Alex Williams has become the go-to guy for TV biopics which by his own sum now numbers 7 including, Underground: The Julian Assange Story, INXS: Never Tear Us Apart, Catching Milat, Brock, Friday on my Mind, Underbelly Files: Chopper.
But to play the lead in Nine’s new Varna perhaps debunking the best-known character so far.
“Playing someone like Shane Warne, who is pretty much universally loved in Australia, India and the UK, takes a lot of pressure,” he says. TV tonight.
“But at the same time you want to take that pressure and obviously do the best you can and honor that legacy. So yeah, there was a lot of pressure, but you have to think you’re the man for the job and you can probably do it better than most.
Filming for the two-part drama also had to be kept under wraps, with paparazzi eager to snap photos of Williams dressed as the famed spin-bowler.
“It was my first experience with Papa on set”
“It was my first experience with dad on set so it was a bit of a strange experience, if I’m being honest. You don’t tend to get a lot of stuff like that in Australia,” he explains.
“We were filming in Brighton and people knew the show was happening so obviously the popes stood up for you to take your picture. The crew worked very hard not to let this be a factor. They are doing their job and you are trying to do yours. Then you simply have to let it go.
Written by Matt Ford (Underbelly: Vanishing Act, Informer 3838, Bloom, My Life is Murder) and directed by Geoff Bennett (Underbelly: Vanishing Act, Informer 3838, Bump, Wolf Creek, Harrow), the series dramatizes Warne’s life from an ordinary suburban kid to the best in the world and describes him as “passionate and unpredictable…a brilliant showman…dangerous, whenever he got the ball” which ” he’s battled serious injuries and adversity… he’s made mistakes, he’s fallen from grace, and he’s fought his way back.
Williams and his agent pursued the role through auditions, sending in footage of him playing cricket and referencing his memories of Warne as an Australian icon.
“I have always loved playing cricket with my brothers and father in the backyard. I actually started playing cricket because someone needed something more… I kept playing for the last three or four years which helped me a lot, actually,” he recalls.
“Leg spin bowling is a completely different art form to how I play cricket, but it definitely gave me a really solid foundation to work from.”
There was no shortage of source material to draw inspiration from, including sports matches, interviews, photos, entertainment, reality TV, radio, podcasts and, presumably, SMS too.
“There was probably more content than I had to process than before, playing a real person. That’s obviously a blessing and a curse at times, because there were so many things that things started to contradict each other,” she continues.
“I also play him for quite a few eras”
“I also play him in six different eras. Vocally things would change and manners would change. I had to try and keep it consistent throughout.
While Williams is already naturally right, he also put on 8 pounds to get the right look for the role.
“He was incredibly powerful and had a body like a discus thrower, really. He was thick through the torso, strong shoulders and chest.
“There were also storylines about diet pills and that sort of thing. He has talked a lot about his battle with weight gain/weight loss and so I needed to find a body that could go both ways…a little plumper when he was younger but then I could realign myself a bit and look slimmer when she was older.
“The central relationship of the show is the relationship between Shane and Simone”
Also starring Marny Kennedy as Simone Warne, Anthony Hayes as Coach Terry Jenner, Jeremy Stanford as Keith Warne, Jacquie Brennan as Brigitte Warne.
“I think the bottom line, and the foundational relationship of the show, is the relationship and love for each other between Shane and Simone. Working with Marny was amazing, having someone I had a previous friendship with, it gave us that really nice familiarity,” she says.
“There’s also her relationship with Terry Jenner, played by Anthony Hayes, who’s a really badass old-school mentor. It’s a really nice representation across multiple generations… the previous generation, being much tougher and tougher. Then there’s the new generation, which he was part of… the commercialization of the sport, the earring and the blonde hair, Ferrari and all that sort of thing.”
Among the unstable chapters of Warne’s life is his relationship with the British Liz Hurley, played here by the British Shanti Kali.
“He has said over and over that she is one of the loves of his life and that she meant a lot to him. So to have that spark and energy, post-cricket career, there were also fewer distractions going on. Working with Shanti on this has been amazing.
Yet Nine also received early criticism from both the Warne family and cricket fans, for taking on the project so soon after his tragic death. Aware of the controversy, Williams, who is present in almost every scene, admits to staying focused on his duties as an actor and letting others worry about politics.
“Once you’re in that process of trying to have your head in a script and a book and research, you really don’t have time to read too much outside of that,” she reveals.
“I’ve done a lot of biopics… this is a bit more of a real character piece”
Yet despite all the early criticisms, there is one aspect of the story that he believes rises above mere biographical narrative: what does our relationship with a flawed Warne even say about us?
“That’s what drew me to the script when I read it,” he insists.
“I’ve done a lot of biopics, sometimes it’s just biopic…but this is a bit more of a real character piece. It reflects on the idea of how things get blown out of proportion, how stories change.
“There are several pieces that (ask), ‘Is that really what happened?’ and talk to the viewer about how stories change. I found that shooting in Melbourne, where it’s even bigger in some ways than anywhere else in the country, you felt like everyone had a story.
“Many of those stories would contradict each other. So you become bigger than a human being, bigger than just a story or just a person. So it’s a comment on that.
Warnie shows Sundays at 7pm and Mondays at 7.30pm on Nine.