Fredrick James-Koch: Acting beyond the performance

At a restaurant somewhere in Surry Hills, New South Wales, Frederick James-Koch sat munching a sausage roll. Two weeks earlier, he had had one of his first shots at acting: a performance he may not have particularly relished, but one which left a deep impression on him. The role had been that of a father who had profited handsomely from the misfortunes of his family, and was involved in selling pictures of his daughter, a serial killer. There had been nothing exceptional about the performance, but Koch had researched the role, painstakingly taking down notes, getting into the character’s mind, and creating a whole new world for him. To his pleasant surprise, the performance had come off well.

All of a sudden a darkness seeped into him. What it was, where it came from, he couldn’t quite tell, but as it clouded his mind, tears began streaming from his eyes. These weren’t sobs and sighs: they were actual, frantic tears. As he sat crying endlessly, everyone quickly turned and looked at him, some panicking, others confused. Since they could not really account for the tears, they assumed the worst: Did he get a phone call? Did someone die? Koch couldn’t stop or help himself, so getting up hastily, he left. The tears followed him for some time, but when they abated, he realised what had triggered them: he had thought back on the notes he’d taken down on his character, and these had let out some really deep, repressed emotions. Put simply, he’d had his first encounter with the emotional intricacies of acting.

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For Frederick James-Koch, acting is more than a profession. “I dislike the business side of it, you know,” he chortles. “Perhaps that’s why it’s handled by other people.” Koch doesn’t just act, of course; he sings. In fact, at the Hollywood launch of his latest outing, Night Walk, he was scheduled to perform live. But this was before COVID-19 put a stop to such plans. “It’s frustrating, what with the industry shut down and in limbo. But it’s also a catalyst for change and creativity. I mean, it’s always good to think anew at a time like this.”

The last few years have been kind to Koch. Having made his debut in Chandran Rutnam’s A Common Man in 2014 – in what I felt to be the only real performance in the story apart from Ben Kingsley’s and Ben Cross’s – he shifted to post-apocalyptic horror with 2015’s Impact: Earth (a largely forgettable flick) and to crime drama with 2019’s Night Walk (a much better outing). Night Walk was the first Moroccan movie to get Hollywood distribution, and it was lauded at more than one international film festival. Paired with Mickey Rourke among other award winning actors, Koch couldn’t have got a better deal.

Unlike his father, Alston, who transitioned from full time singer to part time actor, Frederick James-Koch began his career in the movies. The family background didn’t help him at first, though “dad was quite an influence, I mean come on, he changed the music scene back home and did some great things in Australia!” While Frederick nursed an irrepressible passion for the performing arts, the parents had initially not been receptive to them. “They wanted me to take a more academic route, like you know, sitting at a desk all day long. I realised early on that while I could fit into that desk all day routine, I wouldn’t achieve what I wanted from life with it. I had to rebel at first, but eventually they realised it was pointless pushing me into a corner. That’s when I started studying theatre.” 

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Koch attended and graduated from the National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA), before graduating from the Actors Centre in New South Wales. “It wasn’t a tough choice to make.” Ironically, it wasn’t just acting that got him into his favourite profession. “Dad played music and sang to his heart’s content, and he let me learn from him. Music is very much a part of my life, and it’s helped me get into that mode of being a focused performer.” His father may not have talked much about his craft or career, but “he brought in some great insights which helped me clinch the deal, you know, at concerts.”

Not that practicing for shows ever became a walk in the park: “I had to spend hours and hours on scales, on perfecting my pitch, and on ensuring I got what was lying in my heart and soul out there in the open.” The whole experience became no less than a baptism of fire, and he’d constantly adjust and correct himself. “Singing out loud to a live audience gets you connected with people. They notice when you’re singing too high or low, and you can hear them. I am not a vocal acrobat, though I try to diversify my range, but the thrill of taking audiences with me pushed me. I believe that helped a lot when I started my movie career.”

For more formative influences, though, Koch goes back to his boyhood days. “I grew up in a completely internet-free and computer-free world, a small town in New South Wales with the total of three streets called Sandy Point. It was a suburb, yes, but not the suburbs we have today. Our home bordered and surrounded a creek. We didn’t have video games back then, so we’d just go to the woods and improvise our own games. We entered a whole new world there, and let imagination run riot.” Koch is nostalgic about these encounters, and he credits them for letting him think wide and big. “I am actually very proud of my childhood, the opportunities I got, literally in my backyard. We’d dream up castles in the sky and the world coming to an end in two hours, fantastic stuff. I believe these encounters help you a lot when you turn creative growing up. You might dream of travelling to a galaxy far, far away, encountering a Death Star, or even shrinking in size. But just setting up those experiences in your imagination, nothing beats that, you know?”

Of course getting into an act takes more than just imagination. For Koch, what separates the great from the good in his trade is the ability to forge “an intimate exchange with audiences.” While you have to be whoever the script demands you to be, “it’s best that you don’t lose a sense of authenticity when you’re playing.” But where’s the authenticity in faking stuff and pretending you’re someone else? “I admit it’s kind of confusing, but let me put it this way. If you’re playing a dying man, surrounded by 20 or so cast and crew members, you’ve got to enter that experience and, you know, start sweating and pulsating and dying. Of course you know it’s not happening for real, but physically and physiologically you are dying. You can play whoever you want to if you can summon their experiences. I think that’s what you can call authenticity in acting: the ability to be whoever you want to be.”

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This attitude, of looking at everything anew and afresh, may be an inheritance from his boyhood, but it has shaped and continues to shape his perceptions of the world today. This is what’s got him trying out not just acting, but scripting , even directing. Koch hasn’t had a movie of his own out yet, but he does have plenty of ideas. “I mean, I’m not thinking at Star Wars or Death Star level here, but there are pretty sound ideas we can try out.”

For Koch, what is important is not so much to work with actors as to empathise with them. “Directors need to think beyond the bottom line, they need to think beyond profits, otherwise we can’t get the best from our actors. An actor lives a thousand lives and thinks a thousand thoughts. He may have some wacky ideas, but if they help in his acting, why not?” 

Koch is Australian by birth and residence, but his father was born in Sri Lanka. While this hasn’t necessarily detached him from his cultural heritage, he does feel an urge to get closer to a country he likens to his “spiritual birthplace.” “Hardly a day goes by when I don’t feel frustrated that I am not there as much as I want to be.” What adds to this sense of frustration, he says, is the idea of Sri Lankanness that’s embedded in the popular culture that debars him from being Sri Lankan to the rest of the world. “When I meet friends and I tell them I’m part Sri Lankan, they just laugh and say, ‘Hang on a minute, you can’t be Sri Lankan, I have Sri Lankan friends and they’re so and so…’ Of course they refer to skin colour and accent and all that, criteria which I don’t conform to. But that shouldn’t make me a ‘foreigner’.”

Growing up in Australia, Koch admits he lived through some “terrible racism.” Yet what was so profoundly ironic about it was that the minute he went back to Sri Lanka, “I’d experience that racism in reverse: suddenly I was the white guy, the foreigner looking down or up at the locals.” He has a good laugh here: “You know, at high school, I was one of just seven brown kids. Just seven!” He obviously can’t rationalise his love for Sri Lanka, but that connectivity is very much out there. “It has nothing to do with being a Buddhist, a Christian, a Hindu, or a Muslim. It’s nothing to do with where you come from. It’s to do with this patch of land that to me happens to be the most beautiful piece of land in the world.”

Sri Lanka looms significantly in his ideas for the future. “There are tons of stories you can take and film from that country. I don’t mean only the history. I’m talking about stories of people. There was a time all producers and directors thought about Italian lifestyles, Indian lifestyles, and Greek lifestyles. But today, that stage has got bigger. Countries which never figured in the director’s scheme of things, they’re everywhere now.”

His ideas for Sri Lanka include a biopic. “I mean a biopic that’ll capture the spirit of that country. Unfortunately the minute you pitch such an idea you get all sorts of questions like, who’s the subject of your film, is he Sri Lanka, if not why?” For Koch the best themes from Sri Lanka have not yet engaged the filmmaker: “We can think about the war, the switch of language from English to Sinhala and Tamil, the switchover that finally compelled my father and other Burghers to leave their country and come here.”

I am hesitant about asking him to talk about his biopic projects, but to my pleasant surprise Koch agrees to open up a little. “One of my ideas had to do with the Indian Ocean theatre of war and Sri Lanka’s role during the Second World War.” He elaborates on Sri Lanka’s vital role during WWII due to its strategic geographical location especially after the fall of Singapore, the military leadership in the region, and pivotal foreign characters that changed the outcomes of war. Koch feels that such biopic projects would pique the interest of many audiences, and that Sri Lankans would be argumentative, not apathetical towards such stories. 

For Koch, the problem with such ideas is that invariably someone will ask, “How relevant are stories like this to our history?” “We have this attitude of knowing beforehand which stories work for the country and which don’t. I mean, that attitude’s there everywhere. Like, oh my god, that just can’t be a Sri Lankan breakfast without a roti!”

Here we go back to Koch’s thoughts on authenticity. “You have to be novel and innovative in the creative industries. For instance, you don’t necessarily have to shoot in a country to make a film about that country. A maid in Dubai sending money to Sri Lanka, or a Burgher émigré earning big bucks as a pop star in Australia: these are Sri Lankan stories too, which you don’t have to physically script and film in Sri Lanka.”

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Perhaps compelled by the challenge of it all, Koch thus hopes to direct?? his father’s life story: “He was a big icon in Sri Lanka in the sixties. But he had his lion’s share of brushes with racism and prejudice. When he was performing over there, his band was debarred from interacting with guests. It’s ironic, because he experienced that same thing when performing at casinos and cafes here.” Clearly, for Koch, being Sri Lankan doesn’t, or shouldn’t, always mean being in Sri Lanka, whether as director or performer.

COVID-19 has obviously thrown down the gauntlet for artists. And yet for Koch, it’s a time of reckoning. “Apple TV came up with a fantastic series, Calls. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic future where people tell stories through phone conversations. It’s a neat little idea, and fits in well with the situation the world’s going through now.” His immediate plans for the future include a movie and a TV series. “The comedy/thriller film  called ‘Dubai Cash’ produced by Alexander Media is about a singer down on his luck, and with his brothers help, has to become an ‘over-night’ superstar or ‘else’, while the TV series, which I am very determined to pursue to its end, is about my father.” Of course these will have to wait until the worst part of the pandemic is over.

Koch confesses to me when wrapping up our conversation that “in this industry, it’s tough to work on or with talent alone. You need skills, empathy, and advice from others in the field.” Koch looks fairly certain he’s got these priorities in order, though he’s too shy to admit it. As he’s well aware, “the desire for perfection is in us all, and it’s naturally in me. It’s best not to get riled up with what other people think of you, but it’s best to keep driving up until they no longer say anything that bothers you. Aim at the best, and aim at nothing less. That has been a credo of sorts for me.” Has it worked for him? I ask him. He laughs. “We’ll see.”

Written by Uditha Devapriya

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