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PHILLIPS, NATHAN – UNDER THE RADAR

Nathan Phillips gets Andrew L. Urban incensed at the start, as the young actor reveals what makes him tick, why he loves Wolf Creek and how he got Under The Radar.

He’s standing in the hotel room before our interview begins, looking around for a match. The publicist who has escorted him to the room (which is on two levels and the beds are upstairs) doesn’t have any. Somehow, matches turn up. Nathan Phillips, his head shaved within a millimetre of his brain and with an almost imperceptible mohawk crowning his tight crew-cut, leans over and lights up. The popular and familiar scent of Nag Champa incense wafts across the room. “It makes me feel at home,” he says with his shy but diffident smile.

Incense apart, there’s more to Nathan Phillips than meets the radar, as it were. Right now, he’s laid back and relaxed after a two week holiday on Stradbroke Island and at Byron Bay with his girlfriend. The holiday coincided with his father’s 47th and his girlfriend’s 21st birthdays. “Everyone came, it was the first time we had about 40 friends all together at the one time. It was a real celebration.” But in work terms, Phillips is still on a high from his latest film, Wolf Creek, which wrapped just before he took the holiday.

"It’s going to be my best work"

“It’s going to be my best work, the script just jumped. I did the best audition …I had to audition for the director, Greg McLean, in my mate’s lounge room upstairs. Greg had approached me for another film he was working on, but this one got up first. It was shot on tape, just $1.3 million, really humble little film, but it’s going to Sundance, and [US distributor] Lions Gate are looking at it…it’s done really well.” His enthusiasm is energising.

A small intimate crew worked on Wolf Creek, all from Adelaide, but the thing that really got Phillips going was that his character, Ben, is ambiguous. “I liked playing mind games with the audience… He’s a back-packing, spiritual dude, and you think maybe I’m a killer…. He meets up with two English back-packers and they travel from western Australia to Cairns, and there’s maybe a UFO abduction …. ”

Wolf Creek, a thriller/horror movie is set in 1977, also stars John Jarrett and Kestie Morassi.

Phillips made Under The Radar before Wolf Creek, and admits that things didn’t start out well with one of his co-stars, Steady Eddy. Steady Eddy plays Trevor, one of the inmates at a home for disabled, where surf-mad Brandon (Nathan Phillips) ends up doing community service, after an unfortunate episode of surf rage. He meets Adrian (Clayton Watson), who suffers from a rare condition of short term memory loss after a terrible childhood accident, and the cerebral palsied but mentally alert Trevor (Eddy). Brandon, ever the fun lover and thrill seeker, proposes to matron that a day of surfing would do the patients good and takes the two lads along, only to get embroiled in a case of inter-gang warfare over a haul of drugs. And a dead body.

What set the two actors apart was the difference in approach: Steady Eddy (real name Christopher Widdows, real disability, cerebral palsy) is a stand up comedian who uses his disability as the springboard to his comedy. Nathan Phillips is a surprisingly focused and intense young actor who prizes professionalism above all else. In his feature film debut (after stints on tv shows like Neighbours and The Saddle Club) as Gary ‘Blacky’ Black in Australian Rules, his career has taken off. 

"It’s empowering to act, for me"

“Chris is into improv… we didn’t get along pretty much the whole shoot. I have my certain ways and it didn’t gel with Chris. I found Clayton [Watson] a lot more easy to deal with on set. Coming from a fairly serious film in Australian Rules I felt I had to keep that going. A certain level of professionalism….Chris comes from such a raw place, his improvisational skills are amazing. The best I’ve worked with. His wit is uncanny. 

“It wasn’t until a couple of nights before we finished filming that he understood that when I asked for him to give me more, that was not only for my performance but for his. It wasn’t ever an issue of being better, it was about generosity … you can only be as good as the actor opposite you in some cases….I’m someone very much in the moment when I act, and if I’m not feeling it, I’ll be honest about it. It’s empowering to act, for me.”

The relationship was always civil and they’d have a few laughs on set, but Phillips sensed there was “something between us”. Until one night near the end of the shoot, they had a few drinks, “and we got it all out. He found an understanding… he worked it out. I wasn’t going to change. It was great to catch up with him a few weeks later at the Comedy Store. Went to his wedding, too! It’s going to be a fruitful friendship.”

"very creative"

Phillips reserves his greatest praise for director Evan Clarry, who made his feature debut with the schoolies week comedy romp, Blurred (2002). “Evan is generous, honest, capable, diplomatic, a gentleman and very creative. He believes in the importance of storytelling and loves learning. He’s open, he loves stuntwork and he loves film. Like me,” he adds with a soft smile.

Published July 29, 2004

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Nathan Phillips
(Pic, Andrew L. Urban)

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