It wasn’t enough for Australian-raised actor Hugh Keays-Byrne to have one legendary character on his resume, he had to go and create another.
Behind the fibreglass body armour, long white hair, and sinister oxygen mask of villain Immortal Joe in “Mad Max: Fury Road” is the man who, 36 years earlier, terrorised the Australian plains as the memorable Toecutter in the original “Mad Max.”
Keays-Byrne, 67, started his career as a trained theatre actor who was part of the Royal Shakespeare Company for numerous years. But in 1979 he gained international acclaim in the low-budget apocalyptic cult hit “Mad Max,” starring a then unknown Mel Gibson.
“I was a young actor trying to do films and suddenly I realised, ‘God, people are talking about this film,'” Keays-Byrne told Business Insider. “A friend of mine phoned from Japan and said, ‘Hugh, you’re on television every 10 minutes over here.'”
Though Keays-Byrne would go on to act in numerous movies and TV shows for decades following “Mad Max,” he would always be known as Toecutter. Even to this day he gets stopped in the grocery store by fans.
Then, eight years ago, Keays-Byrne got a call from “Mad Max” director George Miller about the opportunity to come on “Fury Road.”
“I thought, didn’t Toecutter drive in front of a moving truck and die?”
Instead, Miller wanted him to play another villain, Immorten Joe, the leader of a post-apocalyptic village in which he rules by limiting the water supply and using beautiful women to birth his followers, coined “War Boys.”
This time things were different. Much of that was because of the hour-long hair and makeup routine he underwent to become unrecognizable every day before shooting.
Keays-Byrne said it took a few days to get comfortable on a big budget Hollywood set.
“This film took me into an area of technology that I’d never been anywhere near before, it was a bit scary,” he said. “How does one judge one’s performance?” he wondered. Since a mask covered his face throughout the whole production, he was required to do his dialogue in post production months later. “But George kept me relaxed. I had an ear piece and he’d speak to me [during scenes] from time to time, which I found reassuring,” Keays-Byrne said.
It’s hard for Keays-Byrne to pinpoint aspects of Immorten Joe that originated from him, as he spent years talking to Miller and others on the production about the character before they began shooting. However, there is one piece of his character he can unequivocally say came from him.
“Immorten Joe has a war club, and that was my mother-in-law’s,” he said. “It was given to her during the second World War. After she died it was laying around and I thought, oh, that’s an interesting thing.”
Here’s a picture of Immorten Joe holding the club on set.
In fact, the giant axe Toecutter used in “Mad Max” was also Keays-Byrne’s contribution. “A friend of mine had given it to me and I thought it had a look about it.”
Keays-Byrne loved the experience of doing a movie like “Fury Road” and hopes to do another one on that scale again, but he admits what he’s really excited about is watching the film with the actors who were members of Toecutter’s gang in “Mad Max.”
“Quite a few of those guys are still dear friends of mine,” he said. “We will indeed all go see ‘Fury Road’ together.”
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