From child actor to insurance clerk to Hollywood hot property – Adelaide’s Damon Herriman has taken the long road to success, full of detours, dead-ends and finally dreams come true.
Damon Herriman: Lucky star
As he sat chatting with director Quentin Tarantino on the set of his latest movie Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, former Adelaide actor Damon Herriman knew this was a surreal moment to savour.
His co-stars were milling about, Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Margot Robbie, and Damon had been cast as cult leader Charles Manson in the blockbuster film. Tarantino had seen Damon’s work in the crime drama series Justified and was a fan of the show, which helped him get the gig. It’s the kind of stuff that only happens in movies.
“Certainly, if you’d asked me 10 years ago ‘do you think there’s any way you’ll be working with these people in 10 years?’ I’d have said absolutely not,” Damon says. “I have a very logical brain and I know that these things don’t normally happen. What I realised, ultimately, is how lucky I am. I’m not pretending that any actor can get anywhere just based on luck, but I think there are a lot of good actors out there, and I have friends who are exceptional actors, who are driving Ubers or selling wine over the phone and there’s not a lot that sets us apart other than timing and luck.”
Sitting in an eastern suburbs cafe on a recent trip back home to Adelaide, Damon is relaxed and without ego, happily posing for photos with latte-sipping locals who’ve just recognised him.
While he may not necessarily be a household name, Damon’s face is instantly recognisable, having been on our screens on and off since 1978. He started out at just eight years of age, starring in local commercials for The Birdwood Mill, Hungry Jack’s and KESAB (Keep SA Beautiful).
Damon’s parents split when he was five and, while he has always been close to his mum, Margaret, he grew up in Vale Park with dad Noel and brother Steven.
The former Marden High School student says he has a “nostalgic glow” about growing up in Adelaide.
“The streets are wide and as a kid I’d ride my bike until dusk, go down to the nets and have a hit of cricket with my mates, catch the O-Bahn. There’s something very comforting about Adelaide.”
As a child, Damon loved to create plays and characters. His dad, an insurance manager, saw real potential in his outgoing son, so he wrote to the most famous person he could think of, director Peter Weir. Amazingly, the director wrote back.
“I still have the letter,” Damon says. “He said, ‘if you are in Adelaide you should go and see this agent called Ann Peters’.”
Ann ran SA Casting and Damon was signed up and began appearing on the locally-made TV commercials. Next, during a trip to Melbourne, Noel visited various production houses including Crawfords, Grundys and the ABC, trying to get his son an audition.
“The casting directors said, ‘we’ve got kids in Melbourne, we don’t need to see anyone from Adelaide; thanks but no thanks’,” Damon says.
“At Crawfords, after they had sent him away, Dad got out of the lift and left the building, but then he turned around and went back up, it was such a sliding doors moment really. He just thought, ‘I don’t want to miss this opportunity and it seems too easy to just be shooed away’.
“So he went back up and said, ‘I don’t want to leave until you just at least say you’ll meet him. It wouldn’t cost you anything. I’ll fly us both over’. So, I think just to shut him up they said yes. I know it sounds a bit forward but if Dad hadn’t done that I don’t know if I’d be an actor today because really it changed everything.”
Damon says his father was just a typical proud parent who wanted to maximise his son’s potential.
“I think it’s like any parent who sees a glimmer of potential in their child. Potential plus pride and suddenly you’ll do anything,” he says.
Noel’s determination paid off and Damon got an audition and won the role of Frank Errol on the iconic Aussie drama The Sullivans. The role lasted two years and earned the then-10-year-old a Logie nomination in 1981 for Most Popular New Talent. More Logie nominations followed for Best Performance by a Juvenile in 1981 and 1982. He went on to star in an ABC miniseries called The Patchwork Hero with actor Steve Bisley, For The Term of His Natural Life with Colin Friels and a big-budget show called Taurus Rising, all between the ages of 10 and 12.
But, as the teenage years set in, so too did the hormones and a confidence crisis. Damon lost interest in acting and says he “began to feel a bit awkward about myself as an actor”.
“When I was 10, 11, you’re just a kid having fun, but I guess as a teenager I became really self-conscious,” he says. “I just didn’t do many auditions, but when I did them I suddenly became terrified; for the first time and I could feel myself being bad. I forgot lines and I was thinking [my agent] Ann must be going, ‘what’s happening to him? He’s lost it’.
“It was a really horrible feeling, and then I’d dread getting an audition. So, I really lost confidence and interest in being an actor.”
At 18, Damon took a full-time job as an insurance clerk alongside his father, moving to Sydney with Noel when he was relocated for work.
“I did a little bit of TV and quite a few plays, but all this time I was still working at the insurance office,” Damon says. “I didn’t even write ‘actor’ on any forms where it asked for occupation. I wrote insurance clerk, because I felt like too much of a wanker to write actor as I wasn’t doing it that often.
“I put on a shirt and tie Monday to Friday and the only time I’d take off was when I did the odd radio voice-over, and auditions occasionally — very occasionally.”
A highlight was a guest role in the long-running series The Flying Doctors, and the next big break came with a role in the iconic Aussie coming-of-age film The Big Steal with Claudia Karvan and Ben Mendelsohn. Having done no film work previously, Damon thought the role would make him “more legit” and open doors.
“I just thought if you do a film and it’s good, then you’re a film actor and you do more films,” he says. “Well, that didn’t happen. I don’t think I did another film for 10 years.”
Looking for an outlet for his creativity, Damon began writing scripts and plays, including a 30-minute play called Soar, about a wannabe actor who sits next to a successful actor on a plane. He also began to hang out with a group of like-minded creatives in Sydney, including former Adelaide actor/director Jeremy Cumpston, who had just launched a theatre group called the Tamarama Rock Surfers. It became a hub for up-and-coming actors, writers and directors including then-unknowns Joel and Nash Edgerton, Simon Lyndon and Jason Clarke.
“They were the cool group to me and I was a bit intimidated,” Damon says. “But my one trump card was the script for Soar, which I knew they wanted to put on.
“That experience completely changed my life, though. I felt like I’d broken through to a world that had seemed a bit behind the glass to me before then. I’d seen those guys but I wasn’t part of it and it did feel like you needed to be part of that group to make things happen. They were the movers and shakers.”
At 27 years of age, and having been at the insurance company for almost 10 years, Damon says he had “an epiphany”.
“I just thought, if I don’t leave this insurance company, I’m going to be here until I’m 50,” he says. “It just hit me, when am I going to leave this job? Even though I didn’t call myself an actor on forms, I still wanted to do it and I thought, I need to leave here and start taking acting more seriously.”
Damon quit the insurance job and set his sights on acting and writing full time. He made two short films called They and The Date, which were both accepted into Sydney’s Tropfest film festival. Several years later, Soar also went on to become a short film and won an award at Flickerfest for the Most Popular Film and Best Screenplay.
In 1999, Damon won the green card lottery, allowing him to work in the United States. He then made the bold decision to pack up and head to Los Angeles to try his luck.
“It feels a bit crazy given what I know now,” he says. “I sold everything and moved in early 2000, not knowing that you don’t just go from being an actor here to being an actor there, just because you have a green card.
“I quickly discovered that having no American acting credits, no Australian credits they’d heard of, and being a 30-year-old nerdy character actor, none of those things mattered.”
With no agent, no auditions and no work on the horizon, Damon says he became “very lonely and depressed very quickly. Everything about it was horrible”.
He lasted 10 weeks before returning to Sydney, feeling like a failure and forced to stay with friends as he pieced his life back together. One of those friends was fellow performer and now-State Theatre Company Artistic Director Mitchell Butel.
“I’ll never forget how generous he was to me around that time. He showed what true friendship is,” he says.
“I was still depressed because I’d given up a cool house, I’d sold my car, I’d left a girlfriend in Australia and we eventually broke up. I felt like I had to start all over again.
“I had a pretty crappy couple of years after that, doing voice-overs to make money, and occasionally doing some small roles.”
Then a role in the hugely successful Love My Way with Claudia Karvan in 2003, “reignited my passion and creativity”, Damon says. That was followed by an even bigger breakthrough, a role in US slasher film House of Wax starring Paris Hilton. Damon got the part of a redneck truck driver and finally, instead of clean-cut nerds, he’d found his niche playing the creepy bad guy.
He ended up going back to the States for the film’s premiere, keen but cautious to try his luck again.
“The idea of going back to LA had not interested me in the slightest because it had been such a horrible experience, but the difference was this was the premiere of a film I was in, so I thought, what’s the harm in that? There was no pressure,” he says.
“When I got to LA, there were these billboards everywhere for House of Wax, so just being in the film helped me get in front of a few agents. They didn’t know how big my role was or how big the film would be. It was just perfect timing because American agents don’t want to think they might be missing out on anything. What they didn’t know was they weren’t missing out on anything with me!”
He managed to get signed to an agent and then decided to spend six months a year in the States looking for work. After a couple of years, when he still hadn’t been cast in anything, the actor made the tough decision to give it one more go or give it up.
The lifeline came when he won a role in the CBS show The Unit, written and directed by legendary playwright and director David Mamet.
But perhaps his most significant breakthrough was scoring the role of redneck Dewey Crowe in the US cult series Justified, a guest role that lasted six years. The dry spell was over and the roles kept coming, including as an ice-addict in cult classic Breaking Bad, playing Charles Manson for the first time in the Netflix series Mindhunter, and taking on the role of a criminal in the Clint Eastwood-directed J Edgar. A career highlight was also starring alongside Sir Ben Kingsley in last year’s thriller series Perpetual Grace.
Damon was also in demand back in Australia and landed a role in The Little Death, gave a Logie award-winning performance in 2017’s Secret City, where he played transsexual Kim Gordon, and played lawyer Chris Murphy in INXS: Never Tear Us Apart.
His US success had raised his currency in Australia and suddenly Damon was getting top billing, starring in movies such as The Nightingale and opposite Mia Wasikowska in Judy and Punch, for which he won Best Lead Actor at the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards (AACTA) last year.
“Weirdly, I find doing these bigger roles easier than doing the smaller roles because they usually have a lot less pressure,” Damon says. “It’s not one or two scenes that you have to nail, you’ve got a whole arc to play with.”
This year, Damon can be seen in Australian drama series The Commons, and he’s currently in Atlanta, shooting a miniseries for Amazon called The Underground Railroad.
“It’s based on the book and is set in 1800s in the US South – and I play a nice guy, for a change,” he says.
Travelling so much for work has made long-term relationships difficult for the actor, who turns 50 this month.
“I started spending half the year in two different countries right around the time I was expecting I would settle down,” he says. “So, 15 years of that lifestyle hasn’t helped. But who knows. I’m getting on a bit now, so at least the kids part will become less likely, but I’m still open to anything.”
Today, Damon says his dad Noel is proud that his son is finally getting recognition for the talent he first saw more than 40 years ago.
“Dad used to drill into me when I was young that I was never to boast or brag,” Damon says. “That still rings in my head today, but the irony is that I’m constantly having to tell my dad now, ‘don’t brag, don’t boast’, because he’s completely broken his own rules.
“He often wants to post things on social media about the movies I’m in now and who I’m working with, so I’m constantly asking him not to.”
Reflecting on his long and indirect path to success, the actor says he’s accomplished more than he set out to.
“Then again I didn’t set out to achieve very much,” he laughs. “It’s amazing when you set your sights low how easy it is to be satisfied.
“But I couldn’t be happier with how things have gone. If this is the peak of a graph, showing my career going up and now going down, I will be perfectly happy with that.
“I don’t feel like it has to be a trajectory that keeps going up. I’m already pinching myself to be in the situation I am now. I feel very lucky.”
This story first appeared in the March 2020 issue of SALIFE magazine.
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