First published on 18 Feb 2012. Updated on 7 Mar 2012.
TV Show: Underbelly: The Black Prince
Locations: Carlton, CBD, Essendon, North Melbourne
You played Alphonse Gangitano in Underbelly back in 2008 and here we are still talking about it. Is it going to be one of those roles that never goes away?
Look, it’s one of those things. People do talk about it a lot. I can’t shake it off, you know what I mean? Maybe that’s why they keep hiring me for bad guy kind of parts. It’s like some people think that you are, rather than working, doing it, you know? You’re part of it. It’s a hard thing to shake off.
They must think you have that essence in you.
Did you ever see that short film, one of the top short films at Tropfest? You should look it up on the website, it’s called Being Carl Williams. Gy Grantley, who played Carl Williams [in Underbelly], is in it. In a very broad way, what it is is two criminals who have some guy half alive in the boot, and they see Gy Grantley doing just what we’re doing: an interview for a magazine. He’s sitting having a coffee on the weekend doing an interview for a magazine and the two guys walk up to him. He’s going, “How you going mate, do you want me to sign something?” and they are all, “No, no, no, we want you to come with us. Come with us now, mate.” And they point a gun at him and take him away, and they make him dig a hole and shoot this guy because they actually think he’s the best person to know where to bury him. And he begs them, “I’m not who you think I am, I’m Gy Grantley!”
Do you have people in the street asking you in the street you to do a bit of Alphonse?
Yeah, look, they shout “Alphonse!” But there’s not that many lines they want me to replay from the film. I think it was more the character than what he said. I’ve had characters that I’ve played before where people have wanted me to do the lines again for them. Nah.
You’ve always politely declined?
You can’t justify it unless you’re in the right space. It’s like a comedian, where people walk by and go, “Tell us a joke.”
At its peak there were a million viewers of Underbelly in Victoria alone. That’s insane.
If it were allowed to have been played on the night in Victoria when it actually premiered, three years ago, there is no doubt we would have had the biggest-ever opening night in Australia. We would’ve won the biggest audience of all time but the judge stopped us.
Yeah, the ad was all over the trams. How surreal was it seeing your face on a tram?
I remember the first time I saw it, it was like a pyramid of people and there was me in the middle. I didn’t know I was the front person, because really, my character was in there for the first two episodes and then I’m out. It was incredible that my first big role had impact even four series later and after three small telemovies.
Have you been watching them all?
No, I haven’t watched them all. I watched that first one, and I watched bits of Matthew Newton’s – A Tale of Two Cities. I can’t say that I’m into that history of gangsters. I’m not really a true crime reader, and I have a problem with suspension of disbelief when I’m watching it. Not when I’m playing it – I love it when I’m doing it, but I can’t watch it. I can’t watch myself, because I get really critical, and I get all, “It could have been better, it could have been better.” But the bits that I have watched, I’ve loved it all, and I think they’ve done a terrific job. I mean, it's made history. The reason that people still talk about that first one, the first two episodes, of something that now has 50 or 60 episodes made, I feel quite privileged to have made that impact.
How nerve-wracking was it to play someone who was obviously real, and who had friends and relatives out there in your old neighbourhood?
It wasn’t really that nerve-wracking, because I seriously wanted to justify the character as much as I possibly could. And I’d met Alphonse a few times. He’d come to see shows that I was in in Carlton, comedy stuff. A couple of the clubs I was out at, he would come up and be all, “I’m really proud of you”. He was quite, I suppose, supportive. I was people from his area he thought were making good and he supported that a lot. Maybe he thought of himself as a bit of an actor, too, I don’t know. The one thing I remember about him is that he had an amazing presence and this incredible aura about him. So for me, when they told me about Underbelly, I rang them up, and I hadn’t even auditioned, but I rang them up and said, “I want to play Alphonse.” None of the other characters were for me. I knew enough, I’d seen enough. I felt that’s the character I wanted.
Had they already approached you with any specific role?
I knew they were doing it and I said that’s the part I want to play and that was it. So it was great. I wasn’t nervous because I knew plenty of people he still knew and they were happy that I was playing him. You know, I met some friends of his and some of his family later on down the track. I didn’t want their influence at the start or anything. The funny thing is, when someone’s passed away and someone’s not around anymore – because he had died years prior to this – how many people actually knew him.
Or suddenly knew him…
Yeah, suddenly knew him. “I was there that night, that night he did this. I was there that night, he tried picking up my girlfriend, he did this. I was the one who drove him to that thing, where he bashed everyone up." All of a sudden these people were coming out of the woodwork, saying that they’d played a big role, I think, hoping that I’d be impressed.
The bar scene where you wreak havok with a pool cue was almost like a ballet.
Oh, that’s nice.
Did it take a long time to put together?
We sort of knew what had happened and they had this recollection of how many people had been injured in that fight. The stunt fights were fantastic – most of the guys who were getting belted were stunt guys, very easy to work with. I’d done a bit of that sort of thing before, me and Jason. We videoed it and we had most of the day to put it together and it was good. We did it at a club in the city called The Tunnel, down on Little Lonsdale Street. You remember The Tunnel?
It’s gone now, is it?
No, but it’s not The Tunnel, it’s something else. It had the same sort of setup as the bar had. It was quite a full-on day and full-on night, but Tony Tills who shot it did it really well. It’s all about cutting in the right spots. So I enjoyed doing that, it sort of made me understand and get into the character a lot more. And I also enjoyed the confessions in the church, because it summed (Alphonse) up in a lot of ways, and also in the prison when he was questioned by the cops. So I enjoyed those scenes, and the confessions, and as a far as having a bit of fun, the fight scenes. The confessions literally said to me what he was all about.
That was artistic license, right? You don’t really know what happened.
A little bit of that but you know, there was a lot of research from those guys who had written the books. I’m not here to say whether it’s absolute truth, but I saw it as true and that’s the way I played it. For me, it summed up a lot of who he was, that he felt that he had this power, because you’d have to. To have done what he did and be as reckless and do things that only he felt he could get away with. Some of the stories I heard about him in Carlton, it would be too amazing if people made them up. He had more front than fucking Myer. He thought that he was untouchable in a lot of ways, as well – untouchable and invincible. He could have whatever he wanted. There was a point where he felt that “I’m done, I have to do my time and get out of here”. He told us that he had wanted to get out of it, that he’d done his time, but found it really hard to.
Did you feel that it was a realistic portrayal of Carlton as a character within itself, having grown up there?
Carlton, yeah. It was a suburb that was full of characters, full of what they call the “Carlton mafia”. It was a little bit ostentatious and a bit over-the-top in those days, too – I mean, we’re talking about the '80s and '90s, when people weren’t subtle about how they looked and weren’t subtle about what they said and weren’t subtle about their actions. These days, people fly under the radar rather than into it and show everyone. And Alphonse was a lot more like that, you know, “Look at me, this is who I am, and I want you all to know it, too. And if you can get me, get me, and if you can’t…” So it was a bit more in-your-face then.
I remember we made my first film, Moving Out, that we made in ’82 and then we made another film in ’84, Street Hero, and we used Lygon Street for a lot of things. I remember having to use Carlton for an alleyway scene and we kept the lights on in Carlton down that street. We didn’t talk to the Electricity Board or to the council, but we had to talk to the men in the cafés, who were part of what we believed was this underworld. And we said, “Yeah, we’re putting it in a film”, and the lights were on.
Did you live in Carlton during the period that Alphonse was there?
I was born in Carlton and I grew up in North Carlton.
When did you leave?
I think I never really ever left. I still live pretty close. My first 25 years or so were in North Carlton.
What are your favourite haunts in Carlton now?
I’ve always loved Tiamo. It’s been a restaurant there for so, so long. I still get a buzz when I go there. I was there last night, there’s a real familiarity about it. My friends used to work there when I was growing up. It’s a real consistent place, a very busy place.
The menu’s the same?
The food’s exactly the same. There are no menus, there’s a blackboard on the wall. There’s now a Tiamo 2, a bit more like table service, nicer. But it’s all great. It just has that feel, it never really changed, the look of it is exactly the same. The service has always been the same by the blokes that worked there. The coffee’s great and the pasta’s always great, too. If anyone said, “Where do you want to go to get a good meal that’s not too expensive?” I’d say, “Tiamo, quick”.
Didn’t you own a place in Camberwell?
I had a restaurant in Camberwell, yeah, with a mate of mine, who lives in Carlton as well, Dominic. It was the early '90s, and he had a little restaurant in Camberwell near the junction there. He was doing it tough for a little while and I helped him out for a couple of weeks, just washing dishes and stuff. He was looking for a partner, and there were a couple of people he was testing during the time while I was there, and I didn’t like them, I didn’t think they were the right partners for him and he said, “well, why don’t you go in?” I had a little money so I said, “why not?”, and just by chance became the part-owner of this little restaurant in Camberwell. It was a good experience. It was hard work. We ended up selling it a couple of years later. When it was all I was doing, it was perfect, but I was an actor and have been ever since. For some funny reason I got job after job after job when I took on the restaurant and it was like I couldn’t even be there. There were a couple of things that I said no to because I wanted to stay in Camberwell.
Do you have a favourite Alphonse story?
I do but not the type that would ever be published, with all due respect. It’s the kind of stories that could cause me grief, I’m sure, from someone down the line. I have to be careful, stay neutral in a way. But I just loved his charisma. He’d walk into a club, and he was my height, my weight and my age and everything. When I played him I was very close to all three physical things about him, which is age, height and weight. But he seemed a lot bigger, because when he would walk into a club in South Yarra back in the '90s and there was a crowd of people in a doorway, it was like in those movies when the big number one film star would walk through the room with a great suit on, and he’s a lighter colour than everyone else, they’re in shade. And when he smiled, you know, you’d see that gleam coming off the teeth and that halo of white around the person. I’ll never forget the time I saw that, and from then on I thought that it would be an interesting place to go as an actor.
You look so physically different sitting here now.
I find it such a great licence to delve into things like that and have the licence to be that particular bad, bad person. I’ve played some really, really bad characters in my time, but have been told how wonderful the portrayal, or how wonderful it was to watch me. It’s like, to be honest, in what other business in the world can you do something that’s terrible and be told you’re fantastic in it? Even guys that didn’t like him or had to deal with him will come up to me and say “fantastic, that was great, spot on, spot on”. I took the information that was in the writing and I took a little bit of my own licence and created something that I thought was about right.
It could have come across very clunky if someone without that Carlton background had played him.
Well, yeah. And there was a couple of people who were characters that people talked about, like, “That should have been in, why wasn’t that in?” You get a bit territorial about who plays it and who doesn’t. I find that these days, we tend to cast because they look like the person. And I think, well, there’s an element that’ s good about that, but the next guy could portray the person a lot better but doesn’t look like him. It’s a bit of a risk sometimes just looking for the person who looks like him rather than giving the other guy a chance as well.
MAKE THE UNDERBELLY PILGRIMAGE:
Underworld figure Andrew Venjamin, played by actor Damian Walshe-Howling, was gunned down in La Porcella at 323 Rathdowne Street. In real life, La Porcella is now East Imperial Chinese – but the scene was filmed in Rubicon Café, at 51 Errol Street. Most of the Carlton scenes were filmed in North Melbourne, in fact.
Lewis Moran was killed at the Brunswick Club, 203 Sydney Road (ooh, you can have a quick go on the pokies on the way out); scenes with the Carlton Crew’s lawyer Mario Condello were filmed at the Lithuanian Club at 45-50 Errol Street; the Telstra Dome dressing-rooms doubled up as prison cells; while the infamous Colosimo-wreaking-havok-with-pool-cue scene was filmed at the Tunnel on 590 Little Bourke Street. That joint has since had a complete refurb and has been reborn as Sorry Grandma – but the site has been a nightclub of one sort or another since 1907.