Daniel Thomas is an Australian actor, writer and director who lives and works in Germany. I recently had a great, in-depth chat about his immensely varied life: architecture to drumming, acting to directing, his forthcoming novel and greatest wish, and more…
Read on to find out lots more about Daniel Thomas, actor, writer and director:
DB: Where were you born?
DT: I was born in Birmingham and named after the song ‘Daniel’ by Elton John. My earliest memory is snow in Birmingham, we have family there and I have been back a few times since. My family migrated to Australia when I was two.
DB: Why did your parents choose to emigrate?
DT: Prior to when I was born, they lived in Jamaica in the ‘70s, they were looking for a more exotic lifestyle, that was where my sister was born. When they returned to the UK, I think they found the lifestyle challenging. A few of their close friends were migrating to Australia so they followed suit. I remember climbing gum trees around our first house.
DB: Where exactly did you grow up in Australia, and what was it like there?
DT: We were on the outskirts of Melbourne in Ringwood until I was 5. I was quite a free-spirited kid until we moved inner city and my parents divorced. That was a game-changer. Both parents moved around Melbourne a lot. I was week on, week off between them and by the time I was 12 had moved roughly 20 times. It made me very adaptable, which has fed into what I am doing now creatively.
DB: Did you have to keep changing schools as well?
DT: I didn’t because we were always in the city, but in my final year of primary school I made an impulsive decision… I’d had some difficulties with a teacher and realised I was going to have him for my final year. A lot of my friends were going to a different high school, so I walked into another primary school, went into the office and said, “I’m here to enrol,” the ladies in the office were like, “We need your parents…” but I was quite clear about the decision. It turned out to be a good one because I still have friends now from that final year.
DB: What was high school like for you?
DT: Princes Hill Secondary College was good artistically with a great photography and art department. It’s where I discovered the drums. We didn’t have a big schoolyard so we were allowed into the surrounding area and there were some gang fights. Being adaptable, I was able to move across groups. I was incredibly quiet and shy.
I’ve realised there were two key moments in high school. The first was with my English teacher Miss Little. I had written a story, she pulled me aside after and said, “This is something that you can do,” I ignored it!
The other moment was drama class. I consider myself extroverted, but I don’t need to be the centre of the room. I did a little skit, took a risk, threw something out there and got a reaction from the audience. That moment where they engaged was very cool. Again, I didn’t follow that. But now I realise those two moments were so crucial to me in terms of going full circle back to performance and storytelling.
DB: When did you start drumming?
DT: The first time I saw a drum kit I was quite young. I was like “What is that? It looks like a spaceship. I want to know how to fly it.” I did some lessons in high school until they sacked the drum teacher! I got tuition again when I was 18 and joined my first band soon after.
In my final year of school I discovered the party lifestyle, it wasn’t ideal for my grades. My stepmother describes it as I sort of “pressed the button”. After high school, I wasn’t sure what to do. A lot of people told me I was going to be an architect because I was a good drawer. So I did drafting before completing a Bachelor of Arts, Architecture. After that, I worked in architecture for 10 years. Design was a big part of my life and I made wonderful friends, but I very much struggled with the corporate aspect.
DB: Which university did you go to?
DT: I went to Deakin in Geelong, which is near the Great Ocean Road. Studying Italian Renaissance art, then hitting some of the most stunning coastline in the world was pretty cool.
The biggest impact for me in my 20s was when I lost my mother at 24. She struggled until the end. Losing her changed my world…
DB: What impact did that have upon your mindset and what you wanted to do?
DT: My mother was so encouraging of my artistic life; she was so proud. I’d play her a rough demo from my band and she’d cry. She was just so supportive of everything I dived into. My coping mechanism was to keep myself busy: I was working and studying full-time, playing in bands, being quite excessive. I did that for a few years and, you know, if you’re pushing it too hard, something’s got to give. I had anxiety and my well-being really started to suffer. I knew I needed to make some serious changes.
That’s when I moved to London with a band. It was a reset for me, a circuit breaker. I was pushing myself far too hard and wasn’t dealing with the things I needed to front up to. Playing live felt so much more ‘real’. I was returning to my roots. I needed to go back to where I was from, reflect and start doing serious self-work. I needed to step out of the noise. The chaos of the rock ‘n’ roll world was very different to sitting alone on a mountain-top, but in essence I was moving in a direction that was truer to myself, taking a risk and putting myself as an artist on the line. I am really proud of that and what it has lead to.
DB: What was the band called?
DT: The Spiral, we were a three-piece original indie band. We were together for a couple of years in London. In the end, we couldn’t hold it together. We didn’t achieve the success we had hoped for but it was an amazing experience that taught me so much. Being on a stage every week, dealing with things that happen in the moment. It’s not all about the destination is it? I could throw hundreds of clichés out there but it’s definitely all about the journey.
DB: Who are your musical idols?
DT: Keith Moon of The Who, he was a phenomenally explosive drummer and showman who had such subtlety at the same time. He would do things like play with the vocal line, which drummers just don’t do.
I am a fan of Motley Crue, Oasis and I like The Killers because they’re such great storytellers.
DB: If you cast your mind right back, what is your earliest musical memory?
DT: When I was seven my dad drove me through the Australian desert with Laurie Anderson’s music as a backdrop. There were these strange robotic vocals. He also played a lot of Dire Straits and Pink Floyd, his tastes were an influence on me.
DB: At what stage did you decide to move to Germany?
DT: I had an amazing week alone in Berlin toward the end of my time in London. It sparked a curiosity toward Germany. My ex-girlfriend introduced me to Hamburg with its Beatles history and rock vibe and my son was born here. When the relationship didn’t work out I made the decision to build a life as a father here in a foreign country. It’s the choice I am most proud of and has been so rewarding.
DB: That must give you a rock-solid foundation for everything else.
DT: Very much so. Maybe I would have been more inclined to keep moving but my boy has been a huge grounding force in a city that I love. I haven’t followed a direct path but moving between countries has given me a richness of experience I am grateful for and can bring to storytelling.
Raising a child in a foreign country, I had to be realistic about pursuing my dreams. Having qualifications and experience in Architecture made it harder for me to transition into a career in acting and writing. The realisation I had to somehow make myself available for auditions came when I missed a call because I was stuck in a meeting. That’s when I took odd jobs to make myself available for opportunities when they came.
Being told regularly I am crazy and have zero chance as an actor, let alone an Australian one in Germany, has only made me more determined. Initially I threw myself into auditions with only a basic level of German, not sensible, I had some absolute doozies! I also did a lot of extra work to learn how to navigate German film sets, it wasn’t acting but it was a kind of film school.
DB: When did you decide it was acting that you wanted to do?
DT: I knew it when I was a kid. My father is a documentary filmmaker and I grew up watching him. Crews and sets were natural to me and I would help carry equipment. I did a workshop at a studio where he worked, they interviewed me, and I said I wanted to be an actor – I was eight. I didn’t return to it until I was 30 when I lived with a talented friend who was very encouraging.
DB: When you performed on stage with your band did it still have that, the performing in front of an audience?
DT: Very much so, there’s a lot I gained from performing live. Those moments where things go wrong, and you’ve got to sink or swim. Relaxation as well, being comfortable in uncomfortable environments. I’ve always been quite nervous about performance, but it’s something in me that I have to do.
DB: What do you do to try and help yourself relax?
DT: I’m big on meditation and mindfulness. I am continually exploring different ways to ground myself, which takes practice. Martial Arts training has also taught me so much, good teachers and mentors are so important.
DB: Do you carry on with that now?
DT: Not as much I’d like to. I’ve done some film fight choreography training. Martial Arts taught me the importance of committing to the move. Going all in as opposed to half-assed and ending up injured. I know that when I commit to something fully and it doesn’t work out, there’s no regret. I may fall flat on my face but it’s liberating. For me, fully committing to being a present father in Germany has been the most rewarding thing.
I’ve also learnt the importance of trusting my instincts and intuition, treating them like a muscle. Without getting too philosophical, intuition is where guidance and truth can be found.
DB: How do you go about preparing for a role?
DT: The script and the writing are king. I focus on what speaks to me about the character and what I can draw from. I try and understand the character’s motivations without judgement and their place in the bigger story. I’m a natural observer and very visual, I find human behaviour fascinating. There’s all the work that goes into preparation, trusting that it’s all there, then letting it go.
For my character in the film Edda Tudor I did a lot of research into Schizophrenia. Mental illness is invisible making it very challenging to play while being sensitive to those who suffer it. There was a scene where he doused a design office in fuel and lit it up. It was a metaphor for putting a flame to my old career.
DB: Do you ever watch yourself on screen?
DT: I struggle with it, but I’ve learned the importance of it technically at this early stage of my career. It’s vital to know what your strengths are and it’s important to know how other people perceive you, because how you see yourself may be very different to the way people around you perceive you.
When material presents I ask, “Does this material speak to me and what can I bring to it? Are the people involved good people and are we on the same page? If those fall into place happy days, if not, that’s okay too.
DB: You’ve done some directing yourself.
DT: I directed a short documentary Walls about my drum teacher – who unfortunately passed – as a tribute to him. Also the Tippy Top pilot, which I wrote, and wore 47 hats to make. Directing is a different beast. I always used to ask my father “Why don’t you make a feature?” I now realise I was expressing my own curiosity.
DB: Let’s talk about Tippy Top, which I personally enjoyed. Can you tell me what it’s about and how you came up with the idea?
DT: Thank you. Tippy Top is a series pilot about a furniture moving team trying to navigate a dangerous job. It was inspired by my experience working in a van with other foreigners and refugees serving the community to survive here in Germany. We had to carry random objects up old European staircases for clients who were either helping – or not helping. I was observing all the time, taking notes of the situations we found ourselves in.
Multicultural society is a wonderful thing, especially when we all work together and respect one another despite our differences. Australian indie music is also close to my heart, indie bands Loose Tooth, Kilns and Planet generously allowed me to use their music for the soundtrack. I hope it will help them with a little exposure in Europe. I sourced the props from local flea markets here in Hamburg. It was a huge learning experience and we hope to do more.
I’ve realised the importance of taking things into my own hands rather than waiting for permission to be creative. Focusing on what’s important even if that means doing less. For a long time, I was trying to push into a certain way of doing things but after a while, I was like, “I need to embrace who I am and that’s my niche.” I realised I wasn’t limited by circumstance. There are such amazing locations in Hamburg (in every city). The biggest limiter can be ourselves, or accepting how others believe we should be, but if you can get out of your own way the sky is the limit.
DB: For somebody who’s thinking of pursuing acting, what would your advice be?
DT: My advice would be never let anybody be dismissive of your dreams. People have an ability to slap away what you’re working toward in one sentence and it can derail you if you let it.
Think about the type of stories you want to tell and try a whole lot of things to narrow that vision. It’s often hard to say no and to hear no, but the nos are just as important as the yeses. It’s important to fill the toolbox with as much as you can, mainly life experience but practical skills too. People want to help and they want you to succeed. Surround yourself with people who celebrate your victories.
Keep fear at bay. When I first went to an acting class I turned around and didn’t go in, the next time I knew I just had to get my body through the door. Once I did, it was a nurturing environment. Find ways not to let fear get in the way and trust your gut. Go for it. Commit to it.
Learn the art of brutal honesty. I used to be quite fearful of criticism but I’ve learned to be okay with putting stuff out there and not taking things personally. Here in Germany, it’s very direct which can be hard as an Aussie but also refreshing (in some cases) as you know where you stand. It’s taken me a while to develop a thick skin here.
DB: When you are travelling, what sort of music do you have on your playlist?
DT: My musical tastes are very mixed. The core reason I joined bands was to be uplifted by the music we were playing – but I ended up in darker, grittier rock bands!
DB: Do you use music to prep for a character?
DT: Yes. There might be a particular rhythm or tone that is useful in developing a character. I also find it useful to think what their playlist might be? Separate from my own tastes. Music has been such a big part of my life I hope to experiment with it more in creating characters.
DB: Tell me a bit about the book you are currently writing.
DT: It’s called Ride. It follows the central character, drummer Tommy Chase, who (coincidentally) embarks on a journey of self-discovery from Australia to the UK. I’m still very much in the throes of writing it, but it will be self-published this year. Much of the process has been learning aspects of the craft and many days spent staring at the blank page. I’m interested in stories about the human condition, self-truth and discovery. It has been an amazing experience so far, incredibly challenging, and I’m still shaping it; you’ve got this big piece of clay and you are moulding it.
DB: What are you reading at the moment?
DT: While I am making stuff I find it hard to immerse myself in other work because I become very critical of my own. That being said I understand the importance of learning from the greats.
I don’t read much fiction. I read biographies and self-help books. Actually, I’ve stopped reading self-help because I feel I’ve done a lot of self-work. I used to devour them. Some of them changed my life.
DB: Outside of your writing, what other passions and hobbies do you have?
DT: I’ve love café racer motorbikes! I’m learning about them. I spend most of my time trying to invent stuff out of the ether but to sit there and be like, “this is how the cylinder and the piston work,” that’s refreshing because it just is what it is. I’d love to get one and then customise it one day. Drumming is actually more of a hobby now. I’m not trying to conquer the world, just play for fun.
DB: I must ask you about your tattoos.
DT: This is my mother’s initials [points to wrist] and that’s been very helpful for me, it’s just two letters, but at times when I’ve needed it it’s given me a boost. Tattoos can do that, you know. I got that when I was first in London and it is a significant spot. I didn’t realise that when you put one on your wrist, you shake hands with people, reach for stuff at dinner tables, and that was important because it made me talk about her, a lot. This one is a lion, I’m a Leo, I got it in London as well.
DB: Who has been the most influential person in your life and how have they been the most influential?
DT: My drum teacher Bill Wall was a phenomenal guy! The thing about him was the way he played the drums. I just didn’t see anybody who was doing what he was doing. I think at that time in my life I really needed a strong mentor figure. It was devastating when he took his own life. It was a huge shock for me because he was such an idol. That was a big realisation for me, that often, talented people have huge struggles that aren’t seen. He was a very special human.
I also had an uncle who had an amazing life Robin Cuming – he passed away recently. He was so flamboyant, a theatre actor and an architect. For his 70th birthday, he went skydiving! He used to come to some of my shows in Melbourne and sit in the front row. I remember one time he came to a particularly loud venue, and sat there at the front. Afterwards, I took him aside and said, “What did you think of our set?” he replied “I don’t know, I had cotton wool stuffed in my ears the entire time.” (Laughs) The cool thing was he was just there in support, 75 years old at a gritty club.
He would give me these little lessons about theatre, about acting, and about architecture. I really admired him; he had such a grand life. He had a facial tick but the first time I went to see him in West Side Story, he was standing alone on stage singing to a full theatre and his tick was gone, to see him hold a room like that was really inspiring.
DB: What could you not live without?
DT: I could not live without the things that helped me be creative. I think when you move countries a lot you go through this process of stripping things away. Every time you have to put your stuff in your parent’s roof you analyse what’s truly important. I have learned to live with simple things. I don’t want to say my laptop, but it’s where I do the bulk of my creative work and a notebook.
DB: If you had a wish that could be granted right now, what would it be?
DT: I’m thinking on a bigger, global scale really… I’m not going to say, “I wish I had a motorbike!” This is an interesting time right now, and I see huge potential for growth as a global community. It’s such a horrendous time in so many ways but I’m hoping that out of this can come a Renaissance. My wish would be that we could move in a direction that’s more in line with the planet, and helping each other, that we can find a little more awareness and consciousness within ourselves and in turn for each other.
[Edited by Grace Rainbow]
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Link to 10 Insights from this interview with Daniel Thomas: