One Foot In, One Foot Out
25 July 1992
Gerard Kennedy, a confessed outsider, is not confortable in the modern world. So he’s going to escape, and write.
APART from the fact that Gerard Kennedy loathes publicity, isn’t crazy about journalists, believes interviews with public figures are morally debasing and hasn’t telephoned back more than two weeks after my request could mean only one thing: the whole exercise is going to be a breeze.
“It’s Gerard Kennedy,” says a soft, husky voice on the telephone one afternoon. “Why do you want to interview me? I am very uninteresting. I haven’t got anything interesting to say.” It seemed there was some winning-over to do. After some negotiation around Kennedy’s self-deprecation – including an assurance that he was, with respect, more interesting than he saw himself, and that the interview would not be at his house (“That’s out of the question”) – Kennedy agreed to see me.
“I find it really hard to justify doing interviews,” he says, finally captive in the neutrality of a city cafe, drinking a coffee and dragging on the mildest cigarette on the market. “It actually runs contrary to my own values. I have very radical values, I suppose, but I don’t want to lay them on the rest of the world. It’s people living vicariously through articles about celebrities. It’s an unreal thing. While one is involved in a vicarious world, one is not living one’s own life.” Kennedy has consented, in part, because of a forthcoming guest role on Channel 7’s `Bligh’ in which he plays a fire-and-brimstone Catholic priest, Father Patrick Declan O’Brien, who comes to the colony to try and set up a Catholic church. His sexual proclivity leads him to make a pass at Betsy – as well as Governor Bligh. “It was an honor to work with such talented comic actors,” Kennedy says of Michael Veitch, Magda Szubanski and the `Bligh’ cast.
His raspy voice sounds like the low rumble of a cement mixer, a beautiful whispering timbre that recalls so powerfully those six years he spent as Frank Banner, Australia’s most well-spoken cop, in `Division 4′.
Other TV cops growled, and none better than `Homicide’s’ Alwyn Kurts (“Go home, Peter,” Kurts would exhort his over-worked detectives.
“And when you’re there, Peter … get some sleep.”) But Kennedy, like Leonard Teale, enunciated. Here was a cop who cared about the language. His diction was indeed proper enough to have caused him some heartache at school. “I fled the theatre,” he says. “It wasn’t a nice thing to carry in school. I got a tough time over it, particularly if you spoke as I did, much more with a plum in my mouth than I do today.” He is known as an enigmatic soul. It is part of Melbourne’s folklore that for years people would come across Gerard Kennedy driving a taxi and wonder why. Apart from the money, Kennedy says for a long time he enjoyed it because of the contact with the public, which is confusing given how strictly he guards his privacy.
“I drove a taxi several times in my life, but I haven’t kept my license,” he says. “It’s hard as a person who’s well-known. You’re trapped with these people who know you and have total advantage over you. They can say what they like to you. After 12 hours driving, it’s tiring, and you get the same list of questions being asked over and over. It’s like having a broken leg and everyone keeps asking how it happened.” The most popular question? “`Not getting any work, eh?”’ Kennedy laughs. “And that’s pretty demoralising. I actually came home one night crying.
Shortly after that I gave it up.” Kennedy is being pretty interesting for someone who hasn’t got anything interesting to say. His intensity, from across the table, may in part stem from his eyes. On their new Saturday night show on the ABC, the D-Generation referred to Kennedy as “the guy with the bung eye in `Division 4”. “I had an eye operation when I was 14,” he explains. “There was an accident which damaged the nerves so now I have double vision.” Gerard Kennedy is a quiet and thoughtful man with the dignified carriage of someone sure of himself internally. But externally it’s not hard to see his deep suspicion towards the world. There is a lot he hates – humbug, people with no humility or compassion, and the speed of life – it’s too fast.
But he is not a hater. He just wants to be left alone to do his acting and writing and build his boat, a project on which he’s been working for several years. He believes that we are all in a state of distraction. “Life is complicated by the pressures of consumerism and commercialism and high-intensity living,” he says.
Before and after the interview, Gerard Kennedy is fine. In an enthusiastic moment you’d even call him chatty. When the tape’s not whirring, he’ll discuss boats, the healing power of being near water and whether writing biographies is exploitative (of course, he thinks it is).
It’s the during that’s different. He is a sensitive and complex man. Sometimes the gaps in conversation seem a touch too long, and it seems as though he’ll explode at you. Asking him questions was like blowing little poison darts into him. He is captivating and a little strange.
He seems to be in some degree of pain. Whenever a personal question looks like approaching, he flinches. May I ask about his family? “Aah, now you’re getting into the area of how I run my life,” he says. Later, he says: “You might be straight, but there are others (in the media) who are not. Impressions are gained and all kinds of assumptions are made.” His pain may stem from his childhood. He spent one year in an orphanage in Sydney and lived with foster parents from the ages of two to six. Most of his education was in boarding schools, but he spent several formative years hanging around the theatre that gave him the taste for acting.
“Some people have a developmental experience where everything comes to them, they get all their learning experiences in a nice comfortable rate, and some people have it all dumped on them. And because the family has broken down quite considerably, we are not resolving our problems, we are too busy trying to keep up.” He likes his space, but says he can get lonely. Also, he has “an underlying distraction”. “I’ve always lived with one foot in and one foot out of society, right from the very beginning. When I was a kid, at the stage where my intellect was developing, the time where all the fundamental promises are formed, I was in an orphanage where there was cruelty all around me -cruelty from the other kids, cruelty from the nuns that run it, and the whole world was at war. And that hit me like a ton of bricks.” He rarely works in the theatre. “Theatre has never appealed to me,” he says. “I prefer to work in front of a camera rather than an audience. That’s a personal one. It’s too distracting with an audience.” He was left quite bitter by his peripatetic childhood. “It took many years to work it through, as it does.
There are some things where it doesn’t matter how good an upbringing you had, everybody has some set of circumstances that are never really quite resolved.
“You might have two parents, but there might be an issue where you never felt a resolution was fair. Many people have that. People carry these things around with them, and never confront the issue because things aren’t too bad. So they may reach their death bed without ever having resolved it.” Acting has been a mixed blessing. “Originally I just wanted to be a useful actor that was regularly in work. To practise my craft. My father was an artist, and I swore I’d never be an artist because he was always broke.
“Acting has always assisted me in developing the ability to experience life through the senses of another person. But I don’t like talking about acting terribly much.” Kennedy’s profile has never reached the heights of his `Division 4′ role, the fame of which often caused him grief. “The first two years (of six) were fine. After that I had to give myself a pep talk every week in order to keep the energy going.” He hated the attention he received for the next eight years. “I was totally confused. I never expected it. It hadn’t happened before in Australia to that degree. Then they started to give Logie awards to actors. It was terrible. I found it tough.” Even leaving the show was painful. “It was a terrible political exercise when I left `Division 4′, a confrontation with Kerry Packer. I didn’t want to become an institution. I wanted out.
“I came down from Queensland to be an actor and I didn’t believe I’d demonstrated that to myself at that stage. I’d just done those two parts (a series called `Hunter’), same character every week. To me an actor was someone who played many characters. It was a very idealistic desire, but nevertheless a reasonable one.” His recent work has included the ABC’s `Police Crop’, a dramatisation of the Colin Winchester shooting, and roles in `Mission Impossible’ and the BBC’s `Boys From The Bush’, which stars Melbourne actor Nadine Garner (Channel 7 has the rights but has no screening date). He has also guest starred on `A Country Practice’, `Embassy’, `Acropolis Now’, `Col’n Carpenter’ and `Flying Doctors’.
Kennedy says his other great dream was to be an astronaut. “I wasn’t able to do that because of my eye. I wanted to be part of the space program.” How did he feel when man landed on the moon? “Very mixed feelings. Great exhilaration and great sadness as well. I wanted to be there. But no Australian ever went up, so I would have wasted half of my life.” Kennedy’s more earthly project, the boat he is building in his back garden, takes up much of his time. He eventually plans to live on it around Sydney and write – essays and ideas, he says.
Why the sea? “It’s the freedom of being able to move when the developers ruin your environment. Development has been the bane of my life. I speak to the land around Sydney almost as an Aborigine does. It’s a very spiritual link. I didn’t realise how strong until I left.” He is not afraid of the future. He feels tied to neither the industry nor, indeed, the suburbs. He is looking forward to his days on the ocean.
He smiles. “I’ll keep on the move and have cellular contact with the rest of society.”