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LEE, BEN: THE RAGE IN PLACID LAKE

A UNIQUE INDIVIDUAL
He has a cult music following and is now making his film debut in the black comedy The Rage in Placid Lake, as the son of hippie parents who thinks he wants to blend in with the crowd. But Ben Lee simply followed his heart – just as he was drawn to punk rock and indie music – in a bid to bring his spirit to the film, he admits to Louise Keller.


I am waiting in Gertrude and Alice’s café-bookshop in Bondi to meet music icon and now actor Ben Lee. I am early and wait in the privacy of the back room, where books that beg to be read are crammed onto the wooden shelves from floor to ceiling. Lee arrives punctually at noon, walks in unannounced and we start chatting. Dressed casually in t-shirt and dark pin-striped jacket, he is friendlier, warmer and more charismatic than I expect. Good company, in fact. He speaks with a hybrid of broad Australian accent with a dash of New York twang and his discerning maturity and sense of self make him seem far beyond his 25 years. His conversation is punctuated by the phrase ‘You know what I mean?’ and ‘sort of’. We sit at the well-worn wooden table surrounded by books about philosophy, sociology, anthropology and linguistics; music and kitchen noises drift in; the atmosphere is relaxed and comfortable.

"Different places have different energies and different meanings"

Lee has just flown in to Sydney from New York (a day late, due to the world famous power blackout), and now divides his time between the two cities, enjoying the different things that each offers. Does he still call Bondi home? ‘I gave up labels like that some time ago, because I get to travel so much, and different places have different energies and different meanings. There’s a part of me that feels very much at home in Sydney, but I also get itchy after a while.”

Lee is as individual as Placid Lake, the character he plays in his debut feature film. Although he is quick to point out (mischievously) that apart from his film credits as composer and singer, he also appeared as an extra in a Rutger Houer sci-fi movie called Salute of the Jugger (aka The Blood of the Heroes) in 1988 – ‘when I was about six,’ he smiles.

The Rage in Placid Lake is a darkly comic coming of age story about an individual who is desperately trying to fit in. He is encouraged to be different by his hippy parents (played by Miranda Richardson and Garry McDonald), and forms a strong bond with Gemma (Rose Byrne), whose brilliant mind also sets her outside the norm. Things get desperate when Placid decides to secretly take a normal job in an insurance company in an attempt to satisfy his parents and his need to fit in.

When I ask Lee if acting was something he wanted to do, he replies thoughtfully, accentuating words as though they are the first musical beat in a bar: “I was never opposed to the idea. I felt it in my orbit for a while. But I wasn’t aching to act, even though I had a feeling it was going to happen: I do believe in fate. I always felt that if I’m meant to do it, eventually the knock will get louder and louder. And I won’t be able to ignore it any more.”

Lee certainly hadn’t sought the role of Placid Lake. He was invited to audition after writer/director Tony McNamara saw him interviewed on The Panel TV show in Melbourne. “I was playing guitar and decided I wanted to jump up onto the desk,” he remembers. “So I pulled out my guitar plug and was standing there looking like an arse on TV. Little did I know – that was the moment when Tony thought ‘That’s Placid.’ It’s pretty funny.”

"This whole movie is about intuition"

When I ask him about the audition process, Lee stops me…“First it was just meeting with Tony – because an audition is like asking for a job. And it wasn’t like that with a project like this. This whole movie is about intuition – it’s about how to listen to your heart. So I think for both me and Tony, the audition was a formality. The real issue was ‘were we going to connect’. And did we want to explore this together. So we just met and talked a lot and it was really good. I really understood his vision and he knew what I was like as an artist.”

A pot of fresh mint tea suddenly materialises – Lee is a regular here and his whims are indulged by the staff. 

“The actual audition was a year or two later with Kick Gurry (who happened to be in LA) reading Rose’s part. We did that scene – “I think we should have sex” – me trying to convince him to have sex with me. It was pretty funny and added some natural comedy to the situation.”

Lee is unusual in that he doesn’t look for work – it generally finds him. “Sometimes when I hear that people are interested in me for something, I ignore it. It’s not as though I run away from it, but (say) with record companies, I’ve always felt the people I want to sign with, are the people who come to me. I’m not the kind of artist that does well in a situation when I’m dis-empowered.” He shrugs. “Besides, I’m not that desperate for anything – even music, I just feel I want to express myself and it’s about finding the path of least resistance. You know what I mean? I heard whispers about this script and I ignored it until it just showed up. When I read it, the light connected. I just got it.”

“The world’s full of these moments – everything’s connected. We just miss it. We don’t realise. If you listen to your intuition, you get all the signs.”

Lee admits to many similarities between his character and himself. “I keep likening the period that Placid goes through when he is at Icarus Insurance as kind of like when I went to uni for 2 weeks. That’s as long as I lasted. (He grins and shakes his head.) It’s kinda like Placid you know. It was against every fibre of my being. Yeah – both Placid and I have gone through periods of desperately wanting things not to be as complicated as they are. And trying to run away. But both of us – our instincts are too strong for that to last for long.”

"Playful"

The shooting experience “was just playful” he says. “I think that comes across in the film, there was this sense of we were going to work this out – Tony didn’t come in like a dictator and no one came in with attitudes – there was a playful respect between everyone.”

As for working with his co-stars, he is full of praise and respect, and makes some interesting observations. Not surprisingly, many of them relate to the musical world of which he has been a part since his stage debut in 1993, when he fronted the indie rock band Noise Addict. “It was kind of interesting how we shot it because we shot all the stuff with the parents first, then all the stuff in the office and then all the stuff with Placid and Gemma. And that’s the evolution of the character: the home life, the office life and personal love life. 

“Gary (McDonald) and Miranda (Richardson) both looked after me and protected me, but also left me to my own devices. In some way your relationship (with the actors) can’t help but echo the character’s relationships. There’s a certain hands-off parenting going on, and it was fun to share that with artists of another generation. Because in rock ‘n’roll you don’t get to meet older, more mature, stable, yet still creative thriving artists. It’s not part of the myth that’s encouraged and people die or get boring or give up. It’s just a very different vibe. I think there’s a sense with Miranda and Gary where they both feel like there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be making the most vital work of their lives right now. There’s no reason to question that. That was really cool and was really good for me.” 

“Working with Rose (Byrne) was … just a blast. She was already a good mate and we got to know each other in preparation for the movie. But there was a part of me that asked are we just getting to know each other for the movie. Since the movie, we’ve just got closer. So it was a real friendship. It was really fun – someone like Rose is so much better than she will ever know. And so humble. She never judged me and I really had to go out on a limb, putting myself in such a vulnerable position. She’ll always have my gratitude for that. Especially as I was revealing my true self from Placid to Gemma. They were very vulnerable scenes to do. And she was just supportive – it was great. She’s a good person.” 

"I don’t change myself depending what people are expect of me"

But real life doesn’t fit so easily into compartments, says Lee. “I’m almost 25, and at this point I’m at a very different place than when I was 18. I feel a lot more integrated and closer to presenting myself the same way to people. I don’t change myself depending what people are expect of me, which is what you do when you’re young and you don’t have confidence.”

Perhaps he remembers a time when he didn’t have confidence? Now he becomes quietly introspective and looks away. “That’s complicated,” he says slowly. “That’s not about gaining anything. It’s about surrendering. You know what I mean? When you don’t know much about the world or yourself, you act from a place of wanting to control things. That’s what Placid does. But as you begin to experience connections in different way, you realise that what life has planned for you is infinitely more interesting than what you have planned for yourself. And you get exactly what you need and not what you want. Then you start surrendering. And when you start to open your heart, you have faith. Someone like Placid has no faith and I didn’t have faith either when I was 18, because that’s when you feel inherently like a victim and that if you don’t fight for everything or control it, you’ll be screwed over.”

As for the journey from being a victim to having confidence: “That’s not an overnight event… I have become more serious about my spiritual practices, my connection to 
my own nature, God, teachers I’ve had, and friends. When you’re a teenager you make life infinitely more complicated than it is cause it feels like everyone else knows the rules and you don’t. So the way I went about things was, I studied… whether it was music or this or that, I sort of became a chameleon – I wanted to acquire all this knowledge and I figured if I could just crack all these codes, I’d be fine. I didn’t realise that it’s not about acquiring, it’s about the opposite. Everything you acquire is like one more pain in the neck. Just let go of all your fronts and all your false selves and just be yourself.”

"I felt kind of exposed"

Lee has had a long-term relationship with actress Claire Danes, who also appears in a cameo in the film. Whose idea was that? Lee is clearly animated and talks very fast. I get a sense of his being keen to talk about Claire, but then again he is a little wary not to divulge too much. “Claire was onset for lunch one day and next thing I knew, she and Tony had concocted a cameo. Yeah, it was really fun. I had come to this project as Placid. Everybody only knew me as Placid. Suddenly I was acting with Claire, and it was like ‘She knows I’m lying!’ (We both laugh.) It was quite a different thing and I felt kind of exposed. But it was cool to kinda share that.”

Originally, Danes had been a fan of Lee’s music: “She tried to get a song of mine that was on the Romeo and Juliet soundtrack. Baz (Luhrmann) contacted me saying that this girl Claire who was in the movie was a fan, and that we should meet. But it didn’t work out cause that kind of thing is so political with record companies and all that. But I sent her a thank you note and next thing we were talking… The rest’s history – six and a half years later.” 

Lee is philosophical about his expectations for his film debut, but is clearly stimulated by the new doors that are opening. Although he has seen the film, he is looking forward to seeing it for the first time with an audience. “The dialogue is about to begin in terms of this movie and the effect it will have on people. But I didn’t know about that when I made it. So it’s exciting.” 

“The film wasn’t what I expected because filmmaking is a director’s medium. That’s not to say anything bad about the film, but it’s not the piece of art I would have made, because it wasn’t my art to make. This was me playing a role in someone else’s vision. So that’s cool. And I got that.

"I just followed my heart"

“I went in with no expectations, except a sense of fun, a sense of freedom and I tried my best. I didn’t know what was good and what was bad – I just followed my heart and you can only do that when you start something new. In some ways I feel when you make work in that way, you’re beyond reproach. You’re just making the energy true. We often get caught up in all these technical things – is the acting good, the cinematography - all the formal elements of art – is the singing in tune? What kind of guitar playing is it? But that brings me to what originally drew me to punk rock and indie music. And that was the freedom. What really matters is the spirit you bring to something. And that is what this movie took me back to. The aesthetics are only incidental.”

As for the future, after he completes the publicity tour for The Rage In Placid Lake in Australia, he will change hats when he goes on tour. “My record just came out in America, so I’ve got a lot of work to do.” While he is not itching to make another film, Lee concedes that if the feeling is good, he’ll always “go with that.” But surprisingly perhaps, more than making music or films, Lee wants to become enlightened. “My energy’s a long way from that place. Ultimately I just want to do whatever I was put here to do: we only discover that each day when we wake up. I want to do the best I can. It’s not up to me to decide what I want to do. I don’t think about that. You get disappointed otherwise.”

Published August 28, 2003

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