A Conversation With Actor Paul Mercurio

Strictly BallroomScott Hastings is someone a lot of people can find relatable. He’s tired of “dancing someone else’s steps,” and wants to enjoy his own original creative expression.  The man who brought this memorable character to life is Paul Mercurio – star of Baz Luhrmann’s first film venture, Strictly Ballroom. It’s been over 20 years since the movie first released. I discussed with Mercurio his career, his passions for cooking and more in our interview.

The film on a lot of lips at the moment is The Great Gatsby. What’s it been like for you to see Baz Lurhmann’s work evolve after working with him?

I hate to admit it but I haven’t seen Baz’s last three movies so I don’t really feel like I can tell you with any certainty whether or not he or his work has evolved. I do think Romeo + Juliet was an outstanding achievement, a ground breaking piece of work and possibly the best film he has made. Baz seems to have put himself into this epic cinema type of box where his films are over the top, bright, big and bold which possibly means his work hasn’t evolved rather he just keeps trying to go bigger and bolder. I would love to see him do something really paired back and  simple the opposite to the sort of work he has always done just to see what he would do and importantly see who he is as a director and story teller.

I first heard about Strictly Ballroom 3 years ago when a professor of mine told me to watch it. People still to this day tell me it’s a must see. How do you respond to starring in a film that continues to resonate with today’s audience?

I am very humbled and honoured to have been a part of Strictly Ballroom. It is certainly an opportunity that very few people are fortunate enough to get. The fact that it is still being watched around the world and also studied in schools in Australia is fantastic. It is a story that resonates across cultural and ethnic barriers and I see that by the variety of emails I receive from people all over the world. As an actor knowing that something you gave your heart, mind, love and energy still endures 22 years after you made the movie is an incredibly fulfilling and moving experience.

You did a stint as a judge on both Australia and New Zealand’s version of “Dancing With The Stars.” Tell us about that experience, and do you ever watch the US version of the show? [It’s been said that Strictly Ballroom inspired the original “Dancing With the Stars” in the UK: “Strictly Come Dancing.”]

It was certainly an interesting experience to be a judge on Dancing With The Stars in Australia and New Zealand. I was actually offered the job on the first season of Strictly Come Dancing in England but I was busy making a television movie in Australia and couldn’t take the job. I am not a big fan of these reality TV shows, so being a judge on one was a kind of love hate affair. I have never been a big fan of competitive ballroom dancing as it is a sport more so than an art – that is why it is referred to as – Dance Sport. I always felt it had an element of a blood sport about it! I confined my judging to talking about the story, the performance and relationship between the dancers rather than the technique as I am not a ballroom dancer at all – I only trained in ballroom and flamenco for one month prior to shooting the movie. My dance back ground is as a classically trained contemporary ballet dancer. All in all I enjoyed being part of the show but I disliked the negativity that it seemed to thrive on. Eventually after seven series judging the Australian version I was not invited back for the eighth series and was told the reason for that was because I was too nice and too genuine. It disappoints me that that is not a quality a TV show like “Dancing with the Stars” wanted nor encouraged. I continued to judge the New Zealand version as they liked my approach and style until it was rested to make way for Master Chef.

It’s great to see you exploring the many passions in your life, like cooking. How did you cross that bridge from performing to being a celebrity chef?

Well firstly I would say I am not a celebrity chef – I am not a chef by trade nor do I own or run a restaurant. I like to look at it this way I am a bloke that does a bit of cooking on TV. My whole career as a dancer, to a choreographer, to an actor, to a writer, to a TV presenter has always been about and still is about taking people on a journey. It is my mission statement to as far as possible always make that journey a positive and nourishing one that feeds the heart and mind and soul of those that take this journey with me. I take people on a journey by telling a story – wether the language of the story is a ballet, choreography, a character or film role, the written word or a recipe – so essentially I am a story teller and at the moment I am telling stories through food and cooking.

The topic of eating healthy consistently finds itself in the public eye. You and Jenny Craig launched the Healthy Living for Families cookbook. What does eating healthy mean to you?

Healthy eating to me is about balance. Let me say I don’t always get the balance right but I certainly work on it. When I say balance I mean a harmonious balance between, healthy living, healthy eating and happiness. Truth is I probably overindulge in the “what makes me happy” part of that equation and so am always striving to keep the balance between that and what keeps me healthy. I eat well, I exercise, I work to maintain a healthy and positive outlook on life which includes not just the physical but also the mental, emotional and spiritual aspect of living. A lot of people restrict their diets and lifestyle, don’t work on the emotional and spiritual aspects of their lives and then wonder why they are essentially unhappy. There is no “one way” for every one! We are all unique and therefore need to find the best way so that we are happy and healthy.

It caught my eye that you did Australia’s version of “Who Do You Think You Are?” What inspired you to learn more about your family’s history?

When I was asked to be a part of Who Do You Think You Are I was really excited about it but also a bit apprehensive about being part of the program. To make the show work I was aware that I needed to be completely open and vulnerable to the process. That is a very different thing to going on to Ancestor .com and searching your family tree. WDYTYA is a TV program that relies on the main character having an interesting family history and then being prepared to be completely raw and honest in confronting that history. I saw it as a great opportunity to learn more about my family history – and it was – but it was also a telling of one version of my family history as told by a director, an editor and a producer so as to produce a dramatic and interesting TV program. Don’t get me wrong I like the show as seen, it is all true but it may not have been the story I would have told.

Back to the dancing: Ballroom dancing sky rocketed into popularity thanks to shows like “Dancing With The Stars.” As a ballroom dancer myself, I can say it’s been one of the biggest highlights in my life. What benefits do you see in ballroom dancing (or any other form of dance) and why should people try it?

As a young boy doing ballet I was hassled, bullied, abused and also beaten up. It was tough. After Strictly Ballroom hit the cinemas a lot of the same people that bullied, abused and hassled me finally stopped calling me a poofter and started congratulating me. It seemed it was finally okay to be a man and to dance. It had long been a mission of mine to find a way to make it acceptable that a bloke could dance and still be a bloke. I achieved that in such a bigger way than I ever thought possible. I loved that men started to dance wether it was ballroom, ballet, jazz, tap, hip hop etc. There great are benefits in dancing the most obvious being fitness but a husband and wife may rekindle their relationship through dancing together, learning to work together in a way they may never have done or forgotten how they once did. Single people may find a friend, a lover or just a joy from expressing themselves through movement! The great thing with dance is that it asks you to discover yourself in a way that not many other things do – it connects you to your physical and spiritual self. Of course you do not need to know this or understand this it is just what dance in its many forms does and has done since the beginning of time.

You have such a personable and accessible quality about you. Are you the person at the social events that can just strike up conversation with anyone?

Yes and no. I don’t like the social events that much but can do them I much prefer having a beer down the pub and striking up a conversation with whoever is there – dare I say it – people who aren’t there to be seen but just to be happy. Social events can be a little on the vacuous side and therefore the conversations can also be a little of the same although that is a generalisation.

Who are your influences as a performer and who are your influences as a chef?

Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Sammy Davis Junior, Elvis Presley, Shirley Maclaine….the list is long as people who influence you change as you change as a performer and a story teller. Writers like Richard Bach, Krishnamurti, Louisa Hay, Caroline Myst….and lots more. The original Keith Floyd, Rick Stein, Antonnio Carluccio, Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall, Jamie Oliver and more!

 Anything you want to say to your supporters?

Thank You so much! I hope I can continue to tell stories that take you on a journey of positive discovery or at the very least that just brings a smile to your day.

Thank you to Paul Mercurio for the lovely interview! 

Follow Paul on Twitter  – @PaulMercurio 

For other information on Paul Merucrio vist his site.

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