From Poland to Melbourne, actor Jacek Koman has led a strange, if not secret, life, writes Catherine Keenan.
There have been some weird moments in Jacek Koman’s life. A curiously aimless attempt to enlist him in the Polish secret police. The time he and his brother were saved from destitution by a former Nazi. Plus, when we meet, he has just come from rehearsals for the Sydney Theatre Company’s upcoming production of Samuel Beckett’s absurd masterpiece, Endgame, a play about a blind man who can’t stand up, and his servant who can’t sit down, stuck in a lonely room after the apocalypse.
So I probably shouldn’t be surprised that there are times during the interview when I feel that we have both fallen down a rabbit hole into a strange, Beckettian universe. His conversation is littered with pregnant pauses, ideas that tail into nothing, and cryptic epigrams. “Beckett is bleak, bleak, bleak,” he says at one point. “But joyous, too.”
The 46-year-old actor speaks with glacial slowness and deliberation, as if – like his character, Hamm – he is following scripted pauses. When I ask what the production will be like, for instance, there is a long period of silence before he says: “This and any other faithful production of Endgame will be very, very similar, because it’s all so orchestrated.” Pause. “Like a piece of music.” Pause. “And a painting.” Even longer pause. I don’t know if he’s finished speaking: not for the last time, I find myself waiting for words that, like Godot, may never come.
Then, as if this, too, is scripted, comes a sudden flourish. “It’s paradoxically in those quite rigid limitations that you suddenly find mini-universes of freedom,” he concludes. I have no idea what this means, but when you have a gravelly eastern European accent and a face like his, you can say such things and make them sound both cool and profound.
This, it seems, is the paradox of being Jacek (pronounced yat-sek) Koman. He looks ferocious, like a kind of gypsy Mephistopheles. This, and his accent, mean he has spent much of his career playing bastards, from his award-winning turn as Roy Cohn in Neil Armfield’s production of Angels in America, to Dominic, Gab’s married boyfriend, in The Secret Life of Us.
Next year he and his wife, Catherine McClements (who also appeared in Secret Life as Carmen, Evan’s older love interest), will appear on stage for Company B as the most evil couple of them all, the Macbeths.
Yet off-stage, Koman could hardly be more different. Far from being formidable, he is quiet, gentle, and has an endearing vulnerability. His pauses and hesitations are the result of shyness, not intransigence, and he apologizes more than once for not being interesting enough. A week after we meet, he still feels guilty for “not giving me the good stuff”, and rings to ask if there’s anything more he can say or do.
Does he find it odd that he is constantly cast against the grain, in such dark roles? “Well, someone has to do it. And it better be done well,” he says, jokingly. But, yes, he does find it slightly disturbing. “The deeper you go, the more instinctive it inevitably is. And more dangerous. To what extent is it a purging exercise, and what extent is it a twisting one?” Then he shrugs, as French people do in movies. Epigrams seem to come naturally to him.
Theatre runs in Koman’s veins. He was born in Poland, where both his parents were actors, and although he went through the near-compulsory period of ambivalence about their profession when he was in his teens, he ended up enrolling at drama school in the city of Lodz.
When he left his country, just over 20 years ago, he assumed he would have to leave acting behind, too. It’s a measure of his determination he considered this a fair price to pay for freedom. His reasons for wanting to leave were mixed: partly to escape the communist regime, and partly because he wanted to see the world. He says he wasn’t especially political. “Not beyond what everyone was. There was this shared hatred towards authority, and you followed that because you sucked it with your mother’s milk.”
Still, there was that time he was leaned upon to work for the secret police. He was at drama school when he was caught with a friend who was carrying illegal papers and magazines.
“We were both pressured to get ourselves off the hook, to collaborate. There was no real pressure, just a gentle offer . . .”
But he didn’t give in. “I wriggled like a worm. I managed to wriggle my way out of it.” It soon became apparent, as his friend rose through the theatrical ranks, that he had accepted the offer to collaborate, but Koman says he didn’t really suffer because of his refusal. “I don’t want to make it sound so tragic and depressing. It was a fact of life.”
He and his brother, Tomek, found it surprisingly easy to get permission to leave the country in 1981 for a holiday from which they didn’t return. They went to Austria first, and after being refused entry to a refugee camp (it was full), ended up sleeping rough on building sites in Vienna, at the end of winter.
There was some petty theft involved, to get by, but in a Kafka-esque twist, their salvation came in the unlikely form of a family friend who was a communist Esperanto speaker, and his friend, an ex-Nazi. “We were staying at the ex-Nazi guy’s place. He was perhaps doing his penance for the past.”
After eight months of their hospitality the brothers left for Australia, because it was “far and quite unknown and exotic”. There is another Beckettian pause before he adds, thoughtfully: “When you’re running, you want to run as far as you can, and you can’t run further than Australia.”
The pair landed in Perth, where they got drunk, cleaned pools and gardened until Koman had mastered enough English to band together with some other Poles and, with the help of a council grant, put on theatre in public parks. It rekindled his desire to act, and soon the group had started their own company, Theatre Zart.
Koman stayed with them for five years and then he left for Sydney, because, he says, he was curious. But with his accent, it was virtually impossible to get acting work – he couldn’t even get an agent. “Those two years in Sydney were spent occasionally talking to an agent, but mostly fishing in the harbour and frying the catch, and getting ready to go to Perth to do some theatre.”
Melbourne was a bit more welcoming, and after stopping enroute back to Perth, he decided to make it his home. He worked with Anthill Theatre for five or six years in the late 1980s, and since then has received critical acclaim in a number of brutal roles. He has also fared well as a clown, playing Trinculo in The Tempest; Picasso in Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile (both under Neil Armfield’s direction); and the Argentinean strong man in Moulin Rouge!
But it is his role on The Secret Life of Us that brought him into people’s living rooms. In Melbourne he can feel people recognize him, even when they don’t say anything, and he finds this kind of spooky. Especially when they get confused, recognizing his face but not the context. One man was absolutely convinced that Koman had taught him at the local TAFE. “It makes shopping quite difficult and embarrassing.”
He is more comfortable with serious theatre, like Beckett. Like many shy people, one of the things he likes about acting is the immersion in other lives. “I enjoy submerging myself, like now, in the Beckett world, where I wouldn’t necessarily by choice decide to go.
“If you believe in fate, if you believe that things offer themselves at the time you are ready for them, or when it’s important for you to expose yourself to things . . .” He falls silent, and this time it feels like we’re both waiting for the words to continue. He never finds them – Godot doesn’t arrive this time either – though he does launch into an analogy between acting and the night vision of horses. I don’t quite understand it, but it doesn’t matter. As Beckett knew, not everything needs a meaning.
Endgame opens January 7 (previews from December 28), Wharf 2, Sydney Theatre Company. Details: 9250 1777.
The Sydney Morning Herald