Bad Guy Gone Good

Damon Herriman

There was a time when Australian actor DAMON HERRIMAN was begging to play the villain. This month he plays notorious cult-leader Charles Manson in not one but two Hollywood productions — the first being a cameo in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. But, after a string of roles on the dark side, he tells MAXIM he’s now ready to return to being Mr. Nice Guy…

After 40 years on TV and film screens, Australian actor Damon Herriman is looking for a change of pace. From the adorable kid on the hit Aussie drama series The Sullivans in the ’70s and ’80s, to a rogue priest on Foxtel’s four-part gothic thriller Lambs of God, Herriman has run the gamut of character acting like no other. He’s now coming off a 10-year run of playing every low-life and scum-bag in a host of U.S. and Australian TV series and movies, and it’s a journey that’s hit boiling point for the 49-year-old South Australian.

Herriman is currently portraying criminal cult-leader Charles Manson in not one but two separate Hollywood productions. The first Manson installment is a cameo in Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which made its Australian debut on August 3 at the 2019 Melbourne International Film Festival. Tarantino’s ode to late ’60s Hollywood is a masterwork of violence and old-school pop culture featuring a star studded cast including Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and fellow Aussie Margot Robbie.

Herriman says it was a “pinch-me moment” when the news came through from Tarantino’s production team that he’d won the role as the charming, smiling but menacing Manson.
“It was incredibly exciting,” says Herriman. “But I also knew at that point that I was playing Charles Manson in another production, which is the Netflix series Mindhunter, and I was only a couple of weeks off from starting that job. I was thinking ‘once he finds out I’m already playing the role I’m going to lose the gig’, but thankfully that didn’t happen.” The first series of Mindhunter was produced by David Fincher and while the filmmaker won’t be helming the project this time around, he will direct three episodes which are due for release this month.

The process of getting inside Manson’s skin was an “intimidating” one for Herriman, with hour upon hour dedicated to meticulous research. “He’s certainly one of the hardest roles I’ve ever played,” explains Australia’s next big Hollywood star. “He could change on a dime, so working out which version of Charlie Manson you’re playing was one of the hardest parts.” And as for working with Tarantino, he describes the legendary director as being “incredibly enthusiastic”, “like a kid in a candy store” and at the high end of “encyclopaedic” when it comes to his film knowledge.
“Something happens, I think, at that level where the bigger someone gets in Hollywood, there can be more tension, more ego, and the more diva behaviour,” says Herriman. “And then something happens when it gets to the very top, it then goes back to being completely normal again and it’s just like walking onto the set of a short film that you and some mates are making. It’s like a family… they just invite you in.”

Hospitality aside, was there anything different to a Tarantino set compared to the hundreds of others he’d seen over the years? “He plays music between shots and after every 100 rolls of film they’ll celebrate with a table of booze. It’s just unlike every other on-set situation I’ve ever experienced before.”

Tarantino and Fincher aren’t the only A-list directors Herriman has served under. He also worked with Clint Eastwood on the biopic J. Edgar, which also starred DiCaprio, and Gore Verbinski on the Johnny Depp action vehicle The Lone Ranger. It’s a long way from the Hollywood backlot to the spot where Herriman got his first crack at acting. In a scene that wouldn’t look out of place in a Tarantino film, Herriman and his amateur thespian father walked into an outback radio station in Alice Springs in the late ’70s, to lay down a voiceover playing a father and son for a series of chocolate commercials. Impressed with Damon’s performance, Dad collected the tapes and sent the recordings to talent agencies and production houses in Adelaide and Melbourne and before long young Damon is appearing in commercials and The Sullivans.

Between the ages of 10 and 12, he received three Logie nominations for his portrayal of Frank Errol on the hit series. Two were for Best Performance by a Juvenile, the other for Most Popular New Talent, but despite the kudos and accolades that came with it, the acting bug had failed to land a significant bite. “I never wanted to be an actor,” Herriman said. “When I was acting as a kid, I viewed it as a kind of hobby. And when I fell back into it at the age of 18, it was really only because I couldn’t think of anything else to do.” Herriman has no regrets about those lost years. He says he managed to live the life of a normal high school kid drifting between that of an A and C-grade student but upon graduating, there was no clear path so he returned to what he knew best… acting.

In 1988, he reacquainted himself with the producers at Crawford, leading to a small role on The Flying Doctors and it’s been steady work ever since. His first big break as an adult came in the film The Big Steal with Ben Mendelsohn and Claudia Karvan, where he played the nerdy nice guy, and it was a role that would typecast him for years to come. He managed to break the boy next door mould during the early ’90s when a group of artist friends formed the independent production company Blue-Tongue Films. One of its members was Nash Edgerton who cast Herriman in his short horror film Fuel. “I’d been playing nice guys and nerds nearly my whole career up until I worked with Nash,” Herriman says “But he realises that actors are acting and they don’t have to present as they do in real life. I will always be grateful to him for opening that door because it led to so many more roles in that vein.”

So with the nice-guy shackles well and truly loosened, Herriman applied for a green card to work in the U.S. looking to land grittier roles. He was supposed to be there for 12 months but only lasted 10. He continued to return to the U.S. in between Australian acting jobs and was eventually cast in House of Wax with Paris Hilton, a U.S. production shot on the Gold Coast where he plays the redneck “Roadkill Driver”. While the film failed to set the box office alight, Herriman nailed the part and reversed the typecast wheels — goodbye nerdy nice-guy, hello creepy, inbred unwashed guy. “I always used to bemoan the fact that I couldn’t get those bad-guy roles,” states Herriman. “In The Big Steal and 15 years later on in Love My Way, I was the nerdy friend with glasses. I think my head is very easy to transform into an unwashed redneck. It doesn’t take anywhere near as long in the make-up chair as I would like.”

In 2012, Herriman returned to Australia to play the role of the “misguided country bumpkin” Reg Morgan in the black comedy 100 Bloody Acres. The film is about two brothers who use car crash victims as the hero ingredient in their fertiliser business. It ended up earning cult status but it was the role of Dewey in the FX series Justified that made U.S. casting agents sit up and take notice. For five years he played the brothel-owning hillbilly. His performance was that good that the loyal fan base he built up in the US were completely blind to the fact he was Australian. It’s not surprising that the role is the one he’s most proud of. “The character of Dewey Crowe in Justified is right up there because not only was it incredibly fun playing this completely deluded Southern redneck, but it was the first really great job I got in America. So I suppose it opened the door to getting other work there.”

After six seasons on Justified, Herriman was free to pursue other opportunities in a career that was now so diverse, he was labelled “The Chameleon”. Some pundits say it was his breakout role although Herriman isn’t so sure. “I think there are different ways you can define what a ‘break’ is,” he explains. “I think there’s certainly a version where I haven’t had one at all.” In 2015, he played a homeless schizophrenic in the mini-series Flesh & Bone, a drama executive produced by Quentin Tarantino collaborator Lawrence Bender, followed by the detective drama Battle Creek — co-created by Vince Gilligan of Breaking Bad fame. While the series was short lived, it’s a role Herriman still cherishes to this day. “It was such a brilliantly written role — so layered. It was like five characters in one. I’d be lucky to ever have a role that good again.”

In the following three years, he’d feature in no fewer than 12 television series and feature films and it seemed that whenever you flicked on your TV, opened your streaming service and even headed to your local cinema, there would be Damon Herriman staring straight back at you. He considers himself “blessed” to be in regular employment but is quick to shut down the belief that the acting gigs are dropping like ten-pins. “It’s funny — the thing happens with actors a lot where people assume that you’re working all the time if a couple of things come out at around the same time,” he says. “I’m certainly blessed in terms of having fairly regular work lately, but you still do have lots of gaps.”

In 2018, he reunited with Nash Edgerton and Blue-Tongue films in the Foxtel black comedy Mr. Inbetween. The FX series is based on Scott Ryan’s darkly funny independent film The Magician, in which Ryan also plays the foul-mouthed lead character Ray Shoesmith, a conflicted hitman with a heart of gold. Herriman plays the role of Ray’s boss Freddy, who also happens to be the owner of a strip club. Herriman says fans of the show are in for a treat when the second series debuts later this year. “The good thing about the second season is that the writing gets even better because the writer (Ryan) knows the characters so well,” he adds. “Scott has put a lot more humour into the series. He is an extraordinary talent.”

With Charlie Manson now in his rear view mirror, Herriman still has a few more bad guys to get through before he makes a U-turn towards something a little less edgy. He can currently be seen in the Stan series Perpetual Grace alongside Ben Kingsley and Jackie Weaver before appearing in a string of Australian made content — a habit he’s not looking to give up any time soon. “I love working at home,” says Herriman. “Some of the best stuff I’ve had the chance to work on has been made here. I don’t want to give that up.” The first production will be the period horror film The Nightingale by The Babadook director Jennifer Kent, a role in which Herriman says “takes the cake” in a long-run of playing bad guys. After this will be the Blue-Tongue produced Judy and Punch where he plays a violent puppeteer in a mid-17th century town on the verge of mob rule before moving onto the Stan biotech drama The Commons in 2020.

It’s been a decade since he played a character based in calmer waters, a change Herriman is looking forward to. “I’ve been in the business long enough now to know it may not last. I had my 10-year run playing bad guys so now I am trying to steer clear of playing psychopaths and violent pigs.” ■


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