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March 26, 2007 | by  | in Theatre | [ssba]

The Graduate

by Terry Johnson
Downstage, March 31 – April 28
Students $18 with a two hour standby

Julian Wilson has graduated. From Toi Whakaari graduate to regular on the Wellington professional theatre scene, it’s a leap that many actors hope to make, but few achieve. He plays Benjamin Braddock in Downstage’s new production of The Graduate, which opens this week. I sat down with him for a chat about how he got where he is now.

He has one thing in common with the character made famous by Dustin Hoffman in 1967. He too, did not live up to everyone’s expectations after graduating. When Julian graduated Otago University, he went to work in a video store. “I sought safety,” said Julian. “With acting, I didn’t know how stable that was going to be as an income. Besides I’d never really had a proper job before.”

Three years later, he’d had enough and after a jaunt overseas, something happened which would become a feature in Julian’s life – someone forced him into action. “I’m a pretty cautious person, and I’ve never taken steps unless someone nudged me in that direction.” He was advised to audition for Toi Whakaari and he did. Three years later, our graduate started trying to make a living as an actor. Tough work.

Let’s backtrack – standard question, how did he get into acting in the first place? It wasn’t through Shakespeare, but through theatresports. Julian said he’d “always had a hankering for it and that got me hooked. I found it very social and it allowed me to play around and experiment.”

Unlike most school kids who muck around in theatresports (mainly attention seekers who want an excuse to swear and foist toilet humour upon unsuspecting teachers), Julian went off to Canada to train with the inventor of theatresports – Keith Johnstone. Julian is full of praise for Johnstone, saying that “he was very much a guru for me, one of those people who you look up to, and teaches you a lot of things, I had the greatest time of my life and came back all inspired.” He’s insistent that his years of improv weren’t wasted, saying that “although it’s not so popular today, improv is a set of skills that you can learn to be stageworthy or to use your stagecraft. It has been invaluable.”

Pretty invaluable in all that devised work you have to do once you graduate drama school huh? Devising or ‘making your own work’ is a way for actors to get experience and keep acting when opportunities aren’t on the horizon. “That’s all I was doing,” admits Julian, “it was exhausting, very exciting, very creative, but after awhile I got tired of it…Devising is much harder, you put a lot more into it and it’s not always successful.”

Then things started happening. Julian was cast as Seymour in Downstage’s Little Shop of Horrors, and steady work in Wellington followed – Golden Boys, Death of a Salesman, The Underpants, The Rivals and the holy grail: the Christmas panto at Circa, Roger Hall’s Aladdin. The year was topped off by a Chapman Tripp award for Best Supporting Male Actor. Unlike his character Ben, Julian’s not going to get complacent despite many people saying he’s ‘made it.’ “I still count last year as a miracle, I was so fortunate to have a whole year of work. To jump from project to project and know that you’ve got something in the next 6 months is really new and amazing”.

It’s the cap off to many hard years of work to be playing such a famous character, especially since Julian was already involved in another production of The Graduate, where he played not Ben, but all the various roles within the play. “I love the character in the play, he’s funny and complex and I love what he stands for and what he tries to get in the play”.

But is it intimidating? Julian was suitably modest, “Absolutely, we’ve only been rehearsing a week and a half and I’m feeling the pressure. I’ve only got one scene when I’m not on stage. It’s daunting; you try not to put Dustin Hoffman in the picture”. Surprisingly Julian hasn’t seen the film, “some actors might but I’d rather not, you’d think ‘oh, that’s how he says that, maybe I’ll do it like that,’ and that’s not good. So it’s very much going to be my take on the character.”

Terry Johnson adapted the story (which was first a novel, then a film) in 2000. I wondered what a Wellington audience’s reaction would be to the play. Will people like it because it’s ‘retro’ or simply because it’s a good play? Julian thinks it’s a bit of both, as “it really says a lot about the time but I love how it still reflects on today. It’s about the repression and the society of the time. Ben was this golden boy who followed exactly what his parents have wanted, amazingly intelligent, won all these awards, graduated top of the class and has this amazing future ahead of him. When the play opens, right in moment of crisis of questioning what he wants. He doesn’t know what direction he’s going in, but he falls in love with Mrs Robinson’s daughter and believes in that so strongly that he damns everything else and goes for it. It’s something to admire when the whole world is against you that you can hold on to something. It’s small but powerful.”

With an amazing cast including Katharine Wilkins from TV’s McLeod’s Daughters, Geraldine Brophy, (aka Moira from Shorty Street) and with Julian at the helm, The Graduate is sure to be fantastic, and will secure Julian’s place as the hot young thing of Wellington theatre.


About the Author ()

Well hello there. Eleanor was the Theatre Editor in 2007, now she writes the Women's Column and just generally minces about the Salient office. Eleanor is currently an Honours student in Theatre (with a touch of gender). She also has a BCA in Marketing but she tries to keep that on the d-low (embarrassing, because she loves academic integrity and also perpetuating the myth that she's a tad bohemian). If you've got a gender agenda, woo her by taking her a BYO Malaysian. She lies, if you show any interest at all she'll probably tackle you in the street and force you to write a column.

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