Jonathan LaPaglia on The Slap and our Australian society

Published in Australian Times 9/1/2011

When KARL MATHIESEN was asked to interview Jonathan LaPaglia, one of the stars of the new Australian drama series The Slap, little did he realise that it would result in a profound consideration of contemporary Australian culture.

I grew up the only skip kid on an Australian street of wogs.  The friends I kicked the footy with were all proudly Mediterranean.  The Robustellis and the Rendos loved to remind me that I was the fly in the olive oil.  

I so desperately wanted to be accepted that I used my own sixteenth of Danish ancestry to claim some kind of European heritage.  It was important and yet irrelevant all at once.  In reality, our thoughts focussed more on the skin of the neighbourhood girls than our own. 

Until the day I punched one of the Robustelli boys in the face. 

The contact was entirely unintentional – an overenthusiastic shadow box in a play fight – but the repercussions were immense.  Immediately I was ostracised.  Immediately it mattered that it was a Roman nose I had bloodied.  I was a racist.

Jonathan LaPaglia in The Slap
IT IS a similarly simple physical act that lends its name to Christos Tsiolkas’ novel The Slap.  His award winning fifth novel has been adapted into an ABC drama series with an outstanding Australian cast that includes Melissa George, Alex Dimitriades and in his first-ever Australian production, Jonathan LaPaglia.

LaPaglia describes ‘the slap’ at the crux of the Australian series, which occurs when a man slaps another man’s child for threatening his own kid at a suburban barbeque, as “morally ambiguous”.  The action, whether justified or not, serves to shatter a family’s harmonious façade.  According to LaPaglia, the fault lines which open between the characters run along divisive issues that plague Australian society: race, religion, generation, alcohol and drugs, infidelity and sexuality.

“The cultural issue really resonated with me,” says Australian born Jonathan LaPaglia, who has an Italian father and Dutch mother.  He related, he says, to his character Hector’s struggle to reconcile his immigrant and Australian identities.

“I’m a part of that first generation; first European Australian.  So I totally identify with what’s going on, especially for my character, Hector.”

By showing how easily a family can fall apart, The Slap comments on the fragility of Australia’s social harmony – our multicultural façade and the deep rifts that we imagine closed.

LaPaglia, 42, describes growing up in Australia during the 1970s and 80s as a period during which children of immigrant families were encouraged to conform to a stereotype.

“When I was growing up, there was definitely this pressure to align yourself,” he says.

“For want of a better expression, you were either a skip, or you were a wog.  You had to make a choice, and I always found that to be completely ludicrous.  Because I didn’t want to belong to either, I wanted to belong to both.  I didn’t see why I had to define myself.”

Often he would be encouraged to distance himself from his cultural background.

“There was very much a desire to supress or deny your heritage so that you could assimilate into the Caucasian world.”

This tension was crucial for the role he played in The Slap.

“I think that’s definitely what’s going on for Hector.  He’s somewhat of a chameleon, he wants to belong to both sides.”

His cultural identity is not the only dichotomous internal struggle that LaPaglia lays claim to.  Although he trained as a medical doctor, he originally wanted to study fine arts.  However he rejected this creative pathway because: “I had more buddies going into medicine than anything else.”

It was only after moving from Adelaide to Sydney and starting hospital rotations that he decided to entertain his artistic yen.  Without a lot of planning, he packed up his stethoscope for good and enrolled in acting school in New York.  He got his first job on a cop show (a similar genre to his famous older brother Anthony).

“The rest”, he says, “is history.”  He has not been out of work since – one of the reasons why The Slap is his first Australian production.  Although, he says, “my dad still introduces me to people as a doctor”.

When the (very much naturalised) Australian-American came home to work on The Slap, he had to rediscover his home culture.  He was required to hire a linguist to help him lose his Californian twang.  He met a lot of young Greek and Italian men while researching the Australian accent.  He found that quite a lot had changed since his Adelaide childhood, when young immigrants were pressured by their parents to ignore their past.

“It seems like it’s gone the other way now with the younger generation, the guys in their twenties that I met, the Greek guys in their twenties.  They were very proud of their heritage.  In fact they would often talk about themselves not having been born in Australia, even though they were, they talked about themselves having been born in Greece.”

In The Slap, as on my home street, issues of culture divide the characters.  A simple, thoughtless action reveals the weeping sores that exist in the family.  A slap, a punch, a word – it doesn’t take much to open the wound that we all like to pretend isn’t there.


Inside Cover, Australian Times, 29/11/11

Karl Mathiesen

Also published on

This week’s decision by the Gillard government to ditch laws that discriminate between asylum-seekers coming to Australia by sea and those who come through airports could be the first step on the government’s road to redemption – even if they took it for the wrong reasons.

Labor is in a world of pain at the moment, with polls consistently showing Tony-and-friends kicking the crap out of them by 12-15 points.

The asylum-seekers issue has been a dependable loser for Labor for more than a decade.  Abbot has managed to turn the issue against Labor particularly effectively.  Especially when you consider that boat arrivals under Gillard’s premiership have actually decreased since their peak in 2010.  The political debate consistently ignores that Australian government policy is a marginal factor affecting boat arrival numbers; rather more influential is the global refugee context.

The Coalition’s success is rooted in Abbott’s special brand of populism.  He defies the polls that show the majority of Australians saying that they want people’s refugee claims to be assessed in-country.  Instead he whispers to that dark corner of the Australian psyche that harbours fears of the peril flooding over the white picket fence.  Abbott tickles the little bigot in all of us, the part that hopes desperately for things to stay always the same.

Labor’s (and particularly Gillard-Labor’s) failure has been their errant desire to beat the Coalition at their own game – only to find that they aren’t actually very good at it.  Meanwhile they have been haemorrhaging votes to the left and the Greens are like vampire bats in a bison stampede.

The recent policy shift – or ‘backflip’ as the bloodhound media have predictably labelled it – has been precipitated by the High Court’s ruling that the Malaysian Solution is illegal under Australian law.  (Does anyone else find it eerie that we have adopted Nazi jargon to describe our methods of processing “illegal” foreigners?)  Having nowhere to go and unwilling to give the Coalition the satisfaction of returning to the Howard-era Pacific Solution, Labor has suddenly, gaspingly stumbled into the rarefied air of the moral high ground.

This move will be popular with many of the same voters who have supported Abbott’s hard-line stance.  Why?  Because we are a schizoid nation, and from our opposite shoulder we yearn to be better than we are.  This part of us craves a leader that tells us “Yes, we can”.  The Gillard government has been a government scared to lead, cowed by focus groups and opinion polls.  It is a sniffing elitism that disbelieves in the vast potential of the Australian people.  This deficit of leadership relegates us to Abbott level.

More courageous leadership will carry the political agenda, raise debate, reignite Ben Chifley’s guttering vision and (to borrow from Abe Lincoln) appeal to the better angels of our nature.