Straight bat or pure spin? The truth about bringing Warnie to life

By Karl Quinn

Alex Williams stars as Shane Warne in the two-part biopic miniseries Warnie.Credit: Nine

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Alex Williams was just a nipper when Shane Warne burst onto the scene, but he remembers well the impression made on him by the spin bowler with dyed blonde hair, diamond-stud earring, and the nickname Hollywood.

“Test cricket was the sound of summer for us, it was always on in the background,” Williams says. “The prevailing memory I have is someone yelling, ‘Warnie’s on’, and everyone would just run into the room and watch his overs because you knew something was going to happen.”

Now, the 32-year-old Perth-born actor will be hoping for a similar response when the two-part Channel Nine biopic Warnie, in which he plays the lead, goes to air.

Shane Warne (Alex Williams) with Simone Callahan (Marny Kennedy) in happier times.Credit: Nine

Warne made his Test debut in 1991, the year Williams was born. But he really burst on the scene in 1993, when he bowled Mike Gatting out with the so-called “ball of the century”, which turned from well outside leg to topple the England captain’s stumps. He took his 700th Test wicket in 2006, retired from the game in 2013, and died of a heart attack in Thailand in March 2022, aged just 52. Along the way there were scrapes and scandals galore, as well as an awful lot of cricket.

Across two brisk episodes, Warnie covers a good chunk of that event-packed life, including some of the on-field triumphs, the off-field struggles, and the tabloid headlines. It’s a lot to fit in.

“The first episode flips all over the place time wise and drama wise, it’s really fast and engaging,” says Williams, whose first major screen role was playing a teenage Julian Assange in Robert Connolly’s telemovie Underground (he’s since played a bunch more real-life characters, including Kirk Pengilly in INXS: Never Tear Us Apart). “The second is a lot more emotional and reflective.”

Williams plays Warne across a span of 25 years and credits the hair, make-up and costume teams with “creating six different looks that would define each little part of the show”. Do you have names for the eras, like “Black Rock bogan” or “sexting scandal period”, perhaps?

“There’s early-mullet, mid-mullet, late-mullet,” he jokes. “You can sort of date the different eras by the earrings and the Oakleys.”

Growing up, Williams was only conscious of Warne the cricketer. But to play him, he needed to find Warne the man, too.

“As an actor you’re always going into something like this, playing a real person, looking for truth, and trying to portray someone as a three-dimensional character,” he says. “You don’t want to come in and just be the man that’s out in front of everyone on TV playing cricket.

“For me, it was searching for that depth, and playing someone who was maybe stuck between two worlds, two versions of himself, and trying to figure out which man he wanted to be.”

To prep, Williams watched endless highlights of Warne in action, as well as footage from his many interviews and media appearances across the decades. “I’ve watched and read so much to vocally try and emulate him,” the actor says. Over the years, he adds, “his voice does change, and his attitude, and his ability in front of the camera – his confidence changes.”

Was that wealth of material a gift, or did it sometimes feel a bit too much?

“It’s intimidating,” he says. “I would lock onto something he does vocally or physically in one clip, and then I would notice he’s not doing it anymore 10 years later, or five years later, or his accent is broader or less broad or he’s hitting a vowel a certain way, and then he’s not doing that later. So I did find it a little oppressive.”

The hairstyle, earrings and sunglasses were all key to Warne’s evolving look, says Williams.Credit: Nine

The story touches on some of Warne’s greatest misses, as well as his many hits. There’s the betting scandal, with the allegation he may have accepted a bribe in return for team information. There’s the substance abuse charge (which he attributed to taking a diet pill offered to him by his mum, because he wanted to look good for the cameras). There’s the shoulder injury and the slow return to form. And while it stops well short of the end in Thailand, the recurring sex scandals, as well as the high-profile and often comical affair with Liz Hurley (played by Shanti Kali), do loom large.

It’s little wonder, perhaps, that news of the series was greeted with dismay by Warne’s children, Brooke, Jackson and Summer, when it first broke just months after his death.

“Do any of you have any respect for Dad or his family,” Brooke posted on Instagram last September, after Nine announced the show in its upfronts presentation. “You are beyond disrespectful.”

But relations between the network and the Warne camp seem to have calmed down a little since then. In December, Brooke confirmed the family had met the show’s producers. “We had a meeting with them and, you know, what’s done is done,” she said. “So we’ll see what happens when it comes out.”

Nine claimed then that the family had “offered their support for the series”, and said it was “looking forward to collaborating with the family as production continues”. More recently, the network is understood to have offered a private screening to the family (an offer they are understood not to have accepted).

In response to questions for this story, Warne’s former manager James Erskine, speaking for the family, said: “Nine has kept everyone informed via me and have honoured their word to date. Like everything, there will be different opinions, and it’s a drama not a historical documentary. I hope it is as good as the KP [Kerry Packer] one.”

Shanti Kali plays Elizabeth Hurley, the English actress and model to whom Warne was briefly engaged. Credit: Nine

The discussions with the family did not, however, extend to Warne’s former wife, Simone Callahan, who is played in the series by Marny Kennedy as long-suffering and close to saintly in her support for her husband, until his philandering and deceitfulness become too much to bear. Callahan did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

For Williams, it is the flaws that make Warne so relatable, and are key to understanding his ongoing appeal to so many Australians.

In 2012, Williams played another high-profile Australian, Julian Assange, in Robert Connolly’s telemovie Underground, about the Wikileaks founder’s years as a teenage hacker. Credit: Joe Armao

“I loved him as a cricketer before doing this show, but I like to think I have a deeper understanding of him as a man now, the duality that was his life, and the struggle of that,” he says.

And nowhere was that more evident than in Warne’s depression over the end of his marriage during the 2005 Ashes series – in which he took 40 wickets and scored 249 runs.

“He was having the best series of his life on the field, in one of the greatest series of all time, and then he would cry himself to sleep and stay up drinking vodka all night,” says Williams.

(Spin) king of all he surveyed: Alex Williams as Shane Warne.Credit: John Tsiavis/Nine

“The duality of being told you’re the best, while on field being heckled the whole time about his personal life, of feeling like the greatest spin bowler – if not bowler – of all time in the day, and then experiencing the worst feelings imaginable at night. You know, you’ve got to respect him.”

And having spent so much time with him, how would he describe the man?

“I think he meant well, he was kind, and he enjoyed life,” he says. “I’d probably go with that.”

Warnie is on Nine on Sunday, June 25 at 7pm and Monday, June 26at 7.30pm. Nine is the owner of this masthead.

Contact the author at [email protected], follow him on Facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on Twitter @karlkwin, and read more of his work here.

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