There are few Australians who don’t love Magda Szubanski. From her role as the delightful Mrs Hogget in the Oscar-winning family film Babe and its sequel Babe: Pig In The City, to her colourful on stage career (Guys & Dolls, Grease), Szubanski’s larger than life sense of humour and ability to throw herself into any role has earned her a strong legion of fans.
So it’s not surprising then, that when she joins British stage siren Laura Michelle Kelly (My Fair Lady, Beauty and the Beast, Les Miserables), an Olivier Award recipient for her role in Sir Cameron Mackintosh’s London production of Mary Poppins, that magic would eventuate.
“I absolutely fell in love with the character when I first read the script,” says Kelly of her reasons for accepting the role of stay-at-home mum Elspeth Dickens.
“I saw myself in her, and I thought, how funny that this is a version of me with all these other qualities I don’t have, like kids.”
While Elspeth’s husband (played by Ronan Keating) agrees to follow his dreams of saving whales, Elspeth is left at home to struggle with the isolation and social pressures of raising her two energetic sons. But, after installing a web cam as a means of communicating with her husband, Elspeth’s life takes an unaccepted turn, when an advertising executive (Magda Szubanski) stumbles upon her talents as a singer.
“We’re dealing with that issue of fame versus family, and the potential to lose valuable relationships because of work,” explains Kelly, “and I think it deals with it in a very honest and sincere way.”
“Goddess asks those tough questions: will you take all the fame you’ve ever wanted, if it meant ditching your family for a while? And then, if you get everything you wanted on a plate – will it fulfill you anyway? Probably not.”
For Magda, Goddess provided just the shake up she had been craving in her career.
“It’s such a different character to anyone I’ve ever played before,” she says. “I’m allowed to hit some dramatic moments, I’ve got a big sing, I can be sexy, bossy, bitchy… I love that. It was nice to step up to an empowered character.”
Based on the 1996 cult hit one-woman show, Sink Songs by Joanna Weinberg, Goddess is directed by Mark Lamprell (My Mother Fran).
“Mark [Lamprell] wrote the character for me, which I didn’t realise until I was doing this press tour,” says Szubanski. “I could really stretch my wings this time… it was great.”
“As Elspeth sings, “Welcome to my kitchen sink. This is where I stop and think. Where I am often on the brink – of madness!” reflects Szubanski, “I think a lot of women relate to that feeling of isolation. They can understand why Elspeth does need more. It’s a guilt thing too – that sense of maternal guilt that so many women feel. Goddess destigmatises this, which is important.
“We’re all finding our way to realise all our gifts while maintaining loyalty to family. Not only for mums with kids, but those of us with elderly parents, for example. And men too – they don’t want to have those distant, remote relationships with their kids anymore, where they die not knowing who they are. But you’ve got to make time for that. Perhaps that’s why a lot of men are taking to this movie too – because they can relate to it.”
Set in Sydney, Goddess portrays the city in a refreshing new light, with stunning scenes set in front of the world-famous harbor.
“I haven’t seen Sydney look so gorgeous on film in a long, long time,” says Szubanski. “A lot of Australian films are set in the suburbs; it’s like we pretend we don’t live in an amazing city. But instead, Goddess is saying ‘this is Sydney’, and that’s a strong point of the film.”
“It’s credible now to say that a character like Cassandra would exist. You can say New York, Paris, London, and now you can add Sydney to that list, because it’s a major player, and so it’s credible that Cassandra would therefore be quite a powerful character.”
An untrained singer with a handful musicals now to her name, Szubanski admits to having found the song aspect of the role challenging at times.
“There was talk of getting someone else to do the vocals. I was like, ‘give me a crack – I think I can do this.’ It’s a big production, and you really want to pull it off.”
But Irish musician Ronan Keating had some encouraging words to offer her in the studio.
“He was just so supportive and encouraging, and made me feel confident. He’s a sweetie – he’s in my good books forever now. And not just because of his hot buns.”
On the subject of what’s to come, the pair is optimistic about working together again.
“Mark and I have already started writing something… which I can’t tell you about,” hints Kelly. “We’re just thinking up how to write Magda in.”
“I think I want to play a cat burglar next,” chimes in Szubanski. “But not a very good one. A cat burglar who’s put on weight and is struggling now. An overweight, ageing cat burglar, who hasn’t made enough money to retire. Actually, that’s a bloody good idea for a film.”
Goddess is in cinemas March 14. Watch the trailer below.