Noah Taylor, Australia’s most reluctant star, gives not only the best performance of his career, but risks a lot in his portrayal of the young Hitler in the upcoming Max, where he gives a performance as controversial as it is enthralling. For the film’s world premiere at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, Taylor talked to Paul Fischer.
In a quiet corner of a smoke-filled bar, Noah Taylor, cigarette in hand, is holding court with the world’s media. It’s a position he has taken with reluctance throughout his 20-year career. “I’ve always been an essentially shy and private person”, Taylor says. Dressed in a dark suit and tie, Taylor is bemused when told that one of his co-stars in his latest film Max, Molly Parker, wanted to do the film because Noah was in it.
Slightly embarrassed by the flattery, Taylor is almost unaware of how successful he has become in the eyes of his fellow actors. “I think I have been incredibly lucky in that I have some opportunities to work in some pretty interesting films and worked with some interesting people. Probably because I don’t live in Los Angeles or I’ve never been based there, people’s curiosity is possibly a little bit tweaked because they don’t really know who I am, so maybe they imagine that I’m far more interesting than I actually am,” says Taylor with a slight grin.
The Australian raised but British-born actor, who made his film debut in the classic Aussie film The Year my Voice Broke 15 years ago, now calls London home where he lives with his fiancée [about whom he remains secretive] and has remained engaged for about two years now. His nomadic life as an actor tends to get in the way of a stable personal life, he confesses. “Yeah. It’s actually very hard to plan a marriage when you work on films because you say: We’ll have it in six months’ time and then, who knows what’s happening by then, right?”
So marriage plans remain on hold as Taylor, 33, flits from Max, an Indie film, to the latest Tomb Raider, currently shooting in various exotic locales. But it was the former that has fired up the actor, which explains why the publicity-shy Taylor was happy to grin and bear all of the hoopla for the sake of a film that has garnered him with his best critical notices to date. In Max, which is produced by and stars John Cusack, Taylor plays the young Hitler, depicted here as a disillusioned artist torn between the vicious anger of post-World War 1 German politics, and his passion for art. Cusack plays a Jewish art dealer who encourages the young Hitler in the hope of dissuading his eventual and bitter anti-Semitism.
It may be Noah’s finest hour and Taylor relished the idea of playing a character that has always held a strange fascination for him. “He’s a fascinating figure and I’ve always had a sort of interest in, the dark side to life,” confesses Taylor. “Also he’s emblematic of so much of what is wrong with the world at any given time and I don’t like to shy away from that. I’m not the sort of person who tends to look away from something just because it’s dark. To me, you have to know darkness in order to know light.” Noah was keen to do the film, all controversy aside, because “the script was just so incredibly intriguing, frightening and of a rare intelligence. I mean this was a script so full of ideas and questions which is not the staple of most films today.”
It was also a risk for Noah to step into such controversial shoes, and it would have been easy for agents and associates to dissuade the actor from doing a movie fraught with professional jeopardy. “I purposely didn’t really discuss it with anyone outside of my family and friends because if you DO discuss it too much with agents and people like that, then there does become a whole bunch of reasons why you should or shouldn’t do something and you can never be a hundred percent sure whether those motives are for YOUR good or for theirs. Having said that, I do work with very good people that I trust and they understand that I’m probably not the easiest client in the world and, for the most part, they know what I’m about.” Yet Noah concedes that in deciding to take this film on, he was very terrified of doing it “and I did think about it a lot, not so much career wise, but there’s not a lot of really interesting opportunities that come along that regularly for an actor and I have a sort of a funny relationship towards the whole business.” This is nothing new. “Often I sort of disparage it, but I do really love doing it sometimes and I thought that if I don’t do it just because I’m scared of doing it, then it really is time to quit now.”
In playing the young Hitler, the challenge for Taylor was not to make the character too human, yet there is prevalent a certain pathetic humanity that comes across in Taylor’s performance. “It WAS difficult and every day I was worrying that I was making him too empathetic. However, there were four or five requirements for the role in that the film asks that he has some sort of relationship with the Max character and so if he was screaming and blustering with thorns sticking out of his head, then you couldn’t, have this relationship; it just wouldn’t be believable or interesting. But I thought that I can really mess around with it and give it lots of different tones so that at the end of the film the mask comes off and during the speeches, you see the full potential of what he becomes,” explains Taylor.
“But whatever you feel for him, I tried to make him unpleasant one way or another all the way through and if you feel sorry for him, then that’s part of his manipulation, a self-pitying person who acts like a wounded puppy dog if that’s what it takes to get THIS or acts like a bully if it takes to get THAT.” Taylor is prepared to be a target of the film’s impending controversy, but still sees Max “as a very moral fable and essentially an anti-fascist and cautionary tale so I expect there to be controversy which in turn stimulates debate and that is healthy. I’m the one who has to live with it in terms of whether it was the right or wrong thing to do in terms of taking it on and, and I feel sound about it.”
Clearly the best reason for Noah to take on such a difficult role was because it WAS difficult. “If I’m only doing things because they’re comfortable and easy, then I’m absolutely doing what I’ve the least wanted to do. That means I can do lighter and fluffier stuff for a while now.”
‘Stuff’ like the Tomb Raider movies, films which are the antithesis of most of what Taylor has done throughout his career. “I think of them as almost children’s films,” he says, smilingly, describing the first Tomb Raider and its upcoming sequel as being “quite charming and positive films in some way.” But it’s films such as the meatier Max that he still revels in, pointing out that if he could do something like a Max every couple of years, “then it’s fine and it reminds me why I got into it in the first place, GENUINE reasons, you know?”
Since embarking on an acting career, there were times when Noah thought about giving it up. Acting was never something he felt intensely passionate about. Much has changed in the past decade and a half for the serious actor. Ferociously private and surprisingly shy, Noah says that he is more comfortable about acting today, as opposed to when he began as an adolescent. “I think I was a very awkward teenager and uncomfortable at having any sort of attention on me anyway and I found the sort of roles that I was getting in Australia in particular limiting and frustrating,” Taylor says with a quiet exasperation. “I think the conundrum is, the sort of roles I’ve always been interesting in playing since being interested in acting, which was from a fairly early age, were roles of much older people be they villains or broken people, not eighteen year old characters. But having said that, I know that the film industry is geared towards making films about young people for the most part. So I’m getting more excited about it as I get older and I have more to say from personal experience. I think it’s your job as an actor to go out and live out in the world and come back and report, not to be a model.”
With a renewed sense of vigour, Noah is busy promoting Max and smilingly concedes that he is looking forward to “having a bit of fun” on the less serious Lara Croft and the Cradle of Life: Tomb Raider 2. Then he may settle down in Suffolk as a married man, he hopes.