Hit show crosses the ditch

POPULAR: Richard Roxburgh was surprised at the number of high profile actors who threw  their hats in the ring.
POPULAR: Richard Roxburgh was surprised at the number of high profile actors who threw their hats in the ring.

Robyn Malcolm, Sam Neill, Danielle Cormack, Martin Henderson, Craig Hall, Roy Billing, Marshall Napier. It reads like a who's who of New Zealand acting talent. But the one thing they all have in common is an appearance, either as a regular or guest, on Australian black comedy Rake.

The brainchild of actor Richard Roxburgh (Moulin Rouge, Mission Impossible 2), writer Peter Duncan (Children of Revolution) and eccentric Sydney barrister Charles Waterstreet, the series, about brilliant but self-destructive lawyer Cleaver Greene (Roxburgh), has been a smash hit in Australia since its start there in 2010 and now finally its making its debut here on Sky's Rialto Channel tomorrow night.

While concerned that it has taken so long to cross the Tasman, especially "given the Kiwi flag we've been flying", Roxburgh understands the realities behind it.

"People kind of play a waiting game to see how a series plays out," he says down the phoneline from Sydney. "And of course you get economies of scale when you buy two series of something."

He jokingly denies any talk of a "Kiwi quota" on the show, confirming that "everybody is doing what they are doing because they are the best person for the job", and revealing that the New Zealand invasion has also occurred behind the camera.

"We've had the fantastic Jess Hobbs direct a few episodes too. She's been wonderful, completely gets the material and is so much fun to work with."

A regular fixture in the Australian theatre, film and television industry for the past two decades, Roxburgh has certainly been tapping into his contacts when it comes to casting the show.

Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Garry McDonald, Jack Thompson, Barry Crocker and Toni Collette have all had a role to play, while he even had to reluctantly turn down an offer from a former Bafta nominated actor.

"When Robyn [Malcolm] was working with us, her partner Peter Mullan turned up on set and said in his broad, beautiful brogue ‘Is there anything I can do? - I'll play a hobo'. Unfortunately our equity rules meant he wasn't allowed to."

However, Roxburgh says they have been incredibly lucky with who they've managed to get to appear and reveals that he still has people he's calling on favours from and "blackmailing".

"I really believe that if you write it, they will come. I don't want it to become a case of spot the star but it has been really gratifying and surprising the number of high profile actors who have thrown their hat in the ring, and I think that's all down to the quality of the scripts."

The youngest of six children, the now 50-year-old actor traded in economics studies at Canberra's ANU for a crack at acting. After gaining admission to the National Institute of Dramatic Art, he started out on stage before grabbing Australia's attention in the 1995 Underbelly-style TV movie Blue Murder.

Two villainous roles in Mission Impossible II and Moulin Rouge catapulted him to international cinematic acclaim, which led to him playing three iconic characters: Sherlock Holmes (in a TV adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles), Professor Moriarty (The League of Extraordinary Gentleman) and Count Dracula (Van Helsing) in three years (the only other actor to have played all three on screen is Orson Welles). Sadly those were followed by another clunker, action-adventure Stealth, which saw Roxburgh return to Australia, the stage and the small screen.

He says it was the frustration of spending a lot of time as an actor working on scripts somebody else had created and tinkering with other people's sensibilities, that led to the creation of Rake.

"I'd always been yapping at Pete [Duncan] to write something fantastic that we could do together and create as mates. I wanted it to be something that would play to our strong suits and that we could have a lot of fun doing.

"I'd been pitching at him a kind of broken character who was always being beaten up and addicted to stuff but had a poet's soul. That character was essentially a mate of mine from university who I always thought was incredible - this really dynamic broken lunatic who was a bit of a genius."

But try as they might, the pair couldn't make the idea work until they decided their character should be a lawyer.

"Then it suddenly all started to click into place. Originally we went to ABC with the intention of a three-part show, but they wanted eight. After much thought we decided that would be fantastic, as long as it didn't become one of those procedural legal dramas - nothing against those but we want to explore the complex personal life of this individual and the people around him."

While admitting to a passing knowledge of the law, Roxburgh confesses that each script is an eye-opener and education for him. "I did have to study up before taking on Cleaver. I watched a lot of cases being tried. The fantastic thing about the Westminster system we've inherited is you can basically walk off the street into any courtroom and watch the fantastic theatre of it being played out."

He is full of praise for the state broadcaster ABC, admitting that the politically incorrect show represents a real risk for them. In the first episode, Greene has regular encounters with a young "escort" and defends a cannibal [Hugo Weaving] charged with murder. And that's just for openers. "Just wait till you get up to episode five - Sam Neill plays a doctor in a complex relationship with a family dog."

When asked whether he thinks Rake could have been made a decade ago, Roxburgh doesn't hesitate in saying no. "There has been a volcanic shift in the relationship TV has as a forum in our lives. It used to be a fairly anodyne anaesthetic for the masses, but then something happened in America with the advent of HBO and shows like The Sopranos and The Wire.

They started showing us that television could be really daring and create something with the complexity of a novel over five or six seasons."

Roxburgh believes Rake is part of a sustained renaissance of Australian television, but that the Ocker film industry is still stuck in a seemingly endless cycle.

"I've always compared Australian cinema to an agrarian pursuit. You have a bumper harvest and then you have a couple of s... ones. It has pretty much always been like that. Suddenly from nowhere there will be three really great films and people will be like ‘my god, the industry's changed forever, we're on fire' and then it will die out again. That's just the way it is."

The future for Rake though is much brighter. A third-series has been commissioned by the ABC and an American remake (starring Greg Kinnear as Cleaver) is in the works. But despite being an executive producer on that, Roxburgh is only "very lightly involved".

He's much more focused on keeping the quality up for season three and deciding whether it should be the last we see of Cleaver. "We're still debating that. We are very conscious though of not flogging it to death and leaving people wanting more of Cleaver, not less."

The details

What: Rake

When: Wednesdays, 8.30pm

Where: Rialto Channel (Sky 25).