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Top of the Lake: China Girl

Interview with David Dencik

Tell us about the character you play.

Puss is a European person who has landed somehow in Sydney many years ago. He is very much influenced by his European heritage, at least in the way I see it, and I think the way Jane sees it too. He’s dating Robin Griffin’s daughter, that's how he fits in in a dramatic sense, but he's a very complicated character, very contradictory. I read in the script when he's first introduced, it says something about his long hair. Which adds a European style to his manner, so I took that to my heart. Then it says after that, “He has the look on his face, that of an arrogant man who has just been insulted.” For no obvious reason because he had not been insulted in that particular scene. And I thought that was key to the way to act it, that he is in a way offended by society. He's like a confused academic, he is a rebel without a cause in the true sense because he doesn't even know what he's rebelling against.

He's very anti-establishment. He's very anti the western world in a sense. In 1989, when the wall came down, he seems to have been a teenager at that point. I myself was a teenager and he has been raised in East Germany so he was raised in Communist Europe. And somehow, a bit unclear, ended up in, in Sydney. He's actually a bit stolen from a character in a Dostoyevsky book called The Possessed, a guy called Stavrogin. So I read the entire book because Jane Campion told me that it was a source of inspiration. And when I came down here it turns out she didn't even finish the book, and it’s a really thick book! But it was a good fun reading it. Dostoyevsky calls him a nihilist. He has no particular beliefs; he just wants to destroy whatever’s around him, the values of people around him. Puss, it turns out, is married to a lady that we actually get to know, but they don't seem to have any particular good relationship. He lives in his attic. And the apartment underneath is used as a brothel. So that's how he makes his money, he's a landlord.

It’s very hard to connect the dots when it comes to Puss. He's very irrational and he does weird things. He bites somebody on the nose. Just like kind of a Tourette’s situation for him. He's very apologetic afterwards; he just couldn't stop himself. He completely trashes the daughter-father dance, he didn't have to do that you know. Just take it easy, hang at the bar. But no, he insists on making everyone feel bad somehow. It's very uncomfortable to be around him. He's not a guy who makes people feel safe.

What attracted you to this role?

Working with Jane Campion was a major attraction. I had not seen Top of the Lake when I was contacted, so I saw it all in one. And then I read the first four episodes of Top of the Lake: China Girl they sent to me, and I was just mesmerised by the writing. It was so not your average, TV series. I think it’s very gutsy to actually write a character like Puss. The dialogue is irrational and strange and it was really quirky in a very good sense and it appealed greatly to my taste, and to what I enjoy in acting. And these scenes, long scenes, you know, of many pages, where I would read it and I would go, “What?” It just blew my mind. So those things were two very good reasons to come all the way to Sydney and I've been in and out three times now.

Is Puss a modern-day Svengali?

I'm not sure what Svengali means, I stumbled upon that word previously, but I think that question would interesting to ask Mary actually, because she's very much in love with Puss. And Puss is very much in love with Mary too in a certain sense, but it's a more platonic way. That's also where it differs from your mainstream TV drama. It's not an erotic love affair they have, well, not particularly anyway. This TV series doesn't dwell on the intimacy between Mary and Puss. Mary is a teenager and she is rebelling against her parents, as many teenagers do. And she has the backstory of being adopted. So somehow they identify with each other; Puss says that his mother was raped, he was the result of a rape. As is Mary. So they have points in their own destinies that actually link together, where they identify with each other. And the fact that in a way Puss is a free spirit, he does what he wants to do and what pleases him, I think she's very attracted to that. But then he's a dangerous person for Mary too, he has ideas about feminism and about female liberation that are not coherent with anybody else’s, the fact that he pushes her into prostitution in a nutshell.

He is deliberately provocative towards Mary’s parents rather than trying to befriend them.

Oh yeah most definitely. I think even without the prostitution, I think he would have been in conflict with her parents. The first scene that they have together very early on in episode 1, he asks the father for the daughter’s hand in marriage, which is completely unnecessary, because who does that today? And furthermore, one month down the road she will be 18 and she can legally marry. He's just rubbing it in somehow, there's this element of sadism in him. But still he has interesting political perspectives on certain issues taking place in the world today. He is in a way a Robin Hood person for a group of people; he actually wants to take from the rich and give to the poor, and he does so. He doesn't look good doing it, but he does stuff that we should commend him for.

How was it working with Jane Campion?

Great fun! It's very nice to act for her and to be in a process with her. She's very open and she's very accessible. She's a very real human being. You know, early on you start showing pictures of your family and this and that, you know, getting very close. A couple of days prior to my departure I got an email saying “Do you swim?” And I said “Yeah, I swim”. Cause Jane would like to take you to the beach. So a couple of hours after my arrival, I was picked up just down the road from here and taken to the beach to swim around with Jane. We would speak about this and that, about the political situation, and we would speak about the character, the fact that she has cast her own daughter as my girlfriend, what that means and why that was a choice that she had made. The day after the beach thing, we had a dinner with Ari, the other director. I feel it's very quaint to work here in Australia and it resembles a bit the work that I do back in Scandinavia – in Denmark or Sweden.

How close-knit were the cast and crew on this shoot?

It's much more contained, like a family. These scenes that we do, they call upon the actor to expose themselves. So when you do that you also expose yourself privately to the entire team and people and it's a question of trust and confidence to do that. It's a beautiful process. If you can commit to it and go through with it, and look each other in the eyes and, and be serious about it and still have fun you know, it feels very real.

What were the most interesting scenes for you to film?

Many of the scenes have been real highlights. I think the father-daughter dance was good fun. There were 200-300 extras, and me just being the monkey around everybody just acting weirdly. And the scene at the beach of course where we have all the nudists walking around, that's in a way memorable just for that single reason. And the scene where I bite Elisabeth’s nose, which is in a way much more intimate than giving her a kiss. We wanted it to look real, so there was a stunt element in it and we rehearsed that quite a bit.

By BBC New Zealand