IT'S A PARADOX with its own dinkum appeal. He's one of the country's most successful actors, a star of stage and screen married to a hot-property Hollywood star, yet he's among the least "revealed" of Australia's personalities. In an industry that feasts on inflated egos, relentless self-promotion and networking air-kissers, Colin Friels is an anomaly. He courts privacy, eschews personal publicity, is a reluctant interviewee, admits to a lack of ambition, pursues an "ordinary, boring" lifestyle with no-nonsense dedication. It's a theme repeated in sporadic interviews over the years, not many admittedly and usually given (as is this) to coincide with the release of a film or stage play. A cynic might be tempted to label it a winning act, the hesitant openness and ah shucks self-deprecation having the ease of practise. Not so - what you see is what you get, a genuine bloke genuinely uneasy with public exposure.
Neither he nor his wife, movie actor Judy Davis, are women's mag material, although the fees they could command for drip-feeding the dirty diaries would be mind-boggling. Few bar his close confidants would even have heard of Friels' late-1997 battle with pancreatic cancer, for instance, but for an emotion-strained incident with a bus driver that reached the courts, and thereby the headlines. As a couple on close terms with the rich and influential in moviedom, they guard family life with zealous intensity, sharing home duties at their inner-city waterside house. The normal is the aim, and for the most part the achievement.
Yet the easy-going Friels is not entirely a temperament-free zone. Reports a few years ago told of late-arriving audience members experiencing centre-stage censure during a stage production dear to his thespian heart. And in '96 a Birchgrove neighbour was harangued over a pre-Christmas staff party. Police were called, papers alerted. That's a consequence of fame.
AS I ENTER the boardroom for our rehearsal-break interview, the wind is keening through the restored wharf HQ of the Sydney Theatre Company. There's snow in the air and we hand-rub over hot cuppas as Friels is served lunch, a slump of mashed potato drowning in indeterminate stew. He stares at it suspiciously, prodding in disbelief before resigning himself with an ironic laugh. He missed breakfast, he explains, and he's starving after the morning's exertion. I watch a ferry plug through white caps as he refuels. He needs it. Beneath a scatter of colour on his cheeks, he's parchment pale; the hair, too, is more noticeably peppery. But the spirit, that's as undimmed as ever. He's almost as excited about the play as he is keen to talk about his beloved Swans, which we do, at length, as he mops up his meal. A footie fanatic, he converted to the new team from Day One of its Sydney invasion and his state-of-play analysis is astute.
Then it's down to (show) business. There's symmetry in his latest project, a return after three years to his main-love, the stage, and the first sustained production he's undertaken since his illness. He's Macbeth in the STC production that opens on Thursday, which means the Scotland-born Friels who migrated in his 11th year to become the archetypal Aussie larrikin is starring some 35 years later in a home-grown version of "the Scottish play". Do we need another Macbeth, I ask, after the recent Sydney Arts Theatre production. "I don't think you can ever have too many, can you?" he ripostes. "It's an extraordinary piece of writing, virtually a two-hour poem. And this production is just fantastic - he's so unbelievably human, Shakespeare. I guess I'm old-fashioned but I love all that humanity he reveals. If you do it well, people go out feeling like richer human beings. As Scott Fitzgerald said, the great thing about literature is that 'it makes us feel not alone in the world'."
In Shakespeare, he enthuses, "there are so many human resonances that it inevitably affects us ... makes us more compassionate, perhaps. That's the true strength of theatre, it should be a public service."
This is his first Macbeth, although he has twice been Macduff, the latest to John Bell's Macbeth in a Richard Wherrett STC production. How, I lead, will he interpret his lead? "I don't interpret with Shakespeare; as you digest the role, all the sweat and pulling apart in rehearsal comes out. But Shakespeare is given to you any way - he's so incredibly articulate that he creates character in the words alone. It doesn't require labouring or naturalism, it just evolves through his script. Some things I am saying in Macbeth you just can't analyze clinically. You can say 'well this is what he means', but when you string it together in a particular emotional state, it takes on another power.
"Macbeth is the most incredibly inhuman person in the latter half of the play, and yet Shakespeare gives him the most extraordinary poetry he's given to any character so that the audience will realise 'ah, it's in us all'. It's not a cautionary tale but there is a great moral order in it. I love that - it sounds altruistic but there's that intangible thing about it that's so deeply valuable as well."
A SELF-CONFESSED FAILURE at school, Friels left early to work in factories and as a brickies' labourer. "I was 20 before I first thought, yeah I wouldn't mind doing that (acting). I didn't want to do TV or film either - I'd never seen a bloody play but I thought 'I'll act in a theatre'. So I did, I auditioned for NIDA, was accepted and I loved it." Sounds simple, until you realise that his NIDA generation included contemporaries like Mel Gibson. It wasn't even as if acting was in the family blood. Dad was a builder, Mum a French polisher, both were cheerful, hardworking Scots who "used to like singing around the table with their friends. They were outgoing people. I wasn't but I always liked poetry as a kid - I have the most wonderful memories of a teacher in Scotland reading aloud on Fridays and there I was, the dunce of the class, listening to Mrs Wylie tell these stories ... and my mind would just explode."
That delight in story - and an inherited aptitude for sheer hard work - sustained him through early days in Adelaide theatre to what has become a glittering 20-something year career. The professional's professional, he's done everything from Hamlet to The Cherry Orchard on stage. He even overcame his aversion to TV, evolving from Playschool regular to his Logie and audience-winning role as Frank Holloway in the internationally successful Water Rats.
That gave him more street recognition than any of his 22 movies and his AFI best actor award for Malcolm. Probably, he says, because he's "a terrible film actor. Robert Duval, he's a great film actor ... but I have always had a certain enormity of lack of talent when it comes to the screen." Hang about - modesty is becoming but this from a man whose cinematic CV stretches from Monkey Grip through High Tide and Nostradamus Kid to Dark City in 1996 with Kiefer Sutherland and William Hurt? Who has worked with Gene Hackman, Liam Neeson and Sean Connery? "I didn't really work with them, you know - I was just in a few scenes with them." He smiles quietly. "I enjoyed the rehearsals with them, and learnt a lot from it ... but I quickly realised Hollywood wasn't for me. It suits Judy - she has a true talent for film - but I'm just more comfortable on stage. That could be because of the material, the literary matter that the stage deals with."
Besides, he confides, "I've always suffered from self-consciousness, and to a lesser extent lack of confidence." Desire keeps him going, and what "one wonderful old actor I admired highly once confided to me: 'In 90 per cent of the plays I did,' he said, 'I was pretty bad in, but they taught me that it was a test of my character every time I did them.' That's the secret, it's the effort, the grace, even the faith in the human condition - you can't be perfect but you always give it your best go."
So what does acting give him? "Good question," he parries, buying time. "I really don't know ... sleepless nights, pimples, rashes, anxiety. But also a deep satisfaction, somehow. It makes you feel more ... human. It's a way of making a connection, I guess."
"I AM INCREDIBLY MORTAL now," he laughs when I ask how his cancer has affected his approach. "I take nothing for granted; 18 months down the track, certain of my perceptions have changed. Sitting here looking at the wind on that water, well that's fantastic. It's the now. You realise some things you previously thought important are no longer so.
"If anything, it's made me more reflective, more aware of just keeping my feet on the ground. I'm so lucky. I was 45 when I got crook and my life should have been over by 46. I missed dying by a whisker. After they excised the tumour, I had the full course of chemotherapy as insurance. I was never complacent before about my health but I also didn't take particular care. I used to think, well you've got a body, abuse it, you know, knock yourself about, get into the scrum, get into the ruck, get a 'bloody nose and a cracked crown' as Shakespeare said."
Now it's most important to see "the smiles on your kids' faces (he has two, one a near teenager, the other nearly 2), to deal with the agonies they go through - they've always been treasured but maybe they're more so now." And to "not get ahead of yourself or look back - after my operation, I did a special course of Qi Gong which required no drinking, no smoking, no sex, no tea, no coffee for four months. And I had a couple of lapses," he drawls, "and I went pleading excommunication to the master ... and he said, 'Ah you're human, forget it, get on with it.' That's such a good approach, it's no use beating yourself up because you don't reach standards - you just get on with it."
As for the future, "I'm hopeless at planning, worse now than ever. My hope is to keep working as an actor on good things like this Macbeth - no matter how full everything else is in my life, I'll always have that desire to be part of the story, that need perhaps to be singing around the table..."