Man of the match scores off the field
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Man of the match scores off the field

Matthew Le Nevez scorches up our screens, Megan Doherty writes

Matthew Le Nevez was just a teenager when his two worlds collided, his twin loves of acting and cricket intersecting in the most exquisite way.

The then-17-year-old had been the star opening fast bowler for the St Edmund's College First XI since year 9, as well as an ACT representative player - who also happened to have a just-as-fierce talent for acting.

Canberra actor Matt Le Nevez as Dennis Lillie in the Howzat mini-series.

Canberra actor Matt Le Nevez as Dennis Lillie in the Howzat mini-series.

''On a cricket tour to Adelaide, I found out I got into NIDA,'' he says from his home in Los Angeles.

''I was in the Adelaide dressing sheds and I got a phone call saying, 'Matt you've been accepted into NIDA.' I got off the phone and said to a friend of mine, 'Mate, I've been accepted into NIDA.' And he's like, 'Nada? What the f---'s Nada?' ''

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Matthew Le Nevez.

Matthew Le Nevez.

The Le Nevez boys - Matthew and his younger brother Tim - were known for their sporting prowess. Matt also played soccer for the ACT and was a handy rugby player. Tim would go on to play rugby for the Brumbies and in Japan.

Yet that day in Adelaide, the prestigious acting school, the National Institute of Dramatic Art, won over sport for Matt.

''I quit cricket that year. My grandfather, poor guy, probably rolled over in his grave.''

Canberra-born Le Nevez downplays the idea but it may not have been beyond the realms of possibility that he could have followed in the footsteps of his childhood hero, Dennis Lillee, and one of his best mates, Queanbeyan-raised wicketkeeper Brad Haddin, and played for Australia.

''No, no that's going too far,'' he says. ''But I definitely would have chased cricket as a career. Who knows where that would have led up because I know there are dozens of 17-year-olds who chase cricket and I was one of the fastest 17-year-old bowlers going around at the time. But I also had back problems. Cricket was definitely a dream of mine. The day I found out I got into NIDA, I think I took five wickets. It was a big deal.''

The Australian acting world has plenty to be grateful for following that phone call in the Adelaide sheds. Le Nevez, 33, may not be a household name but his body of work suggests a bloke willing to take a risk, winning the respect of his peers and audiences alike. A kind of slow-burn actor who only now seems to be gaining a popular following, thanks in no small part to his role as hot-stuff Dr Patrick Reid opposite Asher Keddie in Channel Ten's hit show Offspring.

But he has also shown his acting chops playing real-life murderer Matthew Wales in The Society Murders for which he won a Logie. By then he already had an AFI award to his name, from his role in the ABC-TV miniseries Marking Time. He's also appeared in the Australian films Garage Days, Peaches and The Tender Hook, miniseries The Postcard Bandit and local dramas from Blue Heelers to Love My Way.

Sport also gave him his first professional acting gig. When he was a schoolboy he appeared as a young Wayne Pearce, the Balmain football legend, in a promotional video.

So with that kind of background, Le Nevez appeared a natural to play Dennis Lillee in Channel Nine's much-anticipated mini-series Howzat! Kerry Packer's War, about the rise of World Series Cricket, which premieres on WIN TV tonight.

The two-part series is the story of how, in 1976, media magnate Kerry Packer fought a cricket war by secretly signing up 50 of the world's greatest players and establishing World Series Cricket, rattling the establishment and igniting the fans. Packer was acting on an idea brought to him by television identity and businessman John ''Strop'' Cornell. Le Nevez says Lillee was another instrumental figure right from the start. ''Dennis was integral,'' he says. ''Dennis was the first cricketer to be involved in the beginnings of World Series Cricket. Dennis was really good friends with John Cornell. They had the same manager. And about 18 months before John Cornell took the idea to Kerry Packer, Dennis Lillee and his manager took the idea of an exhibition match to the ACB [Australian Cricket Board] and they knocked him back. It wasn't until a meeting between Dennis Lillee and John Cornell that they realised there was a possibility. So he was the first cricketer to sign on.

''And I think that needs to be recognised, Dennis's commitment to trying to bring better rights to the cricketers.''

While he once met Lillee at a bowling camp at Manuka Oval when he was 15, Le Nevez says he didn't meet the great man ahead of filming Howzat! due to Lillee's overseas work commitments. Le Nevez did work to approximate the hirsute sportsman.

''It is all my own hair chair. It is my own mo'. I had two weeks to grow it,'' he says.

''My dad had a moustache and for much of his life he was mistaken for Dennis Lillee. When I had to shave it, I did shed a tear.''

Despite his cricketing background, Le Nevez also received special coaching to perfect Lillee's bowling style.

''I was nothing like Dennis, of course. I think he's quicker,'' he says, deadpan.

''He is also very side-on, which is one of the reasons why he hurt his back. He runs into the wicket at a million miles an hour and then really flings his back in his action. I had a much bigger leap in my action, whereas he kind of runs through.''

His mentor during filming was the former Test and One Day International cricketer, Ray Bright, who played for Australia in the WSC matches in the 1970s and is now a selector for Cricket Australia.

Le Nevez says Bright, ''helped us recapture the time and place with eyes that were there''. And it was a gruelling time playing the legendary bowler.

''Trying to bowl like Dennis Lillee at 33? I have the utmost respect for fast bowlers. I was on my back every night. What they do - I think they put 10 times their body weight through their front foot. They are warriors, they really are. You know when you think of certain sports like rugby league and rugby union, you think that's a really hardcore sport? Fast bowling is as hard on the body as any of those. I'd gladly put that in print.''

But it wasn't all sore muscles and Deep Heat during the shoot in Sydney and Melbourne, which only wrapped up in May.

''It was fun. It was hard work,'' he says. ''We had six weeks. We really needed 10 weeks but that's the nature of the film industry. ''I was lucky enough to portray a childhood hero. I was working with Southern Star, the best production company in the country, and I also got to work with some of my closest friends. Damon Gameau who played Greg Chappell, Clayton Watson who played Ian Chappell, Brendan Cowell who played Rod Marsh, Richard Davies from Offspring [David Hookes], Lachy Hulme [Kerry Packer] and Abe Forsythe [John Cornell] are all some of my oldest friends. It really felt like a school camp.''

There was also another Canberra connection in Cariba Heine, who plays Cornell's wife Delvene Delaney. Like Le Nevez, she also grew up in Canberra . (''A lovely girl,'' he says.)

Le Nevez says his upbringing was very working-class. His parents Ian, a ceramic tiler, and Heather, a public servant who was once a personal assistant to Bob Hawke, raised their two boys in Kambah. (The couple have since retired to Lilli Pilli, south of Batemans Bay.)

He went to Red Hill preschool, Telopea Park School from kindergarten to year 9 and then St Edmund's College to year 12, when NIDA came calling. He has a stack of cousins still in Canberra and two of his grandparents, Marnie Beadman and Mark Le Nevez, are also in the national capital.

While plenty of interview subjects seem to pay lip service to their appreciation for Canberra (''all those roundabouts …''), Le Nevez is refreshingly enthusiastic about his old home town.

''I love Canberra,'' he says. ''Canberra is one of the greatest places in the world. You can raise a family. It's got some of the best schools. It's one of the greatest places to grow up in. I grew up camping, fishing, motorbike riding. It's a very special place in the world and I still have very fond memories of it. I try to get there as much as I can when I'm back in Australia. Anyone who bashes Canberra, I will gladly pin them up against a wall. I'm a huge Raiders fan, I'm a Brumbies fan. I'm very proud of Canberra.''

Le Nevez now lives at least part of the year in Los Angeles with his American girlfriend Michelle, who supplies medical equipment to hospitals. He has just signed on for another episode of Offspring, which starts shooting in November in Melbourne.

''There are huge job opportunities here [in the US] but that's all got to go on the backburner because I'm doing another series of Offspring,'' he says. ''I love Australia. In the meantime, I might try to take up my cricket career.''

Watch out Indian Premier League.

Howzat! Kerry Packer's War premieres tonight on WIN TV from 8.30pm.

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