Hugh Keays-Byrne was one of those extraordinary screen presences who didn’t land nearly enough substantial roles, but absolutely astonished when entrusted with the spotlight. The great English-Australian actor, who died this week aged 73, was less a performer than a visceral, wall-rattling force who seemed to summon his own weather conditions. You watched the guy, slack-jawed and kind of terrorised, uncertain whether his performances should be studied in film school or analysed by the Bureau of Meteorology.
One person understood this more than anybody: the director George Miller, who cast Keays-Byrne as the principal villain in not one but two Mad Max movies. First the 1979 original, with the actor chewing the scenery as a dastardly gang leader named Toecutter, and more recently the Oscar-winning Fury Road, returning him to the franchise as Immortan Joe – a beefy, bedraggled, pasty-white warlord attached to a respirator fitted with rows of horrible-looking horse teeth and squeezed inside semi-transparent armour.
Keays-Byrne will be forever celebrated for his bad-arse and batshit crazy Mad Max performances, though he appeared in many other screen productions, albeit often in frustratingly small roles including the pre-Mad Max biker movie Stone, the berserk Australian western Mad Dog Morgan, the strange exploitation pic Snapshot, director Richard Lowenstein’s excellent feature debut Strikebound, and the spectacular turkey Les Patterson Saves the World.
Born in Kashmir, India, in 1947, Keays-Byrne’s resume is dotted with midnight movies but he came from a distinguished background, performing for the Royal Shakespeare Company in England for six years before resettling in Australia in 1973. His Fury Road co-star Charlize Theron took to Twitter on Thursday morning to deliver a tribute: “It’s amazing you were able to play an evil warlord so well cause you were such a kind, beautiful soul. You will be deeply missed my friend.”
In a post published on Facebook, the legendary Ozploitation director Brian Trenchard-Smith also paid tribute to Keays-Byrne’s acting skills as well his character and temperament: “Hugh had a generous heart, offering a helping hand to people in need, or a place to stay to a homeless teenager. He cared about social justice and preserving the environment long before these issues became fashionable. His life was governed by his sense of the oneness of humanity. We will miss his example and his friendship.”
Elsewhere in that post, the director reflected on how he “spent many happy Sunday mornings” with Keays-Byrne and others at a shared house where the actor lived in Centennial Park in Sydney. It was at that house, back in the 70s, that Keays-Byrne – gathered with other recently-hired cast members of Mad Max – phoned the film’s producer to make an odd request. The actors had decided they wanted to live and breathe their characters, who belonged to Toecutter’s disgusting gang. Their approach, they reasoned, involved driving dangerously modified motorbikes from Sydney to Melbourne – in addition to wearing the same clothes and avoiding showering.
This kickstarted a period of intensely bizarre method acting I wrote about in my book about the making of the Mad Max movies, Miller and Max, with the actors embracing the grubbiness of their characters on and off the screen, helping fuel the wild energy so crucial to making the film such a distinctive and invigorating oddball. The group completely freaked out the then-barely known and inexperienced Mel Gibson who, co-star and co-feral David Bracks later recalled “didn’t know what he’d stepped into … He thought he was gonna cop it. That we were going to give it to him as a real bike gang and beat him up.”
On the set of Fury Road more than three decades later, a virtually unrecognisable Hugh Keays-Byrne continued his wacky method style, remaining in character long after his co-stars had taken a break. One time between takes, Abbey Lee Kershaw (who plays one of Immortan Joe’s Five Wives) made the mistake of staring at the seasoned veteran who, looking utterly grotesque in his costume and makeup and determined to stay in character, stared right back.
It is safe to say Keays-Byrne won the staring competition. In a YouTube video recorded during the film’s promotional tour, Lee recounted how this moment had such an impact she “couldn’t breathe and my heart was pounding out of my chest”, so much that “they had to stop the shoot and I had to breathe into a bag”.
Many people spoke of Keays-Byrne as a generous and gentle spirit; I lost count how many times I heard words to that effect while researching my book. But there’s nothing gentle or laid-back about his best, biggest, gnarliest performances. The actor had his own style as well as his own gravitational pull; you didn’t so much watch him as experience him. Keays-Byrne will – to borrow from the script of Mad Max – ride eternal, shiny and chrome.