Eugene Gilfedder on making it as a successful theatre actor

August 12, 2015
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You might not know his name, but if you’ve seen any Australian theatre in the last few decades it’s likely you’ll recognise his distinctive face.

Eugene Gilfedder has a pretty Zen outlook on life and acting. His silver tongue delivers detailed, considered sentences that convey a lifetime of studying and reading, observation and reflection.

“If you are looking and listening … it’s amazing what you’ll see in human beings, and in life in general,” Eugene tells Hijacked.

At 57 years old, he has 30 years of performing, writing, directing and composing experience behind him. Born into a big family of 10 children, Eugene and his siblings were encouraged to perform and experiment by his “very free, almost bohemian” parents. As a child he would act out silent films for the family, moving rapidly to emulate the sped-up black and white moving pictures, while one of his sisters accompanied him on the piano.

“The atmosphere of the family was very inspiring; very rich,” he says.

Moving from Melbourne to Queensland at age 12, Eugene eventually went on to complete a Bachelor of Arts with honours at the University of Queensland, throwing himself into classics, ancient history, philosophy, music and literature. “All incredibly non-vocational subjects, completely irrelevant to jobs,” he says.

He helped start a drama society while at uni (which he believes is still running) and remembers his student days as being an exciting, experimental time.

“Universities are such wonderful think tanks full of so many wonderful young people who are all great thinkers,” he says. “It’s a perfect environment to band together and do the sort of stuff you’re interested in.”

He describes himself as “odd-looking”, but quickly found a welcoming place in theatre, where he’s never felt pigeonholed or excluded because of his unusual look. Film and television have not embraced him in the same way, though he has had a respectable handful of screen parts over the years.

“I don’t fit into any Aussie framework at all; I’ve probably got a bit of a European look," he says. "I’m not going to get into Neighbours easily."

But this doesn’t bother Eugene, whose philosophy is: “Be true to yourself.”

Universities are such wonderful think tanks full of so many wonderful young people who are all great thinkers. It’s a perfect environment to band together and do the sort of stuff you’re interested in.

He describes the openness he believes is an essential quality for actors to possess.

“One of the things I know has to happen on stage is for you to be in a state where you are utterly receptive; ready and poised, completely open,” Eugene says, emphasising that this vulnerability must be balanced with tension and conflict in order to bring life to a stage performance.

His yoga practice and interest in mindful living have helped him achieve the focus needed for the repetitive nature of theatre performance. Conjuring intense and truthful performances night after night, sometimes for months on end, is challenging. But of course the audience should not see the exhaustion in the actors.

“It should feel Zen; that whatever is happening in this moment has never happened before,” Eugene says.

This is the process Eugene has brought to his latest venture, playing “The Stranger” in an acclaimed production of Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden. The play is being presented both by Sydney Theatre Company and Melbourne Theatre Company.

It’s heavy material written by a Chilean man who had to flee his country, and explores the fallout of a post-Pinochet-like society. Susie Porter plays a former political prisoner who recognises Eugene’s character’s voice as that of a stranger who raped and tortured her under the regime.

The piece demands an emotional realism that is “highly draining”. But Eugene has enjoyed working with such a “fab group of people” in Melbourne, where the MTC season is into its third week.

Eugene is humble and self-critical, always striving to do better. Though he claims to have done “so many amazing projects” in his life, he doesn’t think of himself as someone who is proud of his achievements. The difficulty of life as a theatre actor in the diminutive Australian industry means Eugene is realistic about his outlook.

He admits his success is not the type that comes with a huge pay packet: “I’m not economically sound whatsoever at this point in life. But it doesn’t worry me at all.”

And he doesn’t actually know what he’ll do once Death and the Maiden’s Sydney season closes. But his deep thespian voice conveys a calm sense of trust in the universe, as he explains how he lives with such uncertainty.

“I will allow whatever is meant to happen, to happen.”

Phoebe Hartley

Phoebe makes films, eats dumplings and studies journalism. She tweets sporadically at @phoebehartley.

Image: Supplied.