Daniel Monks is an actor and an award-winning filmmaker and is one of the youngest living artists ever to have two short films selected for the Palm Springs International Short Film Festival. At just 22 years old, his shorts Charlotte and Wild Imaginings were selected for 18 film festivals. Unsure what inclusive dance was, he recently stepped into the Bangarra Dance Studio in Sydney to attend the Catalyst Dance Masterclass Series and it was here he revisited his childhood love of dancing.
At age 11 Daniel acquired mobility impairment as a result of complications from a biopsy on a spinal cord tumour. In September 2013 he attended the Catalyst project where he worked with Sue Healey, Dean Walsh and Philip Channells who was the creative director of Second Skin. Daniel was in holidaying in New York City at the time of this interview and Philip caught up with him in between his hectic schedule.
Can you tell me a little bit about you, where you grew up and your family history?
I grew up in Perth, Western Australia and was always a very performative child. My mother was an actress and I did a lot of acting as a child (including as a foetus when she performed pregnant in her one-woman show aptly titled, “From Here to Maternity”). I was extremely flamboyant and outgoing, making my class put on musicals (where I obviously played the male lead) in years 2 & 3 (Peter Pan & Alice in Wonderland, respectively) and did jazz, tap, ballet & liturgical dance classes. My father is an electronic engineer, and I have a lawyer older brother & a medical student younger sister – so in terms of passions, I’m very much my mother’s son. I used to spend hours upon hours on my own, with the stereo blasting, just dancing – free & fully self expressed – and put on many dance shows, including Spice Girls in Year 4, for the younger years (where I ecstatically played Ginger). That was very much me as a child.
Can you tell me more about your teen idol, Ginger Spice?
I was obsessed with her, along with all the other Spice Girls. I’m not sure why it was specifically her – probably because of her cleave, and the Union Jack dress, and she seemed the spunkiest. I owned all their videos, merchandise, etc – in year 3, my birthday party was Spice Girls themed. I used to draw them – I used to want to be them – these powerful, feisty, sexy, funny women.
How would you describe yourself now as an adult?
When I became disabled at 11, I promptly suppressed that flamboyant child – not only because I felt like becoming disabled made me now lesser & so I didn’t have the same freedom to be myself, but also because I was discovering my burgeoning homosexuality at the time. My teenage years was spent playing a repressed, straight version of myself – and it was only in my early twenties that I started to rediscover & embrace that flamboyant inner child that I had left behind & was previously ashamed of. I started to claim every part of myself, which is an ongoing process. For example, I also abandoned my acting & performing at 11, and it was only two years ago that I decided, fuck it, I love it so much, I’m just gonna go for it despite my fears of what people would think. And now I’m here, pursuing my dancing, which I never even imagined would be remotely possible – and claiming another part of that child. So I would describe myself as that flamboyant, free-spirited child, but because of the struggles & pain I’ve been through, with more depth & compassion. Hopefully. Haha.
Can you tell me a little bit about your experience as an Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) student? Was it difficult to get into and were you well liked by your peers?
I’d wanted to go there ever since I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker at 14. I was starting a BA in Perth before I got in because they only had post-graduate courses, but then they fortuitously offered their first undergrad Foundation Diploma, so I applied & luckily got in & made the move. I loved it, especially that first year – it was incredible to be surrounded with so many passionate peers & teachers; it in turn fed your passion. I think I was well liked – at that age & in high school, I very much had a need to be, and so did everything to be so – I was Head Boy in high school as a result. I’m now coming to more of a place of letting go of needing to be liked by everyone, and trying to focus on liking myself first & foremost – but it’s all a process. Life is a process.
Can you tell me about your accident? Is it still too painful for you to talk about?
Not at all. At age 11, they discovered a large tumour in my spinal cord, filling 90% of my spinal cord cavity. From the biopsy, there were severe complications, and I was left originally quadriplegic, but then over three months in hospital, my left side gradually came back, my right leg partially, and my right arm very minimally. Six months after that initial biopsy, we went to Sydney where my tumour was removed by Charlie Teo, who saved my life.
Is Charlie aware you’ve become an award winning filmmaker?
Yes, I send him all my films.
You were recently asked by a director to hide your disability in a screen test. What happened there?
I was cast in a short film, based on samples of my screen acting work. Upon meeting the director, he hadn’t realised I had a disability – and spent about half an hour trying to wrap his head around how he could make the film work with the character having a disability – saying things like “but would someone break up with a disabled person?” and “but I pictured him yawning with two arms” – before finally deciding we could make it work by hiding my disability with long sleeves and shooting it in a way that you don’t see my right side. The story was that of a guy dealing with a breakup, and there was no reason why the character couldn’t have a disability – and after this meeting, I decided to pull out of the film. It was quite a shocking wake up call for me about the ignorance when it comes to disability, and the insidious discrimination of disabled people. Unlike blatant discrimination of gay people, with things such as “God Hates Fags” – no one would ever dare say they hated disabled people, but instead would invalidate them & view them as less capable & having less to offer – which is also hugely damaging, and even more troubling in some respects, because people do it without even realising. I know personally how damaging this can be because I viewed myself in exactly this way for many, many years after becoming disabled. Huge positives came out of this experience though, and it has inspired & empowered me more to tell disabled stories, and break down these misconceptions. It’s the same philosophy as my personal hero, Harvey Milk: “they only need to know one of us”. They need to know us in our beautiful, powerful, messy, flawed, human glory. I know if I had seen real disabled people on screen or on stage growing up, telling their stories, it would’ve inspired me beyond belief. And in turn, it inspires me now to think that I might be able to make a difference to even one person’s life just by doing what I love, openly & fully, and without shame.
Yeah, it’s awesome!
You’d not considered taking up dancing again after your accident until very recently and certainly not thought about it as a career choice. What was it like being involved in Catalyst and working with some of Australia’s most respected dance artists?
Life changing. Even just being involved in the disabled art community in such an incredible, intimate way helped to further break down my misconceptions about disability & open me up even further. It was a hugely emotional & cathartic experience for me. And discovering through the work that the way I move isn’t lesser than the ideal, it’s simply a different way of moving – and is unique & beautiful & worthy in itself – allowed me to trust & embrace my body even more.
Daniel wrote this poem for the Second Skin project in Sydney.
Under my skin I live.My skin may distort, may break, may fracture, may rot, may deform – but my soul will forever be unblemished.With every tear, my soul only grows; deeper, wider, richer.No matter what happens to my skin, I remain strong, true & free.I am limitless.
What’s important to you as an artist and where do you see yourself being in 5 or 10 years from now?
I think what’s most important to me with my art & what I always strive for is that my art is a generous act – that I give myself wholly to it in the hope it will help, heal or inspire others. This comes from how much art has personally saved me, and wanting to be a part of that, in whatever way I can. And because of that, integrity & truth are also really important to me – I want integrity in my art & choices and not be swayed by fear, and I find dishonesty in art can be really damaging. I hope to be living in NYC, splitting my time between performing as an actor & dancer, and making films – as a screenwriter, director & actor. But at the end of the day, as long as I’m making work I’m proud of, and working with people who inspire me, I’m happy.
If you could change just one thing about your life, what would it be?
That I’m not in love & still haven’t met him.
Daniel Monks is a graduate of the Australian Film and Television & Radio School (AFTRS) and PAC Screen Workshops, which culminated in him winning the award for Consistent Excellence. Two of his previous short films, Wild Imaginings and Charlotte were both selected for Palm Springs International ShortFest 2011, making him one of only three filmmakers worldwide to receive that honour. These two films went on to further festival success screening at 21 more film festivals around the world, with Charlotte winning the Celluloid Casserole award for Best Short Film at the 2012 Melbourne Queer Film Festival. His new short film, “Dear Life” just recently had its World Premiere at Palm Springs International ShortFest 2012, which was Daniel’s third at the festival in two years. Whilst screening in the ‘My Queer Career’ Competition at the Sydney Mardi Gras Film Festival 2013, Daniel received a Special Mention for the Emerging Talent Award.
Daniel has completed numerous directing attachments and writing internships with some of Australia’s leading filmmakers, including Cate Shortland, Tony Ayres, Roger Hodgman & Belinda Chayko. Daniel has trained as an actor in NYC & Sydney under Elizabeth Kemp, who is the Associate Artistic Director of the Actor’s Studio in NYC alongside Ellen Burstyn, and Lynette Sheldon. He has acted in Griffin Theatre Company’s 24 Hour Play Project, as well as in numerous short films, and is scheduled to play the lead in his upcoming independent feature film, directed by Stevie Cruz-Martin & himself.
Daniel recently began his dance journey with the Catalyst Dance Masterclass Series, an initiative of Accessible Arts, working with choreographers Philip Channells, Sue Healey & Dean Walsh, which culminated in the dance performance at Bangarra Studio, Second Skin. In 2014, he is scheduled to be mentored by Philip Channells, Australia’s leading Integrated Dance Choreographer, having the opportunity to work with him in various projects throughout the year.
Photo: Stevie Cruz-Martin