May 15, 2014
In the new Australian drama ‘Healing’, Don Hany (a staple of Australian TV with ‘Rake’ and ‘Offspring’ among his credits) stars as Viktor Kahdem, an Iranian inmate whose prison sentence is coming to a close after serving over 16 years. To rehabilitate Viktor to prepare him for life on the outside, he’s sent to a pre-release prison farm where he is tasked with the responsibility of socialising a series of injured raptors. One particular bird, a majestic eagle with a 2 metre wingspan, takes Viktor’s interest and together the two help and heal each other as they prepare for a life free of limitations. In Brisbane to promote this emotionally resonating film, Hany sat down with QNews entertainment reporter Peter Gray to discuss the unique filming process.
So how did the film come about for you? Did you audition or did they approach you?
Craig Monahan, who directed it, he had a real thing about whoever was going to play Viktor (the main character) had to be old enough. So my audition was a series of makeup tests…someone must’ve brought him a copy of something I did, I don’t actually know what it was, and he was keen but he wasn’t sure if I could play an older guy. I nearly blew it cause I sent him an audition of a makeup test that I did (laughs), where I just bought some theatrical grey makeup…you know talcum powder in my hair…and I had access to a Persian friend to get the accent down and I learnt a couple of lines and shot (the audition) on my iPhone and emailed it off to him and he was like “Hey man, great Greek accent”. I thought I had blown it but he said we could work with it…and I was excited about playing a Middle Eastern guy that wasn’t Islamic and that was something I thought deserved a bit of exploration.
Was there any challenges working with those animals? You get very close to them in the film.
I had to really be patient with that, really take my time. I was working closely with the bird handler, Andrew Payne, who is such a generous guy and was so patient with me. And I had the benefit of not seeming like I was an expert right away, you know I could chart the journey with the bird, so that took about 6 weeks for the bird to move with you and treat you like a part of the furniture as opposed to “who the fuck are you?”
Because there were 3 birds playing the character of Yasmine, did you spend an equal amount of time with each bird?
There was really only one I had to be intimate with, and she was about 20 when she was injured, and that was 20 years ago, and she’s the one you see the most often and her name was Gracie, and then there’s Stella who’s the younger, fitter female…and a lot of the photography, the swooping shots, that’s her. And then Bart, the smaller male, he was for the aerial stuff because he’s a better looking bird.
You said when you tried the accent it came across as Greek, did you have difficulty perfecting it?
I have access to Arabic sounds, you know my dad’s Iraqi and I grew up with that in mind, so the difficulty for me was finding a Persian sensibility, because Persian is a very unique Middle Eastern sound…most of the time I thought of him as someone who shared his culture, someone who forfeited things about his past in order to survive in jail.
Did you do a lot of research on the lifestyle of a prisoner?
Yeah I spent some time in a prison, and I think what struck us the most, especially in these pre-release places (where the film is set) a lot of these guys have become like surrogate family to each other and it became harder for them to leave. So many of these guys are so upset about leaving, you know they potentially have nothing to go to when they leave and I think that’s what is the biggest motivator for them to re-offend, because they don’t want to leave. And that’s why I think this program has been so successful as none of the prisoners that were involved (in the program) did re-offend.
Did you actually spend time in a pre-release prison like the one depicted in the film?
Yeah I did, and I probably would’ve been better off going to a maximum security prison because when you first meet (Viktor) he is fresh out of there…I guess I did my research back to front. But what was unique about that was you would feel like a fish out of water coming into a pre-release, and if you have spent 20 or so years in prison and you’re now given the opportunity to interact with people and given the opportunity to spend a day released…I think you’d find the freedom that you’re offered would be more frightening than staying. There are things about Viktor, like the obsessive compulsive cleaning and the hatred for narcotics, that I found really consistent with a guy from the Middle East who had so many limitations (within prison) that what remains becomes so precious so I always saw him as a guy who had struggled to fit in all this time.
Did you find those character aspects already written in? Or did you come up with that?
A little bit, the fact that he descends into drinking on his day release, I found that fit with a guy who wasn’t liberated in prison…and all of those things were kinda like dirty secrets that he had to keep, so much so that his own son became something he’d prefer to forget about. I was thinking about this the other day, I don’t know how many friends you have that enjoy drinking, I have a few and every now and then one of them would get into their car and drive home after a few drinks…and if they make it home without having an accident, nobody really thinks anything of it. But the chances of hurting someone are high and what separates someone from having done that, is luck…is not much of a margin. You could spend many years in prison for doing something like that and there has to be punishment for that…and this is a delicate matter but in the end two lives are destroyed – the person who has been injured and the person who is being punished for that. And I had no means to see things from that perspective until I started to research, and I think very little really separates those in jail and those outside of it because we’re all capable of making mistakes.
Did you find yourself staying in character when the cameras finished rolling?
I don’t find the need to do that as much in Australia…I had just finished working in Canada and playing American, for some reason, I found it easier to keep talking in the accent for the majority of the day. I would come home with a bit of a headache because Australians tend to drop the end of their sentences whereas Americans over annunciate everything. I didn’t feel the need to stay in character (in ‘Healing’) I found the work environment supportive of the story.
And working with Hugo Weaving, what was that like?
Hugo is such an asset to the industry, you know he’s truly generous…his support of the story and the film, you know you could say he was one of the leading factors in it getting made. He brings an incredibly experienced and generous work ethic to set, and it infects everyone. It definitely changed the way I work and I would wish that experience on everyone because it’s a great philosophy to take into work. I think his love of Australian cinema is what it really is.
Well congratulations on the film, it’s always so great to see an Australian film get the treatment it deserves and I really hope this does well for you. Thank you.
‘Healing’ is currently screening in cinemas across Australia.