Ewen Leslie with Alice Englert in ‘Top of the Lake: China Girl.’
When Ewen Leslie received the script for Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, he reckoned it was among the best for a feature which he had read in a career spanning nearly 25 years.
Set in Tasmania in 1825, the drama follows a 21-year-old Irish convict named Clare who witnesses the brutal murder of her husband and baby by a group of soldiers. With an Aboriginal male tracker she enters the wilderness to seek revenge.
The Fall’s Aisling Franciosi plays Clare alongside Sam Claflin (Their Finest, My Cousin Rachel) as Hawkins, the chief perpetrator, Harry Greenwood, Damon Herriman and Baykali Ganambarr.
Leslie plays Goodwin, an English captain who sets off Hawkins, whom he describes as very ambitious, narcissistic and malevolent, on his journey.
“The script is a masterpiece. The Babadook was brilliant and I jumped at the opportunity to work with Jennifer and with Warwick Thornton in Sweet Country,” Leslie tells IF.
“There are some directors, when they come knocking, you essentially go, ‘I will play a horse in your movie.’ It doesn’t matter if it’s a small role.”
The actor who made his debut in the children’s series Ship to Shore feels privileged to have worked with highly experienced actors such as Claflin and Nicole Kidman and Elisabeth Moss in Top of the Lake: China Girl.
“Naturally it lifts your game and you learn so much from them,” he says. In the Top of the Lake sequel he played Pyke, the husband of Julia (Kidman), father of Mary (Alice Englert) and love interest of Robin (Moss).
“To find myself on set with Jane Campion, Nicole and Elisabeth, that was a pretty crazy experience. What made it very easy is that Nicole and Elisabeth are really warm, open, down-to-earth people who demand the same back from you,” he says.
On Sweet Country he describes the director-cinematographer Thornton as “incredibly laid back and very clear about what he wants; his visual storytelling is extraordinary.”
He acknowledges that playing a farmer and embittered WW1 veteran who suffers from PTSD was very challenging as he mistreats the Indigenous workers.
While shooting the Top of the Lake sequel he was sent the script of Priscilla Cameron’s The Butterfly Tree and was quick to take the role of Al, the single father of Ed Oxenbould’s Fin.
Father and son both are besotted with the ethereal Evelyn (Melissa George), a local florist and former burlesque queen. He relished playing a guy who is reckless and irresponsible and the chance to work with Cameron, George, Oxenbould and Sophie Lowe.
Another attraction was the magic realism in Cameron’s script. “I had not read something like that before and it was really ambitious,” he says.
In two episodes of Endemol Shine Banks’ Network Ten drama Sisters he played Abraham, one of the offspring of Barry Otto’s Julius, who is in prison and has a crush on Lucy Durack’s Roxy.
Next year he will appear in Matchbox Pictures’ Safe Harbour on SBS and in Goalpost Pictures’ Fighting Season on Foxtel.
He starts shooting the fifth series of the ABC’s Rake next month, playing Bevan Leigh, the ex-fiancé of Nicole (Kate Box) who dumped him when she hooked up with Barney (Russell Dykstra).
A huge fan of Rake screenwriters Peter Duncan and Andrew Knight, he says: “The show is so well written you don’t want to get a single word wrong. If you do, you can tell because the musicality of that doesn’t feel right because you missed that word or replaced one.
“I don’t know how [Richard] Roxburgh does that day after day because he has reams of dialogue that are brilliantly written. I suppose the role has become a second skin for him.”