Theatremaker Thomas M Wright was sitting on his mate's floor in North Melbourne eating homemade prosciutto when he answered the call that would change is life – "this is Jane Campion" said the voice at the other end of the line. The Oscar-nominated director was callng to say she wanted Wright to star in her new six-episode mini-series, Top of the Lake, about the disappearance of a 12-year-old girl in a remote mountain community in New Zealand's South Island. He'd play Johnno, the half-brother of the missing girl and son of a local drug lord and he'd join a list of co-stars that included the likes of Trainspotting's Peter Mullan, Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss and Holly Hunter as the long, silver-haired almost-guru of a women's refuge established in a set of lakeside shipping containers. It was a meaty role in an unnerving, suspenseful and quirky series already drawing (deserved) comparisons to Twin Peaks and The Killing.
Thomas, you’ve just returned from Sundance where the series received some spectacular feedback after a screening of all six episodes. How was that experience?
It was interesting – it’s one of the only film festivals I’ve ever been to where people don’t come up to you and say, “Hey, have you seen this film? It’s really great.” Or, “This is the film you really ought to be seeing," because it’s an intense marketplace, really. There’s a lot of business to be done. It’s also an independent film festival so when you’re there with two Best Picture winners and Palme d’Or winners and Best Actor and Actress winners and all of that, which is what Top of the Lake is, we sort of rode over the top of it. The production was received incredibly well. People there loved it. I had two of my really close friends there and they were both completely doubled over in tears. It’s a pretty shaking film.
Tell us a little about Johnno Mitcham, the character that you play in the series. He’s from the roughest family in town, but really doesn’t fit in.
He’s a part of the town, but he’s kind of put a sign above himself that says: "Outsider". In some ways he’s probably too frightened to leave, but in other ways he can’t run because he’s spent ten years in jail, after an attempt to traffic some quantity of heroin in southeast Asia, and so he’s done that time.
He’s part of a pretty intense cast of characters – and you were part of a kind of a crazily good line-up of co-stars. How was it working with people like Holly Hunter and Peter Mullan?
The thing about it is, with Holly particularly, for anyone who comes from this hemisphere, The Piano looms so large in our imagination now. It’s kind of affected a perspective about the establishment of our countries and our character, and our way of imagining the past. It’s one of my favourite films, it always has been, it’s been a huge reference for me, and I also think Holly’s performance is one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen on film. I said that to her actually, the other day. But I really firmly believe that. And Holly has a real weight to her, a strength and a quietness and a kind of confidence that I hadn’t really come across before, which just doesn’t require her to apologise for anything. It’s not an outward confidence; it’s a very quiet, very settled thing, but I hadn’t been around that before, so it was wonderful to watch. On the days that Holly was working, I’d often go out to set and watch her work on the monitors, and watch Jane work with her.
She does have that gravitas in the series, but she’s also hilarious. There was a lot of humour and truth in the scenes set at the women’s camp that Holly’s character runs. It’s a really interesting set-up…
That was an extraordinary thing to be around, to be able to watch women of that generation be allowed to be portrayed in a realistic way, set them all incredibly free, and it just sent them all into this strange kind of tailspin too. Everyone spending all their time with each other, and there’s that kind of bleed of what’s required of the characters and the fact that you’re needing each other in that capacity. Holly in the middle of that was a rock – one day she’d be gushing with energy and the next day would be completely silent.
Working with Peter [Mullan] is so different! The way that Peter works is dismantling any sort of pretension. He’s so proud of his roots and where he’s come from, and identifies so much with that, and that’s kind of where he is from, you know – real working class part of Darwin, a real difficult environment. So I think built-in there’s probably an aspect of filmmaking that feels really foreign. If he wants to walk into a scene and knock all the props over and put his feet up on a table, then he’ll do that, and I think he’s perfectly entitled to, especially with that character, who’s a violent, very odd character.
Like a lot of shoots in Australia and New Zealand, you were together and relatively isolated for a long time. How strongly did bonds form between the cast?
I had a son while we were filming, and so did [co-director] Garth Davis and Grant Adams [second camera operator], and the production is about a 12-year-old girl who’s fallen pregnant and I think Jane saw some sense of things aligning.
It’s great to film in a place like that because there’s nothing to distract you – you can be completely in the world of the film. There’s no one from outside the film that you’re going to see, aside from my family at that time, and there’s an opportunity to complete get inside that story and make it your life. And Jane invites that. It was also really beautiful.
I went off with one of the crew and we went walking in mountains one day then idiotically decided to come down where there wasn’t a track. We ended up stuck for six hours and came down and had to wear long-sleeves around Jane for a few days because our arms were all cut up [laughs].
You must have become particularly close with Elisabeth Moss, she's in nearly every scene you're in.
We spent every day together and she became like family to me. She was one of the first people to spend a lot of time with my son. We’ve become incredibly close, like brother and sister, which is an odd thing to say when you spend 3 months pretending to have sex with someone.
Have you spent much time in the kind of isolated communities you see in Top of the Lake? Did you go to any to prepare for the shoot?
Not really. I’m not sure what sort of study you could do to rehearse being alone…I think all of us spend a lot of time alone. It’s just interesting for me, because I work in theatre, a much poorer background, where the director of the company didn’t apply for a grant for the first five to years that the company existed and made productions at $100 and $200 and just scraped by. So coming to the film world is a little bit disorientating, and Jane was very frank about that too. There’s a lot of practical knowledge that you need to accumulate to work in that medium. But really I learned to work on film from Jane, and I think that’s one of the more profound teachers that you could ever have. What an extraordinary gift.
Top of the Lake screens on UKTV Sundays 8.30pm from Sun Mar 24.