What appealed to you about Noises Off?
There’s so much hilarious stuff that happens backstage that you don’t talk about it the name of professionalism. Sometimes, when you do a show, there is more drama backstage than onstage, so you end up having this joke that ‘we’re selling tickets backstage’. And so to come across a play that is having fun with that elusive world, as an actor, you think, ‘oh, I know this world’. It’s also a great farce and you don’t get to do farces that often – it’s a farce in the style of an English sex comedy from the 70s. You hardly ever get to do such low art in the theatre – there’s something really pleasing about psychical comedy and the silliness of it.
In it, you play the despotic director. How are you preparing for the role?
The director, Lloyd, is kind of a workaholic, going from one job to the next. In some ways, he’s also the straight man – the guy who’s trying to get the show on. As the play starts, it’s less than 24 hours until the show opens, and no one can remember their lines or what to do. So he’s got this nightmare of a production on his hands and he’s trying to keep his cool, but it sort of goes from bad to worse to ridiculous. So he ends up drinking quite a bit. Nothing like real theatre at all.
Are you excited to be working with Jonathan Biggins?
Absolutely. He’s hilarious – very, very funny. He’s a great mimic, and just a funny, smart guy. He’s an absolute joy – I’m loving it.
Earlier this year, you were cast in Tony Kushner’s Angels In America which centres on the AIDS crisis and death. How did you find that experience?
Angels in America is such a huge, significant play. I loved doing Angels – it was such an extraordinary experience. With the show being eight hours long – six intervals and a two-hour meal break in middle of it – is just massive. You start in the afternoon and finish at midnight. The character was an extraordinarily political figure who contracts the Aids virus and eventually dies. So, you know, a lot of drama! I loved doing it though.
I was doing a couple of other jobs same time – I was shooting Home and Away while I was rehearsing Angels and directing and producing an independent production for about five weeks. I had all these jobs converge and I didn’t want to let any of them go, so I just did all of them. And I was so busy, I didn’t have any time to get neurotic and worry about whether I could do the lot, which I realise I do quite often. I came out the other end and went ‘wow, that was a really good experience.’
By the time we opened Angels, I was just exhausted! But the character was dying, so it wasn’t incorrect of me to be exhausted. I had a lot of focus and a lot of drive and a lot of exhaustion to work with, and it worked a treat.
What do you find more challenging – drama or comedy?
It’s a real theory of task to get comedy right because you have to tunnel down and find out why you’re doing these silly things. Sometimes, a comedy can be heavily constructed with gags. But if you’re going to do it well, you want to see real people going through something real. Good comic actors do make for very good serious, dramatic actors. An example would be Robin Williams.
You’ve also starred in several films and television series, including Mulholland Drive, Underbelly and All Saints. Do you have a preference between stage and screen?
No, I don’t. I loved working on Home and Away – I worked on that show for two and a half years. It’s fairly simple dramatically, but quite fun to be working so fast and at the end of the day, it’s not the job, it’s the people you’re working with. I used to just do things for their success value but now I do things for the experience of doing it. Whether it’s a success or not is out of my hands.
Do you miss the reception of a live audience when working on screen?
You find out that you still have an audience when you’re filming, because you’ve got the crew and the other actors you’re working with, so you end up being each other’s audience and you’re feeding back stuff all the time. But it’s not like performing for 500 people, which is a great experience.
Who have been some of the more interesting people you have worked with in the past?
I worked with Maria Aitken in Melbourne a few years ago on THE 39 STEPS. Maria is a wonderful comic actress/director. She plays John Cleece’s wife in A Fish Called Wanda and she’s written a few books on high comedy. She’s like a real authority. Garry McDonald says she’s a genius, and if he says she’s a genius, then she’s a genius!
To work with David Lynch was amazing. I’ve been a real fan of his and he just seemed to be the guy that he’s portrayed as being, you know, he’s not a construction – he is that guy. At the moment, I’m working with Ron Haddrick. I last worked with him on a production of Othello, but I met him when I was 15 and my Dad was doing a play with him in Perth. And now Ron is about to turn 84 – he’s just gorgeous. Fabulous! I treasure working with him.
How do you prepare yourself before appearing on stage?
For each show, it’s a different. I did a production of 12 Angry Men few years ago where I played the good juror. There was something about the honesty of the man that I related to. In that time, men’s hands were very important – people judged a man’s character on their nose and their hands. This particular character kept his cool and worked through all his problems, so I used to rub lavender cream on my hands and it just made me focus on my hands and my honesty, and the smell was very soothing and relaxing. When I did Rocky Horror, I was not in character until I got the stockings and high heels on.
For Angels, I would cough and cough and cough backstage until I was sort of out of control with the coughing and couldn’t breathe properly backstage. It put me in a position where I was really on the back foot physically and really had to get my shit together all the time, getting myself to a point where I was physically compromised. You sort of treat yourself as a science experiment. If it’s a sad portrayal, I’d think of my grandma before I go on.
Is there anyone you’re dying to work with in the future?
Simon Stone. He did the mot beautiful production of Hamlet at the Belvoir recently. God, I’ve seen so many productions of that show but his was stellar – he really got the tragedy. It’s not often that you see a tragedy now and feel this impending doom.
What else do you have coming up in 2014?
I’m still getting over last year! There’s a few things bubbling away. There’s an ABC six-part series called Janet King which I’m in. I think I’ve got another month and half on air with Home and Away. That’ll be enough for the moment – I don’t want to bore people senseless.
Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Noises Off opens at the Sydney Opera House on 17 February and runs until 5 April. Visit the STC’s website to book tickets.