King of clubs
Last King of the Cross stars Lincoln Younes and Tess Haubrich, writer/director Kieran Darcy-Smith and executive producer Mark Fennessy take DQ back to 1990s Sydney, which serves as the backdrop for this Australian crime drama about the rise of a now-infamous nightclub mogul.
As writer and director Kieran Darcy-Smith notes, anyone who has picked up a newspaper in Sydney since the late 1980s is likely to be aware of John Ibrahim, who rose up from poverty to become the city’s most infamous nightclub mogul.
So when leading Australian film and TV producer Mark Fennessy encountered Ibrahim by chance at a Lady Gaga concert, he knew exactly who he was – and the meeting proved to be the first step towards Ibrahim’s life story being dramatised for the small screen.
The Gaga gig “became the beginning of a unique relationship with a truly fascinating man,” Fennessy (RFDS, Lambs of God) tells DQ. “John then reached out to seek my advice on the structure of his book that he was writing at the time. This turned into a much bigger conversation and ultimately a journey that extended to a four-year process in delivering a major scripted television event.”
The result, Last King of the Cross, is “the ultimate migrant rags-to-riches success story,” set in the heart of Sydney’s Kings Cross district in the 1980s and 1990s, a place that offered everything “from strip joints to restaurants, nightclubs and bars – and had every form of criminality on offer,” Fennessy continues. “As a fictionalised drama, Last King of the Cross embraces the very essence of that world, as well as the characters of The Strip, including the subversive and the fascinating, the criminal and the innocent.”
With the show boasting a diverse cast reflecting the population of those living and working in the area, “it’s not a side of Australia many have seen before,” he adds. “It’s certainly unlike anything I’ve ever produced before, and one could go as far to say it’s unlike anything produced in Australia in terms of story, scale, cast size and budget.”
Produced by Fennessy’s Helium Pictures for Paramount+ and distributed by Cineflix Rights, Last King of the Cross is the story of two brothers, Sam and John Ibrahim, whose rise to power sees them lose each other along the way. In particular, it charts John’s ascent from a poverty-stricken immigrant with no education, money or prospects to one of Australia’s most infamous nightclub moguls.
Fennessy agrees with Darcy-Smith (Wolf Creek) that Ibrahim’s “compelling” story is one likely to be familiar to anyone who has lived in Sydney, if not anywhere in Australia. The series was developed over a four-year period, with Ibrahim on board as an executive producer and consultant. But work only began when Fennessy approached Darcy-Smith to ask if he would read Ibrahim’s then-completed memoir.
Darcy-Smith was immediately struck by this “emotionally complicated and dramatically rich parable of two headstrong immigrant brothers, their rise – both together and separately – and their ultimate rivalry within a jungle empire of their own making,” he says. “It felt both ancient and epic, and therefore universally accessible and relatable.”
That relationship between John (played by Lincoln Younes) and Sam (Claude Jabbour) is at the heart of why Darcy-Smith was keen to join the project, and what is ultimately at the centre of the upcoming 10-part series.
“Brothers tend to turn up as major players in most of my own writing,” he explains. “In this instance, the ‘crime’ backdrop allowed for a very high-stakes environment within which to explore what I found to be a wonderfully complex and complicated male relationship.” He was also interested in Ibrahim’s immigrant story and the journey that took him from one “battlefield” to another.
“Crime, as a genre, is so often like war, in that your characters are more often than not on a war footing,” he says. “Life-and-death stakes – and that’s when you get the best, or worst, out of them. It’s rich soil to play in.”
Ibrahim’s autobiography, which spans 1970s Lebanon to present-day Sydney, is littered with colourful anecdotes, real-life characters and personal experiences on which Darcy-Smith could draw as inspiration for the series. He also spent a lot of time with Ibrahim himself.
“To his credit, he was always extremely transparent with me. Naturally, he was anxious – aside and apart from his own portrayal, we were drawing inspiration from real people, family members and cultural sensitivities,” the series creator says. “We didn’t wish to shy away from the hard stuff but, at the same time, we needed to be aware of the sensibilities of others. Without John being front and centre throughout the writing, this would have been almost impossible.”
Each episode unfolds across a period of roughly 12 months, taking viewers from John’s introduction to Kings Cross in 1987 through to the conclusion of the Royal Commission into police corruption in 1997 and the end of an era in the Sydney nightclub scene. Real and semi-fictionalised characters set up the major plotlines, most notably the “Ibrahim Empire story,” which are largely based on real events, with smaller character-driven threads criss-crossing through the series.
Darcy-Smith wrote the show with Morgan O’Neil, Jane Allen, Alastair Newton Brown, Matt Nable and James Pope, with numerous writers rooms convened to shape the structure of the series and the characters that would populate it. The first room was where the show’s chief antagonist, Ezra Shipman (Tim Roth), was developed. The second writers rooms then led to the emergence of Vietnamese gang leader Tran Cat Tien (Maria Tran) and her Bui Doi foot soldiers who go up against John and Ezra for control of Kings Cross.
“The ongoing exploration brought about the introduction of a Vietnamese Triad sub-strand as well as the fleshing out of some of the political forces at play throughout this particular chapter in time,” Darcy-Smith says. “In the end, we’ve kept it very lively – but always, at its core, the spotlight remains on one particularly volatile period of Kings Cross history and the two elder Ibrahim brothers caught up in the midst of it all.”
Younes, says Fennessy, was born to play the role of John: “He is a great actor of Lebanese heritage, and when he walked in to meet with us, we immediately knew we had found our John Ibrahim.”
On Younes’s part, the actor’s interest in the show was piqued by Ibrahim’s memoir and, having spent time in Kings Cross in his late teens, it was a world he wanted to revisit.
Younes describes his character as “a hustler and a survivor” who understands that if you want to get ahead in life, you need to know the system to change the system. “So he embraces most, trusts few and plays the game better than anyone, and we see this social ascension throughout the series,” the actor observes. “We see his growth from being a poor Lebanese immigrant with nothing to his name to a nightclub mogul with all the money in the world, but a soul more tattered than his scar-ridden body.”
Starring in a series based on real people and real historical moments, Younes (Grand Hotel) focused his preparation on understanding the time period in which the story takes place – “the energy of the time, the business, the joy, the dance of corruption and the divisive art of living by one’s own rule system,” he says. “As an actor, it isn’t always possible to get something exactly right, but if you can capture the essence, the feeling, then you’ve done your job.”
A fan of Roth’s collaborations with filmmaker Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, The Hateful Eight), Younes says his co-star brought a “commanding unpredictability and volatility” to the show, which is complemented further by a cast of “dynamic, engaged and nuanced actors who masterfully helped paint the vibrant, odd canvas that is Kings Cross. A king or queen is nothing without their regiment, and this regiment was of a very high calibre,” he says.
Among them is Tess Haubrich (Wolf Creek) as Detective Elizabeth Doyle, who is brought in to work undercover in Kings Cross. “She is recruited to be a preliminary investigator into police corruption,” Haubrich says. “Once the Royal Commission is passed, she becomes a leading member of this special team designed to rid the Kings Cross force of its endemic and systemic corruption.”
Learning about Doyle after being offered the role, Haubrich says she loved the character’s “strength, femininity, compassion and poise. I had yet to play a detective so I jumped at the opportunity,” she continues. “I was excited by the concept and the character. Liz is a woman operating in a man’s world and I revelled in the opportunity to play a role where a woman is breaking through ceilings and combatting sexism, while doing it with a whopping dose of class. Previously I’d mainly played characters on the other side of the law, so playing a detective was very intriguing for me.”
As well as reading Ibrahim’s book, Haubrich read many articles about being a police officer and a detective, particularly from the perspective of female cops, in the Cross in preparation for the series. She also researched what it was like to live and work in Kings Cross at the time – and leaned on some of her own experiences. “I suppose the only thing different about the prep for this role is that I spent a year partying in the Cross when I was 19 before the lockout laws were introduced, so I definitely had first-hand experience of the debauchery involved,” she laughs.
Away from the writers room, Darcy-Smith also worked alongside fellow directors Grant Brown, Catherine Millar and Ian Watson to bring the series to life. Filming took place during the middle of the pandemic, while the production faced the additional challenge of shooting a period action drama in multiple locations with more than 350 speaking roles.
“Not only was the world in the middle of the continuing pandemic, but we also had spiralling construction costs and, during filming, Sydney was in the middle of a major rain event,” Fennessy says. “We used this to our advantage, with our DOP working with the directors to deliver beautifully framed imagery in cool tones with flashes of colour from the neon of the night.”
Darcy-Smith adds: “Keeping all of the episodes physically turning over with enough pre-production, while keeping up with scripts that are evolving in real time, was a unique challenge – not only for me and the other directors, but for everyone involved.”
In recreating the show’s Kings Cross period setting, Helium was committed to faithfully rebuilding an “infamous world” that Fennessy describes as a “mini-Atlantic City, not quite a mile long, with every form of criminality on offer.” In fact, the sets were built from the ground up in a car park in western Sydney, which gave the production the opportunity to create an expansive world that could be populated with hundreds of extras playing characters ranging from “street walkers and the homeless to bikies [motorcycle club members] and silvertails [wealthy/influential people] on a night out.”
Filming was like “a wonderful fever dream,” says Younes. “Every day – and night – working on that incredible purpose-built Kings Cross set was an exciting experience, and that elevated attention to detail will show onscreen.”
For Haubrich, making the series was “incredible” and was made much easier because “it looked and felt so realistic,” she says. “The cast, crew, directors, producers and creatives involved were excellent to work with. I am sure audiences around the world are going to love watching it. At the end of the day, it’s a story about love and family which is very poignant. This show has something for everyone and I’m so happy I was a part of it.”
Fennessy likens Last King of the Cross to The Sopranos, Gangs of London, Gomorrah, Animal Kingdom and Goodfellas, but says the series is also vastly different from those titles, with its Asian influence being one thing that sets it apart.
“It is an immigrant crime story that is salacious, violent and gripping,” he notes. “Two immigrant Lebanese brothers controlling the decadent, crime-infested but very sexy district of Kings Cross in the heart of Sydney, Australia – a delicious contrast to the usual Australian backdrops of Bondi Beach and the harsh outback. Who would have thought such a world within a world ever existed? This is very much an international story with Sydney purely as the location.”
Younes says Last King of the Cross “strives to be like the world it is portraying… A league of its own, breaking rules, setting trends, betraying traditions and having fun along the way. It portrays a type of criminality that sits very comfortably in the grey, where there are no clear-cut good or bad guys, just a rich tapestry of moral impasses for the audience to lean into and judge for themselves.”
The actor adds: “Every continent has their own version of Kings Cross, so the magic is known, but the secrets are not… until now.”