope that it’s the work that is first and foremost, and I know that might sound like a safe answer. I want to make sure I’m always doing quality work.”
Underbelly: Squizzy premieres 8:30pm Sunday on Nine.