Damon Herriman Interview

NFSA Presents: Inspired is a collection of conversations that dive into the creativity, the inspiration and the success of Australian cinematic talent. Hosted by film journalist Jenny Cooney, the video series complements the NFSA’s exhibition, Australians & Hollywood: a tale of craft, talent and ambition. Book tickets here now. 

In this episode, Jenny Cooney interviews actor Damon Herriman about his favourite Australian films, ambition and making it in Hollywood. Watch here:

'I act because I don't know what else I'd do'

Jenny: Well, let's get right into it and start off with your first or most influential Australian cinema memory.  

Damon: Well, my first Australian cinema memory was seeing Caddie (Donald Crombie, Australia, 1976) at the drive-in in Alice Springs, which is going way back. I was very small. I was probably too young to be seeing Caddie. I can't remember exactly what happens in Caddie, but it certainly wasn't a kid's film. So that was my first Australian film that I saw at a cinema or, in this case, the drive-in. Most influential is very, very hard to pick. I don't know if I can even pick the most influential because there are just too many. But Caddie was the first. 

Jenny: What about when you were young – were there certain movies you just have a clear memory of sitting and watching and being in awe of, or wishing you were part of? 

Damon: Probably, the ones that I remember... You know what, Storm Boy (Henri Safran, Australia, 1976) as well. Absolutely was obsessed with, anybody who was a little kid in the 1970s went to see Storm Boy. And yeah, I was pretty obsessed with that. 

And then of course if you go outside of Australia, Mary Poppins (Robert Stevenson, USA, 1964), I think might have been the very first film that wasn't Australian that I saw at a cinema. Even though obviously it was released way before I was born, but it was being re-released at the cinema for some reason. What else? Watership Down (Martin Rosen, UK, 1978), Star Wars (George Lucas, USA, 1977) are memories of movies I saw as a kid. Benji (Joe Camp, USA, 1974) – remember Benji? About the dog.  

Jenny: I'm assuming you saw the great Aussie movies like Gallipoli and things like that? 

Damon: I did. I saw Gallipoli (Peter Weir, Australia, 1981), Breaker Morant (Bruce Beresford, Australia, 1979)… actually, Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, Australia, 1975), which terrified me because I was probably about 7 years old or something, maybe even younger. We were living in Alice Springs at the time. I wasn't born there, but I was living there for 5 years when I was a kid, so there weren't too many options when it came to what you were going to go see at the movies. So sometimes there were movies that were probably more for adults than for kids. I remember being terrified by The Spiral Staircase (Robert Siodmak, USA, 1946) when I was about 6 years old. Not an ideal film for a small child! 

Jenny: So what films, music or stories do you find yourself going back to over and over again? 

Damon: I mean, music-wise – the Beatles. I mean, I'm a massive Beatles fan, so they'll always be in my life. I was trying to think of an Australian film example. The Australian film I think I've probably seen the most is Two Hands (Gregor Jordan, Australia, 1999). I actually saw Two Hands 4 times at the movies. I don't think there's another film from anywhere that I saw that many times at the movies. I just loved that film so much when it came out. I haven't seen it for a while, so I feel like I'm probably overdue another watch.  

Jenny: That's an interesting one to choose.  

Damon: Yeah, it doesn't quite fit the bill of films I keep going back to because I haven't seen it in a long time. At the time I kept going back to it because I saw it 4 times in about 2 months at the cinema. Yeah, I think I was just incredibly impressed by it – it felt very Australian, but it also didn't feel like any Australian film I'd seen. It captured an Australian-ness, but it didn't feel overly familiar, and it was very funny. It moved me as well. For me, seeing that film in the 1990s, I guess I was in my late 20s when I saw it, it just blew me away. 

Jenny: In your opinion, what's the secret sauce for Australian cinematic success?  

Damon: If only we knew exactly what that was, we could bottle it. But I think it's partly just that laconic, dry sense of humour, that Australian sense of humour that is hard to pin down exactly. But everyone knows what you mean, especially if you've been overseas and people don't have it. I think there's something in Australian cinema that captures that dryness. There’s also an earthiness and a rawness, both in the production and often in the performances. You hear that in America sometimes, that one of the things that appeals to Americans in casting Australians – that they often go to Australians because there's a certain rawness and an earthiness to them that they feel is harder to find there where things are all a bit glossy.  

Jenny: And when it comes to Australians in Hollywood, do you think we punch above our weight over there? 

Damon: 100 per cent. I mean, when you look at our population compared with how many actors have worked in Hollywood over the years, it's kind of remarkable. And they comment on it too. You know, rarely is there a job that you will film in America where the American cast or crew don't say, ‘Goddamn, you Aussies are everywhere!’. It's always something they talk about. 

Jenny: When you reflect on your career, what does ambition mean to you?  

Damon: That's a good question. Despite the fact that I had left Australia and gone over and worked in America and had many years of not working and kept going, I'd never actually been that ambitious. That doesn't make a lot of sense, but it's honestly the truth. I act because I enjoy it and I don't know what else I’d do, and anything else that really resembles ambition is just me trying to avoid regret.  

You know, so many of the decisions I've made in terms of going to America and sticking it out over many years when I wasn't working, was not because I had so much self-belief that I thought I was going to work. Or dammit, I was going to stay there till I proved it. It was just that I wanted to be absolutely sure that I wouldn't regret it later if I hadn't stayed for long enough. 

So, you know, when I first went there, I went for a 3-month trip and then 6 months later, I did another 3-month trip. And then I did another 3-month trip, and I was never going to go back after that third 3-month trip if I didn't get a job. Because by then I felt I'd proven to myself, I'm not going to work here, I don't need to be convinced anymore. And I just happened to get a guest role in that third trip and that that sort of reset everything and made me think, ‘OK, well, maybe I can work here’. 

Going to Hollywood for 'regret insurance'

Jenny: So what element of filmmaking craft fascinates you the most, besides the one you're obviously in? 

Damon: It’d probably be a toss-up between a few. I really like screenwriting, and I like to do that myself. I mean I'm not officially in it because I haven't sold any scripts, but I do like writing. And that's something I do a lot in my spare time between jobs. Directing, I think is really interesting. The different methods of directors – how much they say, how much they don't say – the different ways directors work is really interesting to me.  

And I think probably the one thing that is so foreign, but I find fascinating, is cinematography. I like to see how they frame a shot, whether they decide it’s to be a locked-off shot or hand-held; move the camera or keep it still, all those decisions. Yeah, I find it fascinating because there are so many different ways to tell a story, and a lot of it is dependent on what you are doing with the camera. You could get one scene that's just a shot of 2 people sitting on a bench in one locked-off, wide shot and another production could do the exact same scene where it's cutting between 2 singles and a camera's moving around them or whatever. So I think probably cinematography would be my main answer to that.  

Jenny: What does the National Film and Sound Archive mean to you?  

Damon: I think having the National Film and Sound Archive is absolutely essential. I'm quite a nostalgic person, and very much so when it comes to film and TV stuff. And when you occasionally hear that so many episodes of a TV show have been lost forever, I always find that incredibly sad. Because we need to be able to go back and look at our past and who we were and what we made. And having the NFSA there to not only store that stuff but store it in a condition where it's going to be available to watch for the decades to come – because there's no point keeping stuff if it's also unwatchable when you go back to look at it. So, I think it's absolutely necessary and I'm very glad it exists.  

I was thinking of just recently having seen that film that Peter Jackson made [They Shall Not Grow Old, UK–New Zealand, 2018], where he took that old World War I footage and and made that incredible film where you felt like you were there, due to the incredible restoration he did. It's absolutely essential, and I hope it's not going anywhere.  

Jenny: So which Aussies inspired you as you were coming up in your career?  

Damon: When I look way back, when I was a little kid starting, I was very inspired by Greg Rowe from Storm Boy (1976) because he was a few years older than me, but he was also from Adelaide and he was a kid actor. He was probably 12 when I was 7 or something, but he was someone to kind of look up to and think, ‘Oh wow, you can be a kid from Adelaide and be an actor’.  

Now I feel like I'm constantly inspired by my friend Ben Mendelsohn. I mean he's an old mate, we did The Big Steal (Nadia Tass, Australia, 1990) together, but pretty much from seeing him in The Henderson Kids (1985–86) and The Year My Voice Broke (John Duigan, Australia, 1987) onwards I've just always been such a fan of his work. And I’ve been so excited by the resurgence in his career that’s taken place over the last few years after Animal Kingdom (David Michôd, Australia, 2010). I guess I could literally watch him read the phone book, I find him so interesting on screen and so raw and honest. He’s just one of the greatest actors Australia has ever produced with a career for any actor to be incredibly envious of.  

Jenny: And now who currently inspires you, who do you think should be on the radar of the NFSA? 

Damon: Two actors come to mind because they were both in the same Heath Ledger Scholarship finals a few years ago [2017]. I was a pre-judge on that, in terms of taking the hundreds of entrants and whittling them down to a smaller number. And the two people that stood out to me – they neither of them won that year, but they did both go on to do really well – were Mojean Aria and Geraldine Viswanathan. Both of them since that time, which is probably 5 years ago now, have gone on to do exceptional work and are really starting to break through in America at the moment. So I would absolutely keep your your eye on both of them. 

Jenny: The NFSA is opening an exhibition, Australians & Hollywood, celebrating the craft and talent of Australians at home and overseas. What in your mind is there to celebrate?  

Damon: Well I guess like you said earlier, just that Australians really do punch above their weight in terms of working internationally in film and television for our population size. For a number of decades now, we really have popped up in some wonderful productions from all around the world. And I think that is worth celebrating.  

Aussies are kind of funny with this stuff because we don't like to pat ourselves on the back too much or get too excited about success. Or if we do, it's probably more to do with sports more than the arts. But I think it's great that the National Film and Sound Archive is doing it for Australians who are working in film and TV overseas. 

Jenny: Did any Australians help you in the early days of your career in Hollywood? 

Damon: Yeah, when I first went to Los Angeles, I was really taken care of by an actor called Kate Beahan, who I'm sure people may know from things like Chopper (Andrew Dominik, Australia, 2000) and Flightplan (Robert Schwentke, USA, 2005), which she shot with Jodie Foster over there not long before I was first over there in 2004, 2005. Kate was a godsend, really.  She'd been there for a few years; she knew the ropes, I knew nothing. And she was not only great company and a great friend, but she also just knew how it worked and kind of took me through the process of what it was like going into an American audition, what it's like going into an American job. Yes, she was absolutely someone I could not have done without, and I'll be forever thankful.  

Jenny: What's your advice to Aussies watching this right now and dreaming of Hollywood?  

Damon: When I give advice to Aussies about going to Hollywood, I'm usually like the really boring uncle who's giving the practical advice that's not that exciting. I normally say things like ‘Be realistic’, because it's very easy to get the stars in your eyes about how exciting it all is. But the truth of the matter is there are thousands and thousands of actors in America. And when you go over there, unless you're one of the lucky people who’s been plucked out of something over here and they send you straight into stardom, you’re normally just part of this pool of actors there. And there are tens of thousands of actors in LA alone.  

I would just say, if it's truly your dream to go to America and that's something that you'll regret if you don't do it, then by all means do it, if for no other reason than for a cool life experience. But just be very aware that you need to have some savings so you can eat and pay rent, and that it's not going to be a matter of just plopping on the doorstep of LA and then going straight into rooms for auditions. It's hard to get an agent and a manager, it's hard to get auditions. Some people are incredibly lucky. And look, I say this all the time, most of it I think is luck and timing. You know, not to say you don't need to be able to act as well, but there is so much luck and timing involved. And just be aware of that and look at it as something that's a life experience that is also following a dream. 

But I wouldn't bet the house on it because you’ve got to look after your mental health as well, and you don't want to be sitting over in LA struggling to pay the rent, wondering what's happened to your life because you're broke now. That's a really depressing answer! But it's also the truth. Look, having said all that, there are exceptions to every rule, and there are people who do go over there and within 2 weeks they've landed some amazing job. So, there are no rules really to any of this. But in a nutshell, be realistic would be my words of semi-wisdom.  

Jenny: But go for it anyway.  

Damon: Go for it anyway, if you feel like you're going to regret it because that's pretty much what I did. It was really just – I would call it ‘regret insurance’. I didn't want to wonder what might have happened. And I was perfectly OK with going there, failing and coming home just because I knew, ‘All right, well now, I did that, I don't have to wonder anymore’. If you feel like you're going to be someone who regrets stuff – which I am – then by all means give it a shot. Go over there for 3 months or 6 months and maybe go with a friend, so you've got a buddy to hang out with. It could be a lot of fun.