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Michael Caton’s bush mechanic and ‘pretend gay’ Ralph has the biggest emotional journey in Strange Bedfellows, and he discovered the key to playing it by accident, he tells Andrew L. Urban.

The incongruity is striking: Michael Caton, who plays the rustic bush mechanic opposite Paul Hogan’s ‘wide boy’ cinema operator [when they pretend to be a gay couple for tax reasons] in the tiny outback township of Yackandandah, is lounging on the balcony of Sydney’s multi-star hotel at Circular Quay opposite the Opera House. This is where all the major stars stay. In true Aussie fashion, Caton is dressed in casual daks and a grey long sleeved T shirt which carries the key to the whereabouts to the film’s location.

“Yackandadah (in big letters), not far from Tangamalanga, at the foot of Murramurrangbong and over the hill from Mudgegonga.” And since Tangamalanga is where Mel Gibson has his Australian cattle farm, everyone now knows exactly where Strange Bedfellows was shot. In fact, there’s a man walking around Los Angeles with the same T shirt; Caton reckons he must be the boyfriend of the hotel housemaid who cleaned his room: Caton left his first copy there and had to fork out another $20 and send away to Yackandandah for this one.

It’s not just that Caton likes the jokey T shirt: he liked making the jokey film. “You tend to forget how much comedic experience Paul Hogan has had,” he says. “Before Crocodile Dundee there were all those tv shows he mostly wrote…he has a fantastic eye for comic detail. We’d run through some lines and he’d pick things up I hadn’t noticed. He also knows the filmmaking process thoroughly, and I mean all aspects.”

Equally impressed was Caton with English co-star Pete Postlethwaite, who plays the tax auditor visiting town to look into the claims by Ralph (Caton) and Vince (Hogan) that they’re a same sex gay couple, so Vince can claim some badly needed tax rebates from the past five years.

"He’s like Mount Rushmore!"

“Wow!” says Caton of Postlethwaite. “I had an idea of how I was going to play that scene with him interrogating us, but when we got to it, all preconceptions flew out of the window … all those meanderings in your head that you had the night before. Because you think ‘you couldn’t get a thing past this fellow.’ So I just had to get in the moment … He’s like Mount Rushmore!” laughs Caton.

By contrast, Kestie Morassi is the total opposite in the film. She plays his daughter Carla; “I think she has a great future, watch out for her,” says Caton. “You look at those big eyes on the screen filling with tears…” He does have a bit a track record: some years ago Caton also predicted great things for 17 year old Nicole Kidman when he worked with her on Five Mile Creek. “She had that quality…as did Cate Blanchett. When you saw her first ventures into film, you could tell. I never tire of watching Bandits: she lights up the screen like a powerhouse. And working with her you’d get such a charge…and that’s what Kestie has as well. You get a charge off her. She has a scene where she explodes and turns on me . . . and you feel this power emenating from her and you know the camera is picking it up. You just know it is.”

So what about his own character, Ralph, the country town widower whose world turns upside down when he agrees to pretend to be the gay lover to Vince. “Yes, at first he’s not really thought about a lot of things outside his world, and this happy go lucky country bloke turns pretty well into a hysteric, who steps outside his world and learns a few things. By the end of the film, he’s pleading for tolerance and understanding – things he probably hasn’t thought about all that much!”

The scene in which Ralph makes that plea is a memorable moment in the film, shot in the community hall with half the town standing there watching. The take that director Dean Murphy chose was not the only one they shot, as Caton recalls. He says there were others where he took the emotions much further: “there were tears streaming,” he says. “But I think Dean’s picked the perfect take. It’s better like this, with Ralph fighting his emotions a bit.”

Indeed, it is Ralph who goes on the biggest emotional journey; “yes, Vince starts out as a wide boy, and he ends up a wide boy…but Ralph changes.”

"that became my signature to how to play it"

The key to playing Ralph, Caton says, came to him early on. He had read the script and enjoyed it. To get a better feel for it, he invited half a dozen mates to his place for a read-through. “It was interesting because never having read it aloud before, I didn’t put anything into the lines. The lines just worked. I’d just throw these lines away and everyone’d fall off their chairs. So that became my signature to how to play it. What I did by accident at the reading, I tried to do by intent in the film….”

Published April 22, 2004

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Michael Caton


With co-star Paul Hogan

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