In the nearly-40 years since John Howard graduated from NIDA he has just about done it all: All Saints, Seachange, Always Greener, Janet King, Wildside, A Town Like Alice, Changi, The Club, Japanese Story, Last Cab to Darwin and Razorback.
This week he dons a kilt to play “Sarge,” a disciplinarian teacher in the second season of ABC’s Soul Mates by Christiaan & Connor Van Vuuren (Bondi Hipsters).
“They’d probably seen me in Mad Max: Fury Road when I was a lot heavier, with a fat suit. And they wanted someone fat. They haven’t explained themselves to me. But I’m a fat kilted Scotsman,” he tells TV Tonight.
“I love it. Just imagine they’re doing Monty Python thirty years on. So it’s out there, but they are also very clever satirists. They take the piss out of the monetary system, out of hipsters, fashion, across-the-ditch rivalry between the Kiwis and the Aussies.
“They have stone-age people, a pisstake of Pharaohs and slavery. I find it very droll and there’s also shock-horror.
“I had a character like (Sarge) in the school I went to.
“We had a man who was an ex-Scottish highlander in the regiment, who played the bagpipes brilliantly. But I don’t think he did what Sarge does.”
Such is breadth of his career that from anarchic comedy he returns to theatre, with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at Belvoir, but he relishes the attributes of three disciplines in Film, TV and Theatre.
“I enjoy Film very much partly because of the locations you go to and the people you meet that you wouldn’t otherwise meet. And partly because of the whole process of working with the crew. But there’s a lot of ‘hurry up and wait’ in Film,” he explains.
“TV suits me really well because of the speed of it. And again I enjoy being around crews: cameramen, grips, gaffers, the whole bit. I’ve worked in most of those jobs, like a runner in the Art Department because I like to be involved in the whole event.
“The payoff with Theatre is you get to do the whole show with living, breathing people there, who have an opinion right in front of you.
“But creating characters begins with the script or story, comic book or whatever it is, and you interpret that with the help of directors, writers etc.”
Some of Howard’s best-known roles have been his most abrasive characters, including Frank Campion on All Saints and Bob Jelly on Seachange. Borrowing real-life characteristics is part of his methodology.
“I like to find a role that is appropriate for the character, 2 or 3 who I watch, to borrow gestures and attitudes. We all have an inner life and an outer life that we project to other people. But every now and then you see the inner life peeking through with inconsistencies and hypocrisies that we all have. That’s my particular delight. I try to put them in so that the audience can see what the character thinks of themselves and what they’re really like,” he explains.
“That’s where the interesting bit is, that’s the whole bit of acting. It’s all about the flaws and the conflicts. Otherwise it’s not very interesting.”
He modelled Seachange‘s mayor Bob Jelly on a cousin, without telling him until afterwards.
“I saw him in a hurry but he didn’t want to run, so his bum was out and his legs were going as quick as he could without running. So I thought ‘That epitomises Robert Jelly, always trying to make things happen but never quite having the energy to run.’
“Seachange was probably my favourite show because it was so well written. You started at a certain point and then you gradually got to know everybody in the village. Some of the ideas were classics –like 6 guys all sharing the same suit!”
When the show aired on Sunday nights in the late 1990s, its ratings went through the roof, even trumping commercial offerings -unheard of at the time.
“It slammed everybody. (Co-creator) Andrew Knight hated me saying this but Seachange was a child of (radio serial) Blue Hills by Gwen Meredith and Bellbird and a whole series of shows that explore a country town where you see the dramatic and comedic side, and the relationships between idiosyncratic people –in a feelgood show.”
For All Saint’s boss Frank Campion, Howard studied Gordon Fulde, Director of Emergency at St Vincent’s Hospital.
“I borrowed the way he looked, down to what he had on his belt, his shirt, his pockets, the whole bit,” he recalls.
“He was kind enough to show me around the Emergency, so I watched and borrowed things from him.
“People often say he was very gruff but I got a lot of letters from registered nurses saying that they worked for that man.
“It was a long show so I think on the way you got to see a lot of sides to him. He was sick with health, he had a love affair, an autistic daughter, so there was a fair bit to him.
“I often got odd characters to play. In theatre it was Nero but in TV my very first character was in Water Under the Bridge and he was very weird. So I am attracted to those kinds of characters because they were always more fun! Or maybe I just come across as being a bit weird.”
But one show, Always Greener by writer Bevan Lee, ended in 2003 after just 2 seasons. Observers have long argued it was cut short after ratings were hit by programming changes.
“I absolutely agree,” Howard insists. “The show was designed to be on a Sunday evening, and it started very well. But how Programmers gamble I’m not really sure. It got moved around a lot.
“For a show like that people wanted to know it was on at such and such a time, such and such a night, because they like that regularity. So moving it around destroyed it.
“I liked it a lot because it had little touches of fantasy.
“And in the very first episode we blew the arse off a cow!
“So it was very disappointing when it got cut. Especially for Bevan because he was going in a different direction to what he had previously.”
But as he moves between “sketch-snuff comedy to serious Arthur Miller to ludicrous Twelfth Night,” Howard remains optimistic about new opportunities that are emerging for storytellers. Soul Mates has spawned from a Bondi Hipsters web-series, and has been sold to NBC-Universal’s comedy streaming channel Seeso.
“There’s an enormous amount of opportunity at the moment because of things like Stan and Netflix,” Howard acknowledges.
“So the internet has enabled a lot of people to make and sell shows, at all kinds of levels of budgets. They are wonderful toys to use but it still comes down to having a good story.
“If you do it right the world is your oyster.”
Soul Mates premieres 9:40pm Wednesday on ABC with full season on iview.