No More Mr Nice Guy

28 May 2017 Rochelle Siemienowicz

No More Mr Nice Guy

Photo courtesy of Label Distribution

Twenty years ago, a young Stephen Curry entered the national consciousness with these iconic words delivered deadpan to camera: “My name is Dale Kerrigan and this is my story.” 

With his round blue eyes, pale freckled face and home-job haircut, Curry was the innocent narrator of Australia’s favourite suburban comedy, The Castle (1997). In his subsequent career as an award-winning actor and comedian, there has always been something inherently nice about Curry, whether he’s playing real-life jockey Damien Oliver (The Cup), TV legend Graham Kennedy (The King), or the lovable loser Sam Pickles in the miniseries Cloudstreet (2011). 

But Curry’s latest role in Hounds of Love, a psychological thriller written and directed by Ben Young and set in the flat brick suburbs of Perth in 1987, is a world away from niceness. In this harrowing and deeply disturbing story, Curry is completely believable as John White, a rapist and serial killer who works in concert with his abused and dependent wife, Evelyn (Emma Booth in a career-defining performance). 

Together, they abduct young women from the roadside, taking them home to rape and torture them for a week, before disposing of the bodies in shallow sandy graves.

“Is all that nice guy stuff out the window now, d’you think?” jokes Curry on the phone from New York, where he’s promoting Hounds of Love at the Tribeca Film Festival. It’s a joke of course, delivered laconically, but there’s an edge of anxiety. “This is 100 per cent the worst person I’ve ever played and I had major concerns about it. It’s a very tricky thing because you don’t want this kind of film to turn into a voyeuristic piece of rubbish. You want it to be done in a way that’s respectful of the fact that this stuff happens to real people.”

The film was inspired by real-life cases including husband and wife murderers David and Catherine Birnie, who abducted and killed four women in Perth in the 1980s, and were caught only after their fifth victim escaped. In Hounds of Love, the story focuses on 17-year-old Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings), the one who may just get away if she can drive a wedge between the man and his jealous, damaged wife. 

Curry took some convincing to play the role, especially given he’d be working with a first-time feature director whose ability to handle the tough material was unproven. “The script was so strong and it was so much about the psychology behind these kind of people, and the psychology of that co-dependence between people who commit these crimes together. And that was far more interesting than any of the violence depicted, or any of the violence not depicted, as most of it happens behind closed doors and it’s more suggested.”

It’s true that the film’s sickest moments are suggested rather than shown, and yet what horrifying suggestions they are: a box full of dildos and rope; the housewife tidying up a bedroom littered with bloody tissues and soiled sheets; the sound of a beautiful dog being beaten and stabbed to death. 

It’s perhaps the wrong question to ask if Curry enjoyed tackling this role. “It was certainly professionally satisfying,” he says carefully, “in terms of the complete departure from what it is that I’ve ever been allowed to play before. I did a lot of research into sociopaths, and this guy is a sociopath in that he has no empathy and no love. But what he does is he affects love and he affects empathy, and he does everything in his power to convince people that he has those qualities in order to achieve his end goals. 

“That’s fascinating, because as an actor you’re always told to stop acting. I started acting as a kid and the best acting advice I ever had from directors was to ‘stop acting’. You can take that the wrong way – what, stop acting and become a lawyer?” he laughs, “but in this case, I was now playing someone who is acting, inside a piece where I’m trying not to act. It was fascinating and kind of confounding.”

Curry says it was also satisfying to build the necessary charm into a character whose nice-guy persona enabled him to gain his victims’ trust. “Good guys have these specific boundaries, whereas bad guys have none, and there’s a kind of freedom in playing that character. But it makes it a lot more murky when you’re trying to wash him off at the end of the day.” 

Coming from a close-knit family, Curry is known for bringing his parents on set for visits, and Hounds of Love was no exception. “Mum didn’t last very long on this one,” he says wryly. “Usually Mum and Dad come about half an hour before lunch. They love telling the extras that the food is free. But it was a pretty brutal scene we were shooting that day and Mum is still maintaining she won’t be seeing the film. 

“Maybe one day I might be able to convince her, but this was a pretty different kettle of fish to Cloudstreet or The Castle!” 

by Rochelle Siemienowicz

» Hounds of Love is in cinemas on 1 June

This article first appeared in Ed#537 of The Big Issue.