It's a supreme kind of relief to meet Daniel Henshall and find that he's not much like John Bunting, the friendly neighbourhood murderer he portrays in Snowtown. The character's heavy beard has been trimmed back, the bulky 90kg frame has given way to a lean 75 kilos and the check shirt and earrings say "Surry Hills creative" louder than "Adelaide psychopath". "I've still got the same round head though," Henshall grins. "Can't get rid of the round mug."
It was the disposal of body parts that was the undoing of Bunting, who, together with three accomplices, slaughtered 12 people in the northern suburbs of Adelaide during the 1990s. The remains were found inside six plastic barrels in a disused bank vault in Snowtown, SA, about 150km north of the capital, in May 1999.
Now first-time director Justin Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant are hoping bodies in barrels can become bums on seats. Snowtown, which attracted rave reviews and the Audience Award at the Adelaide Film Festival in February, is a chilling portrayal of how Bunting became a father figure to young teen Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway) and involved him in the murders of locals whom Bunting disliked for various reasons.
"With our research we discovered very quickly that [Bunting] was known in the community and would help people with the shopping or looking after their kids," says Kurzel. "No one suspected that he would be involved in these events.
"We didn't want a hugely known actor that was going to bring baggage to the role but he had to be likeable. Dan came in and he's incredibly likeable, but at the same time there's something in his eyes that you feel you don't quite know."
Sydney-based Henshall prepared for his film debut by reading books about Snowtown such as Debbi Marshall's Killing for Pleasure, and watching TV coverage of the trial. "Then it became about forgetting all of that," the actor says. "I wasn't attempting [an imitation] but more, ‘how can I relate to this man?'" As one of the few professional actors in the cast, Henshall lived for ten weeks in the area of northern Adelaide where the killings were committed, getting to know the locals and bonding with the cast members playing Bunting's girlfriend, her children and neighbours.
"Snowtown is what happens if we turn a blind eye to communities in real need," says Kurzel, "and what happens when you have a figure like Bunting who comes in and provides an ear for a community's grievances and is able to exploit that." Henshall says he didn't realise the extent to which the role had got to him until five weeks into the shoot. "Then I shat myself. It got pretty dark for a few days, filming the murder scene and realising the character we were creating. I had a few nightmares."
While Bunting is currently serving 11 consecutive life sentences Henshall is gearing up for the notoriety his sensational portrayal will bring. "After the premiere in Adelaide people were [whispering] ‘that's him! That's the guy!' But most people say, ‘I can't really compare you two.' Which is fucking relieving, to be perfectly honest."
Snowtown screens from Thu 19 May.