Brendan Cowell: An exclusive interview with the co-writer of The Slap

 

Brendan Cowell, angry young man of Australian fringe theatre, co-writer of gritty TV drama The Slap, wants to talk Sex and the City.

“Those girls can talk,” he says over Skype from a hotel room in India, where he’s filming his next project. “It’s about emotional language. They can sit around with Cosmos and go: ‘God, he hasn’t texted me, I don’t know what to do, I’m heartbroken.’ They get it out.

“But guys – can you go to your dad and say: Dad, I don’t know who I am. I’m lost, I don’t know if I have any talent. Can you admit to confusion?”

Cowell has devoted a good part of his career to articulating male confusion, putting emotional trauma front and center alongside plenty of accompanying sex, drugs and misery.

The young actor, struggling for work, wrote his first play in 2000, “basically to put myself in it”, he admits. Appropriately titled Men, it did well enough to make him reconsider writing as an end in itself.

“With writing, I can play the violin all the time in whatever key I want. With acting you’ve got to wait, and they hand you the violin and say, play it in this key for that long, then go away. I like to be able to wake up and impose myself on society.”

Writing, acting, and publicizing his own plays, Brendan found himself at the forefront of the nascent Sydney fringe, rehearsing in spare rooms but playing to packed houses. Happy New, his second play, which opens for its UK premiere this week, represents the peak of that productive time.

“The people that know me most say it’s my best play. It was dangerous, and it got people talking. I don’t know if I’ve ever been as satisfied as I was then.”

His writing has since won him the respected Patrick White Playwright’s Award, along with international critical acclaim for efforts such as Ruben Guthrie, Rabbit, and ATM.

Best known in Australia for acting and writing roles in TV drama Love My Way, he has played the lead in a handful of feature films and is halfway through directing another.

There’s also his autobiographical novel, How It Feels. “My grandmother said she found parts of the human anatomy she wasn’t aware of in the book, so that’s something. She was planning to give it to the local priest, but I warned her to read it first.”

It’s not surprising that she changed her mind; Cowell’s writing, recalling Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, glories in sexual and chemical excess and the silent tragedy of being a teenage boy.

Men need to find a way to talk, he says.

“I don’t know if we can do it yet, especially in Australia, so we drink a lot, or get in a car and drive it fast because we’ve got to get the feeling out, even if we don’t know what it is.”

He mentions a talk show with novelist Howard Jacobson:

“We were talking about porn. I said that I’ve learned from porn – I’m quite grateful. And then Howard Jacobson said: ‘A man’s mind is a jungle of horror.’ I remember thinking: Yeah. That’s it. There’s an anger in young men, and I’m fascinated by where it comes from.”

Writing The Slap’s Harry, who sets off the drama by hitting a neighbor’s child, was “wonderful”, Cowell says, “because he’s a monster. There are monsters in the world. How do they get to that place?

 “I haven’t moved passed writing about it because it hasn’t ceased being riveting to me,” Brendan says. “I guess I care a lot about young men. You want to be so much, and sometimes you don’t know how to be a lot.

“One of my best mates shot himself in the head. His girlfriend broke up with him, and he didn’t know that ten years later that would have been that funny little first relationship at seventeen. You think it’s the world.

“But there’s tragedy in everyone’s life. It just mystifies me, because he could have visited me in India now, and he’d really like it. You think, why isn’t he here? Why couldn’t he escape that little dark corner?

 “I think reading pretty much saved my life. I got this grand other universe, reading about the Maldives, about Prague.”

In Happy New, the outside world is a terrifying prospect, casting a long shadow over the play. I ask about its bleakly absurd premise, the story of two boys abandoned in a chicken coop.

“I can’t find it, but it happened. It was an article I read in General Studies when I was 16. Their mother left them and they became media fodder. One of them took his life. How could you dream that article?

“They stuck with me, these chicken boys. It’s a little trampoline to talk about masculinity and the pecking order.”

Human beings aren’t so different from poultry, Brendan says. “When the boys came out, they had the mannerisms of clucking chickens. It’s everything, isn’t it, nurture?”

What about his own childhood, I ask.

“Crenulla was the best place to grow up ever,” he says. “All manicured beaches and lawns, and healthy fit white people. But there’s a complete disconnection from the world. I’d never met a gay person or a black person or a non-Christian person, or someone that voted Labour not Liberal. A lot of my adult neighbours had never made the half hour trip over the bridge into the city of Sydney. ‘It’s all here,’ they said, ‘why are you leaving?’

The characters in Happy New toy throughout the play with the dangerous freedom of leaving their confined apartment. But for Cowell, it was hardly a choice. 

“I always knew there was a world,” he says. “And I always knew that I’d go and see it as soon as I was allowed.”

Brendan's play, Happy New, opened on the 31st of January at the Old Red Lion Theatre.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam