This week, I begin my interview with actor / writer / director / teacher / Quiz Show Grand Champion Mr. Russell Cheek.
He truly is a Man of Many Parts.
Much like my interview with him, which begins right now, with (logically enough) Part I….
SH: Thank you for agreeing to do this.
RC: Hey it is funny because I’ve started to watch Million Dollar Minute. Have you been watching that?
SH: No. I must confess I haven’t seen a whole episode of it yet.
RC: They have some great people on there. They’ve got some really good folks. Certainly since I was on Sale 20 years ago, I think the standard has improved. These are people who don’t freak out about being on telly. I think some of the reason I may have won some of my games is because (other) people were a little Rabbit-y in the headlights, you know, being on national telly. People don’t seem to have that apprehension anymore – everyone is a performer these days.
SH: That’s been a common thread in people I have spoken to – Mikey Robbins, and people like Matt Parkinson – people who are a bit more comfortable in front of an audience seem to be more relaxed, and able to do better than people for whom it’s all novel and new.
RC: That being said, I must say that my first show on Sale, I had to play a very, very fast person who had just beaten a very good carry-over champ. That first episode I was as nervous as shite. I couldn’t adjust. It wasn’t like normal performing, going on in front of an audience or going on television in front of a camera. It was a totally different kind of nervousness. It took me a few games to kind of get that under control. Initially, I’m sitting there and saying to myself “all my experiences being in front of lights and television cameras and live audiences is just not helping me right now!” It was a really strange disconnect. That first game was very, very hard and I felt like I won it by a very, very narrow margin. When you won your final game, you won by a very narrow margin, didn’t you?
SH: Yes, I won by 25 bucks and had got 25 bucks on the Fame Game so if I hadn’t have got that, it would have been a Tiebreaker.
RC: I think we need just a little skerrick of luck now and then.
SH: We do.
RC: We all just need a little bit. Yours was not luck, though. That’s kind of calculated luck. You knew you got the answer to that, and so you picked the right thing. That’s what I won my first one by – 25 points. I won by 25 but it felt much closer than that. It felt like I’d won by the skin of my teeth, even though it was by 25.
SH: Because you can’t see the scores, and it’s all happening so fast. How would you describe what you’re doing nowadays?
RC: It is very hybrid, Steve. I don’t like to have a lot of structure in my life. I’ve been trying to get this theatre show up, that I have written and which I will direct. It’s based on Goethe’s Faust, Part One and Part Two. It’s called Manga Faust. It’s Faust re-imagined in the time of the Samurai on the kind of transition between the Tokagawa Shogun and the Meiji Restoration. It has a lot of parallels with Goethe’s original Faust, but it gives us this incredible theatrical milieu to work in, with a lot of colour and movement and very high stakes.
So I’m still in and around theatre and performance. I’ve got that website (www.russellcheek.com.au). I guess I am a performance coach, in a way. I love public speaking and I love being able to construct a speech. As you know very well, it’s all about being in the moment, as well as responding to whatever is happening in the moment and bringing a room together. It’s funny too because one thing I love doing that I don’t do so much any more but in the Castanet Club I used to have this character called Doug “Gargoyle” Ormerod. Occasionally I get asked to perform at 50th birthdays or 60th birthdays by people who remember the character. I can kind of get it together and I do like to trot that character out. I have this kind of hybrid existence where I do this work in the corporate area, semi-regularly, I suppose. I don’t like to be in too much of a routine. I like to have a variety of performing or directing or writing or doing stuff in the corporate world.
SH: You mentioned the Castanet Club, and of course your schooling in Paris. Did this all happen before you went on Sale of the Century? Because Sale of the Century was 1993, I think?
RC: I went to school in Paris in the late 70s, early 80s and we did the Castanet Club from ’83 to ’92.
SH: What made you decide to go on Sale of the Century?
RC: Weirdly enough, I’d always had very good general knowledge and when I was in high school in Newcastle, in my final 2 years in high school, they had a TV show up there called BHP High School Quiz. BHP used to do all the sponsorship and provide all the prizes. For some reason I went on that show and it lasted nearly the whole year of my Year 11 at school. Every couple of weeks you’d have to go into the studio in Newcastle and I think you just had to play one game each time you went in. I was kind of a dark horse. I used to muck around a little bit, I didn’t want it to be too serious. I suppose I had the slightest intuition that I didn’t want to be a railway sleeper, I wanted to entertain people a little bit. People thought I was small beer, they thought “Oh this guy’s gonna go nowhere”, but I tended to just keep winning week after week, each game that I played. There were a couple of really pretentious private school boys there who thought they were god’s gift to quiz shows and they just thought they were wonderful. I just kept quietly going along, under the radar and then eventually I had to play each of these guys… and I beat them.
The Grand Final came around at the end of the year and I won. Because I had expressed whatever personality I had at that stage, all the people in the studio – the crew, and the cameramen, and the host – liked me, and I kind of felt supported by those people in those final games when the stakes were high. As you know from your experience, the nerves… There is a lot at stake and you get nerves and I felt even at that time when I was like 16 years old , I thought “well it’s nice to have this kind of support, these people wanting me to win”. Even though I couldn’t articulate it like that at the time. They were all very happy when I won. I was happy, I was on a high. After winning that, I just remember feeling very relaxed and being on a high for several weeks… that I really achieved it!
SH: What was the prize?
RC: I won a set of World Book Encyclopedias for my school and I won $600 cash, and a trip around the capital cities of Australia with my dad, spending two nights in each capital city. (LAUGHING) It was a very daggy kind of prize. It was a big thing for me then – it was quite big. I never really thought about it again and then when Sale of the Century started coming on telly, maybe 15 years later, people used to say “you should go on Sale of the Century”. I used to say “No, I never want to be under that pressure again. Ever! I just don’t want to do it.”
Ah, but you did, Russell – you did! And we’ll find out all about it, in Part II of this interview next week!Tweet
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