Lunch with Tim Minchin: “When the chips fall just right”
I’m sitting with Tim Minchin in Clancy’s Fishbar at City Beach, Perth, surrounded by fish ornaments and ephemera – seaweed, boat ropes and netting – coloured purple, orange and brilliant blue, like figments from a child’s dream. Not only is it a fish restaurant decorated with fish, its owners are the Fishers, Minchin’s uncles on his mother’s side.
“I’m not really into fish,” says Minchin. “That’s the weird thing.”
I used to wake up and stare at the ceiling and think, ‘Right. Now what?’
He’d like to choose from the menu the venison pappardelle, but he had goat pappardelle at the Cottesloe Hotel the night before, so it seems like one flat pasta too far.
Minchin, a musician, composer, actor and comedian, plays Judas Iscariot in the stage – or rather, “arena” – production of Jesus Christ Superstar in Sydney next week. He knows he should order the beer-battered barramundi with chips, to stay within the spirit of the cafe, but decides to take his fish grilled, since he is supposed to be “being fit and healthy”. Uh? Where in the Bible does it say Judas was “fit and healthy”?
Although Minchin briefly tries to defend a reading of the Gospels that holds Judas as “hot” because he was “always right”, he explains he grew “pretty chubby” by the end of 2011, when he won the role of washed-up rock star Atticus Fetch in the David Duchovny TV show Californication.
“I looked at the script,” he says, “and it was like, ‘Atticus shirtless’, ‘Atticus is naked’, ‘Atticus opens the door, stark naked’, ‘Atticus is lying on top of the bed, smoking cones with seven topless women. He is in his underpants’.”
So Minchin found a personal trainer, and started to work out.
At the piano, Minchin, pale-skinned with barley-butter hair, and eyes exaggerated by eye-liner, can look a bit ethereal – or even dead. But he is actually quite large and athletic.
“Because I’m on my own on stage and wear bare feet and look like a pixie, people always think I’m little,” he says. “I often get references to ‘slight’ or whatever, and my weight’s been a thing for me my whole life. I have to really, really work. I train six times a week to just be normal and not be fat.
“Alcohol’s my problem, though,” he says, “I really don’t like an evening going by without a couple of drinks, and that’s a lot of calories at the end of the day.”
He likes to eat, especially steak. “And I love breakfast,” he says. “I wake up in the morning quite excited by the notion that I get to immediately have a meal. That’s the thing that gets me out of bed – just the thought of having a poached egg, or even some granola.”
Minchin is a kind man, always doing considerate things. He fetches the menus, orders the food and, when the meal arrives, grinds sea salt over my chips.
“I think doing someone else’s salt is quite presumptuous, actually,” he says. “I’m quite a gregarious, outgoing person. It’s quite a big call to do someone else’s salt that you don’t know very well.”
Minchin was born “to Perth parents” in Northampton in Britain, where his father, a surgeon, was completing a fellowship. The family moved back to WA when Minchin was one. He grew up in Swanbourne, about four beaches south of City Beach, and attended Christ Church Grammar School.
“I was OK with school,” he says. “I wasn’t a cool kid. I was the first person on either side of my family not to be a prefect or a captain of something. Having said that, I got Bs and As. More Bs than As, but I was in the first hockey team and the third basketball team and, by the end of school I was a sort of second division middle-distance runner. And I contributed. I was in the school plays – not really in the lead roles – and I played a little bit of music, although I gave up any classical training in year 8.”
At this point, he answers a mobile phone, which is mysteriously tossed to him by a man he has never seen before, who promptly disappears.
“Hello, Tommy,” Minchin says. “How’s your office? Is it warm? Is it squishy? Is it a big Hawaiian one? Nice.” He explains the caller was his cousin, Tommy Fisher, the son of Fremantle musician Jimmy Fisher. Tommy runs social media for the four Clancy’s venues. At school, Minchin used to collect glasses and pour beers at the Fremantle cafe and, when he grew older, he played gigs at the venue. One of his brothers worked behind the bar at Clancy’s near Mount Pleasant, and his younger cousins have jobs within the chain, too.
So it’s a pity Minchin’s not more into fish, really.
Minchin says there’s an accepted narrative about his career, which isn’t entirely accurate, in which he leaves university in 1998 and then does nothing much until 2005, when he is suddenly blessed with overnight success. He says he worked hard in those in-between years – he moved to Melbourne, acted, sang, wrote and MC’d – it’s just that he didn’t achieve much and never made more than about $15,000 a year. He turned to comedy out of frustration with the music industry, and took his Darkside cabaret to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
When Minchin left for Edinburgh, his wife Sarah was pregnant.
“Briefly pregnant”, he adds. “We lost that at 12 weeks.”
When he came home, Sarah said she wanted to quit her job as a social worker and just have babies. They’d been broke for years but Minchin agreed she should leave her job, because everything was going to be OK from then on.
“It was quite amazing, that turnaround,” he says. “I left with a DVD deal, a promoter wanting to do a tour, and the best agent in town. I said to this new agent, ‘Do you think if I come over here, I can make a living?’ and she said, ‘Yeah, you’ll be all right. And if you struggle for a while, we’ll look after you’.”
They moved to London the following year. When Minchin performed at the Edinburgh Festival for the second time, Sarah was seven months’ pregnant. She flew to Britain and found them a flat in Crouch End, north London, where they live today.
They have two children, Violet, 6½, and Caspar, who’s about to turn four. He shows me a picture on his phone of a pale, blonde girl and glowing little boy.
“Violet looks sort of like a ghost,” he says. “And Caspar, who should be a ghost, does not look like a ghost.”
They’re beautiful children.
“My wife’s much hotter than I am,” Minchin says. “Although I have a bigger penis.”
Much of Minchin’s on-stage humour relies on sudden shifts of pace and tone. He might sing a soft, consoling, conciliatory verse then offset it with a banging vituperative obscene chorus. So I’m mildly concerned he’ll eventually stop being solicitous and start throwing chips at me. But, although he’d obviously like to dispose of his mound of fries in some less-fattening way than eating them, he says he tries not to insult people any more.
“I did tweet angrily about Tony Abbott once,” he says, “but I learnt my lesson – all the hate I got. I learnt not to be casually rude about people. I would never, nowadays, say, ‘Tony Abbott’s a f—wit’. I would say, ‘I’m really worried about the social conservatism of Tony Abbott’.
”I want to contribute sober, intelligent and hopefully sometimes funny commentary.”
Oddly, however, exactly three minutes and five seconds later, he says, “Anyone who does anything but promote equality of marriage 100 per cent, without mitigation, is, so far as I’m concerned, a f—head. And I don’t mind being quoted.”
Minchin can’t stop pecking like a seagull at his chips.
“I’m planning to punish myself for it,” he says. ”I keep intending to stop, but here you are, still talking to me, and the chips are still there.”
Actually, there aren’t so many of them still there.
Eventually, the waitress comes and takes Minchin’s last two chips. He orders a skinny flat white, to compensate for all the potatoes. The waitress offers us a “Mountain Goat Ale sorbet”.
“I don’t think we’re going to be tempted,” he says, politely, “although it sounds … really disgusting.”
I shift to trite questions, to signal the interview is almost over. Has success made him happy?
“I am happily successful,” he says, “to the extent that I am successful, yeah. I was happily unsuccessful, though. I’m more satisfied now, because I never have to wake up and think how to proceed. That’s what I found hard when I moved to Melbourne. I used to wake up and stare at the ceiling and think, ‘Right. Now what?’
“I’m married to the girl I met at 17, and that’s important,” he says, “And I don’t know anyone else in the world who gets to be an actor one day and a Broadway composer the next, and a comedian at the level I’m doing it. It’s like someone said, ‘You want a career where you get to do everything you want? Well, here, have the perfect version of it.’ The trouble is, it’s f—ing hard work maintaining it – my wife is an incredibly patient and supportive person – and there’s downsides to being recognisable. But I’d have to be scraping to complain, really.”
He tips his coffee around in his cup, examining it like a fortune teller. “I can see the future,” he says. “It’s heart palpitations. It’s the fine balance of caffeine and alcohol that bookends my days.”
The windows of Clancy’s Fishbar look out on waves breaking angrily on the beach behind professionally uninterested seabirds.
On the horizon, patient container ships wait for a berth in Fremantle docks, and the WA sky goes on forever.
“I f—ing love this place so much,” says Minchin, “the west coast of Perth.”
And it’s true: the view – like the food, like the future, and like Minchin’s life – is pretty good.
1975 Born in Northampton, UK
1976 Moves to Perth
1995 Graduates from the University of Western Australia with a BA in English and Theatre Studies
1998 Graduates from WAAPA with a degree in Contemporary Music
2001 Marries Sarah
2002 Moves to Melbourne
2005 He premieres his musical comedy show, Dark Side, which wins him the Perrier Award for Best Newcomer at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival
2009 He appears in the Perth boxing movie Two Fists, One Heart as a piano playing comedian, which wins him no awards at all. His daughter, Violet, is born.
2009 He releases the downloadable single “White Wine in the Sun”, probably the second-best Christmas song ever. His son, Caspar, is born.
2011 He plays the part of Atticus Fetch in Season Six of Californication. His musical, Matilda opens in London’s West End, and wins a record-breaking seven Olivier Awards
2012 He plays Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar in the UK
2013 He plays Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar in Sydney and The Player in Rozencratz and Guildenstern are Dead at the Sydney Theatre
MARK DAPIN | THE SYDNEY MORNING HERALD, 25 May 2013