Dale Kerrigan as a serial killer? It doesn’t seem to make sense at first. From his film debut in 1997’s The Castle to playing Graham Kennedy in miniseries The King to joining forces with Shaun Micallef touring the sketches of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Stephen Curry has proven one of the nation’s most endearing comedic performers.
But when Time Out sits down opposite him at a Sydney hotel, we get it. Curry’s a deadpan comic, and the blank look that made his mulleted narrator in The Castle a brililant comedy character is the same dead-eyed gaze that controls, menaces and haunts as sociopath John White in Hounds of Love. Those steady pale eyes hold Time Out transfixed as he discusses the making of this disturbing film.
A stunning debut from writer-director Ben Young, Hounds of Love is inspired by a real-life kidnap and murder spree in Perth in the 1980s by a married couple. In the film, a rebellious teen, Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings), falls prey to Evelyn White (Emma Booth) and her mustachioed husband John (Curry) and is chained to a bed while they plan her torture and murder. Visually and aurally seductive, the film also boasts three pitch-perfect performances.
Stephen, do you recall reading this script for the first time?
Yeah, I got the script in my hands and I went nuts for it. Because I don’t get those scripts! Never, ever. I only get to read those scripts when my friends are cast in those films. They didn’t tell me what character [I was up for] so I was reading it and thinking, “oh yeah, the bumbling guy is going to come in at some stage. The funny cousin.”
How did you approach the audition?
I have this thing about auditions: I either want to succeed magnificently, or go down in flames. My two main decisions were: there’s power in silence. Never yell. He’s a psychopath, he has fits of anger, but I think this character knows there’s more power in silence. He uses silence to elicit fear. And the other one was to affect charm. Psychopaths don’t have actual charm, they imitate. They can affect empathy and affect love and all that stuff they don’t [feel]. This is the weird thing: John’s an actor. You know, you’re told your whole life as an actor to ‘stop acting’. So I go and do an audition where what I want to do is to stop acting while acting as a guy who’s acting!
When John tortures and kills, he appears to be enacting fantasies of empowerment.
Exactly, which is informed by his standing in the community, which is – nothing. Outside of that house he is a nothing. Which informs his need to dominate his domain, because that’s where he’s a god.
He has indoctrinated Evelyn to such an extent that she will do anything in her power to please him, like the master-pet relationship. He scolds her, till she does the right thing, then he rewards her. That informs the title of the film. The master-pet theme, the dog theme.
I like the way the two kidnappers and their victim play out this creepy family dynamic.
There is this strange mother-daughter relationship that develops between Evelyn and Vicky, and Evelyn’s shortcomings as a mother and her guilt over not having her children in her care is something she projects onto Vicki.
Were you familiar with the David Birnie case that film is based on?
Vaguely. There are a couple of similarities and Ben had said, look, it’s very hard to deny any link to it. It’s in the same city, same era, husband and wife. I read up a little bit on it. But then Ben showed me all the other cases, right back to the 1920s, that are so similar: psychopath meets vulnerable young woman, builds her up, showers her with affectations of love and respect, and makes her so beholden to him that she will forgo her moral compass to please him in the most hideous of ways. It’s so frightening to think that that could be such a common theme.
So how did you relieve the tension on the set? Especially with Ashleigh chained to the bed...
Gallows humour! We all had a chat about this, about what are we going to feel comfortable with. You have to have a circuit breaker. You have to take yourself out of there briefly and say, “It’s alright, I love you, I’m there for you, I’m not that guy, she’s not that woman.”
So as a family man, what’s it like it like to say to your wife, “so now I’m playing a serial killer”?
Good question. It wasn’t until I was over in Freo for a month, and my wife and two kids were back in Melbourne for the whole shoot that I was so affected by this. Mainly because of these performances by these beautiful, powerful women, I just wanted my kids. All I wanted was to hug my kids. I’m a very protective father anyway, but it’s like, the moment you’re reconciled to the fact that this happened to real people, I felt like I was on another planet [from them].
It was really, really difficult to be away from them. Waking up in the middle of the night hoping they’re OK. We were Skyping every day but one day my eldest, who was three at the time, said: “So when are you coming out of the iPad dad?”
Did you see that in his recent movie (also a TV series), David Stratton has reversed his original opinion about The Castle? He used to hate it, but now acknowledges it as a comedy classic.
Awesome! There were a fair few middling reviews when it came out. A lot of it was about it being a negative presentation of the working class. That is rubbish! How many comedies about family are about how much they love each other? And how many get most of their humour out of how much they love each other? It’s almost impossible to do.
The film is 20 years old now, if you can believe it.
Every time I do a TV interview I’ll catch a glimpse of the monitor and sure enough there’s Dale Kerrigan’s head there. You don’t realise how old you are until you see that. My wife says, “I can’t believe that people still recognise you from that film. You look nothing like that kid.”
What’s next for you?
I’m doing a small role in an American film. Not worth mentioning really. Just five minutes on screen – more like work experience. I’m just going over there to see what the [on-set] catering’s like really. Apparently you can order off the menu all day long. You can’t do that here. So as you can see, I’ve got my priorities straight.
Hounds of Love screens from Thu Jun 1.