"DO YOU like garden gnomes?" asks Aden Young, the actor, writer, director and one-time "next big thing", who was hailed as the new Mel Gibson after his debut in Bruce Beresford’s Black Robe but who is, ultimately, too disgusted by the silliness of Hollywood to vie for the title.
"Er, yes," I say, noticing a few squat, happy-faced gnomes sitting beside his front door.
Young leads me towards a tumble-down shed he calls his "office" in his Marrickville backyard, sits at a dusty laptop computer and plays a short film he has made about the 100 gnomes he has in his shed, set to a growling Tom Waits song. Each happy face looks lonelier and more ironic than the next as Waits sings of nights with too much champagne and not enough friends.
"Are you crying?" Young asks with a wry smile. "Because this is f—ing sad stuff."
The 37-year-old, whose new film, Lucky Country, is a brutal thriller set in 1902 in the goldmining hills of South Australia, is a warm host, offering tea and toasted ham-and-cheese sandwiches made by his partner, actor-singer Loene Carmen ("We’re like Jewish mothers when we have guests," he says).
When it comes to answering a question, he’s just as likely to respond by playing a song, reaching for a photo or making a sidewards obser vation as give a straight answer.
"Aden is very playful," says actor and long- time friend Hugo Weaving. "He’s a very thoughtful and philosophical creature but that’s wonderfully tempered by a playful spirit. He’s a Renaissance man."
Signs of that Renaissance man are all around us. The shed walls are lined with bookshelves: Wilde, Conrad and Bukowski are well represented. Peter Carey is a passion. "I like the brutality of his writing and the poetry," he says. "And he’s a sucker for sentiment."
Above the bookshelves are oil paintings in a naive style.
"I buy $3 paintings from St Vinnies and paint over them. I’m no artist but I do love painting," he says showing me a painting of a steam train he’s doing for his two-year-old son, Dutch.
Two guitars are resting next to piles of books on film and photography. On his laptop, random music plays, ranging from Bonnie "Prince" Billy to Pavarotti.
"I love clutter," he says looking around the room. "I’m attracted to the discarded things in life."
In the past few years, the Canadian-born, Sydney-raised actor has starred opposite Cate Blanchett on stage in Hedda Gabler (his first stage role), completed a season of the American mini-series The Starter Wife, written and directed a short film, The Rose Of Ba Ziz based on a children’s book written by his late father, Canadian radio broadcaster Chip Young and has just finished his second film with Bruce Beresford, Mao’s Last Dancer, due out in October.
Lucky Country, directed by Kriv Stenders (The Illustrated Family Doctor), is set a year after federation and follows Nat (Young), who has taken his new bride from London to a remote farm near the South Australian goldfields with the dream of living off the land. "God will provide," he says. As he starts to lose his sanity, a mysterious trio of men arrives; tired, hungry and searching for "a gold that poisons".
"It’s a terrific thriller," says Young. "It’s very difficult to pull thrillers off because we’re so used to the convention the hand-held camera all of a sudden tells us this is a violent moment, the zooming into the back of the head tells us there’s a man behind you! It’s a language we’ve learned over 100 years. So it’s very exciting to make a film that is bold and original but still references the genre."
Young’s co-stars in the film are all accomplished theatre actors Neil Pigot (When The Rain Stops Falling), Pip Miller (Othello, Hamlet), Robert Menzies (War Of The Roses) and up-and-comer Eamon Farren (The Kid, Ladybird).
"You rarely come across actors like that in film. My process generally occurs in four days. That’s the time you have between the first wardrobe call and "action". It’s a very quick turnaround," he says.
Young admits he was "petrified" at the thought of performing on stage in Hedda Gabler alongside Blanchett and Weaving. He turned up to the first day of rehearsals with all his lines learned. Director Robyn Nevin told him to go home and learn them all again.
"She said, ‘You haven’t got a clue. You might know the words but you haven’t built the character.’ It was a terrific lesson," he says. "Theatre is like a bloodletting. You really have to build up the character from within."
Later, Young recalls asking Weaving if his movements were big enough for the stage. "If I take a drink, should I be lifting my elbow more? Hugo just laughed. But I was really concerned because I’d spent the past 18 years in film, making things so small; just a flicker was enough to say something. When your face is 80ft high, it’s a frightening experience to move at all."
Off stage, Weaving remembers a more confident Young, one who almost disabled him and fellow Hedda actor Anthony Weigh on an ice rink in New York’s Central Park. "Aden is an ice-hockey demon but we were both terrible. Anthony did his leg in and I tripped and broke my glasses and hit my head. Aden was chastised terribly for injuring two of his co-workers," he says.
Years earlier, Young and Weaving met at Hornsby railway station. Young was 18, had just done Black Robe and felt confident enough to introduce himself. "I knew Aden then as a ridiculously handsome young actor with a real intensity on the screen," Weaving says. "He’s still got it now. The camera just loves him."
Beresford agrees. "I thought when we did Black Robe that he’d end up being the biggest star in the world," he says. "He’s bright and very good looking. He’s the perfect leading man. But somehow the film roles he took just didn’t connect with the public. Sometimes films flop and it can just be bad luck."
Some of the "flops" include Sniper, with Tom Berenger, Cousin Bette, starring Jessica Lange, and The War Bride, with Brenda Fricker. Young has no regrets.
"The Hollywood thing was just ludicrous. Everyone was full of bullshit. They were saying I was the new Gary Cooper and that I was some kind of genius. But I was a kid and I had nothing to offer. At the time, my father was sick and my family was in Australia. I just wanted to go home," he says.
"Only now do I feel like I’ve got a bit more of an idea of what acting is about and with the experience I’ve had in my life through the death of my father and becoming a father myself, I have things to reference in my work."
He then tells a bizarre Hollywood story. The first big audition he went for after Black Robe was for the lead role in Alive, an account of the ill-fated Uruguayan rugby team that resorted to eating the flesh of dead team members after their plane crashed in the Andes.
"So the producers fly me to LA and they’re saying, ‘We love you, we love you and we want you to do the film. But when you say, "we have to eat the people", could you say it without smiling because the way you’re saying it is kind of … spooky’."
Young spent a week with a drama coach practising that one line without smiling. "I was taking it very seriously," he says. "I read that people in abnormal situations often react abnormally so my instincts to smile had been right. But, instead, I was with this drama coach this woman who knew nothing and we’d go through these mind-bendingly horrific exercises that were like being stabbed by a thousand demons to just get this one line right.
"I finally got it but at the final audition, I couldn’t do it. I smiled. To this day, I can’t say that line without smiling." The role eventually went to Ethan Hawke.
Other Hollywood roles he either refused or narrowly missed included the lead in Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor ("that was the pits"), Sliver, starring Sharon Stone ("too seedy") and the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequel trilogy.
Instead, Young stayed in Australia and worked on a string of independent films with innovative directors. They included Laurie McInnes’s Broken Highway, Geoffrey Wright’s Metal Skin, and three Paul Cox films: Exile, Human Touch and Molokai: The Story of Father Damien. Young has recently also edited two of Cox’s films, including Salvation.
Cox says the young actor simply had too much self-worth to make it in the superficial world of Hollywood.
"He’s a fine actor and also a great thinker but he wasn’t shallow-hearted enough to pursue that kind of fame. He could see the stupidity and the madness of it all very clearly."
Young is philosophical. For now, he’s growing vegetables, painting, cooking and working on a film treatment in his shed.
"I am proud of what I have accomplished," he says. "I’ve tried to be somebody who is true to what they think and believe and lived the way you would expect of a decent human being. You can’t ask for more than that."
Lucky Country opens on Thursday.