The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Antony Starr (“Banshee”)

In his homeland of New Zealand, it is virtually inarguable that Antony Starr is a somebody, given that he spent six seasons starring – as twins, no less – in “Outrageous Fortune,” one of the most successful NZ-produced series in the country’s history. Here in the United States, however, it is fair to say that he has yet to achieve any particular degree of recognizability, but there’s a very real chance that that could change with his starring role in Cinemax’s “Banshee,” produced by Alan Ball (“True Blood”). Bullz-Eye had a chance to chat with Starr at the winter Television Critics Association press tour, and he discussed how both men and women could fall in love with his new series, touched on past U.S.-released efforts that you might have caught him in, and praised some of his country’s finest musical exports.

Bullz-Eye: There are times when I watching “Banshee” where I found myself thinking, “This really couldn’t be much more of a ‘guy’ show.”

Antony Starr: Oh, really? Why?

BE: Well, you know, it’s action-packed, there’s sex, there’s violence…you can’t go wrong with those things in the “guy” demo.

AS: Yeah. I mean, look, it’s definitely and obviously going to appeal to a sort of masculine demographic. But interestingly, though, I’ve talked to a lot of women who’ve seen it, and the fact that the show is basically a love story…you know, it’s anchored on a love story. It’s the only reason this guy would get straight out of prison and make a bee-line for his lover. And a lot of women I’ve talked to have really responded to that and are prepared to go through the violence and some of the more masculine elements because of that. So I think it’s…well, we’ll wait and see, but I think it’s got a good appeal to women as well.

BE: The obligatory question: how did you find your way into this part? Did they approach you directly, or was it a straight audition situation?

AS: I was in Sydney, and I put a tape down and emailed the tape I’d made in my lounge. They responded to it, flew me over, I had a screen test, and that was all she wrote. It was actually a very simple process. The auditioning and recalling can be a bit of a nightmare, but these guys were very specific about what they wanted, and once they knew what they wanted, it was a very streamlined process.

BE: You’ve obviously done series television before, but had you been actively looking for another one, or was this just a case where it was a good part that you really wanted to go after?

AS: Very much the latter. [Laughs.] This script popped up, and, one, it was great, it was really interesting, it was a unique idea that was going on and was uniquely written. How it’s translated is slightly different from what was on the page, so it’s been a really interesting process in that respect, but the people involved with it are phenomenal. There’s staggering talent involved. So to be anywhere near involved was someone like Ivana…well, I mean, there was no choice. Of course you go for that.

BE: In regards to the translation from the page to the stage, as it were, you’ve got a series that’s created by two novelists (Jonathan Tropper and David Schickler). Did you get the impression that there was a learning curve for them in working in television? Because my understanding is that they hadn’t really worked in the medium before this.

AS: No, they hadn’t worked in TV before, and I think that collaborative process was one that…well, you’d have to ask them how they felt around that, but with regards to the scripts, the scripts were pretty solid. They attuned themselves very quickly into that. And, of course, we had Alan Ball sitting atop their shoulders overseeing, and Greg Yaitanes knows his way around a script as well. So there was a great supportive network around those guys to really help them keep focused on creating good ideas and keep inventing, keep creating without getting bogged down in “this is right, this is wrong.” And all the directors that came over…geez, they were amazing. So they were in very good hands, even though it was their first time at making a TV show. The support was all there.

BE: As far as the character of Luke goes, it sounds like there was plenty there to work with from the get-go, but have you been able to bring anything to the character that wasn’t there when you arrived?

AS: Yeah, well, I mean, they give you a sense of back story, they give you the big brush strokes, then it’s up to me to sort of fill it up with who I am, what I am, and what I can research on the internet and in books. Also, I like to get as involved as possible when it comes to the script and the creation of the character, and I think that any actor would say the same thing. Well, I would’ve thought so, anyway. [Laughs.] But I certainly like to have a really hands-on approach to what I’m doing. I definitely have creative ideas that I’ll put forward, even if it’s just to identify something that I’ve thought of, or something they’d thought of that I don’t understand. Whatever it is, the relationship’s got to be two-way. I’m not into just being instructed on what to do. The exchange is part of the fun.

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BE: Had you ever met Ivana Milicevic prior to this?

AS: Nope!

BE: You guys must’ve found your chemistry pretty quickly, then.

AS: Oh, yeah, she’s…well, I’m pretty intense, especially when it comes to work. She is as well. So, y’know, naturally nothing is not gonna happen. [Laughs.] Do you know what I mean? Something is gonna happen when you’ve got two people who are really invested in what they’re doing and they really care about the result and they care about the process, both their own and each other’s, what’s happening with the other person and how you can both make it as good as it can be. You can’t get nothing out of that. Something’s always gonna happen. And luckily, right off the bat, the cast and crew that have been assembled to make this project have just been so passionate about it and 100% committed. When you get that sort of commitment, you can’t avoid a certain level of chemistry. And she’s a great girl as well. So it’s easy.

BE: The show often feels like an ’80s action movie transported into present day. There are…I don’t want to call them “tropes,” because they’re not delivered in a cliched way, but there are certainly a lot of aspects to the series that you can imagine in a Schwarzenegger or Stallone or even a Chuck Norris film.

AS: Like what?

BE: Well, you know, ex-con tries to make good, that kind of thing.

AS: Yeah, okay. You’re actually the first person who’s said that. [Laughs.] But that’s interesting. It’s an interesting world that the show inhabits. I never look at it as an action show. I always look at it as a love story that has action on top of that. I guess that classic sort of starcrossed-lovers thing comes up for me as much as any sort of action film from the ’80s, per se. But there’s definitely elements in there. The show’s got a heightened reality as well, so we can get away with a lot more and have those ideas in there, those extremities, and we can do it in such a way that it’s not threatening to the audience. We can have really violent scenes where you don’t vomit or wince as an audience…well, hopefully not, anyway. [Laughs.]

BE: And I think that heightened reality might be why I liken it to an ’80s film. I don’t feel as intimidated when I watch those films, because I’m kind of caught up in the fun of it all.

AS: Yeah. And that’s exactly right. It’s not like you’re watching something that’s more documentary-like in style, where when someone gets hit or someone gets hurt you wince or shudder and really feel like you’re experiencing it. There are episodes that come up where the bad guy will get his comeuppance. So it becomes fun. You invest, but in a different kind of way, as an audience. And I think that’s a great way to take people into a world like this, where it’s pretty grim. There’s drug dealers, there’s all sorts of things that come up, like bad guys shooting each other and terrible things happening, but in a fun way. And there’s a sense of humor going through it as well. Jonathan and David, they’re both very funny guys, and they both have a sense of humor that shows up through the series.

BE: To talk about some of your past work, do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?

AS: Um…there was a film that I did that didn’t get much…it got screened in New Zealand, but it was called “After the Waterfall,” about a park ranger who loses his daughter and goes through this pretty traumatic experience, which I think was probably more fun to do than it was to watch. [Laughs.] It was a pretty hard watch. And it was pretty chronically under-funded as well, which was really frustrating. We shot it in what seemed like a blink. So it had problems in the edit, and, yeah, there’s a lot wrong with it, but at its core it had a heart that was…I mean, I really responded to it. You know, you get attached to things. I get emotionally attached to things I’m in, that I had an intense experience in or whatever, so naturally those things that you love and you put so much into, you want them to do well. And when the baby’s delivered, you want someone to hold it…and in that case, with the distributors, we were pretty let down. Which was pretty frustrating. There was no one there to take care of our baby when it was born. [Laughs.] Which was tough to swallow.

But with that said, I got representation over here because of it, so to a certain extent I got something out of it. But it was still pretty frustrating to see that happen. But it’s inevitable, I suppose. It also came out right when the financial crunch really hit, in 2008 or maybe 2009, and people just didn’t want to go to the cinema and be reminded of how tough life is. They wanted escapism. They wanted to go and eat popcorn and see explosions. You can look at a lot of films coming out today, and the climate is not…there are a lot of films being made today that seem to me to be pure escapism. Which, y’know, there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, but it’s great when other things pop up as well.

BE: Okay, a geeky sidebar question.

AS: Cool!

BE: As someone from New Zealand, have you got any particular favorite New Zealand bands?

AS: [Instantly.] The Datsuns. They’re great. I love the Datsuns. And I’m obliged to say Crowded House. And Split Enz.

BE: Do you like the Chills at all?

AS: The Chills…? I…I don’t actually know them. Is that terrible?

BE: Maybe.

AS: [Laughs.] If it helps, there’s another young band I like that’s quite good. The Tuts.

BE: Are you familiar with Flying Nun Records?

AS: Yeah, yeah. Flying Nun, they do a lot of the slightly more non-commercial bands that come up, yeah? With really interesting voices. New Zealand, there’s been a big push since the late ’90s, probably, on the music side of things. The arts in general, but particularly music. And we’ve a had lot of really good exports.

BE: Can you even speak to how much Peter Jackson has helped out the film industry in New Zealand?

AS: Oh, well, obviously, you can’t escape “The Hobbit” as the moment. It’s pretty crazy! And he’s obviously a super-talent, and he’s done great things for the industry down there.

BE: Just a few more as we start wrapping up. What are your recollections of working on “Without A Paddle”?

AS: Um…it was fun. We shot it in Wellington, which is a nice town to be in. God, that was awhile ago. Yeah, I had a very small part on it. But it was fun. I came along, and…it was great.

BE: Did you get to interact with Anthony Hopkins very much on “The World’s Fastest Indian”?

AS: A little bit, yeah. I mean, he’s a pretty amazing human being, a pretty interesting guy. Everyone wants a piece of him, so I had to sort of take a back seat on that, because I wanted to give him his space a bit more because he was mobbed constantly. But he seemed lovely.

BE: You started out in soaps. Do you ever pat yourself on the back for having made it out of that niche? Because many people get trapped there.

AS: Yeah, well, I did one soap (“Shortland Street”) for seven weeks, so…

BE: Sometimes that’s enough.

AS: Sometimes that is enough. [Laughs.] But, look, in retrospect, I’d done nothing substantial prior to that, and it’s a good way to find your feet. That particular show in New Zealand is a great platform for people to sort of get in and cut their teeth a little bit, get on the set and learn. There’s nothing like diving in. And it’s a brutal environment. My hat’s off to anyone that can survive in that. I can’t function that quickly. I take much more time, and those guys…it’s mechanical what’s going on in those shows, and anyone who can keep up and do well in that environment, hey, I’m in awe.

BE: Okay, last one: is there any intrinsic difference between working on a series in the U.S. versus working on one in Australia or New Zealand?

AS: Look, the main difference is probably scale. Obviously, it’s bigger here. I’ve worked in both Australia and New Zealand, and it’s very similar in both countries. It’s really… [Sighs.] It’s just very small. And naturally, what comes with that is that you don’t have a lot of money to throw around on production and different things that get financial attention over here. So that would be the main thing. That said, you know, it’s basically still the same thing. It’s still ultimately taking someone else’s words, filling them with you, and trying to tell the truth to someone else. So basically all the raw elements are the same, I think. I think it’s easier to get caught up in that whole “the size of it is so much bigger” thing because it’s all bright and shiny over here. [Laughs.] But I feel very lucky to have come from a place like Australia and New Zealand, because New Zealand knows how to keep people real…and you can take that however you want!

I was in a show in New Zealand that went pretty well: “Outrageous Fortune.” It just went crazy in New Zealand, which was great. It was great to be a part of something that…well, in a lot of ways, it really broke ground, in terms of the fact that there’d never been a show that’d gone past three series. And New Zealand has a bit of a cultural cringe which I think “Outrageous Fortune” helped people get over and sort of get behind New Zealand content, because we are very hard on ourselves and domestic product down there. So being part of that was fantastic. And also you learn that you might’ve done six seasons of work on a TV show, but no one knows who you are in the rest of the world. [Laughs.] Only in New Zealand.

So, y’know, there’s not a lot of frills in New Zealand, but that also makes it a nice place to go back to and call home and sort of get away from the busyness and craziness that it is over here. It’s a different system. It’s an operation over here. Which is great, but…I feel very lucky to be able to dip into them both.