Sean Keenan: From Teen Surfer to Murderous Bushranger

Photos by Tim Swallow

Sean Keenan is sitting at his desk in Bondi, wearing a dark blue hoodie and rocking a scrappy, uneven neckbeard.

It’s a vastly different look from how we’ve seen him on screen, whether as the long-haired surfie heartthrob in Puberty Blues or the relatively clean-cut, back-from-dead soldier in Glitch. (Or as he’s pictured here by MC lensman Tim Swallow, playing golf in his pyjamas).

Keenan has started growing the beard in preparation for his next big role in The True History of The Kelly Gang; he’s playing Joe Byrne, one of the members of Ned Kelly’s infamous band of murderous bushrangers. The film is based on Peter Carey’s historical fiction novel of the same name and Keenan explains that he was impressed by Carey’s ability to interweave the historical facts with a semi-fictitious but highly compelling narrative.

“It’s the only story that demystifies [Ned Kelly] as a man because we all know him as this myth,” says Keenan. “Peter Carey goes back and shows how a young boy raised in that situation can become a killer. It humanises him in a way.”

It’s a good point, because as far as cultural iconography goes, it’s kind of bizarre that white Australia so strongly identifies with a vigilante cop killer like Ned Kelly. But Carey’s novel presents Kelly and his Irish band of mates as victims of the British colonisers, shedding some light on the conflict and hardships faced by the Irish-Australians in the early colonial days.

To prepare for the role, Keenan has also been spending some time out in Tallangatta, Victoria, an area he describes as “Kelly Country”. He even managed to track down some relatives who have been farming the same patch of land for over 100 years and convinced his distant cousin to teach him to ride a horse.

“He just teaches you trial by fire,” Keenan says of his cousin. “He just put me on the horse… that’s how he taught all his kids. It’s like chucking a kid in a swimming pool to learn how to swim.

“That’s where I broke through the barrier from being a terrible horseman to being a passable horseman. I’m not at the level where I’d feel confident galloping through a field but I can definitely canter and muster some sheep now.”

When I ask Sean if he always does so much preparation for his roles, he explains that the project simply warrants it. “[It’s] a historical job and a period piece where you’re working with a director who really appreciates it and utilises it,” he says. “But I’m not trying to intellectualise it too much— it’s fucken really fun.”

At 25, Keenan’s been in front of the camera for more than half his life, having picked up the lead role in the ABC’s Lockie Leonard at 12-years-old. It was a story of a young pubescent surfer—an adaptation of Tim Winton’s young adult fiction novels—and was an instant Aussie classic. The show managed to be funny without shying away from subjects like puberty and mental health and the other parts of being a teenager that often go unspoken.

“I was the young surfie kid and I had blonde hair so maybe that had something to do with getting the part,” recalls Keenan of the six-month audition process. “I don’t even know what I thought—I think I was pretty excited about earning TV money. That was the main thing that I was looking forward to.”

But before long, 13-year-old Keenan was taking time off school to work 14 and 15-hour days on set and unwittingly gaining an alternative education in acting. Though he didn’t think much of it at the time, working hard from such a young age helped prepare him for a career that he really wasn’t expecting.

“I just didn’t even think about the performing arts as a career path at all,” says Keenan. “I mean, what kind of 13-year-old kid does? Especially in the country, where most things are based around playing sport and going to school.” Having grown up in Busselton, a few hours south of Perth, he now realises that he was incredibly lucky to have found his way into acting at all. When the casting call for Lockie Leonard went out across WA, Keenan was one of only five kids chosen by his school principal to audition.

As an adult, Keenan is probably best known for his role as Gary Hennessy, the troubled surfer-turned-heroin-addict in the Puberty Blues series. This was another quintessentially Aussie classic that took an unflinching look at the sexism and power imbalances that were prevalent in middle-class 1970s suburban Australia.

“There was something about Puberty Blues that stood out,” Keenan recalls. “There was a casual brutality about the way these guys treated each other and the way they treated the women. And we hide this brutality with our irreverence and our laconic wit but deep down there’s something quite brutal in it.”

Between Lockie Leonard, Gary Hennessey and now Joe Byrne of the Kelly Gang, Keenan’s played a series of roles that embody what it means to be a man in Australia. Unsurprisingly, there are times when the results are pretty ugly—like when Gary’s mates are listing the girls they’ve slept with and describing the encounters in crude detail. Gary bails on the conversation to go surfing.

“I think any male who had a level of self-awareness growing up in a country town would have moments of feeling like that,” says Keenan. “And you go, ‘I think I’m surrounded by influences that I don’t want to be surrounded by anymore.’ I’ve felt that feeling before.”

Growing up on screen has no doubt had its benefits for Keenan, but it has also resulted in some uncomfortable moments. At Sean’s 21st, a friend got hold of his phone and posted a photo of his balls on Instagram with the hashtag #birthdayballs. Sean says the image was up for about four minutes, before his brother caught wind and deleted it, but someone got a screenshot and the rabid media monstrosity that is The Daily Mail took the bait.

“That’s a situation where you start to [realise] you’re not at school anymore and no one can put pictures of balls on your Instagram,” Sean laughs. But later in our chat he clarifies, “I don’t want to put more fuel on the fire. If you do another big write up on birthday balls I’ll probably get another email from my agent.”

A few months later The Daily Mail ran another article with a series of photos of Sean drinking and smoking cigs at a bar in Bondi. There was no context and no details, just images of him that were obviously taken without permission. “I was just thinking, ‘Who the fuck is that bored that they’re out there with a long lens taking photos of me drinking sangria?’” says Keenan. “I just didn’t understand it.”

Sean will be on set filming for The True History of the Kelly Gang until September before heading off to Melbourne to shoot the third season of Glitch. Early next year he’ll be spending some time in LA, then starring in a sailing movie that he can’t say too much about just yet. When I ask if being a celebrity ever trips him out, I get the vibe that although he doesn’t delight in fame itself, he’s accepted it as part of the job. “That’s the world that we live in,” he says. “I think you just learn that there’s a real value to privacy.”

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