“There are those people who completely fill the world when you’re with them. He was certainly one of those,” George Miller told IndieWire’s Eric Kohn about the late actor Hugh Keays-Byrne hours after his passing. Keays-Byrne, the Australian actor best known for playing the villain characters in two “Mad Max” movies, died December 2 at the age of 73. Miller cast the actor to play the evil Toecutter opposite Mel Gibson in the original 1979 “Mad Max” movie, then cast him again to play the villainous Immortan Joe in the 2015 sequel “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
As Miller told IndieWire, the two collaborators’ paths crossed thanks to Keays-Byrne’s association with the Royal Shakespeare Company. The actor was touring the world as part of the ensemble of Peter Brook’s stage production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and landed in Australia for his final shows. It’s here where Keays-Byrne and several of his co-stars stayed and formed an actors group that would become Toecutter and his biker gang, respectively.
“The ‘Mad Max’ budget was so low we could only afford actors from Melbourne where the film was being shot,” Miller said. “Hugh was from Sydney, and the group of actors he was with were from Sydney. We said, ‘Look, we can’t afford to fly everybody down, and Hugh said, ‘Well, can you send the bikes up and we will ride down?’ We put the bikes on the train and they rode down. It took them two days to ride down from Sydney to Melbourne and during that time they became the Toecutter biker gang.”
Miller called Keays-Byrne “the glue that held the first ‘Mad Max’ movie together,” adding, “At first I found him formidable to the point of being scary because he was so into the role. The truth is he is a warm and sweet person and so embracing of everybody…I learned acting from him, probably more than anybody else that I worked with.”
The original “Mad Max” was released in the United States by American International Pictures, which worried American audiences wouldn’t be able to understand the film’s Australian accents. The studio gave the film an American dub, which for Miller took away some of the power of Keays-Byrne’s performance. From that moment on, Miller made it his mission to work with Keays-Byrne again. One opportunity arrived when Miller cast Keays-Byrne as Martian Manhunter in his “Justice League” movie, but the project fell through in the pre-production stage. Miller also considered using Keays-Byrne as a voice actor in his “Babe” and “Happy Feet” franchises, but the right reunion project wouldn’t arrive until “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
“Out there in the desert, during the arduous shooting, there was no better person to be out there with,” Miller said about working with Keays-Byrne on the “Mad Max” sequel. “He’s very collaborative. The relationship he had with all the actors and stunt crew, who were the War Boys, was very strong. On set, he would always tease them up in a very playful way. All those actors responded to him.”
Why was Keays-Byrne the perfect actor for Immortan Joe? “The eyes! His eyes carry that power,” Miller said. “There’s no other way to describe it. The stature, the demeanor, and the voice. Hugh embodied all that. If he was with you right now, you would feel that natural charisma that he had. People tended to come around to him in some way. To think that presence is no longer available to the world is very sad.”
Miller said Keays-Byrne “never acted grandiose” about Immortan Joe becoming one of the defining movie villains of the 21st century. The actor celebrated his involvement in the “Mad Max” movies by adopting the nickname “ToeJoe,” an amalgamation of Toecutter and Immortan Joe.
“I’ve been told he was really accepting of his mortality and I’m told his last days were full of his usual humor and playfulness,” Miller added about Keays-Byrne’s final days.
While Miller could not disclose any information about his upcoming return to the “Mad Max” universe with his Furiosa prequel film, he did confirm he is already thinking about ways to honor Keays-Byrne in the new film. Furiosa herself, Charlize Theron, posted her on tribute to the late actor on social media, writing, “It’s amazing you were able to play an evil warlord so well cause you were such a kind, beautiful soul. You will be deeply missed my friend.”
Miller is currently in production on “Three Thousand Years of Longing,” starring Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton. The “Fury Road” prequel film will be his next project.
RIP Hugh Keays-Byrne 😔 It’s amazing you were able to play an evil warlord so well cause you were such a kind, beautiful soul. You will be deeply missed my friend. pic.twitter.com/kXDhNs5jEU
— Charlize Theron (@CharlizeAfrica) December 2, 2020
Additional reporting by Eric Kohn.