In 2003, Max Cullen and his artist wife, Margarita Georgiadis, walked away from the glitz and glamour of Sydney and moved to a run-down theatre out bush.
Their former city neighbours relished the peace and quiet after living next to what was the 3 am ‘local’ for Cullen and Georgiadis’s actor and artist friends. But ironically, the couple has also settled into the Southern Tablelands village of Gunning without any qualms.
“I love the solitude,” says Cullen. “I left Australia for the first time and went to Ireland in 1980. I didn’t know anyone there and I didn’t speak the language. I was alone for the first time in my life. I would stay in my room, walk, pretend I was Irish and I started writing a lot of poetry. It was a beautiful thing to do.”
Georgiadis, on the other hand, was born and bred in Sydney by her Greek-Egyptian parents.
“Ever since I was six or seven years old, I had fantasies about living in the wilderness,” she says.
Cullen is originally a boy from the bush, being born in Wellington in central NSW in 1940.
“I suppose it stays with you,” he says. “My father and grandfather were drovers from the age of seven. Although by the time my father was seven, he’d had pneumonia five times. My grandmother warned my mother that he had weak lungs.
“The week I was born, my father went to join the armed forces and they discovered he had tuberculosis. He was given about six months to live, but he said, ‘I’m going to keep going until I’ve raised you Jos,’ – he called my siblings and I ‘Jo’. So when I turned 20, he said, ‘This is it.’ They make them tough in the bush.”
The actor is well known for his roles in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), Love My Way (2004) and The Great Gatsby (2013), as well as popular Australian television series’ including Skippy, A Country Practice and McLeod’s Daughters.
He has also performed nationally on stage, most recently touring with Warren Fahey in Dead Men Talking, written by Cullen, about bush poets Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson.
However, acting work somewhat dried up for Cullen when he left Sydney, and even more so since the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When you’re not there, actors talk about you – you’re rubbished,” he says. “Actors always need someone to pick on.”
Georgiadis says it was a big deal for Max to leave the city.
“When we were in Sydney, we went to a lot of functions and when you’re seen, you’re remembered,” she says. “Max was getting gig after gig.”
These days, Cullen mostly paints from a raised platform that overlooks Georgiadis’s studio, the stage and theatre they call home. He studied at Sydney’s National Art School and Julian Ashton Art School prior to acting.
“Now I’m in isolation with COVID-19 [restrictions] I’m churning out paintings and writing what could be a book series on the history of music with musician George Washingmachine, which is pretty exciting,” says Cullen.
He is also rewriting his play on Lennie Lower and plans to perform the final script at the next Gunning Arts Festival, which Georgiadis is the patron of.
Cullen and Georgiadis have transformed the Coronation Theatre in Gunning into The Picture House Gallery and Bookshop, where they sell their work and occasionally the works of others.
They came across the theatre in an advert in The Sydney Morning Herald. The couple was fed up of moving around Sydney. They required a large space for their studios and home in the city, which meant they often moved into warehouses that would eventually be developed into apartments.
“It was such an upheaval every time,” says Georgiadis. “Moving is stressful enough, but having to move a studio is a huge undertaking. I remember saying to Max, ‘I can’t do this anymore.'”
The day they walked through the Coronation Theatre, all Cullen could see was work.
“There were leaks everywhere; it was like a waterfall over there,” he says, pointing to the back wall of their open plan kitchen/living/dining area. “There was rubbish everywhere and the house was all partitioned off.”
The first thing Cullen got rid of was the railing on the stage, installed during the theatre’s days as a cafe. A sofa now sits in the middle of the stage, but during the past 17 years of living there, Cullen has hosted his own plays for lucky locals to view from the 50 seats below.
Nowadays, Cullen likens the theatre to their very own playground. Georgiadis is often busy in the garden out the back while Cullen retreats to his studio.
It’s now hard to imagine the country village without a gallery. The locals have well and truly claimed it and its owners as their own.
“We’d been here a couple of months when I was in the pub and the barmaid said, ‘You were on television last night,'” says Cullen. “I said, ‘It was only a cough and a spit,’ but she said, ‘It doesn’t matter, you’re ours now.'”
Adds Georgiadis: “That’s when we knew we had to stay.”