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Roy Billing: Everyone thought I was mad to become an actor

Roy Billing at home on Waiheke Island. Photo/Ken Downie

You might not recognise his name but actor Roy Billing’s face is instantly familiar. He talks to Ken Downie about coming home, after almost three decades in Australia at the top of his game.

He’s come to a sticky end at the hands of an alien armed with a ray gun, been bashed to death with an iron bar, dropped dead from a heart attack, died from a suicidal overdose, and lost a battle with prostate cancer – and lived to do it again. For actor Roy Billing, it’s all in a day’s work.

“I must be reasonably convincing when it comes to my on-screen deaths – I’ve notched up a few over the years,” he says. “I’ve seen my wife Linda shed the occasional tear as she watched my demise.” Not that she’s always so sympathetic. “Sometimes she’ll just look at me and say, ‘Are you my husband or some Mafia thug?’ Perhaps that’s when I’m too convincing…”

The Kiwi-born actor has become so famous in Australia for roles such as organised-crime boss “Aussie Bob” Trimbole in the TV series Underbelly and colourful racing identity Harry Strang in the hugely successful TV series Jack Irish that he only has to step out the door for someone to ask for a selfie with him. Later this year, he’ll be seen dying a slow death in Foxtel’s new 10-part black-comedy drama series The End, among a cast including Frances O’Connor (The Missing, Mr Selfridge) and Dame Harriet Walter (The Crown, Succession).

Yet despite the success that’s come his way since moving to Sydney almost 30 years ago, Billing has now quietly slipped into the relative obscurity of life back home in New Zealand with his Kiwi wife, Linda Tizard, a retired entertainment industry executive.

Particularly happy about the move to Waiheke Island is their cat Minette (or Minnie, for short). A stray Billing adopted while filming Underbelly, she’s loving the garden after years of being confined to their art-deco apartment in Coogee.

“There was just an indefinable feeling it was time to come home,” says Billing, 72. “We’re both of an age when it’s not so important to be where the work is. And if Australia needs me, I can still get on a plane at a minute’s notice and pretend I’m living back in Sydney. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the island life. So far, Waiheke people have been too cool to expect a selfie!” 

There must have been something in the water in the Northland town of Ruawai – population 400-ish – where Billing grew up in the late 50s. When he was a kid, actor Rawiri Paratene lived just down the road. It was also the childhood home of future politician and diplomat Lockwood Smith. Billing didn’t know either of them, but he does remember hanging out at the local movie theatre. “It’s gone now, but I used to go to the pictures all the time.” Sitting in the back row at the movies on a Saturday afternoon in Ruawai, could he ever have imagined the life that lay ahead of him?

“It would never have occurred to me,” he laughs. “That only happened in England or America back then.”

 Flanked by co-stars Aaron Pedersen (left) and Guy Pearce in the crime-drama TV series Jack Irish. Photo/Supplied

As it turned out, Billing’s path to stardom was typically unconventional. After a brief stint at university and as bass guitarist for a psychedelic rock band called The Ministry of Fog, Billing dropped out of his science degree and spent three years “number crunching” for Inland Revenue.

Deciding advertising was a better bet, he joined Auckland agency Jacka Brown and later McCann Erickson. It was the 60s, an era in advertising made famous by hit TV show Mad Men, of which Billing is a fan. The job itself wasn’t quite so much fun. “For a long time, I was stuck in accounts when I really wanted to be in creative.”

So, like any good actor, he reinvented himself – becoming involved with amateur theatre and then Theatre Corporate, where founding director Raymond Hawthorne offered him a job in Theatre in Education, working with high schools from Northland to Palmerston North. After seven years in advertising, he quit his lucrative job to take up the new role, on a salary of $50 a week.

“I’d just been offered a directorship in a big Wellington agency,” he says. “You’d think I had got to where I wanted to be… Everyone thought I was completely mad.”

Especially his father, Roy senior. “Dad never really understood the decisions I made. He was definitely of the generation that didn’t get the artistic persona.”

In the 80s, after Billing had established himself as a successful professional actor, his father visited him in Auckland. By then, Billing was a father of two and on his second marriage. “We had a nice big house in Albany. I had an Italian sports car parked in the driveway. He just looked around and said, ‘Son, I wish you would get a proper job.’

“I think that’s what happens sometimes with creative people, especially if the father is working class – they don’t quite understand what the child has become.”

Left: In the arms of his father, Roy senior, in 1949. Right: as a bearded hippy in the early 70s. Photos/Supplied

North & South: Your dad sounds like a hard man to impress, but he must have watched you on TV and boasted about you to his friends?

Roy Billing: The first time I played the coach Tupper [in Greg McGee’s play Foreskin’s Lament at Theatre Corporate in 1980], I decided to base my character on Dad. But when he actually turned up, I got this sense of terror that he might recognise himself. Afterwards he came out back. “Jesus Christ, there was a lot of fucking swearing in that play,” he said. “Thank Christ I didn’t bring your auntie. It’s a man’s play.” Not a single comment on my performance! It was all alien to him. And needless to say, he didn’t recognise himself.

Later, I was up for a Feltex award for the TV series Inside Straight [described by NZ on Screen as a “Minder-esque portrait of Wellington’s underworld”] and I didn’t think to mention it to Dad. When I won, people must have rung him up and told him. He was really pissed off and tore strips off me because he’d missed the awards. So yes, he did boast about me sometimes.

Dad was a panelbeater – he worked with his hands, which was something he really valued. Maybe if I’d been more like my brother, who followed in Dad’s footsteps and made a fortune out of painting trucks, that may have impressed him more.

N&S: What was it like trying to break into acting at 30?

RB: I really wanted to make the most of this opportunity. I didn’t think I’d get another chance. I guess I always thought if it didn’t work out, I could go back to advertising. Looking back now, I don’t know how I managed it. Theatre in Education was actually quite a hard job. We travelled around the country going to schools and trying to engage students in the concepts of drama, and of course they didn’t want to know about it. We’d be sitting in a circle doing potted Shakespeare or Pygmalion... Quite challenging!

Billing won an Australian Film Award for his role as Bob Trimbole.

N&S: What was the first part you played on film?

RB: A court official in Beyond Reasonable Doubt [a docu-drama on the Crewe murders]. It wasn’t a big part. I can still remember my lines: “All rise.”

N&S: But by the mid- to late-80s, your career was really taking off.

RB: I must have been involved in about 20 films and TV shows by that stage: Gliding On, Under the Mountain, Came a Hot Friday... I played a cab driver in Inside Straight. That was fun. I remember one night I was sitting in my cab waiting for radio instructions to drive around the corner into camera, when suddenly some bloke jumped into the back seat and asked me to take him to Petone. I had to explain to him that this wasn’t a real cab, it just looked like one.

Another time, I was playing the pilot Gordon Vette in Erebus: The Aftermath. We were filming out by the airport and during a break, another actor, Sean Duffy, and I went off to a nearby pub. Here we were in the lounge bar having a beer in our fake Air NZ uniforms, when suddenly this off-duty pilot charged over and had a go at us. He wasn’t very happy. “What’s this?” he said, pointing at my cardboard wings. It hadn’t occurred to us what a bad look it was to the public.

N&S: After more than a decade of success in New Zealand, you left to start a new life in Australia. Were you reinventing yourself again? You seem good at that.

RB: I don’t know about reinventing myself, but moving to Australia was the best decision I ever made – I would never have had the same opportunities here. First, I went to LA for six months, but no one wanted to know. Maybe I was ahead of my time. That’s what all the young actors do today – go straight to LA and crash on someone’s couch, waiting for the big break.

The house in Albany and the sports car went after my second marriage ended. So, there I was in Sydney, 42 years old and starting out all over again with virtually nothing. It was quite confronting at first, especially after having such a successful career over here.

I ended up doing stage work in the evening and labouring on building sites during the day for a couple of years. Once, I recognised a guy from the [1981] movie Gallipoli, the actor Mark Lee, doing the same as me. Later we worked together in a film he directed.

Billing as the Mayor of Parkes in much-loved feature film The Dish (2000), in a scene with young actor Carl Snell. Photo/Supplied

N&S: You’ve played a lot of historic characters. Do you feel sometimes you’re part of history yourself?

RB: I’ve never really thought about it quite that way, but The Dish is one of those films that, for a generation of younger Australians, is their only connection to the moon landing [Billings played the Mayor of Parkes in The Dish, Australia’s top-grossing film in 2000, which tells the semi-fictionalised story of the role of the Parkes Observatory in New South Wales in relaying live TV coverage of the moon landing in 1969].

Linda and I went to a weekend celebration of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing at the observatory recently, where there were talks from scientists and people from NASA. I introduced a screening of The Dish, which was held in a paddock for more than 1200 people, with the actual dish as a backdrop to the screen. I was inundated by literally hundreds of selfie-seekers – almost as if I were part of the main event, somehow more than just a character in a film.

Linda and I went to a restaurant in Griffith one time that turned out to be the same restaurant where Bob Trimbole was dining the very night he famously had [local politician and anti-drugs campaigner] Donald Mackay murdered. There was a whole bunch of cops in the restaurant, and when I walked in, all they saw was Bob Trimbole – an “Elvis coming back to Memphis” moment.

N&S: Did you find yourself thinking very carefully about taking on the role of a drug baron like Bob Trimbole, given the contribution drugs made to the death of your son?

RB: It was something I had to think about really carefully, because Simon had drug issues that led to his suicide [at the age of 20 in 1995]. But then I thought, “I’m supposed to be an actor.” What’s that famous line in Hamlet? “Hold a mirror up to life.” I didn’t want to back away from something I found confrontational.

N&S: You went against the view of the union over the use of foreign actors working in the Australian film industry – and even lobbied Canberra. How did that come about?

RB: The Australian actors union [the Actors Equity section of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance] is the only union that has the power to approve foreign workers. Some movies are financed on the back of big-name stars, and sometimes the union says no and the funding falls over. I ran a campaign in 2014 arguing the union should be taken out of the decision-making process and that it should be left in the hands of the immigration department. It’s great for local talent to work alongside these big, bankable stars. They’re often the only reason the films get made in the first place. It never quite got resolved – but things did improve.

N&S: Did taking that stand cost you professionally?

RB: I got a huge amount of support from the screen industry. No repercussions from the union, although obviously they weren’t pleased. For all their blather, the union in Australia is a bit of a toothless tiger run by people who think our industry is like the mining or construction industry. They have no idea that ours is a creative industry relying on collaboration, mutual respect and that the so-called bosses (that is, producers) are often our friends and, certainly, our colleagues.

With wife Linda Tizard on their wedding day in 1997. The couple recently moved back home from Australia. Photo/Supplied

N&S: How different do you find life across the Tasman?

RB: Aussies are more outgoing – too much sometimes! But we share similar senses of humour. In Australia, I’m directly offered acting roles and voice-over work through my agents from producers, directors, ad agencies and TV networks, who all have faith in my ability to perform a role satisfactorily. Here, such people don’t seem to have the same confidence in their own judgments, and seem to want to audition every actor for every role. I haven’t come this far in my career to have to audition for New Zealand roles. My track record speaks for itself. So, I guess most of my work will continue to come from Australia, which is fine. The money’s certainly better!

N&S: What would you say to anyone wanting to become an actor?

RB: I wouldn’t like to be starting out all over again today. Get something to fall back on and know when to fall back on it, that’s my advice.

N&S: Has fame changed you?

RB: I hope not. Linda says I’m a private person. I don’t like the attention most of the time. I’m happy to fade into the background. But I suppose it comes in handy sometimes.

Left: The real Australian gangster Robert Trimbole and Billing (right) as the organised-crime boss in true-crime drama series Underbelly. Photo/Supplied

N&S: You now have a plaque outside the Ritz Cinema in Randwick alongside the likes of Jack Thompson. Roy senior would be chuffed, wouldn’t he?

RB: I always say having a plaque on the footpath just means everyone can walk all over you, and that would have been Dad’s sentiment too.

N&S: At 72, you don’t sound like you’re planning on retirement.

RB: I thought as I got older, work would start to drop off, but that’s not the case. After the success of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which I wasn’t involved in at all, producers have realised there’s a market for older people, who watch lots of film and TV. I’ve just done a series with Dennis Waterman [Minder] called Never Too Late [about four Vietnam vets famous for their escape from a POW camp, now plotting a break-out from their nursing home].

N&S: Now you’re back home in New Zealand, what’s next?

RB: I’m available for work over here if anyone’s interested, and I’m still commuting to Sydney. Otherwise I’ve got an autobiography to finish. I’m calling it Why Can’t You Get a Proper Job?

This article was first published in the February 2020 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.