Article from "Soap Opera Digest"--Aug. 8, 2000
by: Jennifer Lenhart
We Americans tend to have a fairly warped sense of all things Australian. Take, for instance, the headline of this story: It's a play on the slogan for a line of haircare products---made by a family from Connecticut. Misnomers like this and other strictly stateside inventions like the Outback Steakhouse (based in Florida) confound AS THE WORLD TURN's Paul Leyden, who does exude the laid-back charm and endearing self-confidence we often associate with his countrymen, but doesn't quite understand some of the other romanticized notions people have of his homeland. Like the ATWT crew members who, on his first day, asked if he'd ever stuck his head in a crocodile's mouth ("We don't really have crocs roaming the city streets," he told them), or the guy who asked, in all seriousness, if he just rode around on his kangaroo when his car broke down. "He thought we used kangaroos as modes of transport! And I said, 'Of course. And it's great because you never lose your keys---you just tuck them in the pouch,'" laughs Leyden, trying to figure out how people got the wrong idea. "Everyone straight away thinks of the outback. They think of a guy in beige shorts and a tan shirt wearing a hat with corks hanging around it, sitting with his pot of tea on the fire looking up at the stars with a kangaroo on his shoulder," he quips. "The outback is a big and a great part of Australia, but we have a population of 17 million people, and I don't know the figure, but I would say 16 million of them live on the coasts, in big, cosmopolitan cities."
It was in one of those cities----Melbourne, on Australia's Southeastern coast---that Leyden, the self-described "black sheep" of a close-knit, rather rambunctious family, was raised. His grades were good enough to major in accounting and earn him an economics degree at a university, "which is really weird, because I'm bad with money," he grins. "But all the career advisers at school were saying, 'Go into a profession,' and I had no idea what I wanted to do. It wasn't until I worked in a big firm, Price Waterhouse, for two-and-a-half years that I realized I would probably hang myself by my tie on the toilet door if I hung around any longer because I just couldn't stand it." To keep sane, he started writing screenplays at work and doing short films with friends in his spare time. "Then I just sort of woke up one day and said, 'I know what I want to do,'" he recalls. "So I walked into the partner's office with a piece of paper. He looked at it and said, 'Is that what I think it is?' I said, 'Yeah.' He goes, 'Thank God, because we really like having you around, but we can't afford to pay you to do nothing anymore!"
He'd given up the steady paycheck, but his parents (Mum's a teacher; Dad's a lawyer who runs a trucking company) were behind him all the way. "My parents have always trusted any decision that we've made because they know that we'll make the most out of it," he says. "Mum was a ballet dancer when she was younger and a really terrific artist. She was so happy that someone in the family would be on the more creative side. And Dad was great. He just said, 'Do you think you're doing the right thing?' I said, 'Maybe not. But I'll never know unless I find out.'"
For a while, he tried finding out on his own, but after realizing that all the good roles in Australia were going to graduates of the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), he auditioned there. Out of roughly 3,000 applicants, only 23 aspiring actors are chosen to join the program each year, and Leyden was one of them. "I got in, and three years later I came out the other end, which I never thought I would," he says. "It's like being chewed up and spat out. It's very intense." When his three years were up, Leyden performed the Tom Cruise role in a scene from Jerry Maguire in front of "400 of the heaviest industry people in Australia," and even Star Wars author George Lucas and his producers, for the school's Agents' Day. "It's so daunting getting up and knowing that the last thing you'll ever be remembered for is that three minutes in front of this audience," he says. "And you see all the agents and the casting people writing notes as you're acting. It's like, 'Stop! What are you writing?'"
Nothing but good things, apparently, because Leyden had his pick of top agents after graduation. He'd already nabbed a role in a miniseries called TRIBE, which he shot a week after leaving NIDA. "It was pretty schlocky, but it was what it was," he shrugs. Next came a short stint on the Australian soap HOME AND AWAY, which he got without even having to audition, but he turned down the long-term contract they offered. Instead, he played "an outer space commando" on the sci-fi series FARSCAPE, and did commercials while constantly auditioning for roles in film and American TV movies.
But it's not easy being an actor in OZ, even if you're a native. "I was up for a lot of the main roles, and at the last minute, they would find a B-grade American actor," sighs Leyden. "It's a very frustrating place to be, because you can get so close, and yet be still so far. So when this [ATWT role] came up, it was like, "Well here's an opportunity at least to work consistently---in New York---and get out of that insular industry in Sydney.'" He was on his third callback for a new FRIENDS-style drama series set in Melbourne, but he sent a tape to ATWT anyway. A few weeks later, they called to fly him in for an audition. "That's when all the decisions had to be made because all the contracts had to be worked out before I left," he points out. "I had to speak to my friends and the big casting directors that I knew in Sydney. And they just said straight up, 'You're mad if you're even thinking about not trying to go for it.'"
He did, and took his first step ever on to American soil upon arrival in New York. "Just coming across into Manhattan when you see the lights, it was surreal," he recalls. "And it was winter, so seeing the steam coming out the subways, and all those things you see in movies, it was bizarre." He thought he'd "completely bombed" the screen test with Martha Byrne (Lily/Rose), but took advantage of the free trip anyway and went for a night on the town with the other three Australian actors who'd been flown in to test. "By the end of the night, we were all a bit saucy, laying bets about who would get it," recounts the actor. He ended up losing a chunk of money---back home in Sydney, his agent told him he had the job.
"I was floored because it was so unexpected," he recalls. "That's when the whole issue with girlfriends come up and you call your family and everything kind of goes into overdrive," The only hurdle left was his visa, which wouldn't be issued until Leyden was approved by the U.S. actor's unions. "I had to have my bags packed for about a week and a half, because as soon as the visa came through to the Australian consulate, I had to be on the next flight out of Sydney. So for two weeks, it was nuts," he marvels. It all worked out, of course, and soon he was saying good-bye to his family ("they were happy to get me out of the country," he jokes), as well as his girlfriend. "You can have all the pipe dreams in the world to say, 'Yeah, we can make this work,' but reality kicks in pretty quickly," he says. "It's more painful knowing you can't see this person and you're still going out with them than breaking up." Then, after one last rowdy night with his mates, he moved 10,000 miles from home, and began playing out his three-year contract the next morning with 40 pages of dialogue.
Even aside from the heavy workload, there's no doubt the States have been an adjustment. Byrne's friendship and support have helped, and he's having fun with Simon's storyline, but he still gets homesick. "What's funny is when I was in Australia and saw someone like Russell Crowe interviewed, I heard that really broad accent, and kind of cringed a little bit," he admits. "You go, 'Ugh, do we really sound like that?' And then when you get here and you see him interviewed, you're like, 'Go get 'em'" And these days, he doesn't even mind a minor misconception or two, like when Crowe peppers his speech with stereotypical slang. "He tucks in every Australian cliche he can, which I think is fantastic," Leyden chuckles.