My report came back:
‘Would love to be his own boss’.”
The front door to James ‘Jim’ Lawson’s new owner-built house in South Gippsland has travelled from his boyhood home in Beaumaris, across to his parents’ retirement property on the Mornington Peninsula, and finally around Westernport Bay to the rugged coastline of Bass Strait.
With its stunning stained-glass cut-outs and copper frame, it was commissioned by his mother Mary and meant so much to the youngest son of seven children that he’s carried it with him from home to home. “I just love the way the light beams through the glass, and the blue patina of the copper.” And of course he doesn’t say so, but any man who takes the family door with him is a sentimental bloke who cherishes his past.
Raised as an Irish Catholic in bayside Melbourne, Jim remembers feeling the first rustling of dramatic ambition in the early stages of primary school, when he asked his mother to make him a Davy Crockett costume. “It was Grade 3, and I’d made and directed a play for the classroom. I’d convinced the teacher we should do this. My report came back: ‘Would love to be his own boss’.” While it would be two decades and a failed Economics degree before he would pursue acting through the Rusden course also undertaken by film star Rachel Griffiths, Jim put his proactive spirit to good use in his early social life. >
By the time he was born, many of his older siblings had already left the nest, so he found company with a group of local boys who loved to surf. “Surfing was something we did as a gang. We just loved it. We were probably a bit arrogant, but we surfed well and it was a big deal to surf well. And we were very competitive with each other.”
His connection with Phillip Island and its surrounds began in his teenage years, when he spent school holidays living for days on the beach. “We camped at Forrest Caves back in the days where your parents just dropped you off and you lived in the wild, surfing and eating baked beans. Sometimes we’d hitch hike to The Westernport and just listen to the music from outside because we were too young to get in.”
The gang of mates endures more than fifty years later, and despite the demands of family life, these baby boomers still take regular surfing trips together. One of them to the Mentawai Islands in Indonesia was to be momentous for the man who bears a striking resemblance to comedy genius Robin Williams.
It was in 2006, more than a year after the devastation of the Boxing Day tsunami that claimed more than 227,000 lives, that Jim first experienced the beauty and fragility of this largely unspoilt tropical wilderness. “I remember walking into the jungle and seeing piles of washed-up belongings. It was like being in a haunted house. And I sat down afterwards on that beach and felt that as humans we are so small – there’s no fighting Mother Nature.”
The sense of devastation continued when he returned from Sumatra’s surfing paradise to the news that his marriage had come to a crashing halt. The family car hurtling down the driveway with the handbrake off, crashing through the fence and into the neighbour’s tree, told the story – literally and metaphorically. His wife of fifteen years was leaving him. “We’d been on pretty shaky ground, but I was in shock. I was gutted. Emotionally, that felt like a tsunami.”
The father of three knuckled down to raise his children, but he eventually returned to the Mentawai islands to begin his emotional healing. He lived with the indigenous people in a communal long-house. The men care for the children, and he found them to be some of the happiest people he had ever met – dirt-poor, but rich in spirit. “They might be getting around in loin-cloths, but they’re some of the most sophisticated people I’ve ever met. They’re animists: on the night they killed a chicken for me for dinner, the medicine-men sang the chicken’s spirit into the next world.”
Jim has had parts in feature films such as Healing with Hugo Weaving and Xavier Samuel, the thriller Lake Mungo, and a string of popular TV shows including Blue Heelers and The Dr Blake Mysteries. But his original work The Crossing has been one of the most rewarding experiences of his dramatic career.
The breakdown of his own marriage, the aftermath of the undersea earthquake that caused the tsunami, and the true story of a man who fell off a boat drunk and battled for eight hours in high seas inspired the survival stories of the play. “It’s a metaphor for both physical and emotional survival. And it’s about both the epic and the intimate parts of that journey.” The play took shape while he was living, working and studying theatre in Dublin. > And while there may be an element of catharsis in the work, Jim says ultimately it becomes about the storytelling.
The creative director of Bass Coast theatre company Vessel entrusted the sound design for The Crossing to Declan Kelly, son of legendary Australian singer- songwriter Paul Kelly, who created a powerful four-minute soundscape of the 30-metre waves that decimated the coastlines of more than fourteen countries on that day. “I spoke to survivors of the tsunami and they described the sound of the incoming wave as like a freight train, like giant timber cracking,” says Jim.
The story has three characters, but to date Jim has performed it solo, playing each of the characters himself, including that of the female. For the planned 2020 production in Padang, the capital of West Sumatra, one of the actors – the jungle guide – will be cast from the Indigenous Education Foundation developed by his friend Rob Henry, who also found his emotional awakening in the Sumatran jungle.
Jim continues to return to the Mentawai Islands not just for the surf, but for the spiritual connection he has with the land and its people. “I feel very at ease out there, although every time I go I understand that it’s a terribly dangerous place for earthquakes and tsunamis, so you have to do your research.”
At 57, he’s found solace at his new property in Kilcunda that overlooks not just the ocean but the olive groves of the neighbouring Greek community, imbuing his surrounds with a distinctly European flavour. After tiring of the encroaching crowds on the Mornington Peninsula, he says he was ready for somewhere more secluded. “It’s getting very busy in Mornington. And I’d had a shack at Powlett River and loved it there.”
You can see why he’s fallen in love with this panoramic patch in the high rising hilltops above Shelley Beach. The home took eight months to finish, with Jim and his tradie son Fergus roughing it on the block in a tent and a shed while they built. “It was a brutal winter, but it was a great experience to do it with my son,” says Jim, who grew a beard simply because it was easier than trying to shave without a bathroom. In the end, the four walls and roof were a relief, and the stunning home warms with its artisan charm. The roof is angled, with huge picture windows opening out to the water.
Jim says he’s been lucky enough to continue to work both as an actor and a teacher of drama and dance, with the Gippsland region buzzing with creative pursuits. “I actually love the teaching. Every day I see a little light bulb go on.”
He shares his Kilcunda home with his son, and seems relaxed when he says he’s still searching for a life partner to share the view. Being the great storyteller he is, he details the significant relationships he’s had since his marriage ended, but takes great relish in reliving some of the humorous interactions he’s had with dating apps. One woman not only fibbed about her age by ten years, she also chose not to mention her impending double hip operation. Another confessed> on the first date that she had a sexually transmitted disease. “Most people are good-hearted, but it’s pretty mad out there. And I’m not really sure how many people actually find lasting love that way.”
For now, he’s happy to have put down roots in Kilcunda, and is looking forward to continuing his career in the arts and enjoying having the ocean at his feet and the mountains at his back. “I was a gypsy for about five years, so it’s actually really nice to have a base.” When he drives around the bend of the Bass Highway and sees the Kilcunda coastline and the wind turbines of Wonthaggi, he feels a sense of peace. Next stop: a chair alongside his concrete hearth and some time to take in that seemingly endless horizon.