A Chat with Nathan Phillips – Blood Vessel, Acting in Australia, and Living with Yowies

Nathan Phillips is a man who’s battled it all: from a maniac in the outback in Wolf Creek, to raging cannibals in Dying Breed, to the end of the world in These Final Hours, and even Snakes on a Plane. In his latest horror film, Justin Dix’s Blood Vessel, he plays an ANZAC soldier in the dying days of World War II.

Stranded in a life raft with a group of diverse survivors, they discover a Nazi boat, seemingly devoid of life. With no hope for safety or rescue, they board the boat, fearing the worst, but hoping for some kind of salvation. Instead of Nazi’s, they find something much, much worse.

Pulling from the history of Aussie icons like Mel Gibson and Jack Thompson, Nathan Phillips is one of Australia’s most engaging and entertaining actors, filling the screen with a true blue ocker style that is refreshing in todays landscape. Andrew F Peirce caught up with Nathan, who currently lives in Northern NSW, trying to avoid Yowies, and preparing himself for another grand battle that is to come: bushfire season and climate change.

Andrew: How are you doing in isolation?

Nathan: I’m in NSW, kind of forty minutes inland of Byron Bay by the ocean.

A: Ah, so not in complete lockdown like in Victoria.

N: No, unfortunately my family are down there. Not as bad as my grandmother who is in a nursing home in Melbourne. So my heart goes out to everyone, but I’m relatively safe here. I listen to ABC radio for an hour when I’m driving to get supplies. I’ve just got a really big property, so I’ve just got to get ready for the bushfire season, and I’ve got to look out for the Yowies and Drop Bears, so I’ve got lots to do out here. I’m not kidding, I’m actually in the heartland of the Yowie phenomenon.

A: Nice, it’s a good region to be in. Really beautiful.

N: Yeah, its magical, but you know I’ve got a lot of preparation to do before the fire season kicks in.

A: You’ve done a lot of stuff that has probably prepared you for our current situation, and the bushfire season that we’ve already had. You’ve battled pretty much everything that could really kind of fuck you up.

N: (Laughing) Well, you know cannibals and living on my own, you know because I’ve lived on my own in Papua New Guinea doing Balibo, and we filmed in East Timor and I’ve surfed some mavericks. You know I’ve done a lot of crazy things in my time, so I guess I’m quite the Renaissance man, or I’ve had to be. Plus I’m forty!

A: You’re doing really well! Have you always had an interest in genre films? Because you’ve done a wide variety of work and it’s always been very entertaining. You give such great performances.

N: My father was a big fan of the old MGM Studios movies like Hitchcock, the fun movies like the Cry Baby’s (John Waters film), also melodrama. Spielberg. Being an eighties kid I was into John Carpenter movies, Stephen King… all those kinds of guys were really hitting their stride, like with The Thing and Alien. The film schools in New York had produced the Scorsese films and all of a sudden all these films were coming up left, right and centre that moved from the studio model like Easy Rider.

The 1970s came on and you saw those kinds of movies and Paul Newman and Steve McQueen were my go-to guys. And then in the 1980s you got to seem some real acting coming into play and people taking on the Stanislavski method and the Chekhov method and the Meisner and Adler methods. Then you start seeing actors like River Phoenix in one of my favourite films Stand By Me. The you have people like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Basketball Diaries and Johnny Depp in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Then you see Daniel Day-Lewis performance and the Sean Penn performances. I’m a big fan of filmmaking and the storytelling universe. I feel like I’m doing my part to make people laugh or to make people learn. I’m a fan of the power of the story.

A: Let’s talk about Blood Vessel. What brought you to the film? Your performance in the film is great – your reactions in it are just absolutely brilliant, just delivering the iconic Aussie “What the fuck is going on?” presentation of things. What brought you to this particular film?

N: Well I’d worked with Justin Dix previously on Dying Breed and Hunters and was a fan of his work, and he had this great concept. It was indie and I thought I’d come aboard if I could produce it with him and have a real hand in helping the others fill in the ingredients to make gold. Then with the casting and crew I felt we could really make a good movie. I loved the concept.

Another film Snakes on a Plane had a similar kind of big idea with good actors involved. I just jumped at the opportunity to work with someone like this who thinks we should be making more films like this, more big idea films; surreal films, fantasy films, rather than the kitchen sink dramas and the go-to melodramas we keep seeing being funded. It was a real labour of love because I was involved from the beginning, not just as an actor coming in and going off.

A: It was great to see your producer credit your producer credit on there was well, and I know that you’ve done writing and the like before so that creative side is good.

N: I wanted to make sure that the characters were iconic kind of Australian glibly Mel Gibson style. Like a Kurt Russell idea, that kind of strong lead male, almost masculine character that has that very iconic ANZAC larrikinism, and there’s always a solution to the problem even if it’s surreal and it’s vampires. It was really nice that Justin trusted me to keep him Australian and not be afraid to say, “Oh bloody Yanks!”

Because we’ve been so overly politically correct these days that if I wasn’t un-PC as an Australian guy I’d take the piss every day, I wouldn’t be an authentic character. A lot of the things you see me do were actually me adding to it, it wasn’t in the script it was just a take and I’d throw it in, and it worked and stayed in the edit. So strong choices I believe are always the best.

A: It helps flesh out the characters and add so much colour to the actual story because you’ve got a diverse group of in there. Where was it shot? I assume it was shot here in Australia?

N: It was done on an actual HMAS ship that served in WWII. All the old Navy had walks and tours on it during the day to maintain the upkeep of it. So it’s a wonderful bit of history and it was just a wonderful location, hence how we could make it look so authentic. While it was cramped and a few people hit their head, and there were ladders to go down and up, it was an incredible experience to have that tangible thing and actually be in that that space.

A: I can imagine. I’d have never guessed. I would have thought that it would be on a set to have given you a bit more breathing space in there. It does feel really cramped and tight but shooting on an actual ship would do that. What was that like? With so many people in there crammed in tight.

N: I should mention that it’s coming up to the seventy-fifth anniversary of WWII. We are very aware of the sacrifice that men and women have made since WWI and it makes you really appreciate the ANZAC Spirit and what Australia could be very proud of. For quite the young history we have, we have played great parts in world events.

Myself, I have uncles and grandfathers who fought in WWI and WWII. So, for me I really wanted to do it justice in that way and just show the brevity of these people and the fragility of time and the way in war you could come back as someone who was a POW and your wife has been told you were dead and she’s moved on. Or how it came out that the soldiers in Vietnam must have felt coming home after that and being treated like dogs. For me it touches a real raw space in my heart and knowing that much about the essence of PTSD, and the sense of war, you still carry the war with you.

A: What I really enjoyed about the film is how it starts off as really quite serious and then it transfers into the genre of horror with the vampires and the like. What was it like working with the gore and the special effects in the last half hour of the film?

N: It makes you appreciate the artistry of the prosthetics team and the special effects team that Justin Dix has. Just the hours they put in. They would be doing sometimes sixteen- and eighteen-hour days. Sometimes with the prosthetics actors would be sitting in the chair for five hours getting the makeup put on and then taking it off after filming for eight hours. So you know there’s a lot of art involved.

The old school fanboys and fangirls of horror appreciate that because it makes the CGI really good. It’s all real. That was always just amazing to see all the props being made, everything was made. We have the sarcophaguses made, and you know it’s just that ANZAC spirit, that bush mechanic style, that Mad Max kind of approach to filmmaking. As they did with the Road to Tobruk (Arthur Hiller’s film Tobruk), where they stopped the Panzer division in Africa, where they re-rigged Italian guns and jeeps, and they stopped the army coming through by people with solutions, and tackling it bush mechanic style.

A lot if it borrows, we’re not reinventing the wheel, we’re just telling it differently. That’s what I love about film.

A: There’s a real ingenuity to the film and everything you’re saying about the practical effects gives me hope for Australian films going forward. I’m curious for you as a creative Australian as to where your mindset is at. How are you managing to be creative?

N: Well I’m always tinkering away on scripts and working with people I’ve connected with because I’m getting older now and that’s like a blessing and a curse. I know what I like, and I know what I don’t like, and that’s part of getting older. I give thanks for being in Australia and I’m very proud of that and I’ve spent enough time overseas and it’s time for me to sow my seeds here now, I’ve seen enough of the world and kind of done everything I’ve ever wanted to achieve in America.

I’m more environmentally conscious now, more about the environment and our care for the earth. Filmmaking obviously is still at the helm I find it so important, there is no higher currency in our civilisation than our art in my opinion. I firmly believe that every human is an artist and your greatest artform is your life form. I’d hate to be as tenacious off screen as I am onscreen with what I do every day, hence why I’m on ninety acres by myself and doing what I love.

A: It’s great to hear that. Everywhere around the world people are doing it tough right now, but to hear that yes, everybody is an artist is really important and powerful. It’s the kind of thing we need to remember; that we are all in this together. The power of entertainment really helps out a lot. It’s a huge, huge help. It’s great to have films like Blood Vessel out there to take our minds off things in a way. What have you been doing to take your mind off things? What films have you been watching?

N: I guess I have been reading books. I’ve been getting back into literature. I’ve been reading a lot of Australian books. I’ve been getting into a lot of Australian authors. There’s this great author, his name is Steven Toltz, he wrote a book called A Fraction of the Whole and another one called Quicksand.

I’ve just been finding a heap of Australian authors and hopefully they’ll be adapting that work into films. Just a lot more reading than watching films at the moment I’m really enjoying the show Billions, it has a lot of great actors. The Wu Tang Clan series was really cool, The Get Down was fantastic.

A: It’s great to hear you’re reading a lot. That’s really good.

N: I studied English literature before I got into the whole acting thing, so I’ve always been a fan of books. That’s where good film tend to begin with, with a good blueprint.

A: So what do you look for in a book that you might want to adapt to the screen?

N: Well, another favourite of mine is another Australian, unfortunately I’ve already approached him a number of times, but it’s all tied up with studios in America, is Matthew Riley. He writes with an Australian with political, social, economical, and mythological and sci-fi elements, so I’m a big fan of his books. The big budget and big studio element.

And Justin Dix is pretty much a version of that. He has those ideas,  one in particular called Riding Hood which if you think of a Pan’s Labyrinth meets Fraggle Rock meets Labyrinth. He’s just got great ideas, he’s a big thinker into big, big worlds. Films like that really grab me because I’m sick of the Melodrama/Kitchen Sink pessimistic things that just don’t really add to the world anymore, I think we’ve done that. I think we need more movies about Yowies and Unicorns.

Meanwhile there are films that tell about the atrocities of war and the atrocities of what goes on in the world, so its probably important to have that going on. The new film about the Black Panthers looks really good (Judas and the Black Messiah). A lot of autobiographies, learning about a lot of unsung heroes.

I think there’s a place for everything but when there is an authentic director and writer behind it who can do it with an authenticity and integrity, which is why you’re seeing people like Warwick Thornton and Ivan Sen make these incredible and powerful films of late, like Samson and Delilah. You see a lot of indigenous filmmakers, Wayne Blair, Rachel Perkins, getting their stride and that’s fantastic for me to see.

Filmmaking has just become a lot more accessible obviously. When I shot Australian Rules that was shot on 35mm, so I’ve come along from then to now where cameras have changed, technology has changed and even now the distribution set up with streaming, content in needed and the world is watching. It’s still an interesting time and we will keep swinging the pendant and it will gravitate towards people who will realise they aren’t curing cancer but are making hopefully powerful stories and fun stories and scary stories.

A: True Australian stories like that which I love. Australian Rules, These Final Hours, Wolf Creek and now Blood Vessel – you’ve got a whole catalogue of excellent film, a filmography to be really proud of, so congratulations!

N: Thanks. Yeah, I’m pretty stoked with my canon of films. I feel very blessed that I’ve had such wonderful unique experiences and some of them are now in the Australian canon as some of the greatest films, so I’m very honoured.

Blood Vessel is now available to rent on demand in Australia, or to purchase on DVD/Bluray. It’s a brilliant genre flick that doesn’t take itself too seriously, digging into the schlocky excellence of the concept of Nazi vampires.

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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