“Before entering the stage as Hitler, I was to be showered in sump oil, naked by Dawn Fraser and her friend.”
Yes, interviewing Barry Otto was an intriguing experience I can tell you. The focus of this interview was primarily to be his upcoming art exhibition on January 18th at Belle Epoque Fine Art and Antiques in Sydney. A stunning and celebratory body of work dating back decades. I worked out in under 3 minutes that this was not going to be a single focus piece with a few fluffs and fancies to big it all up.
He is romantic, eccentric, wonderful and witty. His hands and eyes tell their own stories, animated and vibrant while his words weave magical tales of stage, screen, ancestry and romance that all seem to blend seamlessly and curiously into one. It was a tough job to keep up but enchanting nevertheless.
His daughter Gracie Otto had prepared me prior to our interview “He will babble on for hours if you let him” she laughed. She wasn’t wrong. Below is what I did manage to condense from 40 minutes with the most colourful and curious storyteller that I’ve ever had the joy of listening to.
Our Skype interview had been set up by Gracie, daughter, director and filmmaker (handy) and whom Otto is immensely proud of (and that day technically grateful for) as he declares immediately he appears on my screen “This all baffles me”. He did seem quite astounded that we could meet like this at the same time when I was in dark, damp London and he baked away in sunny Sydney.
It becomes apparent very quickly that Otto is passionately paternal and lovingly dedicated to partner Sue Hill (mother of Gracie and Eddie Otto).
After proudly listing Gracie’s notable achievements and crediting Sue’s endless support of him, he swiftly moves on to son Eddie’s teaching and cricket coaching career and then to his firstborn Miranda (daughter with first wife Lindsay) and her prolific, global acting roles. He also enjoys a close relationship to his granddaughter Darcey (daughter of Miranda) who lives ‘far away in America’ but clearly resides permanently in his heart as he relishes in her musical abilities and personality traits in an almost poetic expression of devotion and pride.
Gracie’s relationship with her father is soon to be documented in her latest film project Otto on Otto. A film about her father and their relationship. Both have appeared together in Matt Newton’s Three Blind Mice and Gracie has directed him in two short films, Seamstress and La Même Nuit.
Born in Brisbane and of German descent, Otto is also proud of his heritage as he tells me how his German grandfather travelled by ship to Australia and soon married “Beautiful Alice. That is where it all began.”
Fast forward a good few years and art was where this all began for Otto and his first creative calling which fuelled his curiosities and coloured his experiences throughout his childhood and adolescence.
“At 17 I attended my first proper art class. I was a virgin. The female model walked in the room, half-covering her face with her robe…so mysterious was she! When she threw the robe to one side I nearly fainted, I was crippled with shock! I’d never seen pubic hair on a woman before! I was so naive.” His eyes demonstrate the utter surprise of this momentous occasion as he laughs excitedly just like the innocent teen that he once was.
Luckily this experience catapulted him into a devoted fascination with the human form, particularly the female kind and a life- long adoration of beautifully painted portraits.
And speaking of adoration, this adolescent tale of intimate enlightenment leads him to share his favourite romantic story of all time and clearly one that has stoked his creative fire and tickled his fancy from the moment of its discovery..
“I love portraits of beautiful women and a favourite of mine is Jane Morris, wife of Mr Morris and muse of painter Dante Gabrielle Rosetti. Rosetti was madly in love with her and Mr Morris didn’t seem to mind. They even shared a love nest for a while. As well as painting her, he wrote her beautiful poems and when she died in the late 1800s, Rosetti placed these poems in her coffin. Intriguing! Some time past and Rosetti decided that he wanted them back. He enlisted the help of a friend, dug her up opened the grave to retrieve them and although she was now skeletal, her hair had grown!”
I was still transfixed by this romantic tale of art history but, if I’m honest, I was kind of waiting for more than that as a happy ending when somehow 1 2 3! I’m back in the room as he then boldly declares that he wasn’t educated past Year 10 Where did that come from?? I told you this interview was going to be a ride.
After working as a fashion illustrator, Otto landed his first acting role in the early 1970s.
“I love acting and art has always been in my life throughout my acting career. I’ve always painted.”
A well seasoned and highly regarded actor of stage, film and TV, Otto has enjoyed roles in box office greats Strictly Ballroom, The Dressmaker, The Great Gatsby, Blinky Bill The Movie, Oscar and Lucinda, Cosi and Australia to name but a few. His work in theatre includes Hamlet, King Lear, Night on Bald Mountain, Barrymore, Showboat and Tartuffe. The list is long and no doubt will continue to grow. Just like a Redgrave and a Smith, this thespian master will enrich with every expressive wrinkle and every Autumnal year that passes.
I ask him about significant experiences in his acting career that have shaped him creatively and he immediately responds with a story that could easily have been featured on BBC’s Would I lie to You? (but actually wasn’t)
“At 47 I played the monster known as Hitler in The Portage to San Cristobel of A.H. John Gaden was the director and he told me casually one day that before entering the stage in scene 5 I was to be showered in sump oil, naked by Dawn Fraser and her friend.” After I choked a little on my coffee and asked him to repeat this at least twice I enquired as to what he thought of the prospect of an Olympic swimming champion oiling him up “Flattered” he replied with a twinkle in his eye and a wry smile.
This story somehow leads him into telling me all about his new shoulder reconstruction and hip due to ‘years of theatrical antics and enthusiasm.’ I don’t doubt it. If I’ve learned one thing today it’s that Otto gives everything his absolute all.
And his all is magical.
Gracie Otto on Barry Otto
My dad has always been my biggest fan and so supportive, even when I was the worst dancer ever and got 50/100 in my ballet exam he still believed in me and thought I was great! He was always encouraging of everything I wanted to do whether it be play sport, play musical instruments or go and live in Paris when I was 18! He also acted in 3 of my short films and recently the TV series I’ve directed.
It was amazing to be around theatres and film sets as a child, I thought it was normal but I guess every child feels that. He’s such an eccentric and individual and he is super sweet to everyone so he taught me a lot and taught me that creatively there are no limits.
Early on dad worked for Myer, sketching look books before people took photos of their collections so he worked in advertising and drove a Humber Super Snipe!
I remember in kindergarten we had to tell the class our parent’s occupations, I declared that my dad pretends to be a naked goat. He was in the middle of the stage play Night on Bald Mountain and would have to walk around on stage like a goat, naked, pretty funny.
My mother (Sue Hill) has always been the silent partner in all this and, as they say, there’s always a great woman behind a great man, she has really allowed him to be himself. He doesn’t use technology, he wouldn’t know how to pay a bill but the fact she has let him be him his whole life is really incredible and they’ve been together 40 years! Mum also worked at Belvoir Street Theatre for many years and was always so supportive of my brother and I. She picked us up every day from school and drove us all around Sydney playing sport. Mum is a true champion.
Dad is also a wonderful grandfather to my niece, he really loves Darcey, he calls her a “twentieth-century woman!” I think Darcey is realising now that she has a really cool grandfather, not the traditional kind, but eccentric and different. When she was little he would play dolls with her for hours and concoct wacky stories like “the twins must get ready to go to the premiere” and spend hours dressing them up and creating stories.
I’m always proud of my father. I think he’s a remarkable person. I remember seeing him in Barrymore which was a one-man show about the life of legendary actor John Barrymore and directed by Judy Davis. I was incredibly proud of that, but I’m proud of him in so many other ways really.
Barry and Gracie Otto
Jessica Carrera @ Carrera Press Agency
Graham Jepson Photographer
Location – The Otto Family Home in Sydney
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