‘Let’s just go there’: Jonathan LaPaglia on getting in Strife and surviving Survivor

By Louise Rugendyke

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Jonathan LaPaglia’s camera is off. He’s had a chest infection ever since visiting his daughter Tilly in Italy. “I’m fine,” he says. “But I just can’t seem to shake it.” His voice is very familiar though, fluctuating between the flattened vowels of his Australian accent to his sharper US twang.

Jonathan LaPaglia as media mogul Peter in the TV series Strife, which is loosely inspired by Mia Freedman’s book Work, Strife, Balance.

The actor and TV host lives in California, but these days he is drawn home more often to Australia – he hosts Australian Survivor on Ten, will soon be seen in the local version of UK car show Top Gear on Paramount+ and is now starring in Strife, Binge’s comedy-drama inspired by journalist Mia Freedman’s book Work Strife Balance.

“When those opportunities come up, I’m going to jump on them,” he says “And it seems like Australia over the last 10 years or so, maybe even longer, has been producing some really interesting stuff. Look, if they want me for it, I’m interested.”

Jonathan LaPaglia plays Peter, the former boss of Eveyln, played by Asher Keddie, in Strife. 

In Strife, he plays Peter, the former boss of Evelyn Jones (played by Asher Keddie), who was fired from his magazine but then goes on to form her own women’s website, Eve (It’s Freedman’s Mamamia, without saying it’s Mamamia).

But far from becoming rivals, Peter offers a steady hand to Evelyn, becoming a mentor of sorts as she tries to build the website into something that’s more than just a blog.

“He really loves this cat-and-mouse relationship that he has with Evelyn,” says LaPaglia. “And he’s the type of guy that there’s never a problem, there’s only a solution, and he enjoys the chase and drama that comes up with his relationship with Evelyn.

“Initially he kind of foo-foos her new business, as a cute little blog, but then he sees that it starts to become quite successful and he starts to pay attention.”

Is LaPaglia a problems or a solutions guy?

“I’m a solutions kind of guy,” he says. “I never feel like there’s an unsolvable problem. I always find a way to get there in the end. And I feel like that’s the cornerstone of Peter as well. He really enjoys that. And I think he sees Evelyn as a problem to solve.”

What an unusual thing for a man to say about a woman…

“That’s certainly going to get me into trouble,” he says, laughing. “Like, in 2023 I can’t say that, but this [show is set] in the early 2000s and he seriously is that guy. He’s definitely the kind of guy that mansplains. And it’s funny, because when we were shooting it, we were cognisant of it. We’re shooting in 2023, how much do we go there with that stuff?

“And, I was like, ‘Hey, it’s the period, let’s just go there.’ But I mean, the director and the producer, at times were like, ‘We need to pull back on that a little bit’, but I feel like it really was part of that period.”

Jonathan LaPaglia as Hector and Sophie Okonedo as Aisha in The Slap.

Strife is one of only a handful of Australian productions LaPaglia has worked on, after spending most of his acting career in the US, ticking off guest roles in, among others, The Sopranos, Law and Order and NCIS (a lot of cops and lawyers).

But typically it’s at home that the 54-year-old does his best work. He was slippery yet charismatic in The Slap, the ABC adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ 2008 bestseller, in which he played Hector (for which he had to hire a dialect coach to rediscover his natural accent). He was nominated for an Australian Film Institute Award for that, while his recurring role in Nine’s 1960s hospital drama Love Child also scored him a nod at the Monte Carlo television festival. He even made obligatory appearance in Underbelly as convicted drug smuggler and murderer Anthony Perish.

Jonathan LaPaglia as Anthony Perish in the crime series Underbelly Badness.

Before all that, though, he was working as an emergency room doctor in Australia and the UK, after graduating from the University of Adelaide. He quit in 1994 and moved to New York, following his older brother Anthony into acting. “I was young, and I didn’t really know my ass from my elbow back then,” he says. “And I was convinced that there was no creativity in medicine. But now I’ve been away from it for so long, I now realise that the best doctors are creative. But at the time, I couldn’t see that.”

He has no regrets, although he did pick up the books again during COVID. “I don’t know why, maybe just to prove it to myself”.

Surely being a doctor would have probably afforded him a more stable life, so does he enjoy that actor’s hustle, of constantly having to be on the front foot to get a job?

“When I was younger, but not so much now,” he says. “I didn’t think about it that much when I was younger, it was just part of the deal. But as you get older, it’s one of the few professions, or probably the only profession, where there’s not a straight line.

Jonathan LaPaglia in California. He has lived mostly in the US since leaving his medical degree behind to chase acting in 1994.Credit: Darcy Hemley

“In any other profession, your career builds up, and you’re guaranteed a certain level of job as you advance. But that’s just not the case with acting. It almost feels like once one job is finished, it’s day one all over again. You have a six-month window to capitalise on the heat from a job, and then you’re back to square one.”

It does sound like a very stressful way to live life.

“It is insane,” he agrees. “And often when you get cast in something, it’s got to do with so many variables that are so out of your control. It’s not really related to how talented you are, it’s related to a whole bunch of other things that you can’t do anything about.”

Would he recommend it to his daughter as a career? “No!” he says, laughing.

Speaking of insane, let’s talk Australian Survivor, the reality show that mixes brains and brawn that LaPaglia has hosted since 2016. This year’s Heroes v Villains season was hailed by fans and critics as one of its best, with LaPaglia managing some very unpredictable contestants, while handling accusations the producers were “saving” certain players. Next year’s season, Titans v Rebels, begins early in the new year and was once again filmed in Samoa.

Jonathan LaPaglia on the set of the Brains v Brawn series of Australian Survivor, which was filmed in Cloncurry, Queensland.Credit: Nigel Wright

“It’s one of the toughest jobs, if not the toughest job I’ve ever done,” he says. “That’s including all the crazy stuff I’ve done as a doctor. But not just for me, for everyone on the crew. We’re like basket cases at the end of it. We all just curl up in a foetal position at the end of it and are a mess for like a month.

“I certainly didn’t appreciate how much is involved in the show. When I signed on for it, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s pretty straightforward. I can read a bunch of books and have some cocktails, do a little bit of work.’ But I don’t read a single word whenever I go out there.

Simon has his torch snuffed in Australian Survivotr by Jonathan LaPaglia. Credit: Nigel Wright/Ten

“It carries a weird level of stress for me. Because unlike acting, where if I do a take, and it doesn’t work, we can just go again, but this is reality TV, so you get yet one take, and you’ve got 20 cameras rolling on you. So I feel that level of responsibility. And when you’re doing that for two months straight, it takes its toll by the end of it.”

Apart from wearing a fetching pair of shorts and delivering a series of devastating yet funny send-offs, LaPaglia’s biggest role on Australian Survivor is managing the tribal council at the end of each episode. A lot of his strategy is mapped out beforehand in story meetings, where the producers report what has been happening with the contestants and a plan is then put together about what LaPaglia will say at tribal council.

“It’s a very weird process,” says LaPaglia. “Because once you get on the floor, often what you think is the story, is not the story. And so you’re asking questions, and the players are like, ‘No, it’s not, it’s not like that at all.’ So you’ve got to quickly pivot and go with what’s in front of you and follow the ball.

“And, on top of that, I’ve got to keep track of 24 stories and I’ve got to ask questions in a way that I don’t blow up people’s games, but I still need to get enough information out of them to make it interesting. So it’s this weird dance that I don’t feel like I’ve ever quite got on top of, and I feel like I probably will never get on top of. It’s just one of those weird parts of the job that’s also very stressful.”

What isn’t stressful – thank you, dear reader, for indulging another obvious segue – is LaPaglia’s next hosting gig: Top Gear Australia. He does know that most of the British hosts have ended up in hospital, right? Richard Hammond spent two weeks in a coma after a high-speed crash, while Jeremy Clarkson had spinal damage after he drove a truck into a wall.

“Don’t say that! Now you’ve cursed it,” he says, laughing. “Yeah, we’ll try not to focus on that.”

With all this fun stuff lined up, cars, shorts and tropical islands, it does raise the question why LaPaglia even bothers with acting at all.

“Look, my agent’s probably saying the same thing…”

Strife is now streaming on Binge.

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