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My secret life                                                          smh.com.au, October 30, 2004

Photo: Sahlan Hayes

SeaChange star Tom Long is going undercover in a dark comedy that will leave audiences
spooked, writes Brigid Delaney.

The farmlands of north-east Victoria are flat and brown, dressed by the odd red gum and
split by rivers.  It's a place full of silence, punctuated from time to time by biblical events:
plagues of mice or locusts, droughts and bush fires.

The actor Tom Long grew up on a farm just outside Benalla in Victoria. You can hear it in
his voice, the speech rhythms of rural Australia - slow, a slight drawl, warm. It was a voice
used to great effect in SeaChange and The Dish, two of his better-known roles, where the
characters were of a certain type.

Long calls them his "really vulnerable" characters; sort of man/boys: big-hearted, naive, sweet
and fragile as glass. The public responded with warmth. They approach him to chat or they
look at him quizzically and ask, "have I met you before?" He has that sort of face.

"Maybe it's to do with the jobs I've done but everyone is really nice. They are really lovely, the
people that want to talk to me," he says.

In the ante room at the back of an old church hall in Newtown (rain lashing the tin roof, possums scratching the ceiling), where this interview takes place, Long sprawls on an ugly but comfortable looking chair. The floral covering is worn and hanging off, the foam underneath looks gnawed.

At first blush, Long appears similar to his SeaChange character, Angus. There's the same awkward, slightly goofy smile and a certain understatedness. But he has none of that character's fluster or indecision - his sense of being lost in some stage of life without a map.

At 36, Long is one of the few actors in Australia who seems to be working constantly, and he shifts with ease between film, stage and TV. Films include Strange Planet, Risk and Two Hands, while his TV roles include Young Lions, The Postcard Bandit and Go Big. He didn't start acting until he was 23, and before that he travelled around the world, fitting the experiences of several lifetimes into six years.

As a result, he keeps a fairly loose grip on life. If the acting work dries up, he'll leave it and do something else. And as for chasing fame in Hollywood, he's not that fussed. A six-year-old son has put the brakes on any overseas plans and that level of celebrity doesn't really appeal.

So if fame and career aren't important - what is? Living in the moment - Long talks about that a lot. Maybe because he is rehearsing a Neil Armfield-directed play (The Spook for Belvoir), opening Thursday, and the pressure is on - stage actors can't amend or redo their performances.

"It doesn't last. It's not like film, it's like life. That what makes it special - but it is sad," he says.

"I'm enjoying theatre now but when I got out of NIDA I didn't really enjoy it. I dunno, I don't think I was very good at it. Now I really like trying to find that moment - that present, because it is a thing between the audience and the text and it's sort of just trying to just play the moment. It's more immediate and a communication of now."

Sometimes when he sees a really good play, he wants the whole world to see it. "I've seen other productions and I've thought why couldn't everyone see this? I wasn't in it but everyone should see this and you can't re-create it, so yeah it is kinda sad but that's what makes it special. It does give us an urgency to make special use of our time."

Also temporal is the bond that actors form on the job, whether it be a play or on a film or TV set. "That's the beautiful thing about acting, you come in and you get really close to people." But then you move on and it's over: " Those things are finite and when the curtain comes down, it comes down."

But for now the curtain is about to come up. A dark comedy, The Spook, inspired by a true story, delves into the world of the South Bendigo Communist Party. Long plays Martin Porter, an ASIO spy who joins the group's activities with a view to betrayal. The play is set in 1965, but Long reckons it's pretty relevant now. "In Australia now there's a lot of propelling of fear, but I think we should be allaying them."

Long lives in Melbourne, but also owns a farm in the mountains. He has a keen ear for the silence of nature, which may have something to do with being from the country, where you grow up seeing different things, and things differently.

As a kid, when his bedroom became too messy, he moved to the veranda. "I really liked it and they thought I'd just sleep there for a couple of nights but I stayed there for ages. There were mozzies and possums up in the tree and the sun would burst up in the morning."

But it wasn't all rural idyll, particularly during mouse plagues. "One time I woke up at night and they'd be biting me so I had to put milo tins of water under my bed legs." He shivers and winces. "One morning I rolled on one."

He had no TV as a kid, just shelves of books and a love of maps. At the age of 13, he read The Tree of Man. "That Patrick White book really destroyed me. When I was young I was going to be a farmer. The book starts with Stan Parker sinking his axe into the tree and clearing a place he's gonna settle. This guy's carving the place out for himself and then that started the whole colonisation and urbanisation of the bush. It bled the romanticism out of me."

But his English teacher at school was celebrated author John Marsden and life was far from dull.

"Growing up, it was all books and stories imagination and the world being out there. When you did go into town, Benalla or Melbourne, it was exciting. We would catch the train out there with a sense of energy and a real focus that people who maybe lived there didn't have because they were used to it."

While the sad realisation came to him as a schoolboy studying maps that much of the world had been discovered ("I remember being shattered ... it was like, oh bugger"), he set out to find the world outside the farm gate.

After school he jackarooed, then went shearing. He travelled through India with some Afghan refugees, worked in a furniture factory in England, and as a shepherd, but ran away in the middle of the night because he wasn't paid. Moving to the US, he worked in a bar before working for a wool company on the Georgia-South Carolina border. He then travelled across the country, first in a car and then on a bike.

Back in Australia he worked in the insurance industry and rode a bike across Australia, before deciding to be an actor. He may have recalled White writing of his character Parker, "He had not continued to do these things for long because he knew it was not intended."

So what is intended for Long?

"For me, success is happiness and learning more about the world and myself. With space and silence [on the farm] you sort of come to yourself ... You look at nature and you think another leaf will fall off the tree and I'll die, and another leaf will fall off the tree. You feel smaller and your ego has shrunk somewhat because you are dwarfed by nature."