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It was his first scene in his first feature film and he had to stand naked while a woman he’d never met washed him down; but that’s how Nicholas Hope found the way to play his unique character, and he became a cult star when Rolf de Heer’s Bad Boy Bubby scored accolades at Venice and around the world. Hope talks to Andrew L. Urban on the film’s DVD release.

In one of the very first scenes in Bad Boy Bubby, his first feature film, Nicholas Hope (Bubby) has to stand stark naked in the middle of the room while his oversized, overbearing mother ‘Mam’ (Claire Benito) washes him down. Bubby is 35 but has never been out of the grotty two room hovel they call home, and knows of no-one but himself and his mother. 

That mentally demanding scene, says Hope, actually helped him work out how to play Bubby: “I just cut everyone and everything else out …” His mental divorce from the world around him helped create one of the most striking and memorable characters in Australian cinema.

Mam shares the bath and her bed with her son. Bubby has none of the guideposts of society, and behaves with the abandon of childish pragmatism and inquisition. When Bobby’s long lost alcoholic father returns, the jealous Bubby bursts out into the world. Abused and exploited at every turn by feminists, prisoners, a policeman, animal lovers – and even the Salvation Army – Bubby gradually starts to find his feet in a rock band, with the help of the few (inappropriate) phrases he learnt from his mother and other bits of human behaviour that his mimicking skills help him acquire.

This milestone film – both for its writer & director Rolf de Heer and for Australian cinema – is finally out on DVD, with a joint commentary by Hope and de Heer. 

“Seeing the film when we recorded the commentary for the DVD just recently,” says Hope, “it came over more naďve, in a sweet way. I had previously seen it as funny but savage.” 

"made without compromise"

It was an especially powerful launch for Hope’s screen career, “because it was a low budget film. Rolf wasn’t sure it would get a theatrical release, going straight to video. So it was made without compromise.” That was a double edged sword, says Hope. On the one hand the film’s extremes created a cult following around the world, but it also pigeon holed him in low budget films. And initially, most of the roles he was offered were variations on Bubby.

Using Bubby's non-judgmental view of the world, Rolf de Heer explores parts of it - and we begin to see those parts much as Bubby sees them: as if for the first time. Like children. So we also question them. 
What is beautiful? What is ugly? What is right? What is innocence? Guilt? Why?

But Bubby does not arrive in the world at age 35. True, he has been locked away in a windowless room all those years, but that is not to say he had no experiences. He'd discovered things about cats and cockroaches, his mother, his father, god, gladwrap, death, drink and sex. 

In a way, he had experienced things most of us would never come across. Yet it was all in a vacuum. 

The power and veracity of Bad Boy Bubby may incline audiences to imagine its creator, Rolf de Heer, to be a weedy, bitter, introverted misfit with a hideous childhood. 

This is not so. He is a tall, good looking man with a happy family background, and a childhood he describes as "revolutions and tigers in the jungle": exciting and adventurous.

But the film’s references to God and Christianity seem satirical, although Hope sees that differently. “The film attacks the bureaucratisation of morality … for example, Bubby’s abusive mother uses the idea of Christianity … Jesus always watching Bubby … to repress him. The speech by the scientist (Norman Kaye) is an attack on the structures built around our view of God; and the muso in the band points to atrocities perpetrated in the name of religions. Religion is used to cover up the pursuit of power,” he says. 

"to accept all people"

One of the many awards the film has won is a Ecumenical Prize at Venice (where it was a smash hit in 1993) and Hope explains this as a recognition of the film’s message “to accept all people…to be tolerant to other points of view.” For de Heer, the intended message was compassion.

Of the many extraordinary or memorable scenes in the film, one that will no doubt stand out for many is the scene early on, when Bubby casually eats one of the cockroaches that scurry about his small world. “I actually had my mouth full of chocolate....a slight peanutty taste, though....Rolf ate one to convince me to do it,” he recalls. The cockroaches came from a South Australian research lab, and were guaranteed disease free. Animal rights activists never did complain about that roach, although some (mostly overseas) did complain about the kitten being a) tied to a chair for one scene, and b) being wrapped in clingwrap. 

As Rolf explains on the DVD commentary, this was really ironic. “When we wrapped it in clingwrap it started to purr … he loved it. And actually, the film saved the cat’s life: it had been identified as a feral cat to be put down, but during production it became obvious it was not feral, and adopted one of the crew.” And lived happily ever after.

As Bad Boy Bubby hits the DVD shelves in Australia, Nicholas Hope hits the road for Norway, where he will spend several months working on two projects: he will begin rehearsals on the Ibsen play, The Lady From The Sea, as well as develop a monologue he has written, which is being funded in part by the Norwegian Government, about the experiences of a man in two cultures: Australian and Norwegian. Having originally visited Norway for personal reasons, he is now the only Australian actor working in Norwegian theatre. 

"a slightly bizarre career path"

Hope has other writings to his name, including some memoirs published in 2004, and Take Me With You, an anthology of short fiction to be published in Australia by Random House in December 2005. “It’s a slightly bizarre career path,” he admits – happily.

Published September 1, 2005

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Nicholas Hope
Photo by Morten Eckersberg


Bad Boy Bubby

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