Blame it on Elvis.
It was the lusty gyrations of The King in Jailhouse Rock that inspired nine-year-old Paul Joseph Mercurio to dance. His mother, Jean, responded with her usual supportive posture and enrolled Paul in a local ballet school.
From there (with a short surfing break) it was on to John Curtin College of the Arts, a scholarship at the West Australian Ballet Company, and finally leaving his home in Perth for the Australian Ballet School in Melbourne.
He was the odd man out in Melbourne. Not completely lonely as he had family there, he nonetheless wasn’t part of the crowd in school. “They have a particular way of being, and I think my idea was broader.” He said of the experience.
His greatest loneliness came with his greatest opportunity thus far: an offer from the prestigious Sydney Dance Company. With no money to visit home for the holidays, alone in a strange city, Paul formed a family of prostitutes and junkies at a café in Darlinghurst–later to serve as the inspiration for his dance Cafe.
Time and hard work later, Paul became something of a star with the SDC, getting plum parts from the troupe’s brilliant director, Graeme Murphy, as well as doing more of his own choreography. He met his wife, Andrea Toy, during these years, and they were married in 1987.
1992 put a most remarkable wrench in the works. Paul was asked to contribute choreography for the debut work of an Australian director, Baz Luhrmann. Baz, an old friend, offered him the lead in the phenomenal Strictly Ballroom (1992). Under Luhrmann’s direction, Paul’s intensity took over the screen and made him an overnight icon of sensuality.
Suddenly, things got busy. Paul was looking over movie offers, choreographing a production of Jesus Christ, Superstar, and most ambitiously, starting his own dance company: the Australian Choreographic Ensemble (ACE). The vision for ACE was to promote Australian choreographers and bring dance to more rural areas. All this, plus juggling a family which now included two young daughters.
On the movie front, Paul did Back of Beyond, a serviceable ghost story that received a lukewarm reception. Afraid of being typecast so early in his film career, he turned down a part in Stephan Elliott’s smash, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994). He then accepted an offer that left him “scared sh**less”: a $30 million dollar venture helmed by Garry Marshall, who had just come from the stunning success of Pretty Woman (1990). Paul would co-star with Dana Delany, ‘Rosie ODonnell’, and Dan Aykroyd. It must have seemed like the perfect opportunity.
Poor plotting and badly mismatched marketing led to a box-office flop. Despite very good performances by the main cast, the failure of Exit to Eden (1994) became a stone around the careers of the two young leads, Mercurio and Delany.
While he did land the title role in the cable movie Joseph, for the most part the movies that followed were low-profile, becoming more so toward the end of the nineties. In 1997, Paul took the first of several television roles, playing a regular character in the series Medivac (1996).
His passion for beer and his work as a Coopers spokesman paid off when they bailed out the ailing ACE when government funding ran dry. Still, after six years and some success, the troupe disbanded in 1998. The inability to shake the Scott Hastings image may have been partly responsible. Eight years later, Australian news still considers it pithy to pun Strictly Ballroom (1992) in the title of every interview.
Recent years have found Paul still busy making locally-produced movies, with the occasional trip to Los Angeles. In addition, he’s spread his talent to once again include the stage–but this time he’s acting, not dancing. He toured with A Passionate Woman at the end of 1999. Opting recently to move to just outside Sydney rather than haul his family to Los Angeles, where he is less typecast, may not have been the career move his fans would have chosen. It is certainly the choice of a man who has his priorities in order. Perhaps the near future will give Paul a chance to open his brewpub and settle down to watch his three daughters grow.
His fans hope not.
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