Babe star James Cromwell plays Rupert Murdoch in David Williamson's new play on stage in Sydney | VIDEO, AUDIO, GALLERY

THIS play, Rupert, about one of the most powerful people in the world, with some very serious themes, appears surprisingly light-hearted, perhaps satirical, complete with tap-dancing! "No, I wouldn't say it's a satire. It's cabaret. It’s meticulously researched and as objective as one can be when trying to put flesh on the bones of what we usually get in the media as to who people are. The playwright has tried to flesh out Murdoch's life from Oxford all the way through the hacking scandal in a way that keeps a distance between the audience and the performance so the audience can look objectively and come to an understanding of whether what Murdoch has pursued all his life has been for the good of humanity or the good of Mr Murdoch."

Watch the trailer (0.16):

What insights have you gained as you prepared for this, which may not be immediately evident to us at a distance? "Well, all I’ve ever seen of Mr Murdoch is at a distance but I see the effect of Mr Murdoch because we’re infected with Fox News in this country. Since I’ve done the play I not only have the point of view of the author and what he's made out of Murdoch's life through his research and his artistry and his interpretation but I also have the Levinson inquiry, the Charlie Rose interview and the tape made surreptitiously by a Sun reporter when Rupert Murdoch addressed them after News Corp released reporters’ and editors’ emails to the Levinson committee.

"But who is Murdoch? Is he the guy talking to the Levinson inquiry? Or is he the guy talking to the Sun reporters? It's like a pastiche. You have to put these different facets together and then people make up their own minds as to whether that makes up a whole human being."

But surely it wouldn't? "Well, some human beings are very opaque, very difficult to know. Richard Nixon comes to mind. Bill Clinton comes to mind. Iago, King John, Richard III. What are the motivations for an Iago to do what he did? What are the motivations of a Rupert Murdoch to do what he did?

ARS GRATIA ARTIS. Photo: Ryan Rogers

ARS GRATIA ARTIS. Photo: Ryan Rogers

"I say terrible things because it really doesn't matter. It’s different when George Clooney says something. Or Brad Pitt. A tall elderly character actor, who cares."

"Murdoch seems committed to an idea that humanity has never changed and will never change and is epitomised by greed and violence and that's just the way the world is. So you can't really control the chaos but you can learn to ride the waves.

"I don't know that you ever really, well, you know people when you're in their presence. It's called immediate self-experience. So when you stand in front of the Dalai Lama or you stand in front of Martin Luther King or you stand in front of Malcolm X or I can think of many, many people you can stand in front of and there's an immediate self-experience about who that human being is. There's a resonance, there's a communication.

"And then there are human beings you stand in front of and they're opaque. In fact sometimes they're like black holes. They seem to draw all the energy into them — you wouldn't wanna go in there."

You have the difficult job of taking us as close as possible to giving us a sense of being in Murdoch's presence. What qualities are vital to convey? "I won’t really know until I play him. What I have noticed on a very superficial level is he’s a wonderful actor. He’s very, very convincing. He has a disingenuousness and an affability, an intelligence, a charm. The question that remains is: ‘What’s behind the eyes?’ "

Are there qualities in Rupert Murdoch not often acknowledged? "Can I have compassion for Rupert Murdoch, do you mean? Of course I can. Many people make the choice that the ultimate goal of life is to accumulate the greatest amount of wealth and power so that at the end of it you’ve won and you can pass on your winnings to future generations. But you can’t amass that wealth and power without doing a lot of damage to other people and to yourself.

"So there comes a reckoning at some point. I’d like to create a recognisable human being with flaws so that instead of dismissing Rupert Murdoch you can look with compassion but understand what is the root cause of the dysfunction that seems to be his world view."

BABE: An Oscar nomination for playing the pig farmer Arthur H. Hoggett, with Magda Szubanski as Esme, in 1995. He was back for the sequel three years later.

BABE: An Oscar nomination for playing the pig farmer Arthur H. Hoggett, with Magda Szubanski as Esme, in 1995. He was back for the sequel three years later.

"When you get an Academy Award nomination everything changes."

Murdoch has more resources at his disposal than someone like William Randolph Hearst had, another media baron you’ve also played. If Hearst were alive today would he be as powerful as Murdoch? "Um, it’s hard to tell. I think Murdoch is the real genius, you know, the sort of shoot-from-the-hip gunslinger who takes big risks. He has farsightedness, an ability to cut through things and see a superstructure so that he can manipulate it to the way he wants. Hearst may not have had that. He had a lot of wherewithal and he had newspapers but as for his business acumen I’m not too sure. I think Rupert Murdoch’s right up there. He’s very impressive."

Has there been any response to this work from its subject? "You know, I really have no idea. I don't think they'd be sort of interested; I don’t even know if he’s interested in it. Small potatoes. I really don't know. Everybody understands the reality of the business we’re in and where they'd like to be and who they'd like to notice them so, you know, things count. I understand that. I say terrible things because it really doesn't matter. In my industry they've never given, pardon the expression, they've never given a shite what I said because I was never in a position to make much of a difference. It’s different when George Clooney says something. Or Brad Pitt. A tall elderly character actor, who cares."

Now that you mention it, your height — six foot seven — generally considered one of the greatest attributes a man can have, you have called a professional liability. Why? "When I first started the casting director at 20th Century Fox [now owned by Rupert Murdoch] told me she was gonna have trouble casting me because she knew of at least five major stars at the studio who had it in their contracts that they would work with nobody over six feet.

James on the shortcomings of being tall (3.26):

BIT OF A STRETCH: As Archie Bunker's best mate, Stretch Cunningham, on All in the Family in 1974. Reportedly, he was written out because Carroll O'Connor feared he was taking over the show.

BIT OF A STRETCH: As Archie Bunker's best mate, Stretch Cunningham, on All in the Family in 1974. Reportedly, he was written out because Carroll O'Connor feared he was taking over the show.

"Luckily my first big job in television was Stretch Cunningham. My height was obviously an advantage for that. They got used to me as the tall funny guy."

"Luckily my first big job in television was as Stretch Cunningham [All in the Family, 1974]. My height was obviously an advantage for that. They got used to me as the tall funny guy. That went on for 10 years. When you get an Academy Award nomination everything changes.

"I actually auditioned for ‘10’ for Blake Edwards. I walked in with the casting director and Blake hardly looked at me. He looked at the casting director and said: ‘What am I supposed to do with that? How tall is he? How tall is Dudley Moore?’ ‘‘So immediately he’s thinking: ‘How do I get this thing that’s walked into my office into the same frame when I’m shooting Dudley? ’Cos’ I’ll either be shooting up Dudley’s nose into this man’s face looking down at him or the other way round which will make Dudley appear to be about three feet tall!’

"Needless to say, I did not get the role."  ❏

■ David Williamson’s Rupert, starring James Cromwell and Jane Turner, is at the Theatre Royal, Sydney, from November 25. Showtimes and prices here and tickets here.

■ Read Ian's other interviews and reviews:

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