“I would have been a risk to the community as an engineer,” actor Steve Mouzakis tells Clare Kennedy.
“When I was a child, I observed people very closely. My older brother would poke me and say, ‘Stop staring at that person!’ If somebody captured my attention at a party and I thought they were really weird or interesting, I’d just stare at them and then in the car on the way home, I’d do impersonations. My parents never tried to stop me. They just took it for granted,” actor Steve Mouzakis says.
Thirty years later, that precocious talent has been shaped by years of acting. In March, Mouzakis won the prestigious Green Room Award for best male performer for his role in Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.
“It was a real ensemble show, so to be singled out was flattering and a bit odd,” he confesses. Getting a phone call from director Simon Stone to say I had the role of Lopahkin, a Russian serf who rises above his station in life to become owner of the estate, was a gift in itself.
“Having never worked with The MTC before, I was thrilled that my first show with them was The Cherry Orchard.” There was no formal audition. “Simon had seen my work and knew I was right for the role,” he says.
“My father had just been diagnosed with cancer and I had just bought a house. It was a really emotional big time,” he admits.
It was fantastic to work with such talented cast and crew he says. “On the Wednesday matinee, 550 schoolkids came in, and it was like a rock concert.”
Standing on the theatre balcony and reflecting, just before opening night, it occurred to Mouzakis he’d come full circle. “I was thinking that in 1996, thirty metres from this very spot, was the theatre where, as a VCA student, I had acted in my first full play. (Andre in Chekhov’s The Three Sisters). “I am a Chekhov man,” he smiles.
Mouzakis almost missed his cue to be an actor. Upon finishing school he had enrolled in a civil engineering course at RMIT. “One day I looked around, and asked my class mates: ‘Are you actually enjoying this?’ When they said yes, I realised I was in the wrong place. I would have been a risk to the community as an engineer. I wanted to study architecture. I still kind of do, but I feel like George Costanza when I say it,” he deadpans.
At 20, Mouzakis boldly set his own course when he dropped engineering and applied to the VCA, competing with 600 other applicants. Twenty-eight gained a place in drama school, only nine graduated. “Only a handful of us are still working,” he says soberly. “I’ve seen many talented people who didn’t make it through.”
“It’s tough right from the word go. I thought drama school was full on, but that’s nothing compared to what’s coming.”
The acting life is a precarious business, often it’s a struggle to survive. But over the last twenty years, Mouzakis, 41, feels fortunate to have played a rich range of characters across film, stage and television, such as lawyer Andrew Pettrious in the television adaptation of The Slap, teacher Mr Elliott in Where the Wild Things Are and Paolo in The Secret Life of Us.
The last few years have been particularly fruitful, replete with the kinds of experiences you can’t buy. He talks about the thrill of working with big-name director Spike Jonze and chatting with the late Maurice Sendak at the New York premiere of Where the Wild Things Are about the controversy around the dark themes of his literary children’s classic when it was first published.
Another high this year was a film shoot in Alaska for American film, Sugar Mountain, directed by Richard Gray, in which Mouzakis plays a supporting role. The film is currently in post-production.
He recalls standing on top of an Alaskan mountain with acting mate Nick Farnell, taking in the breathtaking scenery. “You take a photo of that landscape and you can never do it justice,” he says.
Throughout any career there are defining moments. As a VCA student, Mouzakis was chosen by theatre legend George Ogilvie, a big influence on his work, to play the lead role in Pericles. It was Mouzakis’s first experience of the magic that can happen on stage when you’re ‘in the zone’.
“Pericles is an amazing journey. I remember the very first reading on my own. I was weeping at the end. In shorthand, it’s about a prince who loses everything and then gets it back again, he says.
Of the surreal experience on stage, he recalls: “There was no conscious recollection of it. It felt like floating on water or over waves. It did not feel like swimming or a great effort. It felt like it was all just passing through me. That is a phenomenal thing to experience. I don’t know how you can write about that without it sounding like I’m not well,” he laughs.
A sporting analogy helps explain the feeling. In particular, an extraordinary goal in the World Cup by Tim Cahill. “I looked at the replay and it was like that goal had been put in before it hit his foot.”
He casts his mind back to Pericles. “To have that kind of experience is to know that this is your zone, and that is what you need to take with you – don’t worry about all the rest. That experience really cemented for me that I was doing what I was meant to be doing, not designing bridges,” he laughs.
And as to his super fund: “Media Super been very supportive and fantastic in all my dealings with them. The fact that they’ve sponsored The Green Room awards, which might otherwise not be possible, is a sign of their commitment to the industry and the professionals working within it.”
Photo supplied by Steve Mouzakis.