He turned his back on Hollywood but actor Aden Young is proud of his work and still passionate.
HE SPENDS much of his screen time in his latest film trapped in a wooden pen with a deadly case of lockjaw. Which is kind of ironic because Canadian-born, Sydney-raised actor Aden Young has a lot to say, especially about how Australian audiences have been treating local films.
"Why as a nation had we started to boo ourselves?" asks Young, 37, the star of Kriv Stenders’ gothic Australian western Lucky Country, which opened in cinemas recently , and who will hit screens again in October in Bruce Beresford’s film of the book Mao’s Last Dancer. "That’s what it felt like a year ago to be an actor in this country."
It’s clearly a subject Young feels deeply about — he looks set to jump off a couch in a Sydney cafe in a burst of passionate anger when recalling the struggle.
Australians, he says, need to "recognise we’re not trying to piss in their faces with taxpayers’ money. We’re trying to tell any stories, but [especially] our stories. And the only way we can do it is to tell them here. If we lose that opportunity, all we will be telling is American stories."
Storytelling has always been Young’s passion. His American father, Chip, was a broadcaster in Canada and a children’s author. A couple of years ago, Young made a short film, with his pal Hugo Weaving narrating, based on his father’s 1972 children’s book The Rose of Ba Ziz — a fable about a king allergic to flowers and the first book Young ever read.
It is a "love letter" to his Australian mother, Janice, and to his own son, Dutch Bon, born in 2007 to Young’s partner, singer-songwriter and actress Loene Carmen.
Young’s family left Toronto for Australia in 1981 when Young was nine. The next decade was spent moving from town to town in NSW in search of the best medical care for Chip, who had contracted a mysterious lupus-like disease.
"My mother is from Newcastle," says the actor, who still has a Canadian accent but can easily switch to an Australian drawl. "She had trained as a nurse there and maybe she thought that was where she would find the answer to my father’s illness.
"With five kids to look after, she needed the support of her extended family, recognising that she would have to be the breadwinner. Dad didn’t have any relatives in Canada, so we made that shift. What amazed me was that they didn’t tell anyone in Canada. They just disappeared."
A decade later, the teenage Young starred in his first film, Bruce Beresford’s Black Robe, and returned to Toronto for the 1991 premiere. "People were coming out of the crowd in tears," he says. "Family friends who thought we’d all died somewhere."
Why did his parents decide to just vanish? "My father was a very proud man and broadcasting was his first love, and one of the first things he lost was his voice. And that was extremely debilitating. Perhaps he found it embarrassing. We never found out what his illness was."
Young says Chip, who died the year after Black Robe came out, was extremely proud of his performance. The film tells the story of a 17th-century Jesuit priest and his young companion Daniel (Young) on a spiritual journey through the Quebec wilderness accompanied by Algonquin Indians.
"Dad said, ‘If every film you make can be as powerful as that, then you’ve got something going’. But, of course, not every film gets to have that sort of political attention."
After Black Robe, Hollywood came knocking. Young flew to Los Angeles to audition for Frank Marshall’s Alive, a story of plane crash survivors trapped on a mountain who are faced with the choice of starving to death or turning to cannibalism. Young had to read the line "we have to eat the people".
"I could never say it without laughing," he admits. "I still can’t. I auditioned, they said: ‘We love you, you’ve got the role … We’re going to put you up for a week, pay for all your expenses, give you everything you want. All you have to do for us is spend a week with an acting coach; your delivery of that line is coming out a bit awkward. You’re smiling, and making it look as though you’re enjoying it … We need to see absolute horror.’
"I went away for a week and attempted to be brainwashed by an idiot. Because I didn’t need him. I went to the library and researched the effects of torture and extreme conditions on the psyche — for instance, death camps, where people were singled out and told they were going to die the next day. And their reactions were to smile.
"I kept coming across the same thing; it is normal to have an abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation.
"So I turned up at their audition and I did the line the way I wanted to do it. I was yelled at! I was treated like a petulant child. And I never felt prouder. I never felt better. I had survived a real test and come out the right side."
Since returning to Australia after losing the Alive role, he has done more films with Beresford (including Mao), had a star turn in Paul Cox’s Exile — which ended in a physical fight between himself and Cox on set, although it didn’t stop them becoming friends — and played a charismatic baddie in Mark Lee’s The Bet.
Young is proud of what he has achieved, despite some lean times. But does he ever wonder whether he killed his big chance in the US with that smile?
"Well everyone will say: ‘You’re an idiot, there was a Hollywood career right in front of you, and probably if you’d done that film you’d have built a power base and by now you’d be conducting this interview at a press conference on a yacht in the middle of the Mediterranean.’
"Yeah, maybe I am an idiot, but, c’est la vie. I mean, what other actor has had such a varied range of roles so early and such an interesting range of people to work with, but survived it, quite seriously, physically survived?"