Emily: So you’ve been involved with the Marais Project before, what has been your involvement with them in the past and how has it lead up to where you are now?
James: I’ve never been involved with them as an actor before. The two things I juggle are my acting and my filmmaking and I’ve been involved in making videos for them a few times in the past, the main one being Pavane, which is a Baroque reimagining of a song by a Swedish Jazz musician named Esbjorn Svensson.
Emily: How much filmmaking have you done in the past? Where did you begin?
James: The thing about acting that gets very frustrating very quickly is that you sort of have to wait for permission to do that thing that you love. So if you aren’t being given opportunities by people to act in stuff, you kind of end up sitting around wishing that you were doing something. So I started making my own content as a way of trying to create acting work for myself. So I went to film school and studied at AFTRS, and went there with the goal of giving myself a chance to act. And in the process discovered this incredible world of directing, writing and cinematography that I’ve also fallen in love with now.
Emily: That’s really cool. So what’s your involvement this time as an actor?
James: Well this time they came to me with this book, which is Tous les Matins du Monde, the English translation is All the World’s Mornings. They said we want to create some sort of reflection on this book with Jenny’s music and that was kind of it. It was like when you’re given an assignment at high school and there’s too much freedom and you’re like where do I start? But I read the book a couple of times and watched the film, which is a beautiful French film that was featured in Cannes one year, with Gerard Depardieu and his son – who actually died after the film, very young. So it’s nice to see him captured. He’s a beautiful young man actually, much better looking than his father! (laughs)
Emily: How did you draw from these texts to work out what would prevail in your own work?
James: I started meditating on the story and distilling it down to the core beats, which I thought were pivotal to what these two men were discovering together in terms of their music. From a very structural point of view, I found what I believe to be the real underlying themes, which is about an artist’s relationship to their art – whether they make it for themselves, or for other people. That was a really interesting question for me, as a struggling filmmaker who just wants to find an audience a lot of the time that comes up a lot – when you release a film online it’s very hard to find an audience for your work. Often it bothers me that no one seems to watch it and then it bothers me even more that I’m bothered by that, because it shouldn’t bother me. I feel like making art should be its own reward.
Emily: There’s also the process of connection I think, and maybe that’s why it bothers you is because you want it to affect people and connect with people and gain a response.
James: Yeah well I think the point of art is to reach an audience. If you don’t get the chance to do that it’s kind of indulgent I find. But the book was an interesting exploration of that because the young man, like me, wants people to see his work and he wants to be respected for it, whereas the older man is much more reclusive and pretty much just plays by himself. For him it’s like his last connection with his dead wife who was the only one that he really believed understood his work. And he doesn’t want to share it with people because if they try and put it into superficial boxes, which we see happen all the time now with the commercialisation of art it detracts from that expression that he was trying to make.
Emily: That’s so interesting. Did you have a good breadth of understanding of classical music prior to working with The Marais Project?
James: I had pretty much none. What I have learnt has been from working with Jenny in the past and Marais projects in the past. And I’ve discovered a lot about what those sounds encompass just from having to conceptualise the sounds for the videos I have made. But from working from the book I have learnt a lot of terminology for one thing. Every time – what is that? Google define… (laughs)
Emily: So has the creative process been an independent development up to a point and then a more collaborative approach once you’re actually rehearsing together in the same room?
James: Yeah we’ve been developing it sort of separately, sending emails back and forth. I keep telling people that it’s a bit like playing fetch, because normally when you’re working on an idea you kind of bounce ideas off one another and you’re kind of throwing the ball back and forth. Working in isolation like this on a one man project is more like throwing the ball out into the field and trudging out into the dew-sodden grass, and retrieving it and then walking back to where you started and throwing it again. (Laughs) And that has been very frustrating, but I’ve got a lot of people that I can reach out to in my creative circle that I can bounce ideas off of, and they all have different work styles as well. So some people can listen to the lyricism of it, and others want a nice clear story out of it, so I’m just trying to find a balance out of all this stuff, and also obviously collaborating with Jenny and making sure the music punctuates the text.
Emily: And I was watching The Water Diviner the other day, it’s so cool! Obviously you have a really diverse range of work, where do you see your career heading? Where would you like it to go?
James: The goal is to end up directing feature films, that’s the dream.
Emily: Cool! Not acting?
James: I love acting very much but there’s so much more involved in directing. In acting you can be in charge of the character’s arc and have some very collaborative conversations with the director about where you see that journey going. But as the director you get to be involved in all of the facets that tell the story. I think I have a lot of stories in me and there’s no better way of getting to tell them than directing.
Emily: Well I hope that happens.
James: Me too!
Emily: In a few years I’ll see you and I’ll say “hey James, you did it!” (Laughs)
James: It happened! (Laughs)
Emily: I think it’s really interesting with both you and your sister Holly being actors [I reviewed Holly Fraser in the ATYP production of Patrice Balbina’s Chance Encounter with the End of the World earlier this year]. You both received the Equity Foundation Scholarship to study at the Atlantic Acting School. Is there any competition in your relationship?
James: (Laughs) We are incredibly competitive with one another but in a very healthy way. It’s great having another creative that you respect the opinion of so much in the house, she definitely holds me up to a very high standard and I’d like to think I do the same for her. She’s a filmmaker as well, she studied producing last year at film school. What’s great is that we can bounce audition material off each other as well, and there’s no one more honest with you than a sibling.
Emily: Oh yeah! Have you ever been in something together before?
James: It’s funny that you mention that, I think we’ve only ever been in one project together and it was the first episode of a web series, it’s yet to receive funding for the rest of the series yet, and it’s called Age of Consent. It’s about a young couple that have a child at 17 and it’s them at 23 and the child is already 6…
Emily: Oh no.
James: -Holly and I didn’t play a couple!
Emily: Oh good!
James: But in the first episode the couple decided that we might try an open relationship to try and spruce things up. And the couple that we propositioned – it doesn’t eventuate (laughs) – but the couple had my sister as the girl.
Emily: That’s so funny.
James: So I had to make some inappropriate eye gestures at her and I just sent that episode to our agent – we have the same agent as well – and they recently sent it back saying “it was really funny James, but when you and Holly were contemplating having a quickie on the dinner table I think the whole office had a bit of a sick feeling in their stomach”. (Laughs) Yeah I haven’t showed Mum and Dad yet… I think they could probably take it but Nan wouldn’t handle it too well… (Laughs)
Emily: What do your family think of your work so far?
James: It’s one of those funny things where the family kind of doesn’t understand – I mean Mum and Dad are pretty good because Holly and I have been doing this for 10 years now, so they sort of have a pretty good grasp on it. But everyone else, the extended family, they kind of don’t understand that it’s a full time job to be trying to get work. So I get little sneaky comments from Nan all the time, “How’s the money going?”
Emily: “Got a job?” (Laughs)
James: “Billy’s working at the mines now, why don’t you consider…” (Laughs) But then you get a little bit of success and then they jump on it. They love profiles and names. Nan’s obviously a big Russell Crowe fan.
Emily: That one was a winner!
James: That one went down well with me. (Laughs) It seems to be an illusive concept to most people.
Emily: So acting for 10 years, that’s quite a long time.
James: Yeah it’s nearly half my life now. They say 10,000 hours to make a master right? I don’t think I’ve been doing 1000 a year (laughs). Maybe 10 more…
Emily: How did you first get into acting, and if you hadn’t, what do you think you would be doing with your life now – can you even imagine your life without the arts?
James: It’s very hard to imagine that. I think I would have ended up in some sort of creative career. When I look at videos of myself as a child singing in dresses and such (laughs) there was already some seed there. I was also very into my academia when I was young before I was polluted by the arts, so maybe I would have ended up as an accountant or something. (Laughs) Maybe an architect, that would be nice.
James: We started in Year 7. I was going to go to a different high school but my best friend in year 6, we had a dumb year 6 fight and I was like ‘I don’t want to go to the same school as him!’
Emily: How crazy, that could have changed everything.
James: That popsicle argument that set the whole course of my life off track… (Laughs) And funnily enough a lot of my friends were getting roles on Backyard Science which was this show on ABC or something and they would do little experiments on the screen and explain it – and I just thought it looked like so much fun. So I told my Mum “I want to go on Backyard Science, all my friends are on Backyard Science, can’t we go on Backyard Science?” So we went and got an agent and that first year I got a role on December Boys with Daniel Radcliffe.
Emily: -which is crazy!
Emily: What was it like working with him?
James: Amazing. He’s a very grounded guy actually. One of our good mates who I worked with in a miniseries called Deadline Gallipoli two years ago is doing a film with Dan now called Jungle, so I’ve been in touch with Dan for the first time in 10 years through that.
Emily: That’s awesome. I’ve seen in interviews with him they ask him questions like “what would be your ultimate wish?” and his answer was “not to be famous” which is interesting.
James: I have a lot of respect for him. As far as young actors go, he’s right up there in terms of role models – and all the more for actually having known him.
Emily: Well there’s the stigma around actors who start young and then unravel, go wild, whatever.
James: There’s enough evidence to support it (laughs).
Emily: It’s pretty rough (laughs). Were you ever exposed to that kind of lifestyle as a young actor?
James: I think Australia is pretty different. The Tall Poppy Syndrome over here is so extreme that we sort of don’t let people get that far ahead of themselves. I think that idea of the reckless child star is more of an American thing. And it’s not their fault, they just have so many people telling them they’re great from such a young age. If you’re not being told ‘no’ by anyone at 13 years old – I would have turned out a little shit. (Laughs) I’m sure I would have!
Emily: Thank goodness for Tall Poppy Syndrome! – Didn’t think I’d ever say that. (Laughs) Have you felt as if you’ve come up against Tall Poppy Syndrome a lot in your career?
James: Yeah. It’s always there. I don’t think it’s really bothered me, it’s just affected the way I talk about everything. I’ve recently been touching base with America, I have an American manager now - after The Water Diviner came out some avenues opened over there so I’m now auditioning for stuff over there.
Emily: That’s so exciting!
James: Yeah it’s cool because they make such great stuff.
Emily: And there’s so many more opportunities there! Bigger industry.
James: I’d love to always work here because I love Australia, but the calibre of the work over there is tough to beat. It’s interesting going over there and the American ‘self-made man’ is such a big thing. You’re expected to own yourself and sell yourself and it’s not considered to be arrogant, people just own their achievements and talk with sincere pride about the stuff they’ve done. Whereas over here people say “Yeah get over yourself mate. What do you want, a medal?” (Laughs)
Emily: I guess your experience in acting has been quite different to a lot of other actors trying to make it in the industry – like how old were you when you did December Boys?
James: I was 12.
Emily: Oh wow. Most people do not have that sort of experience to go by, yet regardless there a lot of actors trying to make it, or find consistent work – what would be your advice for people in that situation?
James: The biggest thing for me was finding something else that I was passionate about. I got to a point in my career where I was going into auditions and they were meaning so much because if I didn’t get that role then I didn’t have anything else I cared about for an indefinite amount of time. So going to film school and learning about something that I loved and did have control over changed everything. I would go into auditions and they didn’t matter quite as much because they didn’t have as much riding on them. I could actually enjoy them. I think that really reflects in your work. It took me giving up on acting to actually start working again.
Emily: They say that they can smell it on you when you’re desperate.
James: Yes. (Laughs) I think it’s important to try to control the things you do have control over, but let go of the things you don’t – and there’s so much you don’t have control over. If you try to obsess over them you just end up going mad.