We all evolve. Whether we are cognizant of it or not, we are all doing it. We’re not conditioned to stay 100 percent the same for an extended period of time. And so when Tim Minchin explains to me that he tells his fans “Don’t expect the same thing from me,” it makes sense. Performers, like everyone else, are held to this standard of what critics and audiences consider “their best” and that’s it. But shouldn’t they be able to evolve, too?
When he came to prominence in 2005, after playing the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for the first time, he was heralded as the next big thing in musical comedy. His songs had a certain intellectual quality that had been absent since perhaps the days of Tom Lehrer. In 2010, his career as a comedian got so big that he was selling out arenas in the U.K. and his native Australia. He wound up in America and did some shows in L.A. for a few years while working on a project at Dreamworks that got canned, before moving back to Australia. It was time to move onto the next thing.
That next thing is Upright, a fascinating new show that is now streaming in the U.S. on Sundance Now. The series follows Minchin as a former rock star, Lucky, traveling through the desert penniless and with a “16” year-old Meg. The series manages to be dramatic, funny, and touching all in one swoop. (Episode 5, which we talk about here, in particular features an incredible performance from Minchin). So if this series is the result of wanting to leave comedy behind and “move onto the next thing”, then it all seems to be for the best.
We recently spoke to Minchin over the phone about the series, being pulled off the road due to the pandemic, filming in the desert, and what Minchin personally refers to himself as these days.
Hi. How are you doing today?
Good. Thanks man. How are you?
I’m doing very well all the way on the other side of the world right now.
Where are you Andrew?
Aww, I love Chicago.
The first time I actually saw you was here at the Just for Laughs Festival like 10 years ago in Chicago.
That’s so good. I did a couple of things there and I’m trying to remember the room. I feel like I was quite a small kind of cabaret room…
It was a small room. It Lincoln Hall and it was across the street from the Biograph where John Dillinger was shot. You could literally see it from across the club.
Wow! I absolutely love Chicago, I’ve always had such a good, a good time there and just the world there. I’ve always had good gigs there. But also I just love being there and going for a run along the lake. I really wish I could spend more time there. I wish I could go anywhere at the moment.
Is that weird? Because you were on the road in March when the pandemic hit. So I imagine that must have been weird being in the middle of a tour all of a sudden you couldn’t do it anymore?
It was. We were in our second week and it had all just cranked up. And we just found our feet again. And uh I think my immediate concern… I mean I don’t know how much people really understand this… but when you’re the name on the poster… And the tours I do these days have an eight piece band and my touring crew is 18 people. And those people are all freelancers, you know. They are getting paid week to week. So my main concern was “Oh shoot, I’ve got 18 people who rely on me.” So that was the hard thing really and I didn’t have much time to think about the kind of weirdness of stopping and obviously all the people who had bought tickets.
I guess what I’m saying is it becomes a logistical. It immediately becomes a huge logistical challenge. You know, it’s a bit like when someone dies and for the first few weeks all you can think about is the arrangements. So it was a bit like that. Obviously not as dramatic, but then I kind of like so many people I’ve spoken to, I kind of had a really productive month where I just went “Ah everything’s gone away. I can write that song I promised that film director and I can get a bunch of stuff done”. And then I kind of hit a wall and got a bit sad about the world, so I had a bit of a delayed reaction.
I think that’s something we all went through in the initial weeks. But let’s move onto Upright. I literally just finished the show not 15 minutes ago and I loved it.
Aw, thanks, man. That’s just so great. And I love that you guys, a couple of the journalists that I’ve talked to today, have watched the whole thing. And obviously sometimes you talk to people that just watched a beat and they sort of bluff it. But obviously it’s got a particular tone to it, and I’m not really worried because I’ve worked in America a lot and they always get me. But you’re just not quite sure how it’s gonna translate. And traditionally Americans have always like taken things they’ve liked and turned them into American versions of themselves because they’re worried the audience is not going to get the tones or the accent.
And it is never half as good whenever that happens.
Really. With the exception of The Office. That was a whole other piece of genius. But I think my other concern was that Upright starts quite gently and really what we want is the audience, by the end of episode one to kind of be going. “I don’t know much about these characters. We don’t really know what’s going on with Lucky. We don’t really know what’s going on for Meg. But I want to stick with them because the way they talk is funny and they’re obviously going to have massive clashes and annoy the sh*t out of each other and that’s going to be funny to watch.”
I definitely think there’s enough universal stuff here going on for people in the U.S. to catch on. And now run me through a little bit of the inspiration for the show. It being a show that takes place entirely on the road, and you being someone who has spent so much time on the road, were you able to bring some of your own experience into this?
Yeah, I suppose. I mean so there were four writers on this project. The original premise came from Chris Taylor who really just went to the production company with an idea, which was imagine a guy trying to get across a country as big as the United States but with very few cities in us with a piano on the back of a Ute. And he was really just enamored with this image of a beautiful musical instrument in the middle of the desert sort of thing. And very soon after that they went, “What’s Tim Minchin doing?” Because obviously there’s not a million Australians who can act a bit and play a bit and you know, it made sense. And by the time I came on, another two of my friends were signed up as writers. Two other writer actors. And all of us have our own experiences doing that drive across the desert. I did it from Perth to Sydney when I was 10 with my parents. All four kids stuck in the back of a Mitsubishi van towing a trailer tent. And I spent 2 weeks doing that trip. And Kate Mulvaney had done it with a boyfriend when she was 20 and Leon had done it. And I guess you kind of really want to get the weirdness across and the kind of Heart of Darkness of it all. The thing that deserts do and there are such interesting personalities that live in that isolated way that you come across. Such slightly mad people, who you assume are a bit mad because they live in such a different way but maybe we seem just as mad to them.
But also that episode 5 where he gets bitten by a snake and it’s all weird and ends with the song and the funeral. It was really meant to reflect that inevitability of when you go driving out in the desert and all sh*t getting weird basically. And what happens when you’re in that isolation and stuff gets weird, what insights that allows you. You know, traditionally in film someone would go out and take some Ayahuasca or something and have a trip and in that trip they would have an insight. It’s what Jim Morrison did and kind of what Jesus did as well. Go out into the desert, have a bit of meditate and probably get stoned and battle your demons. And we thought him getting bitten by a snake and him starting to hallucinate, allowing him to see his mom and from the truck driver hear all these messages that he needed to hear. “Music’s not for you, it’s for other people”, and all those. So it was kind his Dark Night of the Soul. Sorry that’s a digression from your question, but I guess, your desert experiences you can’t help but carrying into your story.
I was actually going to ask you about episode 5 from a performance standpoint, where you’re basically along throughout a majority of the episode. How do you go about approaching something that dramatic and with that much depth as an actor?
Well I love acting and I’ve always wanted to sort of be an actor. But on the other hand sort of thought that acting’s for really good looking special people and I’m not. I never really believed that I would be allowed to. And I’ve done quite a lot of work on stage. And really, in Australia, the director Donna Reade, who is really getting a lot of work in America, cast me as a character Smasher Sullivan in a show called The Secret River over here and he’s awful and very very not funny. And she was the first person who took a punt on me as a dramatic actor and it really gave me confidence. But also there’s always those questions, the voices in your head saying “Well you didn’t train and you’re not real,” and all that. And the way I deal with those voices of doubt is I don’t think about it too much. I don’t worry about technique. And because I was quite involved with the director and because I wrote a lot of this show and cause I was dealing with a teenager, and my costar was a young kid, again my focus wasn’t too much on me. And I think that was really good for me, because I think trying to act authentically is a lot about letting go of your self awareness and stuff.
And by that monologue, when he’s lying on the road, basically almost dying and his mom appears and he just says “Mom, I don’t think I can go on. I don’t have anything to give and I think everyone hates me.” And you don’t quite know what he’s talking about because you haven’t learned all the secrets yet. You’re about to in episode 6 where you learn about what he did wrong. But I wrote that -I guess being a writer- I wrote that monologue for myself because I know what I can do and I know the rhythms of my speech. And the goal is just to not overthink it and try to ignore the cameras. I don’t know. I guess I really love it. I guess the basic rule for me of acting is to just think “What would be like if I were this guy?” And then just do it. (Laughs). You know, it’s f*cking dumb and maybe that means there’s a ceiling to how good I’ll get as an actor, maybe I do need to read Stanislaski or whatever. But I really just think the exercise is “What would it be like if I was that person?” And I don’t think about it much more than that.
But yeah, I think the reason I really enjoyed Upright and am actually proud of Upright, which I don’t say about everything I’ve done, is that I had the privilege of being able to twist all the dialogue to my rhythms. So nothing got onto the page that I didn’t want to say. So as an actor that’s a massive privilege to go “I’m not saying a single line that I haven’t signed off on.” Often as an actor you’re like “Aw f*ck I’ve gotta say this”.
Totally. And I love how you were able to break all that down. Tell me about filming in the desert itself. Is it as uncomfortable as it appears to be?
The short answer is no. You can’t actually film on the Nullarbor in Australia because no one can afford to send all the gear out there. It’s too far, with no resources and no shops, and you’d have to take medical officers and helicopters. And in Australia we don’t work with those sorts of budgets particularly. But luckily there are areas in Australia where the sort of topography, or the geography, goes from sort of slightly, not exactly farmland but a town and an hour later you’re in butt f*ck nowhere and it looks as desolate as a Nullarbor plain. And so as you’re filming, there were tough days, definitely, but you’re going back to a proper bed and there’s proper catering. And we got really lucky because this was a co-production between British and Australian SVOD like, you know, cable channels. And so we had a proper budget. But also it’s not in my nature to stay in a five star hotel overnight and the next day try and play someone who’s living in a Ute. I think you don’t want to be staying somewhere too nice. You just want to have a good sleep and get back to work. So I guess what I’m saying is that the absence of luxury, without being all method about it, having not too many luxuries is good. Everyone just focuses on the task at hand, you get the work done and get back to civilization and drink.
Exactly. And I’m sure, without feeling too method, it does help for you to get into the mindset of the character as well.
Without a doubt. You know, there were lots of ways in which that was the case. We filmed it quite chronogically. Not very, but the last scene, the spoiler scene, where I’m on the front grass with the piano and the kid, we filmed that on the last day. And the coming out on the grand and when he finally stands upright and breathes upright and breathes it out that was the very very last shot. And all that, the sense that to make the show was a massive journey and we landed in Perth which is my home town, outside that house which I have walked passed thousands of times because it was directly across from my cousin’s house growing up and, and just having, it’s a hell of a thing making eight episodes of telly in ten weeks and being out with this kid, this amazing kid. And this actress, Milly, I didn’t know at all at the start and because she’s a young girl, and we just want her to feel really secure and safe, so I didn’t sort of, I didn’t try to get to know her, I wasn’t knocking on her hotel room door like “Hi let’s have a chat.” We kind of left each other alone and over the ten weeks of shooting just got to know each other and fell in love and we also went on that journey where I got to learn how special Milly is as a person, as my character Lucky was learning how special Meg was. The journey was starting like “Shit I gotta do this show” and “Sh*t I gotta get my lines right” and “Sh*t is she gonna be good enough for the role?” and then sinking into the authenticity of it and realize through shooting would add something special. So yeah, my journey and Lucky’s journey towards authenticity and towards a sense of peace there’s a parallel there that I’m definitely tapping into I suppose, I didn’t really think of that, I try not to think of that. In hindsight, that definitely occured.
I think your chemistry with her comes across so well. And the last thing I want to know is, you’re out here promoting something that deals with a lot of darker and more dramatic elements. And you’ve done so much over your career, but because you first rose to prominence as a comedian musician, do you ever find it hard for people to take you seriously? Does the comedy thing ever become a hinderance?
Well I was writing musical theater and trying to act and writing serious songs all throughout my 20s and I only became known as a comedian around 30. I really only did comedy for like 6 years and I went from not being a comedian to doing arenas. And I look back on that time and think “What the hell was going on in my head?” And I’ve kind of stopped, partly because after I wrote Matilda I realized I had the opportunity to make work that turns in time. I mean Matilda is ten years old and is still running on the West End and she’s been all over the world singing those songs at school concerts. And you know, once you realize that, I guess it made me realize I could make stuff that had a bit of cultural impact outside of just being funny each night.
But also I was getting a bit famous in the UK, and a bit uncomfortably, being recognized on the street and I thought that wasn’t good for me or my family. And so we moved to LA and I tried to make a film. I guess what I’m trying to say is I’ve been slowly trying de-pigeonhole myself for years. I went very very deliberately giving myself some acting training and I went and did a play in Sydney and did a musical for Andrew Lloyd Weber and took these small roles in things. And I’ve been slowly, slowly just saying to my fans, “Don’t expect the same things from me.” I’m really obsessed with keeping myself “unpigeonholeable” and by variety, you know, I’m very very lucky because I get to do different things not many people get to do. I’ve done that quite consciously, so yeah, sometimes especially in England where I’m definitely still known as a comedian, I’ll do this show or I’ll write… I’ve written two musicals which have won Best Musical Olivier’s and Matilda is a Grammy nominated and Upright is very critically acclaimed and stuff… and someone in England will be like “Comic Tim Minchin turns his hand to drama” or something. And I’m like “Hold on a sec. I’ve done a lot more not comedy than I’ve done comedy, so can we just not call me a comedian, so I can have a chance to just be what I want to be?”
And firstly, how f*cking lucky am I to have any career, so it would be ridiculous of me to complain. But also it’s working. I think I’ve managed to do the impossible which is people mostly try not to refer to me as one thing or another, which is you know, a hell of thing. It’s really, really cool.
Totally. I can imagine it is a hard thing to break out of and have people stop calling you. It’s sort of there for life.
I mean obviously if people call me a comedian, I’m just stoked that they’re watching my stuff at all. When people say “What do you do?” I say “I’m a musician“, because it feels like it’s at the bottom of everything, even this TV show really. I mean one of the main aims with Upright, one of the big things when I came on board was “I want to talk about music from the point of view from someone who actually knows what it is to be a musician as opposed to talk about music from a fan’s”. There are so many shows about music that are just incredibly annoying, watching how musicians are depicted and a lot of writing songs or like trying to get music into a story can be very very hard and very cheesy. And I really wanted to do a good job of that, and let music be like the spiritual heart of this show. The piano is like a character that represents Lucky’s heart or whatever. And I think we did okay. Music matters in this show, but you don’t go like “And here’s the song every episode” or “Here’s a scene where he writes a song because he’s so inspired.” It avoids the tropes.
It definitely does. And I can’t wait for Americans to see it. I think they’re gonna dig it.
Aw man, I really hope people watch it. I’ve been so desperate for it to get there, just because I have a lot of fans over there who have been wanting to see it, but also it is the television center of the world. And when you make something… It’s terrible. I wish I wasn’t worried about what Americans would think, but it’s just the nature of the industry. It’s like (mockingly) “I want them to like it. I want validation from Hollywood”. But not really, I just want as many people to see it as possible because I think it’s a lovely little story.