Anthony LaPaglia for “Lantana”

After 20 years of appearing in some of Hollywood’s most interesting projects, including TV stints in Murder One and Frasier – Aussie-born Anthony LaPaglia had to return to his native Australia to re-discover his love of acting. The film is Lantana, the first Australian film to close Toronto this year and set for a US release in time for Oscar season. Paul Fischer caught up with LaPaglia in a Los Angeles hotel room.

There was a time when Australian-born Anthony LaPaglia shied away from publicising his work. He was uncomfortable dealing with the spotlight, and mostly, he confesses, was not necessarily worth promoting. These days, the 42-year old star of over 50 film and TV ventures, is prouder than he has been in years. The reason? A little known Aussie thriller called Lantana, a multi-layered gem of a film that explores many facets of betrayal and love. The first film to be directed by Ray Lawrence since Bliss, LaPaglia says that the venerable Australian director enabled him to go places where he hasn’t delved in years.

He was reminded why he was an actor. “What Ray required was absolute truth and honesty”, he slowly explains. “I think what happens to a lot of actors as time goes by is that less and less is required of you and as you get more status as an actor, fewer people are apt to challenge you and your choices. So I think you gain success based on a certain bag of tricks. A certain persona or performance will get you attention and will make you a viable entity as an actor. Then if you’re not careful, you can rely on that bag of tricks and so you stop exploring as an actor, something you see time and time again.” LaPaglia adds that the more he has worked over the years, “the less I’ve had directors willing to challenge me.” That is, until he met Ray Lawrence. “Suddenly I’ve got a guy saying to me: Do less. All I ever hear is do more. Suddenly I’ve got a guy who wants me to do less acting and tell more truth. Slowly, as we’re doing it, he’s stripping away more and more”.

It is LaPaglia who is at the centre of Lantana’s complex narrative through his police officer Leon Zat a man desperately afraid of his own mortality, married with two sons, who seeks something new in an affair with the desperately lonely Jane (Rachael Blake). Leon’s wife Sonja (Kerry Armstrong) feels the dissatisfaction in Leon, and seeks assurance through a therapist, Valerie (Barbara Hershey), who is struggling with her own problems, such as the murder of her child and her marriage to the dour law professor John (Geoffrey Rush). From here we delve deeper into the web of characters that includes Jane’s neighbours Nik (Vince Colosimo) and Paula (Daniela Farinacci), her estranged husband Pete (Glenn Robbins), another of Valerie’s patients Patrick (Peter Phelps) and Leon’s police partner Claudia (Leah Purcell). This slew of characters, each with their own stories to tell come into sharper (and more successful) focus once one of them disappears, and Leon and Claudia become involved in the subsequent investigation.

Though in genre terms, Lantana is a psychological thriller, it is a far more textured and complex work than first appears as its narrative unfolds. LaPaglia is the centrepiece of the film, and in this often mirrored look at society’s fragmentation, LaPaglia had to dig deep to find this truth about which he speaks. “It was all about trust; I had to completely trust Ray and he’s a big part of it, as well the material. I get to know Ray over a two-week rehearsal period and I realise he’s a smart, sensitive and thoughtful guy, who really has the same ideas as I have about making a film, which is to convey the absolute truth of a situation”.

There is a certain irony that for a man who has spent most of his professional career in the US, that he is doing his best work these days back in Australia. “That irony has not been lost on me”, the actor says smilingly. Perhaps because he became like those complacent actors to which he referred earlier, a little bit lazy often working on mainstream projects in order to fuel his love of theatre or the odd, small Indie film. “I don’t think it was a conscious thing, but a gradual thing, that if you work in a particular system long enough, you can be seduced by it and you can allow yourself to become more cynical about it, all of which have happened to me in the 17 years that I’ve been here.”

It’s more ironic than Anthony, who was born in Adelaide, came to the US to build a career, “and how ironic that the best part of my career is happening there.” Married to Aussie actress Gia Carides, the couple spends equal time in Los Angeles, New York and Sydney, but LaPaglia is unwilling to move permanently back to Australia, even after recent events that shook this country. “I certainly think about it and after what happened in New York, I think Gia thinks about it more so. I personally don’t feel that way. I feel that was a good enough place for me to be for a good chunk of my life and suddenly things go bad I don’t think it’s good for me to run away.

LaPaglia is content to return to Australia to work. Apart from Lantana, he is also the villain of the local hit The Bank, which was also screened in Toronto, “and is an entirely different kind of film, and was a lot of fun to do.” Meanwhile, Anthony will be returning to Broadway next year for another Arthur Miller revival, After the Fall, following his Tony-award winning performance in A View from the Bridge, which the actor is about to bring to the screen. Once a cynic, perhaps, Aussie Anthony has rediscovered why he is an actor.