Surrounded by adulation and adoration, this entertainment wizard is living proof that a tough past doesn’t always define the future.
Written by Konrad Marshall, OCT 1, 2016, published by The Age
The science classroom is bitingly cold this wintry Monday morning, but Tony Ayres seems warm enough in his puffy black coat and wool beanie, smiling and eavesdropping, slender fingers wrapped around a hot coffee.
This is the first time the famed producer, director and screenwriter has visited the season-three set of his award-winning ABC-TV children’s series, Nowhere Boys. It’s being filmed at the old Preston Girls Secondary College site in Melbourne’s north, and the 55-year-old thought he could pull off a surreptitious peek at the action.
Alas, while lurking at the set door near educational posters about the northern hairy-nosed wombat and the Pacific gyre garbage patch, he is quickly spotted. One by one, the stars of the show abandon Scene 4, Episode 9, Shoot Day 13, and leap out into the corridor for an untrammelled group cuddle.
“Hi!” he says to each one, beaming. “How are you? Is it going well? Having fun?”
After they get back to shooting, Ayres points out that such warmth and affection is not uncommon in his line of work. Many of the cast and crew have auditioned for him or worked with him before, but the closeness is what happens when people who don’t know one another spend 14 hours a day together for months on end.
“Sets are always like little families. Small, hard-working families,” he says. “Every role is important in sustaining the micro-environment – it only exists if everyone does their job.”
While they get back to filming, Ayres and I stroll away past plastic models of molecules and an anatomical figure of the human body, to a quieter corner of the former high school.
I’m lucky to grab this moment with him. He has just finished producing the serial dramas Barracuda and Seven Types of Ambiguity,while working as executive producer (EP) on new seasons of Glitch, Wanted and The Family Law, and the feature film Ali’s Wedding.
I wonder if he likes this role: looking at scripts, checking cuts, offering notes, troubleshooting and planning for Matchbox Pictures, the company he co-founded in 2008. Does he enjoy the “EP” chair? “It’s neither where I came from nor where I’m going, but it is kind of where I am now,” he says, sitting down in a bare old staffroom. A group of extras – teen girls in school uniforms – giggle in a far corner as he explains his bind. “I do miss that singularity of focus in showrunning.”
No interview with Ayres – who was born in Macau and grew up there and in Perth – would be complete without touching on his past, so we briefly revisit how his mother was a Chinese nightclub singer who committed suicide when he was 11, how his stepfather died of a heart attack shortly after and how he was eventually placed in a teacher’s care. I point out that almost every story ever written about him references this traumatic biography. “I know, I know!” he says, laughing. “It’s a very big story. It’s inescapable, but I don’t feel defined by it at all. If anything, what the past gave me was this capacity to turn experience into narrative – which is a great way of both understanding and distancing yourself from your experiences, and surviving them.”
He has, of course, thrived. Following a recent string of successes – from The Slap (as showrunner and a director) to Devil’s Playground(as an EP) – he feels as though he is “riding a bronco and just hanging on”. I’m curious though: has he taken all those awards – including the international Emmy he’s holding in the photo above – out for a spin yet, to see what they can do?
“There are lots of new things floating around, really exciting possibilities, but I don’t want to jinx them,” he answers. “I’m under no illusions that this lasts – it can’t last – but I’m in it now and it’s a good moment.”
I assume the plaudits can at least help him in his efforts to bring diversity to the screen through casting or written roles – a path spurred by having grown up Asian and gay and acutely feeling like “an other”. Diversity is important, he says, but should never be forced. In fact, he talks for 10 minutes about the intersection of storytelling and empathy and race (“I’m rambling a bit,” he apologises, “so you might have to unpack this”), before settling on a question: why did we feel for those murdered in Orlando and Nice, but not Syria and Iraq?
“I think the fact that we are never asked to feel for brown people – their stories and humanity – plays a part,” he says. “We are never invited to learn that kind of compassion.”
He departs soon after, off to his Melbourne home to read a script about the proposed damming in the 1980s of Tasmania’s Franklin River – another chance to invite viewers into another life. “It goes beyond ‘diversity’ and ‘multiculturalism’ and ticking boxes,” he says, entering the outdoor chill once more. “It’s about how we interact as human beings. We’re not going to change society, but we can be part of the conversation.”