Tim Minchin on Upright and getting serious about acting: 'I’ve got a lot to overcome’

Back in Australia after two professional heartbreaks, the comedian discusses his new show, the knife edge between comedy and drama – and why he wants a ‘Hanksian’ career

In a tiny makeup trailer on the dusty red outskirts of Kalgoorlie in Western Australia, Tim Minchin was quietly freaking out.

He’d been stuck there for more than an hour, crammed shoulder to shoulder with as many cast and crew as could fit while an electrical storm raged outside. They were meant to be shooting a pivotal scene for his new TV series Upright – which the comedian, musician and Matilda: The Musical creator co-wrote, produces and stars inbut for the second time that day the set had to be evacuated.

The first evacuation happened a few hours earlier. Around 50 people had crowded into the sweltering 2-Up Shed – a tiny, rusted tin structure which is one of the only parts of Australia where the gambling game is legal year-round. In the scene, Minchin’s character Lucky Flynn would battle his demons in a surreal fight scene.

Dozens of locals had volunteered to play raucous onlookers, joining actors Heather Mitchell, Milly Alcott, Daniel Lapaine and Kate Box. But the 36C heat outside had turned the corrugated iron shed into an oven and a local grandmother fainted, falling to the dirt.

The woman was fine, just overheated and embarrassed, but everyone was removed from set. Scores of people waited under makeshift awnings for the ambulance to leave and the nervous crew watched the sun begin to set. The scene was losing its light.

Then the storm hit: flashes of light across the desert sky, thunder shaking the red earth as a deluge of rain fell. “BRING ‘ER DOWN, HUEY!” screamed one extra, a sturdy Kalgoorlie priest, delighting not only in the break in the drought but at the panic of the big-city folk. A producer with a megaphone ordered everyone to take shelter in the “nearest rubber-wheeled vehicle”.

“It was really full-on,” Minchin says later. It’s not cheap to fly a whole cast to Kalgoorlie – a tiny mining town in regional WA – and they only had them for the night. “I was like, we can’t come back here. There’s no alternative. It has to be tonight.”

The scene would end up fine, but Minchin, stuck in the makeup trailer, didn’t know that then. When we meet again nine months later, he admits, “I was on the verge of tears.”

Tim Minchin
‘It was really full-on’, Minchin says of the Kalgoorlie shoot that couldn’t have gone more wrong. Photograph: Mark Rogers

Minchin’s emotional investment in Upright is understandable. The eight-episode TV series, which launches in the UK and Australia this month, is the first project he has led after two major professional heartbreaks (the collapse of a $100m film, and the early closure of a Broadway show) brought him back home from the US, tail between his legs.

Upright stars Minchin as Lucky: a broke, downtrodden musician living in Sydney, with a mother (Heather Mitchell) who is dying on the other side of the country, where the rest of his estranged family lives.

In a gesture intended to heal old wounds, he decides to drive the old family piano across 4,000km of Australian landscape, back home to Perth.

It’s on one of those endless roads that he collides with precocious, tough and whip-smart teenager Meg (Milly Alcock), who has her own damage to deal with.

Conceived by Chris Taylor from Australian satirical group The Chaser, the show was intended as a comedy – but when Minchin signed on, he wasn’t in the mood for jokes.

“I was really in a funk,” he says. “I said, ‘I don’t want to do a comedy. It’ll be funny because [of the writers], but just delete sitcom from your heads. If I’m in it, watch out, because I’ve got a lot of fucking shit to overcome.”

In the US, Minchin had been offered full pilots by Emmy-winning writers – “like my Louie, or my Seinfeld” – and in England, he says, “‘What about a panel show? What about a late-night music show?’” But he resisted.

“I’ve always thought I might be an actor,” he explains. “And I thought I might be good enough to do it properly.

“I’ve been quietly chipping away at the possibility that I could have a Tom Hanksian or Robin Williams career, where you get known as an actor more than as a comedian. The last thing I need to do is be a presenter, or have a TV show where I’m playing myself.”

His character in Upright does have hints of him: Lucky has the hair, he’s from Perth, and in some of the show’s most moving moments he sings and plays piano too. But while Meg has been forced to speed through adolescence, Lucky is in a state of arrested development: a man-child who has run away from his family and his mistakes and who struggles to work out what exactly to do with this fiercely independent child he’s been thrown in with.

Four thousand kilometres is a long time for two people to spend in a car: they banter and scream and swear at each other, toggle with the music, steal wallets, cars, horses. Their relationship evolves as they cross outback landscapes and get into scrapes with locals, always with the whimsical MacGuffin of an old piano trailing behind the ute. And through slowly dropped breadcrumbs, the audience learns more about the Perth Lucky is heading home to, and the home life from which Meg has fled.

Still from Upright
‘When people ask “is this a comedy or a drama?” It’s like, ‘fuck off, it’s a story!”’ Photograph: Matt Nettheim

It’s no surprise the script, which pulls you from laughter to tears in a flash, won at the prestigious Australian Writers’ Guild awards before the show had even screened publicly. This, of course, is Minchin’s “obsession” as a songwriter too: lulling you in with funny lyrics before punching you in the gut.

“The idea is for people to laugh and then feel like crying within the shortest possible space of time,” he says. “I feel like that about this show. That’s why when people ask ‘is this a comedy or a drama?’ It’s like, ‘fuck off, it’s a story!’”

The balance is handled deftly by director Matthew Saville, who toed the same “knife’s edge” with Josh Thomas’s quietly devastating dramedy Please Like Me. But they needed a young actor who could pull it off, too.

“Around three months into preproduction I remember saying, ‘This show lives or dies on how good this kid is. We have to find a fucking miracle,’” Minchin says. “And in walks Milly.”

Alcock, now 19, acted in Pine Gap and Fighting Season, and has a lead role in the upcoming series The Reckoning. Days after she came off that shoot, she got offered the role in Upright; she dropped out of her performing arts school to accept it a week before her HSC trials began. “I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything,” she says, laughing, as we wait out the weather in Kalgoorlie. “Maybe I’m missing out on a closing chapter … but I got over that pretty quickly when I started work.”

She’d seen Matilda and “kind of” knew Minchin’s name, but avoided Googling him before the chemistry screen test. “I didn’t want to psyche myself out,” she says.

Still from Upright
‘I love writing young girls. I thoroughly reject the idea that you can’t write other people’s experiences,’ says Minchin. Photograph: Matt Nettheim

Working with Minchin has been “incredible”, she says. “It’s his baby, he wants to make sure that it’s really good, and I really trust he will.” The control-freak side of him made itself felt on set, too. “Matt Saville will give me one note, and Tim will come in and give me the opposite. I kid you not, this happens at least once a day … [but] I kind of just did what I wanted.”

As Meg, Alcock is playing a girl much younger – but stronger, sassier and wiser than most kids. She can drive a ute, beats bikers at pool; even with unknowable trauma in her past she has a comeback for everything. As well as leaning into the direction, Minchin ended up co-writing on each episode – along with Taylor, Kate Mulvany and Leon Ford.

“I love writing young girls – and for the record, I thoroughly reject the idea that you can’t write other people’s experiences,” Minchin says. And if Meg’s maturity is a little unbelievable – if a real kid who survived that much trauma would be “more vulnerable and more scared” – he says that’s the point.

“The reason Meg’s worth watching is because she’s a superhero. I haven’t met any five-year-old girls like Matilda, either – but you bloody well want to watch her.”

• Upright airs in the UK on Sky Atlantic on 28 November, with all episodes available on NOW TV. In Australia, the first two episodes will be broadcast on Fox Showcase on 1 December, when all episodes will be streaming on Foxtel

• Guardian Australia travelled to Kalgoorlie as a guest of Foxtel


Steph Harmon

The GuardianTramp

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