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David Wenham has played many movie roles, including a brutal bastard in The Boys, a mathematics wizz in The Bank, a lover in Better Than Sex and in Paul Cox’s Molokai, he plays a Belgian priest helping lepers in the 19th century. He was in ‘seventh heaven’ when got the gig, he tells Andrew L. Urban, (no pun intended).

After a decent dinner “and several glasses of wine,” filmmaker Paul Cox invited his dinner guest, actor David Wenham, to “go downstairs.” And there in the basement studio, Cox pointed a camera at Wenham who did what must qualify as a rather unusual screen test, intended for the Belgian producers of Molokai – The Story of Father Damien. Wenham had learnt some lines from the script, but he didn’t deliver them in the perfect Flemish accent that we hear on the finished film. “I did it with an inoffensive English accent,” he says, speaking in his inoffensive Australian voice from Melbourne by phone, during a season of theatre he is enjoying (Sam Shepard’s True West, a physically and emotionally draining piece, he confesses).

Wenham, to his self confessed shame, had known nothing of Father Damien when his agent sent him the script. “I asked my parents who had learnt about him, but I was incredibly keen to play this character.”

"essentially a simple man,"

The film tells the story of Father Damian, a Belgian priest who volunteered to set up a parish on Molokai, the Hawaiian island home of a leper colony in the late 19th century. His dedication and care changed the lives of the suffering lepers before medication and humanity caught up with their plight. He is not helped by the Catholic hierarchy of Fr Fousnel (Derek Jacobi) or even Bishop Maigret (Leo McKern) and definitely not by Prime Minister Gibson (Sam Neill). But Hawaiian Princess Liliukalani (Kate Ceberano) is much more sympathetic. Peter O’Toole plays an Englishman dying of leprosy.

“Father Damian was essentially a simple man, a peasant really, and he was flawed,” says Wenham. “He had a ferocious temper, and he was frustrated by the authorities . .. he certainly would not have thought of himself as a potential saint. He did simple things that affected people’s lives in a positive way.” (Father Damian has now been Beatified by the Vatican, the first step to sainthood.)

But when he got the confirmation that he had the role, Wenham says he was “in seventh heaven. I was going to Hawaii and play this amazing character and work with a phenomenal collection of acting talent….”

Wenham’s flawless Flemish accent (“not an easy accent,” he quips with a knowing laugh) was maintained on a daily basis by listening to the Flemish crew on the set.

But things weren’t all smooth sailing, even though Wenham now says that “time has erased some of the negatives leaving only the positive memories which are wonderful.” The negatives concern an element of friction between Cox and Wenham at the beginning of the shoot. “It took a few weeks,” he says with diffidence, in reference to their relationship. “We work very differently and in a way that was a good thing because it was always about the work. Then we found a wonderful way of working together. Paul is so driven by wanting to tell beautiful stories….”

But there was even greater friction the producers and Cox. The producers were reportedly reluctant to include some real lepers in support roles in the film. In the end Cox was even fired from the film, although he has managed to compile his own cut of the film for Australian release.

"a very honest portrayal"

“I think it’s the film Paul wanted to make,” says Wenham. “It’s a very honest portrayal.” Wenham found working with the lepers – who only offered to help once Cox had gained their trust – “an extraordinary, uplifting experience. “that was the greatest joy of working on the film for me. My favourite scenes were those with the patients. They’re very honest and it made my job so much easier. I remember a couple of scenes, like the one in the dying shed…some of the patients would really believe that it was Father Damian walking into the room, and that sense of reality helped me a great deal…”

The experience also left its mark on a personal level. “It affected me working with these people with horrendous histories, yet they had not an ounce of bitterness.”

(David Wenham will be seen again on the big screen later in 2002 in the second of three films adapted from The Lord of the Rings, and in Dust, an unusual western from Milcho Manchevsky, in which he stars with Joseph Fiennes, Adrian Lester and Anne Brochet.)

Published June 20, 2002

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... in Molokai

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