- Dominic Kellar on his first feature film role, acting and more
The name Dominic Kellar rings more than a bell in Colombo’s theatre and entertainment circuit. Most popularly known for playing the questionably Hon. Chaminda Pusswedilla in Feroze Kamardeen’s incredibly popular political comedy theatre series ‘Pusswedilla,’ Dominic has, over the last two decades, become one of Sri Lanka’s best known English actors and entertainers.
One of Dominic’s most recent acting roles was playing the part of renowned Sri Lankan photographic artist Lionel Wendt in visionary director Asoka Handagama’s new film ‘Alborada,’ a multilingual film that tells the story of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s visit to Sri Lanka in the early 1930s. ‘Alborada’ has been nominated for the Tokyo Grand Prix at the Tokyo International Film Festival.
Brunch caught up with Dominic for a chat on how he got into acting, what his role as Lionel Wendt meant to him, and his key advice to other young actors.
Becoming Dominic Kellar
For Dominic, the best part of being an actor is being able to give people enjoyment – that, and attention. “Even if I’m with a group of friends telling a story, I love to make someone else laugh and feel good,” Dominic shared, apologising for the cliché and saying, “I’ve always had this yearning to make people happy and give them a reason to smile.”
Dominic has been acting since he was five years old, starting off with the Merry-An Singers. Until about 18 though, his forays into acting were quite casual. His first proper acting role was in 2003, in the comedy ‘Charlie’s Aunt,’ where he played not one but two titular characters. (‘Charlie’s Aunt’ tells the story of Charlie who had to dress up and pose as his aunt to gain access to an investment he needed).
Ironically, Dominic first intended to become a doctor – a plan that was derailed because of freak weather (very heavy snowstorms that saw many offices and businesses temporarily close down) in St. Petersburg when he was making his final applications to med school. The snow caused him to miss his deadline.
At about the same time, he was offered an acting role he decided to take and this made him decide to stay on in Sri Lanka. “My family was very supportive,” Dominic said, looking back at his early days. “Lots of families wouldn’t be okay with an 18-year-old kid not doing anything in his life and going into acting and drama, but mine was.”
Looking for part-time work led Dominic to radio (through a friend he’d met in theatre who encouraged him to look into reading news), and this led to a career in radio that would come to form a large part of Dominic’s life.
A few years later, Dominic took on the iconic role of Chaminda Pusswedilla, which Feroze Kamardeen offered him after having seen his previous performances. One of the biggest (and funniest) challenges for Dominic in bringing Puss to life was the Sinhalese dialogue, with scripts needing to be written in Sinhala phonetics for years, and lots of fun anecdotes along the way.
Reflecting on his favourite roles over the years, Dominic told us about a role he played in a short play at a Noir Theatre Festival in 2011. Also directed by Feroze Kamardeen, this role saw Domnic play a circus ringmaster going through several stages of his life over the course of 10 minutes.
“The performance narrated the man’s lifecycle from birth to death and was a very interesting role – probably my personal favourite,” Dominic mused, adding that as one of his most iconic roles, Puss would always hold a special role in his heart among his favourite roles.
Lionel Wendt and ‘Alborada’
Speaking on his newest role in Asoka Handagama’s ‘Alborada,’ Dominic explained that the film tells the story of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s visit to Sri Lanka in the early 1930s, where he joined the elite Colombo circles of the time, striking up a friendship with Lionel Wendt – which is how Dominic, who plays Lionel Wendt, figures in the story.
‘Alborada’ revolves around Neruda’s stay in Sri Lanka and a particular incident he wrote about in his journals where he raped a girl from the Tamil Sakkili clan, his bungalow’s toilet cleaner, and a member of the lowest caste within the Tamil community.
‘Alborada’ covers how Neruda himself views the incident as one of the worst moments of his life, but still completes his contract in Sri Lanka and walks away and on to a distinguished diplomatic and literary career as if nothing happened. Dominic shared that the story ‘Alborada’ in a way sheds light on how far we have come as a society, with such an incident happening today with no accountability being unthinkable.
‘Alborada’ marks Dominic’s first feature film role, and looking back on the experience, some of Dominic’s personal highlights are being able to work with a visionary filmmaker like Handagama, along with the opportunity to portray someone like Lionel Wendt – a prolific Sri Lankan personality, whose name everyone knows, but whose full story is less familiar.
“One of the most challenging things of portraying Lionel Wendt was having to maintain this serious look that Lionel Wendt always had,” Dominic said, “He was someone who never smiled and was a very moody person with a very specific style of speaking, which I tried to maintain.”
Another nuance to Dominic’s performance was the fact that Lionel Wendt – though he never publicly came out – was gay, which gave Dominic the chance to play someone of a different sexual orientation, something he hadn’t been able to do in previous roles.
With ‘Alborada’ being his first feature film role, we asked Dominic how he felt about the difference between the two mediums, with Dominic explaining that film was more of a laid-back experience. “Theatre is all about putting in the long hours, so that you arrive, perform, and then it’s over, while a movie is about taking your time, doing it in different ways, stopping and starting.”
Of the two, Dominic said that he preferred theatre because of the adrenaline rush that came from performing, the reactive nature of theatre, and getting it right that one time you’re on stage. In fact, being in a film role was something of a departure, and despite being offered many roles in film and television previously, he’d never been that interested in pursuing a film or television role until ‘Alborada’ came along.
“It was not something I was looking to do… It was the role, the director, and the film itself. In fact, I said yes to the movie without reading the script – I have a problem with reading scripts and I am notorious for not looking at the script and going off-script,” Dominic shared, adding that not reading the ‘Alborada’ script left him surprised when he had to play a nude scene at one point in the film, something he wasn’t altogether comfortable with but managed to pull off.
“I’m hoping that people will realise that this is a true story and that this is quite a serious issue we’re talking about,” Dominic said, speaking about how he hoped ‘Alborada’ would be received, adding that while the movie delivered a good amount of shock value (like all of Asoka Handagama’s movies), he hoped that people would also see that its merits go beyond shock value and talk about the issues it portrays.
Kellar’s hopes for 2022
With a whole new year just having begun, Dominic told us that this year is one he hoped to use to recover and build upon himself on a personal level. “I’m not young anymore and I have personal goals I want to reach. I hope to work on myself a little bit instead of spending time on theatre and all that, but if there is a great project that comes along, I’m more than glad to get involved.”
With Dominic having gained such renown in the entertainment space, we asked him what he would say to young aspiring actors and entertainers and his key advice was not underestimating the power of hard work. “With becoming good at something, you can do it in two ways – one, you can be born with unbelievable talent, which is very rare; or two, you can work really hard.”
With theatre especially, Dominic counselled experience: “My advice to young thespians is to take any role you get now. Don’t worry about your reputation, or being stereotyped, or typecast. Work with as many different people as you can, and within three or four years, you will have created a persona for yourself that people will recognise. Just put the hours in and do as many different projects as possible. My mother always said that I had a problem in that I couldn’t say no to anyone, but this was a blessing in disguise, because by being open and making mistakes, I learned from them. Always think about making something happen, don’t think ‘ah no, I can’t’; think ‘I’ll give it a try’.”