‘It helps disguise me’: Bryan Brown on getting recognised, stolen cars and identifying with objects

Bryan Brown is one of Australia’s most storied actors. He was underworld boss Pando in Two Hands, where he faced off against a young Heath Ledger between games of Scrabble. He was Lt Peter Handcock in Breaker Morant; Joe in A Town Like Alice; and King Carney in Baz Luhrmann’s Australia. So does it surprise people to learn that Bryan Brown the movie star is now also Bryan Brown the writer?

“It even surprises me,” Brown says.

Brown’s first book, Sweet Jimmy, was released on 31 August. It’s a collection of short stories that introduce Brown as a new voice in crime fiction.

“I’ve been telling stories for 50 years on film and television,” he says. “This is just another form of storytelling – that’s the way I see it.”

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One of the stories in the collection was first written 40 years ago, originally as a pitch for a movie. But the bulk of the book came together in the past few years after Brown developed a “bug” for writing.

“They’re stories that involve crime. But they’re also stories of suburbia and growing up and how you can step from larrikinism into crime – into something that’s just on the other side of the law, and then go on a downward spiral.

“So it’s given me the chance to go back and remember incidents and people I came across growing up.”

Despite his literary turn, Brown isn’t about to give up acting. When we spoke, he was on day 12 of a two-week hotel quarantine stay in Brisbane, preparing to begin filming a new series once he’s out the other side. Brown has been treating his quarantine stay as a “sociological experiment”.

“From the moment I started I went, ‘Right, Bryan, this is a test. Let’s see how you handle it.’ At different times I ask myself ‘How ya going?’ and I go, ‘I’m going alright.’ My life is just two rooms here and you just start to accept it.”

Routine has helped keep him sane. He does pilates and jogs on a treadmill (“running machine” in Brown’s words) each morning, before getting stuck into scripts and other work. “I think when you’re an actor you learn to be a really good potterer,” he says.

“I think people who have a nine-to-five job may find it very hard. But in my game, you learn way back how to fill in your day.”

In the hotel with Brown is his trusty straw hat, the item he feels incomplete without. Here, he tells us why he takes it whenever he leaves the house, as well as the story of two other important personal belongings.

What I’d save from my house in a fire

These are really difficult questions, but I’ve eventually come down to the fact that I would, very cumbersomely, grab my epoxy 9’1 surfboard and get out with it. I really like riding this board, compared to other boards. I’ve left it at home at times and gone, “I wish I had my bloody epoxy with me.”

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I’ve been a surfer since about 15, I think. I grew up in Panania near Bankstown [in south-western Sydney]. And I used to have to get the first train to Beverly Hills at about 5.20 in the morning and then hitch from Beverly Hills to Cronulla. At that time – we’re talking ’62 – you only wanted to be at the beach. It was too cool. All the music was happening, all the surfing was new, and it was just the best.

And Cronulla was the only beach that the western suburbs kids were allowed to go to; they put a train on for us. Bondi didn’t. Northern Beaches didn’t. So we had to go to Cronulla. There were a few fights there between the surfers and the rockers in those days, but that didn’t matter.

My most useful object

My straw hat. I’ve started to identify with it. When I go out of the house in the morning for a walk, I don’t feel complete if I don’t have it on. But secondly, it’s saving me from skin cancers. And thirdly, it helps disguise me, except when I walk past people who say “I like your hat, Bryan.”

[I do get recognised a lot] – particularly by people over 50. I’ve been around for a long time but a lot of young kids haven’t got a clue, have they. They’ve got their own people that they like.

The item I most regret losing

Well, it was stolen from me, so that’s losing, isn’t it? It was a ’63 Bel Air Chevrolet.

I got it when I came back from England when I was 27; I had it for a couple of years and I loved driving it around. You could put four people in the front seat. And when I went off to shoot Breaker Morant in South Australia, back in the late 70s, I came back and it was gone. Someone had stolen it. And I was very disappointed, because I’d started to identify with that as well. The police found a shell of it, but the motor had been taken out and it had been scrapheaped.

I’m not a big rev head. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever spent more than about five grand on a car. I only drive old cars. And this one cost me $450 back in the day – no, actually, $400, I tossed the bloke for the last $50 and won.

But I do own a 1979 Holden Statesman, which is burgundy red, and they’re really great cars. I have that up the country, where I have a place, and I use it to drive around to the local pubs in the evening for a beer. And it makes a great sound when I press the accelerator: it goes “aourrrrrrrr”. I like that, too.