JEREMY CALLAGHAN has made a number of forays into the Xenaverse, not least of which was as Caesar's right-hand man Pompey, in seasons three and four of Xena: Warrior Princess. IAN RENTOUL discovers how much the actor relished bringing the treacherous Roman to life...
Pompey and circumstances
Like many others in his profession, Jeremy Callaghan's first encounter with acting was in High Schoool. "I got a bit of a reputation as a performer," he recalls, "and found myself with one of those life choices where my decision was in a sense to disappoint my parents by not pursuing a career in Economics. Instead, I followed my heart and my soul."
Callaghan gave up the prospect of a promising career and gaining a double major in Japanese and Economics and instead opted to study Theatre Media and Communications at Australia's Murdoch University. "The big thing for me was doing a production of Shakespeare's The Tempest," he recalls. "We toured Bali with that." In fact, this tour involved loading everything into a truck and driving from town to town, living with the townsfolk and performing in the evening for them, before moving onto the next location. He describes this time as "a magical experience.
"I just looked at myself and thought, 'This is what I want to do with my life'," he explains. "I didn't finish my university course, but got sucked into professional theatre in Perth, Western Australia, where I was able to make a living. But I soon realised that I was running out of creative ideas, so I went to drama school, attending The Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts in Perth (which was a great school, just like the movie Fame) and graduated in 1991."
Moving to Sydney the same year, Callaghan soon got a part in Police Rescue, which he describes as, "The best show on Australian television at the time. It was new and funky, and I did that six months a year for three years together with a few theatre jobs. I left Police Rescue of my own volition because I'd had enough of it. However, I continued to be cast in the Water Police role with Water Rats, where I played the lead character's brother for the first 10 episodes."
Further guest roles followed, as did theatre jobs. He also worked in production. "I had a camera operator friend in New Zealand," Callaghan recalls, "who told me about his new job on this wacky television show called Xena: Warrior Princess. He described it as sort of a cross between Barbarella and Planet of the Apes. Then he showed me some tapes, and I thought, 'I have to be a part of that', because it was just so wacky and looked like fun."
But even getting an audition for Xena proved tricky for Callaghan. "Because I wasn't an American or a New Zealander, I had a hard time getting seen," he explains, "but I pushed myself and went for screen tests, and I kept ringing up and badgering, so eventually I was offered the role of Palaemon [a warrior who hopes to make a name for himself by defeating Xena in Blind Faith]. I had just been in Los Angeles for the launch of The Munster Movie, so I came home via New Zealand to shoot Blind Faith and was hooked from then on.
"I still feel that Palaemon was one of my greatest characters, and I had two of the most fun weeks of my life playing him. When I went to the [Creation] Xena convention earlier this year in Pasadena, it seemed as if people knew me more for that character than for Pompey, and they kept saying, 'Bring Palaemon back!' I said, 'Don't speak to me about it. Speak to the producers and write to them, because I want Palaemon back as well!'
"To get the part, I had to walk into the audition looking buff," Callaghan laughs. "I had to go to the gym and go running to make sure I was looking good. For Xena, you usually have to learn two scenes and stand in front of the camera with a reader and the casting diretor who is operating the camera, and make believe this crazy world of Xena in some back room of a house in Auckland! I think that this is one of the great things about the show, because you just have to go for it! I really went for it at the audition and they saw something they liked. And when I saw the whole script, I was pleased to see that Palaemon was such a key character in that episode."
Having successfully auditioned for the role of Palaemon, Callghan was then offered the part of Pompey in the season three episode When In Rome, a role that he reprised in season four's A Good Day and Endgame. So did he do any research for his appearances as Pompey? "I did some superficial reading," he admits. "But one thing that stuck in my mind about Pompey was that was [sic] he a was a sleazebag and an opportunist. That is exactly how I approached the role. I decided that I was just going to play this to the hilt, as a sexually ambiguous, hedonistic, bacchanalian-type character.
"When we were doing the big feast scene for When In Rome, I stuffed my mouth with cherries! Lucy had a good laugh and I just knew it was working because people were laughing in disbelief. One of the greatest things about the whole Xena working process is going to the script readthroughs. Everyone is there and you just go for it to see what comes out. You are actually encouraged to go as far as you can with a character. The scale of the set [of When in Rome] was so enormous and there were so many extras walking around in these beautiful costumes that I just thought, 'This is such a good opportunity for high camp'.
"It think Xena is the only show I've worked on in which that level of creativity and character development is encouraged," Callaghan points out. "I tend to edit and censor myself more playing a modern character than I would with those old characters from history. So I just go with it and it all becomes entertaining, especially set against the background of the set designers' and the costume designers' beautiful work."
So did Callaghan sign up for a number of episodes as Pompey straight away? "I did one episode at a time," he says. "You do your best and wait for the next call, which is hard work really, because I would be in Australia doing other things. Sometimes I'd get a phone call to do an availability check for work in perhaps a month's time. Sometimes I couldn't do it so we would try to work it into when I had a free week. But it rapidly became clear that Pompey was on the way out."
Callaghan recalls that there wasn't a lot of time to rehearse the fight scenes before shooting the show. "With Palaemon there were quite a lot of big swordfighting scenes, so the stun co-ordinator and I had quite a few stunt fight rehearsals. I'd done quite a lot of stage combat before and I think the stunt co-ordinator quickly became confident in my ability to learn the routines. When I got on set I rehearsed the scene and then the fight. I think Lucy [Lawless] must have developed an amazing memory for combat. I think she learns those things quicker than any of us.
"The camera crew work really closely with the actors to achieve a good result. If a fight isn't working or needs more rehearsal time and we haven't got it, you can trust them to work with you to make it look good. That's reassuring, because actors hate to think that they aren't going to look good.
"It gives you a lot of confidence," he adds. "This was one of the most beautiful film crews I have ever worked with. It's just fantastic to see them take all the equipment out of the trucks, set it up, do 12 hours work and then break it down again each day. The communication between departments and the way they all [join] in means we had a wonderful support team.
"For Palaemon, I was on set a lot and would be there first thing in the morning," Callaghan remembers. "I think I was picked up at four in the morning and wouldn't get back home until about sex at night, or sometimes seven, and I would have been on set all day. Or I'd do a morning's work and then maybe have a scene off after lunch and then be back in at about 2pm.
"But then Pompey wasn't so involved in the episodes. I remember that for the last day [of Endgame] I was there for just the one scene where I got my head chopped off," he says of Pompey's final appearance in Xena. "But this still meant I was there for four to five hours, for wardrobe, make-up and rehearsal.
"So by the end of the week, people are tired, and I respect their commitment to the show and their talent to be able to get up in the morning to do it all again and again and again. I'm exhausted after just one or two weeks on the show, where I may only work three days a week. But I still come out bruised, exhausted, maybe with a few little cuts, but definitely sore. I have great respect for them, being able to do that season after season and having only a couple of months off."
Reflecting on the show in general, Callaghan is conscious that he has been part of something special. "In Police Rescue I was playing opposite a strong lady, but Xena is unique in that respect and I think that is why it's so successful," he reflects. "You are looking at a gender relationship that no one has ever seen before.
"I had to hold a workshop for theatre students once. They were kids who had these Home and Away scripts, which had really traditional relationships between boys and girls, but I had this Xena script, and I said, 'Why don't we do some scenes from Xena?' The girls just loved it especially, because they were able to talk to guys in a way that no other actress would talk to a guy on television. They felt that this power really helped their acting, and I don't think I've ever worked on another show like that. It's been a great opportunity for me as an actor, and I think a lot of my associates here in Australia are very envious."
Callaghan also enjoyed the opportunity to sink his teeth into such villainous roles on Xena. "I love playing evil characters because people don't see me as that," he explains. "If you look at the character I played in Police Rescue, he was a god-fearing conformist and I tend to be typecast in those roles. So the opportunity to be evil in Xena was a gift, and I keep on referring producers and directors to those sorts of roles. I send them the tapes and say, 'Look, I can do evil!'
"I tend to be a bit serious with my work," Callaghan admits, "and I think I project a 'Serious Young Man' imagine when I'm at work, but that's mostly because I'm shy. But having said that, when I get on set, I love mucking around. I love being stupid because when I go over there I stay with the camera operator, Cameron McLean, and so I get quite close to the camera crew and through him we have a bit of a laugh.
"You find yourself in the most ridiculous of situations. For example, the day I was in Young Hercules, I was suspended above about 20 swords, sticking out of a rock, lashed to a crucifix!
"I did three episodes of Young Hercules," Callaghan expands. "In the first, Winner Take All, I played Pollux, the twin of Castor, but we didn't look like twins at all! Before filming I had just spent two months in France drinking red wine and eating cheese, so I was enormous! I was called up on my mobile phone and asked whether I could go to New Zealand and do this job.
"So I jumped on a plane and when I had the costume fitting I realized I had put on a bit of weight! I had to play most of the character with my shirt off, like an Olympian, and I just played it like I was a shot-putter or a javelin thrower or something! I was this huge, bulky sort of character who had a twin who was this skinny little guy! It was quite funny and comic, so we just went for it. Afterwards, I remember reading an article written by a fan on one of the Xena home pages saying that I had taken the role really seriously and bulked myself up for it!"
Callaghan reveals that he has a number of projects currently in the pipeline, most of them behind the camera. "At the moment, I'm flat out," he admits. "I'm directing and producing a documentary called Walget Dreaming - hidden talents, about two actors who have gone outback to work with the youth of a small town for three months in order to devise a theatre show and get them to perform. This opportunity came up and it sounded like a great idea, so I got a bit of money together and I've been up in the bush shooting that for two months. I've now had to come back here to Sydney to start rehearsing a new Australian play by Debra Oswald, called Sweet Road.
"I'm definitely interested in directing," Callaghan enthuses, "although I'm moving more into producing at the moment, encouraging people to come and work together on projects. I've got a good eye for a product and can recognise talent when I see it and where it can be used. I've produced a number of plays over the years and am now moving more into documentaries.
"I'm helping my partner make a short film and a friend make one as well," Callaghan continues, "which I'll also be directing. I have heaps of ideas, but the only problem with that and wanting to work as a writer or a director is I get offered acting work and have to take it because performing is my first love. That's where my income comes from. So my journey as a writer or as a director is constantly interfered with, and I have to keep a number of balls in the air. These days I have less time, so I have learnt to use it better.
"I'd never want to stop acting though," he admits. "If I could act all the time, I would, but an actor's life isn't always like that, so sometimes we have to turn to creativity in other areas."
Looking back on his associations with Xena, Callaghan is nothing but enthusiastic for the creativity he was able to develop within that show. "I'm really pleased to have been given the opportunity to be a part of what I consider to be television history," he says. "The Xena phenomenon is so enormous and such an interesting show in terms of history and bringing together history and legend in the form of popular entertainment. I think it's a unique and original idea, and I'm really grateful to the producers and to the fans.
"It's something I'll always remember and I keep Polaroids of all the shows that I do. Yes, I'm very fond of my Xena Polaroids!"
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