To some people, Hugh Keays-Byrne will always be Toecutter. It is 35 years since he tore up the back roads of Australia as the axe-wielding leader of a motorcycle gang in the first Mad Max movie. Pursued to his death by Mel Gibson’s leather-clad avenger, Toecutter met a suitably grisly end beneath the wheels of an oncoming truck.
Keays-Byrne, 67, lives in Gosford, on the New South Wales coast, and describes himself with sardonic pleasure as a “pensioner”. He still cuts a distinctive figure, thanks to his bear-like frame and mane of white hair, and in Australia – a nation with an enduring affection for outlaws – Keays-Byrne gets recognised with surprising frequency.
He arrived in Australia in 1973 as part of a Royal Shakespeare Company production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but it was a part in Stone, the cult Australian biker movie, that brought him to the attention of director George Miller, who cast him in the first Mad Max.
Playing the villain in the film – the blueprint for legions of post-apocalyptic adventures – could have been Keays-Byrne’s ticket to fame and fortune. It wasn’t. He’s enjoyed a solid rather than spectacular career encompassing film, TV and theatre.
“I don’t know what’s coming next, it’s impossible to tell. But that’s the joy of this life isn’t it?” he growls.
Several years ago, he was “surprised – pleasantly surprised” to get a call from Miller. The director wanted him to play Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader in the franchise’s fourth instalment, Mad Max: Fury Road.
Immortan, who wears a skull mask, drinks milk from lactating women and harvests organs from men he holds captive in steel cages, would make Toecutter quake in his leather boots. But Keays-Byrne insists both characters are misunderstood.
Toecutter was a member of an “oppressed nomadic minority”, he says; Immortan is “a renaissance man – he’s simply trying to bring order into an apocalyptic world”.
Both have a taste for extreme violence, of course. Toecutter’s weapon of choice was a “carcass-cleaving axe” that Keays-Byrne was given by an actor friend. Immortan is armed with a club he made himself.
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In many respects, the two films are very different. The original Mad Max was shot on a shoestring and employed about 30 crew members. Fury Road was made for $150m by a team of “thousands”.
And filming in the NSW outback was prevented by heavy rain that turned the usual post-apocalyptic landscape into what Keays-Byrne describes as a “beautiful garden”. The production was transferred to Namibia.
He is diplomatic when asked if he prefers Gibson’s or Tom Hardy’s portrayal of Max. “Comparisons are odious,” is all he’ll say.
Does he think his role in Fury Road might open doors in Hollywood and trigger a late-career renaissance? “I’m always open for business,” he says. There are always sequels ....
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