Jonathan LaPaglia on his starring role in The Slap

The actor discusses his work on the adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas's bestseller

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“Whose side are you on?” asks the promo poster for The Slap, a dramatisation of Christos Tsiolkas’s polarising and critically acclaimed bestseller about the fallout from a Melbourne barbecue where one man strikes the misbehaving child of another couple.

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It’s an incendiary question that gave actor Jonathan LaPaglia, whose conflicted character, Hector, is at the heart of episode one, plenty to wrestle with:

“I understand where Hector’s coming from. I’m going to get completely shot for saying this and labelled as sexist, but I think parenting a child is very different for women than it is for men. A woman carries that child for nine months and they have an innate connection that’s built-in. But for guys, well for me and the buddies I’ve spoken to, we’ve had to learn it. It takes more time.

“Hector hasn’t figured out how to be a good father. He’s incredibly vain and prides himself on being fit and his son is not in good shape. On some level, that’s insulting to him and a metaphorical slap in the face. He knows these thoughts are wrong but they bubble up and he doesn’t handle things very well. But the minute he loses his temper he deeply regrets it.”

Selfishness in society

The opening hour of the drama, which airs tonight on BBC4 at 10pm, revolves around a barbecue that is being held to celebrate Hector’s 40th birthday. As wife Aisha (Sophie Okonedo) readies the food in the kitchen, Hector fights the disappointment he feels about the way his son has turned out, snorts cocaine in the bathroom and toys with the prospect of starting an affair with a teenage babysitter.

“For Hector, it’s all about instant gratification,” observes LaPaglia. “He’s selfish and very much the adolescent.”

What we quickly discover, though, is that Hector is not alone. A narrative trick that the series shares with the novel is that each instalment works as one part of a relay race with a different protagonist continuing the story from his or her own perspective – and it soon turns out that selfishness is infecting the community like a disease.

The Slap may have this “Whose side are you on?” tagline that taps into people’s views on parenting, and our feelings about disciplining the offspring of others in particular, but this is a searing look at all aspects of modern life.

“I was reading the other day what some dopey blogger had written,” says LaPaglia. “And he was dumping on the whole piece, saying that there’s this slap and asking why we should care about it. But he was missing the point. It’s actually a very clever device to explore wider issues.”

The corrosive effects of greed

One of the main topics spotlighted across the eight episodes is the contamination of Australia’s image as “the lucky country” where dreams can be realised. What we’re presented with is a group of people living fairly prosperous but frustrated lives and acting in quite reprehensible ways. For some readers, their enjoyment of the book was marred by the fact that the author gave his creations such dislikeable characteristics. Did LaPaglia experience any similar feelings of revulsion?

“I feel pretty objective about the project. People may have hated these characters, but they couldn’t put the book down. I love the fact that everyone in it is presented in an unapologetic way and, to be honest, I thought they were all fundamentally people who at times ended up doing s****y things to each other. Which is what we do in life.”

There are bound to be those who disagree with this assessment. Underlying the story is a savage commentary about what effects the explosion of wealth during the 1990s has had on this stratum of society. Materialism has bred greed and unkindness, but there is something subtle at work here.

Bad behaviour in The Slap is presented as unforgivable, but on some level, still understandable. Poor decision-making isn’t condoned, but maybe Christos Tsiolkas’s honesty helps us to not feel so alone with our weaknesses?

“Sometimes we fall short of our good intentions,” LaPaglia admits. “I know I’ve done that and I’m not proud of it, but doing this role was like holding a mirror up to myself and that can be very confronting. That’s why it’s divided people. If you’re not ready to look at that stuff then the kneejerk reaction is to recoil from it.”

On-set account

Few will remain unshaken by the slap itself and the slow-burning tension in the lead-up to this startling event is a masterclass in choreography and editing. How was it to shoot?

“There was a lot of concern leading up to it, but everything fell into place on the very first take. The atmosphere was electric and it kind of transcended acting. It was one of those weird magical moments that you rarely achieve on a set and there’s something raw and rough about it. It’s no fun to work on something that’s been sanitised for the masses.”

In offering up such a guttural yell of middle-class rage, The Slap is certainly no easy watch, but its blurred morality will hopefully bring the book’s debate to an even wider audience. The focus may be on suburban Australia but the tensions revealed there are sure to leave viewers here probing their own deep-rooted anxieties.

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The Slap begins tonight at 10pm on BBC4