Pilgrims walk to shrine
Fr Damien role is ‘uplifting’ – actor
Compassion, love and an unbreakable human spirit attracted David Wenham to “a life-changing experience”, portraying Fr Damien, the leper priest of Molokai. Damir Govorcin spoke to the actor
David Wenham will never forget the leper colony of Molokai in Hawaii.
“Seeing people with no hands, no skin and no thumbs … it was a life changing experience,” says the award-winning Sydney actor.
Three years ago he took on what is arguably the most challenging assignment of his career, playing the role of the Belgian Catholic missionary Fr Damien, who volunteered in 1873 for a calling that was to cost him his life – serving as priest to the community of lepers on the island of Molokai.
David Wenham portrays the priest in Molokai: The Story of Father Damien (released nationally in June), an extraordinary journey into a remarkable man’s life.
For 15 years, Fr Damien almost single-handedly administered treatment and love to sufferers of what is now known as Hansen’s Disease, while fighting continual battles with government and church organisations.
He won some battles and lost some, including his own battle with leprosy, to which he finally succumbed in 1888.
David was drawn to the project by the compassion, love and unbreakable human spirit of the story.
In preparation he had to learn to speak with a Flemish accent – for which he has been applauded – and spend countless hours of research into the life of Fr Damien.
“Playing this role is very dear to me and has affected me on a personal level,” the actor says.
“Leprosy has a stigma about it, but being around these wonderful people was an uplifting experience.
“They are the most joyous people … there’s not a hint of bitterness about them.”
During his 4½ months on Molokai he developed a close bond with the locals, both on and off screen. Many of them still suffer the effects of the disease and, at first, wanted nothing to do with the film. But, after the cast and crew earned their trust, they agreed that their remarkable stories should be told. Indeed, many of them appear in the film.
Despite the debilitating disease, David says, the locals still embrace life.
And they left an indelible mark on his own.
“Being with the patients is an experience I will never forget,” he says.
“After what they have had to endure, that they can still be upbeat about life is just amazing.”
David says the film has taught him to be tolerant of others.
“This story may have happened 150 years ago, but it’s not dissimilar to what’s happening in our country,” he says, alluding to the plight of refugees.
“It’s dangerous what is going on at this moment.
“We as a society have to learn to be more compassionate and tolerant.”
David, 36, says he drew inspiration from his parents, who instilled in him strong Catholic values.
He says his father, Bill, has worked as a volunteer for the St Vincent de Paul Society for many years.
“I know how much their faith means to my parents and I have nothing but enormous love for them,” he says.
“My father spends many hours helping the less fortunate; that inspires me to be a better person.”
David enjoys a deserved reputation as a gifted actor on both stage and screen.
He stunned audiences and critics alike with his performance as a rapist and murderer in the 1991 Griffin Theatre production of The Boys – and, later, in the movie version – and as the chillingly crazy firebug Doug in the stage and movie versions of Louis Nowra’s play Cosi.
He has starred or featured in such films as Moulin Rouge, The Bank, Dark City, Greenkeeping, Idiot Box and Better than Sex.
He set women’s hearts racing as the lovable Diver Dan in the ABC TV hit series Sea Change.
And his star is tipped to shine internationally with his role as Faramir in the second and third movies in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
But of all his films, David ranks Fr Damien as the most satisfying role of his career.
And his two biggest fans, his parents, have already given him a big thumbs-up.
“Finally I have done a movie both my parents can watch,” he jokes.
“My parents are my role models and I’m just thrilled that they loved the film.”
Another attraction for him to play the role of Fr Damien (born Joseph de Veuster) was the opportunity to share the big screen with a stellar cast including the likes of Peter O’Toole, Leo McKern, Sam Neill, Derek Jacobi and Kris Kristofferson.
“Having a superb cast to work alongside only enhanced the whole experience,” David says. “It was a wonderful learning experience working with a legend like Peter O’Toole.”