Rory Kelly is an actor, writer and filmmaker based in Melbourne. He has been involved in numerous films and stage productions, including the stage production of War Horse. Recently, Rory won the Green Room Best Male Actor Award for his eponymous role in Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre’s stage production Trevor.
Rory also co-runs a photography business Taylor | Kelly with his partner, photographer Isobel Taylor-Rodgers (Issy). Red Magpie interviewed the pair in their studio about the headshots and portraiture they offer for emerging artists, and talk to Rory about acting and writing.
No, I always wanted to be a film director; acting is something I fell into by accident. I was waiting for a friend outside the Street Theatre in Canberra when director (and ex-head of acting from WAAPA) Ross McGregor ran out of the theatre and said to me ‘hey, I’m casting this new play and I haven’t got this actor yet, you look like you would be perfect, do you want to come and audition for it?’ Five minutes later, I was on stage with him and a recent grad from WAAPA, who was playing Shakespeare in the show.
Ross suggested that I wasn’t terrible at acting and that I should have a go at it, but I was fairly adamant that I wanted to be a film director. Ross convinced me by saying that the only way you can be a decent film director is if you know how to work with actors, and to do that you’ve got to know how they work, and so he suggested I go and study acting anyway. So he kind of Jedi-mind tricked me.
So, I went and studied acting at VCA, moved down to Melbourne back in 2009 and studied for three years there. The program is intense; that was a pretty gnarly couple of years.
I think I had an easier time than most. At the end of 2011, I auditioned for Red Stitch down in Windsor. They run a program for graduate actors where you get to be a full member of the company for a year, and they decided to take me on. I was doing that straight out of drama school, but then halfway through that year I got a job touring with War Horse, and Red Stitch very graciously let me run away to do that.
Since then, I’ve gone back and worked with Red Stitch on numerous productions such as Jumpers for Goal Posts, Trevor and recently, Rules for Living.
Trevor is about a chimpanzee called Trevor who is being raised in middle America by a woman, as essentially her son. It’s about their relationship. The woman’s husband is no longer in the picture, and we don’t necessarily know why. But Trevor, as the chimpanzee, isn’t depicted as a chimpanzee. Like, there’s no costume or anything like that, it’s just an actor on stage. He can speak perfect English, and all of the humans can speak perfect English, but nobody can understand each other.
It’s watching where communication breakdown ends up running into problems in relation to family, life, friends, life and dreams. The structure of the show is lifted from the Arthur Miller classic, Death of a Salesman. So even though it’s about a chimpanzee, Trevor is about how fundamental and delicate that communication is.
I had a wonderful movement teacher when I was at VCA and she did a lot of animal work with us. It’s observation, and then you break down the physical traits of whether it’s a person or an animal or a creature or whatever. Trevor is ‘full chimp’. So there’s a bit of the turned-in feet, the poked-out butt and knuckle dragging. I also had a bit of a cheat because my whole family have very dextrous toes.
When acting, you get taught to listen and respond to what people are saying to you, but in this case, when your character doesn’t understand anything that anyone says to them, you have to ignore that training. So, somebody would be mid-sentence about something that’s really important, and instead of engaging, I’d just walk off.
I think about Trevor’s final speech all the time, which is basically him going: ‘I did everything that was asked of me, I thought there was some kind of reward.’ We’re taught that, in pretty much 99% of the professions that are out there, you can be a celebrity. If you’re going to be a chef, you’ll be a celebrity chef; if you’re a scientist, you’ll be the guy that goes on every single one of the talk shows around the world.
There’s this idea that, if you are that perfect version, you can become famous. I think that the idea of being famous and being in the limelight was really the American Dream, but I think it resonates a lot in Australia as well, particularly for the past couple of generations.
The problem is that, there’s a saturation point of the amount of entertainment that people are able to take in and the amount that is out there. For me it’s fairly confronting, because, the reality of trying to be an actor is that you can work as hard as you like, and you can do everything right, and you can do everything that people ask of you, you can make your own work, you can bring everything to the table, and maybe nothing will happen. It might. But there’s just as much chance that nothing will. That’s very confronting.
The next acting thing I’m in is a play over at Red Stitch, and I’m really excited about it. It’s by a woman named Josephine Collins. Red Stitch have this program called Ink, where you can submit ideas and part of your work and they’ll help you develop a show from it. Some people who submit to it are well-established writers who come there with full shows, and some have never written a play before.
For Josie, it’s the first play she’s ever written. She had this idea and the company loved it so much that they’ve been working with her to make it a possibility. It’s an absolute cracker; it’s called The Way Out, and is a post-apocalyptic Australian story set entirely in a pub. It’s so bloody good and it feels really contemporary in a way that excites me. I’m a big sci-fi fan, and it feels like a really genuinely unique bit of science fiction from an Australian standpoint. It makes perfect sense and is dramatic, but with that Australian wry humour; even though everything is serious, nobody takes it too seriously. It’s all dealt with in these really human ways, even though the stakes are way up high.
Well, it’s a bit of a surprise, because I don’t know anything about music and I can’t play an instrument, and musicals are a bit of a mystery to me.
It’s called Space, the musical and it’s about a young woman who’s a mechanic on this big intergalactic spaceship, and one day she realises she’s actually working for the bad guys. The bad guys in this case are the Major Party, and they’re a political party run by a guy called Tom Major, and his second in command is a woman called The Man. Basically, it’s two hours of stupid jokes about science fiction. It’s utterly ridiculous, I can’t believe someone’s letting me do it, to be honest.
I was approached to write it by Lincoln Hall, who I worked with on War Horse. John Foreman, the musical director, had an idea for a sci-fi comedy musical, and he pitched the idea to Lincoln, who was like, ‘I love it, we need somebody to write the book’. He’d just met me, and since I was a massive nerd, he came to me and asked me to work on it. So, ever since we worked on War Horse, Lincoln and I have been tapping away at this thing.
We did a workshop of it at the start of this year, got 13 of the most incredible performers in this room, staged the musical over a week, pitched it to a bunch of producers, and it just got picked up. We might get to see it either in September, or early next year.
Issy: We do headshots for actors, which has kind of come out of what Rory does. I think a lot of actors in Australia really struggle financially; it’s not particularly kind in that respect, especially if you’re emerging. We wanted to do something that meant it was more affordable for people to access marketing packages. So, our headshots are pretty industry standard, a little bit cheaper, but the stuff that Rory does is really cheap, sort of a community service.
Rory: In terms of the photography, they pretty much work with Issy on the fly. She gets them to bring a bunch of different outfits, and they work on what they actually want to get out of it on the day.
With me, we’ll sit down and have a cup of coffee beforehand, and talk about what they want to be doing, the career they want to have, which is actually a question that stumps so many people. Having to think about, if you could cast yourself, what would you cast yourself as, or, what do you think you could be cast as, and where do you think your best avenues for getting work are.
They might say: ‘I want half-a-dozen lines in the vein of Offspring,’ or ‘I want to be a serious action hero, but all I ever get is boy next door comedy’. I try and get enough information so that I can find that cross-section between what they want and what’s going to be useful.
Then, I go away and write half-a-dozen scenes in the style that we’ve discussed. I try to write several scenes, both so that they can show range, but also so that it feels like part of a larger story, like, it’s actually come out of a feature film, for instance.
Issy: For the business, definitely, that’s the main focus. I also have my own practice as well, but that has slowed down a bit because I’m doing Masters and also working full-time at Melbourne Theatre Company. I had an exhibition in February, and that was at Seventh Gallery, and hope to have more in the future, but it’s something that you can fall out of very quickly.
Rory: Can I say Issy?
Issy (to Rory): Well, I’d say you, but I can’t now (laughing). When I was younger, I used to say that when I died I wanted to be cremated and put into fairy lights. A bit macabre to have at your house maybe, but I just love fairy lights.
Find out more about Taylor | Kelly here.
Photography by luminescent lioness and fearless leader Elly Freer.