I arrive at the NIDA cafeteria to find Ian Roberts sitting and sewing together a hood, part of the costume for his upcoming professional debut in The Pitchfork Disney. He greets me warmly, asks me to sit down and wants to know if I would like a coffee -“ all in a thick Irish accent. I comment on this lightly and he apologises -“ he just played an Irish character in the last NIDA production and now slips into it without realising.

Over the duration of the course things suddenly drop in, Roberts says, firing. You have these moments on stage or in rehearsal where you go, fuck, I know exactly what you [meant], all I had to do was let go -¦

Regardless of what choices you make, if you commit to it 100 percent, you cannot get it wrong. I mean that in all sincerity -¦ If you’re committed to that character and those choices, in your head. But once you become hesitant or self-conscious -“ boom.

All you have to start with is words on a page. And you create this whole fucking world, this life -¦ That’s why Shakespeare’s so fantastic. The world, the life you create, he says.

It’s a little surreal to watch, because the dramaspeak is mouthed from the same Ian Roberts I remember from his rugby league fame. There are the same deep tones, the mumbling yet vaguely forceful speech, the same Popeye forearms.

I shouldn’t be surprised, because Ian Roberts the gay footballer looked and acted exactly like Ian Roberts the straight footballer, except gay Ian was spouting gay lines no professional footballer had ever spoken before. Now we have blokey Ian Roberts getting all NIDActic. To use one of Roberts’s favourite words, how the fuck did this happen?

I was approached about seven years ago now by a boy named Dean O’Flaherty to do a script of my life, he says, of the now shelved film Self. I had no intention of acting in it. I was going to do some sort of cameo role. So I took a few courses, this is when I was still in Townsville -¦

And when I came down to Sydney, I was literally walking by here, I had no intention of coming to NIDA, this was like four years ago. And I ducked in to see if there was someone in there -¦ who can point me in the right direction for someone my age.

Roberts met a boy named Kevin Jackson (he calls everyone a boy, despite Jackson being the head of acting and some years Roberts’s senior). They began private lessons, which soon led to auditions at three acting schools. They all accepted him, so he chose NIDA.

Since then his discoveries have been, shall we say, dramatic. Roberts’s boyfriend Andrew moved overseas for 10 months, an event which proved unexpectedly liberating for Roberts -“ as drama student and gay man.

I’m not trying to pretend this is a Mills And Boon story or anything. The first two months were awful -¦ because I didn’t want him to go. I had this perception that it was going to crumble after like 10 months away, blah blah blah, he says.

But after two months of getting used to being without him, that’s the first time in like 12 years that I’d been single, like physically single, you know what I mean, he pauses.

I had a ball, I can’t believe it. I’ve never experienced that -“ I think that’s one of the reasons why I’ve come ahead leaps and bounds here now -¦ I have been so living in a box that I’ve been scared to step out of: the relationship thing. So since he’s been back, yes, we have had some problems. We still love each other deeply -¦ But I’ve found it much more difficult.

He stitches intently through all of this, then stops to sip his coffee.

I don’t really know how my path in life led me here. But I’m not questioning it either -¦ While it might be nice to retire [from sport] for the first 12 months, because you’re away from it, after that you kind of miss it. The whole camaraderie, working with the same people week in and week out -¦ I have been so fortunate to find something that so fills that void -¦

Then comes news of Ian’s other new role. A friend who runs an unofficial Ian Roberts website (www.timbomb.net/ian) told me before the interview that a frequently asked question was whether Ian would ever adopt children. I try it on for size.

I’m actually in the process of being a sperm donor for a lesbian couple, and that’s been happening now for about 12 months, he says. Legal and medical issues have delayed the process somewhat, with Roberts reluctant for me to print any more details. But he urges me to note his recent taste of discrimination.

We approached the IVF clinics [and] did you know they can only help gay men to a certain point? Roberts says. They made it painfully obvious that legislation prohibits them from helping someone, a gay man, donate sperm -¦ It’s the only time in my life I can honestly say I have felt discriminated against. I kind of felt like, I don’t know how to put it into words -“ almost emotionally fucking raped or something -¦ Fucking madness. When I finish here I intend to put my time and energy into it. He’s also writing a play about discrimination, but in comic form.

Ian Roberts as Dad, Activist and Playwright. But Ian Roberts as Actor?

His professional debut may not be the best forum in which to pass judgment. The Pitchfork Disney is a trippy, vaguely violent piece of theatre (a production was staged at the Old Fitzroy Hotel some years ago), although Roberts only has a small role as a Gimp-like character -“ hence the hood. Roberts describes the play as left of centre, homoerotic and homophobic, adding he only has one line.

Of course, he’s just finished two largely unpublicised leading roles in NIDA productions and is soon to star in his first musical -“ the mention of which sees Roberts explode in a mimed fit of slashing his wrists.

Can he act? Ian Roberts thinks so, which at this point is probably the main thing. He doesn’t care whether he works in film, theatre or television, but is considering moving to Los Angeles after completing NIDA at the end of the year.

I’d love to be able to just scratch out a living in this industry. Regardless. I love stage now, I never used to like stage. I hadn’t seen much good stuff and, to be honest, I still haven’t -¦ he says with a grimace. Sport’s only theatre anyway. It’s another form of theatre -¦

Then finally, the hood is set on the table.

Nothing bad has ever happened to me in my life, he says, with an adamant sincerity. I see it like that now. I’m sat before you. All the things that happened before me, every wedding, every marriage, every breakup, every death, every frickin’ party I’ve ever been to, every friend I’ve ever met: it brought me to one place and that’s sat in front of you. That’s as big as it gets.

All those experiences made me -“ I wouldn’t change anything -¦ he adds. I used to think that was a problem, carrying that weight of responsibility for being a role model, blah blah blah. When I had the football thing and the clash of cultures there and the mixing. I don’t carry that any more. It’s taken me a long time to get to this point.

The Pitchfork Disney runs until Saturday 2 August at the Parade Studio, 215 Anzac Parade, Kensington. Bookings may be made on 8230 0115.

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