Hugo on cloud nine

SHANNON HARVEY

So far, life has been pretty kind to budding actor Hugo Johnstone-Burt.

He grew up on Sydney's North Shore. He spent a year travelling the world after high school. And a week before he graduated from NIDA in 2009, he was approached by the producers of Cloudstreet to play the brain damaged Fish Lamb.

It's a role most young actors would kill for, and a great way to start a career in showbiz. Things have fallen neatly into place for the 23-year-old with blue eyes and sandy hair and the filmmakers obviously saw something special in his future.

"I freaked out," he said of learning he had been asked to audition for Cloudstreet.

"Tim Winton's book is such an iconic, quintessential Aussie story that everyone knows. I studied it in high school English and drama and I loved it. I went home and read the book again. I tried to grab the essence of Fish again, as Tim wrote him. It was something I wanted to have extremely badly."

Two auditions later and Johnstone-Burt, who until then only had small roles in Sea Patrol, Rake and Underbelly: The Golden Mile, was going from graduation to working on one of Australia's most-anticipated series. He prepared by visiting a home for people with an intellectual disability before spending four months shooting in WA with Stephen Curry, Kerry Fox, Essie Davis and WA actress Emma Booth.

The friendly and professional Sydneysider struck up a friendship with actor Todd Lasance, who plays his older brother Quick in Cloudstreet. While the series is largely faithful to Winton's book, Johnstone-Burt wanted to put his own spin on the lovable yet troubled Fish, and was careful not to mimic the likes of Forrest Gump or Rainman.

"Fish is such an awesome character to play. He's got moments of joy and happiness and huge despair and darkness, and that's a dream job for any actor. But I also think it's important to put my own spin on things. I had a pretty strong idea in my head of who Fish was and how I wanted to play him. I tried to use some of the gestures and nuances Tim describes in the book, but I also did my own stuff."

Those nuances include subtle looks and glances and one or two ticks. His portrayal was inspired mostly by Leonardo DiCaprio's performance as boy in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, which earned the then 20-year-old an early Oscar nomination.

Since Cloudstreet, Johnstone-Burt's star has continued to rise. He's shot the Australian feature Careless Love and is currently filming the musical drama Goddess with the likes of Magda Szubanski and Ronan Keating. In January, he hit Hollywood for pilot season, where he did "hundreds of auditions" for upcoming TV shows and took a shot at the new X-Men, Spider-Man and Pirates of the Caribbean films.

It was announced yesterday he had been cast in the new ABC1 13-part drama series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, which starts production in Melbourne next month.

Cloudstreet airs Sunday at 6.30pm on Foxtel's Showcase channel.