From The Toecutter to Immortan Joe: Hugh Keays-Byrne

Acclaimed Australian character actor Hugh Keays-Byrne was born in India and raised in Britain, but he’s called Australia home since he came here in 1973 on tour with the Royal Shakespeare Company and, in his words, ‘… fell in lust with a woman called Christina Ferguson, and that was it!’

When the RSC left the Antipodes, they were down a man, with Keays-Byrne having elected to stay with his newfound love. ‘And I’m still with her,’ he notes.

The very next year saw him book his first Australian film role as doomed gang member Toad in Sandy Harbutt’s bikie epic, Stone, an experience he describes as ‘… very fascinating and exciting. It was a very intriguing experience for me, and it set me up for … I don’t know, it just set me up for lots of stuff, because it was a very good environment to work in and have a go.’

However, it was in 1979 that Keays-Byrne landed what remained, until 2015 at least, his signature role, that of the villainous Toecutter in George Miller’s seminal road rage actioner, Mad Max. Indeed, Keays-Byrne is identified so strongly with the role that it took almost 40 years for another part to supplant it in the public’s imagination — that of Immortan Joe in, surprise, surprise, Mad Max: Fury Road, Miller’s long-awaited return to the apocalyptic milieu of his most famous films.

It’s chiefly for these roles that Keays-Byrne will be appearing at Supanova in Melbourne and the Gold Coast over the next few weeks, and so naturally it’s about these that we mostly talk when we catch up with the seasoned thesp.

Ride eternal, shiny and chrome!

Starting in the mid-70s you’ve got all these roles in films that are now lauded as Australian classics — Stone (1974), Mad Dog Morgan (1976), The Man from Hong Kong (1975), Mad Max (1979), and more. What was it like as an actor in the Australian film industry at that time?

It was exciting. I didn’t really know — like you never do when you’re in the middle of something. You never know what’s what. It’s only in retrospect, when I look at those times, when I think, ‘Oh god, there was certainly a lot going on there, and wow, I did all those things!’ And a lot of them stuck, which is unusual, I think — it’s that whole lucky thing. I mean, Mad Max stuck — here it is, we’re here talking about it, and it’s 40 years later.

Why do you think that character, The Toecutter, has stuck and resonated?

I have no idea. And I mean, really, if I knew I’d go to the bank now, wouldn’t I? So, no, I’ve actually got no idea.

How did you build the character? He’s very poetic — he puts on voices and accents, there’s a homoerotic element in there, he’s dangerous, he’s funny — where was your head at when you were putting this guy together to present him to the camera?

I think in my preparation I was trying not to work out what I was going to do next — so I didn’t really know what I was going to do next. I took that risk of just learning the lines, and all of those things that I did I feel were cued from the script in one way or another. It was very spontaneous, partially because I’m lazy and I don’t like to do homework — that’s true! And that’s still me a bit. I’m lazy — I’m a lazy actor, and that can’t be helped — that’s just one of those things, and I’ve been lucky enough for that to be alright. I mean, sometimes you panic — you think, ‘Oh my god, here I am, and I haven’t prepared! I haven’t sorted myself out!’ But I trust myself; it’s the only thing I can say about approaching a character like The Toecutter. I just trust myself to come up with something pretty weird at the time.

And was the environment receptive to that? You were working with a fairly inexperienced director at the time, and a lot the actors were non-professionals. Were you able to stretch, or did you get push back? How was it?

It was good. [Australian actor] Reg Evans taught me something on the railway station when I grabbed his face. I think the first time I grabbed him I was a bit rough and he sort of, as a person, said, ‘Hey, don’t be so rough.’ He didn’t say that, but his body language did. And I thought, ‘Of course! I don’t need to be rough!’ He taught me that at that time, at that moment, and I believe that made that scene work.

The Man, The Myth, The Legend

And almost 40 years later you circle back around, and you find yourself in Fury Road. If you look at them as bookends on your career, you’ve got this scrappy little Aussie indie that goes on to take on the world, and then you’ve got this massive, huge budget, wildly acclaimed action extravaganza. What was the contrast like, going from one to the other?

Well, you know the contrast! There it is! It was like winning the pools — unthinkable really. The difference in the scales, the difference in the being of it all, the excitement of it, the shock and awe of that sort of scale. And also the feeling of, ‘My fuck, we’re never gonna pull this off — how can we pull this off? How is this gonna work?’ All of those things.

And then there it is — George Miller pulls it off. With the help of [editor and wife to Miller] Margaret Sixel — never to be underestimated, that work! Extraordinary. Well, everyone who did everything, really — at that scale, at that level, the skills displayed are remarkable. It kept staggering me out — I couldn’t believe it. John [Howard, who played The People Eater] is still there! John is still saying to me, ‘Oh my god! This is my first massive digital picture!’ And he’s so excited; he’s like a 10-year-old — it’s fantastic!

How does that scale of production affect you as an actor? Do you have to modify your performance to make sure you’re felt through the spectacle?

I think it just helps. And I was backed up by a very good cast of War Boys who knew. All I had to say was, ‘Gentlemen, your job is to make me The Man. If you don’t think I’m The Man … the only way it’s gonna work is if you believe in Immortan.’

When I was a spear-carrier in the Royal Shakespeare Company, the director would say, ‘You have to make this King Lear — you have to make him the most powerful person on the planet, so just think about that, all of you standing at the back.’ And we really managed to get that. There was a couple of times when I thought they were a bit slack, so I’d shout at them, but it was all good — that’s where the Immortan comes from — he’s a man of order.

And how does the costume in that situation affect your performance?

It acts as an adjunct, all of those things. And that’s a great and extraordinary thing that costume people do, and the make-up people do, and the prop manufacturers do — all of those things are another bit in your arsenal. By the time I’d got all that kit on and everything, I was the Immortan — and woe betide anyone who forgot that when I was getting out of the make-up van.

Interview by Travis Johnson

Hugh Keays-Byrne appears at Supanova at the Melbourne Showgrounds from April 5 – 7, and the Gold Coast Convention and Exhibition Centre from April 12 – 14. For more info, hit the official site.