A chat with acting icon Michael Caton
He went naked on stage in the musical hair in 1972, then became a household name in the war-time tv show The Sullivans, charmed us as Darryl ‘tell him he’s dreaming’ Kerrigan in The Castle in 1997 and is now touching our hearts in his latest starring role in Last Cab to Darwin. Michael Caton, 72, is an integral part of our Australian culture.
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Caton’s latest role is Rex, who is an isolated loner diagnosed with a serious illness in the remote town of Broken Hill. When Rex hears about a controversial euthanasia procedure he decides he isn’t happy to wait out the illness and the three months doctors estimate he has to live. So he embarks on an outback road trip. Rex stubbornly and silently departs his home town, leaving behind friends and his girlfriend Polly (Ningali Lawford-Wolf).
Driving his own cab to Darwin Rex hopes that he will be the first patient to undergo the controversial procedure with the help of crusading medical pioneer Dr Farmer (Jacki Weaver). But on the long cab ride there Rex must confront who he really is, what and who is important to him, and decide if he really can choose the day he dies?
Michael Caton speaks exclusively to WYZA about growing up in Brisbane, his leading lady Jacki Weaver and his latest movie Last Cab to Darwin.
Growing up in Queensland
“I was very connected to the country when I was young My family came from central Queensland, around Longreach, and I was born in Monto. Then I basically grew up in Brisbane at Woolloongabba fiveways. If you can image that area in 1947 - it was a major intersection with our shop right there - and me driving my pedal car across the intersection!
We also had general shops at the main street at Kangaroo Point and Gympie Road in Kedron so it was a series of six lane highways. We lived above the shop. It was amazing coming from the bush to that. As soon as you could count you were serving behind the counter - packaging the sugar and wrapping the butter. Mum would give out free ice-creams!”
His early years acting
“I have very fond memories of Brisbane - particularly the early days in the theatre. I went to boarding school when I was 16 in Gympie and they used to put on elaborate concerts. I felt really comfortable doing that sort of stuff. For us a party at home was all the mob around the piano singing. I worked in amateur theatre. We’d act, build sets and do lighting. Then I was asked to do a professional job in a theatre restaurant. I was in good company with actors like Jack Thompson and Rowena Wallace and about the same time in ’69 we all took off for Sydney.
I did a lot of musicals, reviews and things like that in Brisbane. I toured with a musical called The Canterbury Tales. I did Hair in ’72. Jesus Christ Superstar. Marcia Hines was in Hair later but I worked with her in Melbourne. The Sullivans … that was a wonderful period. I’d never worked consistently in film before. It was a huge learning curve.”
Playing Darryl Kerrigan in The Castle
“I reckon that the Castle will outlast me. I’ll be long gone and people will still be watching The Castle. It goes without saying that The Castle was beautiful to work on. We shot that in ten and a half days. Exhausting! It was a phenomenon. It still is. I had a Dutch couple come up to me in Brisbane and ask if I was an actor (my hair was black when I did it). They’d seen it in the Netherlands. It is amazing where these programs make their way to."
On Rebecca Gibney when he was in Packed to the Rafters
“Lovely, She’s just a treat. With Packed to the Rafters you’d finish a season and then everyone was gone. This whole other family that you had was gone and you’d really miss them. A big part gone out of your life."
Filming Last Cab to Darwin in rustic conditions
“They were very interesting conditions! Luxury in Broken Hill and Darwin but pretty basic everywhere else. I’d said I wanted a motor home because I wanted a bit of continuity. That was a mistake. Couldn’t turn around without bumping into something - small tight area and I’m 6’2. It wasn’t the luxury one I had in mind but at the same time it really worked for the movie because it meant I was always a bit isolated from everyone else. There was this loneliness and isolation hanging around you. It was a good headspace to get into.”
His character Rex and love
“He has left a lot of things Rex has. He is going somewhere to die and discovers life instead. The film is set in the 1990’s and he had hurt Polly a lot by not acknowledging her. He is keeping it from his friends and they all know and he is playing this silly game. When he is away from her he realises how much he loves her.”
Working with actress Jacki Weaver
“Jacki is lovely. I’d never really worked with Jacki. I’d been in the same show as Jacki when I was in Pricilla Queen of the Desert the musical but we never worked together on stage. But I’ve known her 40 years at least and we finally got to do something together in Last Cab to Darwin.”
Caton’s thoughts on euthanasia
“I think voluntary euthanasia should be everyone right supervised. I also think the life force in people is very strong and whether you would take advantage of that is another thing."
At home in Sydney with wife Helen
“I’m a real homebody. I’d much rather be working frankly. If you are home…. there is nothing much to do. I’m going to have to start walking because Helen has been getting on my back. She is a great walker. I can’t keep up with her.”
“Our last holiday was Thailand. We also had four weeks in Buenos Aires in Argentina -wonderful. New York is next - so much to do there that I haven’t done yet.”
Why you should go and see Last Cab to Darwin
This heart-warming movie, written and directed by Jeremy Sims, will make you laugh. It will make you cry. Most importantly it will make you think. Caton brings the kind of thoughtful performance we have come to expect from this iconic Australian actor. Take along someone you love.
Image: WYZA's editor Kathy enjoyed chatting to Michael Caton in the serene surrounds of his backyard in Sydney.
What are your favourite memories of watching Michael Caton on screen? Join the conversation below…