Noah Taylor was in his mid-teens when he spoke his first words on screen. "David Bowie" was his only line in a fleeting role in Richard Lowenstein's 1986 post-punk slice of share-house life, Dogs In Space. From there, his rise was swift, and not always predictable. He's had an intriguing, zigzagging career across all kinds of genres, but he now regards himself as a character actor, a freelancer forever worrying about where his next job is coming from.
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The life of a time-traveling Temporal Agent. On his final assignment, he must pursue the one criminal that has eluded him throughout time.
His new film, Predestination, is the opening-night feature at this year's Melbourne International Film Festival. It's an atmospheric, intriguing work from Australian filmmaking brothers Michael and Peter Spierig, a time-travel tale with a distinctive look and feel that stars Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook.
For Taylor, it wasn't hard to say yes. "It's a fascinating script," he says.
Taylor describes himself as a bit of a control freak, but comes across as thoughtful, measured, matter-of-fact, with a dry sense of humour. These days he thinks of acting as "a job rather than a burning passion".
"It started off as a passion, but you end up doing a lot of things that are just work. And you can't approach it every time as, 'I want this to be the best thing I've ever done'. It just gets a bit heartbreaking really."
A key figure in Australian films of the 1980s and '90s, he's been living in England for almost 20 years. He's distinctive, but not easily typecast. In his early days, he was the embodiment of adolescent yearning, exemplified by his first lead role in John Duigan's The Year My Voice Broke in 1987. He was the young David Helfgott in Shine and a youthful Hitler in Max. He was also a frontrunner for the lead role in Wes Anderson's Rushmore, although it ended up going to Jason Schwartzman; Taylor subsequently appeared in Anderson's The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.
He has moved between blockbusters and smaller independent films, between features and TV. He's made movies with Terrence Malick, Cameron Crowe and Tim Burton, he's done episodes of A Country Practice and Inspector Morse. He has established a sideline in techie roles in Hollywood blockbusters – among them Angelina Jolie's computer geek sidekick in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and the expert on alien biology advising Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow.
He was a country publican in Red Dog, and even played a dog in a short film called Down Rusty Down. He was a sadistic killer in Game of Thrones, and equally plausible as a poignant embodiment of puzzled fatherhood in Richard Ayoade's Submarine. And he's still regarded as the ideal actor to play Nick Cave in a biopic, although he has said ruefully that he seems to be ageing at a faster rate than Cave these days. (Like Cave, he now lives in Brighton, England.)
In Predestination, Taylor plays a mysterious authority figure who works for a covert government agency that specialises in time travel. The enigmatic quality of his character appeals to him. "I like a lot of ambiguity in stuff I do, where you don't have to spell out for an audience as to whether a character is good or bad or whatever – because you don't necessarily have that opportunity in life to fully know someone."
He liked the Spierigs' previous films, Undead and Daybreakers, and he'd heard good things from friends who'd worked with them, but the script was the clincher. He appreciates science fiction that's "rooted in human dilemmas rather than space opera with aliens".
"It's the sort of film they used to do quite well in the '70s". And he particularly liked the way it was written, with characters talking and telling their stories; even though it's very high-concept sci-fi, it could almost be done like a play.
In a supporting role, Taylor says, "your task is not to give a stellar performance ... it's to serve the story as a whole". But he came up with his own ideas about his character's background and motives.
As it happened, he'd been reading a lot of books about the early days of the CIA, when it was known as the Office of Strategic Services. He found himself reflecting on a phenomenon of the era, "that sort of Cold War thinking, when good, intelligent people ended up doing some rather disastrous things".
He brought this idea to the film. It didn't simply arise from what he'd been reading; it was also his response to the look and feel of the movie, its film noir elements and scenes that have what he calls "a cold Kubrick-style vibe".
He names a 2010 film called Red, White & Blue as "probably my favourite thing I've worked on".
"I was given a lot of latitude with that part," he says. "It's the role I'd always been looking for, the sort of film I've always been interested in."
Written and directed by British filmmaker Simon Rumley, the film is violent, visceral and disconcerting. It is set in Austin, and Taylor, with a Texas twang, plays Nate, an Iraqi war veteran who befriends a young woman on a mission of sexual revenge. At first, he seems to be the only reasonable character in a heightened world, but he soon sounds an alarming note, and it turns out that he has the darkest secrets and grimmest capacities of anyone.
It would be easy to categorise the movie as a 1970s-style slasher film, he says, and that was partly the filmmakers' inspiration. Yet there was another reference point, Richard Linklater's leisurely downbeat Austin movie Slackers. And, Taylor adds, it took him a while to realise that Red, White & Blue, in its idiosyncratic way, could also be regarded as a love story.
Although he feels that the role of Nate might be his best work, he is resigned to the fact that almost no one has seen it. This is partly because of its subject matter ("who wants to see a film about AIDS, cancer and torture?") and partly because it had no budget for marketing or distribution. But he regards it as as "the sort of film that will have a long, slow, slow, slow cult following". He did it because "it's important to do stuff that's interesting to you; it's very easy to get bored in this industry, for me anyway".
When he landed a role in the global TV hit Game of Thrones, he had no idea what he was letting himself in for. "I knew next to nothing about it, I don't really watch TV much and wasn't familiar with the books. I got called in very late in the piece. But it soon became evident to me what a big deal it is to people, which was quite funny."
His character is a shrewd, sadistic hunter called Locke, who has zero tolerance for the highborn and plays a hands-on – or, you might say, hands-off – role in the fate of a major character. Not that Taylor was fully aware of the plot implications of Locke's actions.
He could justify this relative ignorance readily enough, he says. "It's easy to overcomplicate things. I knew he was a baddie, and from that it's just a matter of, 'Grow a beard, horse-riding lessons and you're good to go'."
Looking to the future, he has a few films awaiting release. There's an Australian comedy, The Menkoff Method, directed by David Parker, in which he plays a Russian HR consultant. And there's Welcome to Karastan, a comedy shot in Georgia, about the shooting of a national movie epic. "It's made by this friend of mine, Ben Hopkins, who's kind of a genius." Hopkins has worked with Taylor before (in Simon Magus and The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz) and is author of what Taylor calls "one of the best books ever written", although he's quick to admit that its title, Gwupygrubynudnyland, is tricky to remember.
Beyond that, Taylor says, "there are a few things I'm waiting to find out about". Waiting, he says, is something he has to get used to, "because you realise at a certain point if you haven't cracked it, into your 40s, it's only going to become harder".
In between, there are things to occupy him, most notably music and painting. "I've always done these kinds of things for fun, but I've got more serious about the painting in the last couple of years," he says. "I have enough downtime that I like to keep busy, not just waiting for the phone to ring. Acting is lots of other people telling you what to do within very specific parameters. I like painting and music because it's solely my creation."
He sings, writes and plays guitar, and has been in many bands over the years: most recently, there has been the Rhinestoned Immaculates, which he has described as "the loudest country and western covers/psych-out band in Brighton", and his rock'n'roll outfit Noah Taylor & the Sloppy Boys, who have released an EP called Live Free Or Die!!!
He prefers to downplay his musical abilities, to focus on the rewards. "I love performing live in a way that I never enjoyed theatre," he says. He found the latter "nerve-wracking, gut-churning. But there's something really liberating about playing live." It's still a performance, he says, "still doing a character ... a different version of yourself".
Perhaps, he says, he could have done more with music when he was younger. "But it's at a very nice level now, playing with friends, there's none of the serious aspects involved, and it's just really pure and fun."
He's painted all his life – on everything from canvases to cupboards and kitchen tiles – but recently he has started to take it more seriously. In Australia he's represented by Olsen Irwin Gallery, and he has had exhibitions here and in England.
An old friend, Claudia Karvan, brought his work to the attention of Olsen Irwin: at a recent Sydney opening, she talked about Taylor as a compulsively expressive person, "the most original, honest, subversive mind I've come across".
He works in oils and ink on paper and talks of religious art and comic books as his primary influences. Right now, Taylor says, "I'm more serious about the painting, and I would like to take it further". This means working more and showing more. "You learn way more from that than just keeping it at home: there's something that forces you to look at it with a more critical eye when you take it to the public.
"I've got no idea about the secrets of success for any of these things, but I'll keep on plugging away."
Predestination is out now