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Devil’s in the detail

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Anthony Hayes and Ewen Leslie play Bernie Banton and Matt Peacock respectively in ABC’s Devil’s Dust. Karol Foyle speaks with them about how they prepared for their roles and the challenges they faced – not least in the make-up department

Portraying a real person is a daunting undertaking for any actor but when that person is a public figure twice your age, who died fighting for a very public cause, it comes bundled with additional pressures. That’s the challenge Anthony Hayes faced when he took on the role of Bernie Banton in the ABC’s Devil’s Dust, a two-part telemovie which will start on Sunday November 11 on ABC1.

Four years after losing his battle with mesothelioma, an asbestos-related cancer, Banton is still widely remembered as the spokesperson for sufferers campaigning for adequate compensation against the primary producer of asbestos products in Australia, James Hardie.

“It’s a pretty daunting task to start off with because he is so iconic and there are so many videos of him, so much imagery, and people do remember him as the face of that crusade,” says Hayes. “So it was daunting just to get it right, physically, and even get his distinctive voice right. You just want to do the best you can.”

AHDDAnthony Hayes and Alexandra Schepisi in Devil's Dust

Hayes’s co-star Ewen Leslie plays Matt Peacock, the journalist who penned the book Killer Company on which the show is based. Peacock’s profile was never as prominent as Banton’s, so Leslie’s role did not have the added pressures Hayes faced.

“I met with Matt Peacock but it was never really a case of doing an impersonation of him,” Leslie says.

What the two actors did have in common were the hours of make-up required each day in order to play men twice their age.

“It has been a challenge,” says Leslie. “We go through at least an hour of make up for each look, especially when we are aged. Normally, you would play someone young and gradually age throughout their lives but in Devil’s Dust it’s quite a big jump and you don’t get to play the middle period. When you see Tony [Anthony Hayes] in the final production, you will be amazed.”

“It took two hours of make-up to play Bernie [in his 70s],” Hayes says. “We bleached my hair every week and a half because of regrowth. I had no idea how painful that was and now I realise why girls sip champagne and wine while they get their hair bleached!”

“I don’t think initially Anthony [Hayes] knew much on the process and how far we would have to go to get what we needed," says the program’s make-up and hair designer, Sheldon Wade. "There were many times we just had to laugh at the process. You need to retain a sense of humour to get through the monotony of doing it day in, day out."

“You are starting from scratch every day. I originally had to get his hair white and maintain it that colour each week.  Bleaching his hair down took three or four hours each week and once you have got that then you have a base to start with, but everything had to be put on each day.” says Wade of the laborious hair and make-up process. “I used a lot of temporary inks, coloured gels into the skin and a lot of translucency to give him the complexion and lines. It was like having a blank canvas every morning and painting that same picture.”

Hayes also felt a deep sense of responsibility in portraying Banton during the last years of his life, when he was suffering the devastating effects of asbestos disease. Even in his dying days, Banton valiantly continued his public fight against James Hardie, often appearing in public attached to oxygen tanks. It was a poignant reminder of the suffering he and many other victims endured and something Hayes wanted to portray sensitively.
“You do get used to it after a while,” he says. “Carrying the portable tanks around in every scene gets pretty heavy but it didn’t bother me. It would be a horrible thing to have to do in life and humiliating to have to carry it around. The portable tanks don’t last very long, so you have to have spare tanks and you can run out of oxygen at any time, which can be quite dangerous. In the house, there are massive oxygen machines that you are attached to that are essentially a 40-metre hose that follows you around the house and gets tangled up.”

This article was published in the Winter 2012 issue of The Equity Magazine and can be found here.

Told through three narratives, Devil’s Dust is also the story of Adam Bourke (Don Hany), an employee of James Hardie who must defend the company’s actions. Because it represents three sides of the story, Leslie believes Devil’s Dust accurately reflects the issues, rather than being one sided.

“I suppose the stroke of genius with the script is its multi-narrative aspect,” he says. “You’ve got me in the journalistic world tracking down the story; you have Bernie in the factories and with the families; and Adam Bourke is in PR on Hardie’s side of the world. It means you are able to tell the story in a complex but clearer way.”

It’s a sentiment Hayes agrees with. “I think it’s done really well,” he says. “The three narratives are fantastic and this was probably my favourite part about it. There have been other projects that I have been involved with that have been seen to be left wing and I think this sits in a better place, as it presents both sides. There was a lot to draw on, with a lot of legal teams involved to make sure that, although licence can be taken with the dramatic personal lives of people, licence cannot be taken with the Jackson Commission [into James Hardie’s records]. That had to be done pretty verbatim.”

Hayes is also glad the script was not written as a simplistic story of good versus evil. “It shows a human side as much as possible through Don’s character,” he says. “It shows how someone can start off working for a company and have a family, go up the corporate ladder and provide for their family, and you can see quite clearly how you could get into the situation. At the same time, it does not pull any punches about what Hardie did and nor should it. They are still a corporation who knowingly mined a product that killed people.

Anthony Hayes and Alexandra Schepisi in Devil's Dust

“But it also does not make Bernie out to be a complete angel. It goes into aspects of him, like having a bit of an ego … he is a bit of a superstar and he plays on that a bit.”

It’s not surprising that after doing significant research for Devil’s Dust, both Leslie and Hayes feel strongly about the issue and hope the telemovie not only raises awareness for current sufferers but also reminds people that the dangers of asbestos have not vanished.

“I am very lucky to be a part of something like this as it is a story that absolutely needed to be told,” says Leslie. “Meeting people on the set whose loved ones have died or been exposed to asbestos has been a really special experience.”

Playing Banton has also brought home the magnitude of the problem for Hayes and he is hopeful that Devil’s Dust will reignite public awareness, something he feels has diminished since Banton’s death.

“Everyone needs a poster boy and he was a great one,” he says. “He was a master at short, sharp sentences that were easily printable. That was one of his greatest things and I think that, with his passing, interest in the issue has certainly waned. I believe that companies like ADFA have less funding and less access to government support because there is not someone front and centre driving the issue home.”

Despite its Australian setting, Hayes is hopeful Devil’s Dust will have universal appeal, as many countries are still using asbestos products despite being fully aware of the dangers.

“There are still people mining and flogging asbestos products to places like India, Africa and Third World countries,” he says. “Because it can take 30 years to diagnose, or for the disease to come to fruition, we still don’t know how many people are going to be affected by this. It’s disgraceful that cases are popping up all the time and that asbestos does not go away or disintegrate into the earth. I don’t think we have seen the worse of this yet. By the year 2030, there are supposedly going to be more asbestos-related deaths in Australia than Australians who died in World War I and that’s quite staggering.”

Devil’s Dust will screen on ABC1 and starts Sunday November 11 at 8:30pm. For more infomation see http://www.abc.net.au/tv/devilsdust/.

Karol Foyle is a journalist with the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance

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