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Film: The gospel according to Noah

Australian actor Noah Taylor enjoys rubbishing his past efforts. Does this make him mature or just mouthy?
In his new film Simon Magus, the actor Noah Taylor looks as raggedy and alarming as an old scarecrow, his straggly beard and funny little hat rekindling memories of television's antic-eyed Catweazle. He is cast - relatively true to type - as Simon, a mud-encrusted mystic in a 19th- century Silesian village, whose main job is collecting dung. A kind of holy fool, he is blamed for every misfortune which befalls the village. His neighbours think he can curdle the milk just by looking at it. He is pelted with stones, bribed, teased and maligned; he has visions of the Devil (Ian Holm with an impenetrable accent) and is browbeaten by the village elders. "It was easily the happiest film experience I've ever had," Taylor says about a role which might have taxed Job.

Slumped on a chair in the bar of the Intercontinental Hotel in Berlin the day after the premiere of Simon Magus, Taylor is pulling faces for the Swedish photographer while cheerfully pouring scorn on his earlier work. His blanket dismissal even appears to extend to his work in John Duigan's wonderful coming-of-age films, The Year My Voice Broke (1987) and Flirting (1989). In the former, he's a gawky, lovelorn small-town teenager. In the latter, he's cast opposite Thandie Newton and a very prim-looking Nicole Kidman, and gets to deliver a memorable lecture (during an inter-school debate) about how rugby is "the highest form of human expression".

"I don't like any of those films particularly. That's not to say they're good or bad films. They're not my cup of tea aesthetically or intellectually," he pronounces. What about his turn as the teenage prodigy David Helfgott in the Oscar-winning Shine? "It's certainly not a movie I would have gone to see... a lot of it is quite saccharine."

Taylor prefers "complex, ambiguous, literary films", in particular those by Herzog and Fassbinder, to the rites-of-passage movies which made his name. This is what drew him to Simon Magus, a story with a central character as eccentric as Herzog's Kaspar Hauser. Its 29-year-old British writer- director, Ben Hopkins, (Taylor notes approvingly) speaks eight different languages and quotes Heinrich Heine and Isaac Bashevis Singer rather than Quentin Tarantino.

But perhaps Simon Magus isn't as much of a departure for Taylor as he implies. Boggy, wind-blown Silesia (or, indeed, the Brecon Beacons, where the film was actually shot) is a long way from the Melbourne boarding school in Flirting, but he is again playing the gawky outsider. Just as his Sartre-obsessed fifth former was bullied by prefects and teachers in the earlier film, he is dressed down by angry rabbis in this one. And surely Simon Magus is no more of an eccentric than David Helfgott? Taylor is impatient with the comparison. "Yes, they're the same because they're crazy and Jewish" he snaps. "There's a naivete and energy they share, but that's it. I don't think they have any more in common than that."

"Actually, people often assume that I'm Jewish," he says, cheering up. "I'm not, but there's just that odd Jewish thing in me. Maybe my father's been lying... but no, we're Catholics." He ponders this. "Of course, there are probably more similarities between Jewish people and Catholics in terms of guilt and ritual and funny outfits..."

Taylor got into acting "to get out of high school". Born in London in 1969, he grew up in Melbourne (his parents moved down under when he was five years old). His name was apparently taken from a Dennis Hopper western which his father admired. Taylor became famous at a relatively young age (he was 17 when he made The Year My Voice Broke) and thereafter pursued his own erratic path.

He avoided drama school, preferring "to go out, have a really difficult life and hang round a lot of bars and study humanity up close". He spent much of his time travelling or playing with whimsically named rock bands, such as the Honky Tonk Angels, Flipper and Humphrey, and the Cardboard Box Man. When he did act, it was often to clear his debts ("All my clothes are second-hand but I'm hopeless with money"). Hence his involvement last year in Woundings, a war film he shot on the Isle of Man with Guy Pearce (of Neighbours and LA Confidential fame) and which he now cites as the nadir of his career. "I read the script maybe 10 times, and I tell people it was like Harold Pinter translated into Japanese by a monkey on a broken typewriter. It was fucking gobbledygook - it made no sense whatsoever."

Taylor lists the drawbacks one by one. The director was "mad as a cut snake" and probably hadn't seen a film before, let alone made one. There were dozens of meddlesome 15-year-old American producers. Actors unwittingly used live tracer bullets. The crew had to work in a Force 10 gale on a clifftop. The money ran out, prompting a mini-mutiny from the cast. "And they blew up a sheep on the beach and forgot to clear it up. An old lady passed out when she saw it. She thought there had been satanic rituals."

Taylor, originally hired for three days, spent more than a month on set. For much of that time, he was holed up "in this really crummy hotel", eating toasted sandwiches and listening to Terry Wogan. All in all, it sounds close to his idea of hell.

After such an experience, Simon Magus couldn't help but come as a boon. Taylor describes Ben Hopkins' screenplay as the best he had ever read. His character has relatively little dialogue - only 40 lines, "about the same as Mel Gibson in Mad Max" - but is rarely off screen. He gets to prance around the muddy fields, roam the woods, and even shares a scene or two with his fellow star Rutger Hauer, who plays a pipesmoking, poetry- loving, Goethe-like village squire.

Simon Magus is billed as "a mystical tale from a vanished world", but Taylor insists that it also has a contemporary resonance. "It struck me that if Simon was about today, he'd be homeless on the streets. There are millions of people like him, talking to themselves, dirty... society has washed its hands of them. If you're isolated, lonely and rejected, that's pretty good reason for going barking mad."

He regards Simon Magus as a watershed in his career - the film that will finally prove his maturity. "This is the role I'd hoped to get ever since I got into acting."

For a moment or two, Taylor's attempts to pass himself off as a wiser, more mature version of his reckless old self sound vaguely plausible. He lives in Kilburn, within spitting distance of where he was born. He has given up drinking ("I'm quite capable of behaving like an idiot when I'm fully sober") and is confronting the onset of middle-age with weary stoicism. "I'm a whisker away from 30 now and my back is beginning to ache," he says. As evidence of his new-found discretion, he points out that he turned down a role in Peter Greenaway's 81/2 Women,when he realised what it entailed - his character was to have an incestuous relationship with his own father. "I knew the guy playing the father. He's quite a sweet guy and I felt too bad about it... I'm not going to come on this guy's face. It's not worth it."

Then he lets drop into the conversation that he thinks he'd do a good young Hitler and the spell is broken. "I've always wanted to play a baby- faced villain, a killer," he adds with a grin. Having extolled European cinema (confiding that he thinks "Americans are a bit odd, really") he then explains, without a blush, that he is a huge fan of Jerry Maguire and that he has been approached by its director, Cameron Crowe, to appear in a new Hollywood film with Brad Pitt.

In the days when he played nothing but disaffected teenagers, Taylor was described by one leading Australian director as "possibly the most accomplished screen actor in the country". By his own testimony, he was also one of the most miserable. "I've had a turbulent, unhappy life," he says. "I'm enjoying life for the very first time. I've always found it very hard doing this business and doing things I don't like. Simon Magus is the first time that I've ever felt the pride of working on something - the very first."

`Simon Magus' receives its British premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival in August and goes on release in the UK in the autumn