When you think of the Australian actors that have made it big in international markets, there’s one thing that most seem to have in common: a rare ability to cross between stage and screen, and traverse practically every style within an art form. Hugh Jackman has been everybody from Peter Allen to Wolverine to the sappy rom-com lead Leopold; Toni Collette has done a Broadway musical, Hollywood blockbusters and successful TV series; Cate Blanchett has proven herself a cinematic and theatrical force to be reckoned with.
At home, both Lisa McCune and John Adam, currently appearing in The King and I, have careers that jump rapidly from art form to art form and style to style. McCune is still best known for her role as Maggie Doyle on Blue Heelers, for which she won four Gold Logies as the most popular personality on Australian TV. Although the “golden girl” of Australian TV is the label that sticks, she started her career with a Bachelor in Musical Theatre from the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. She’s alternated between TV and theatre roles since graduating in 1990.
Adam has taken on his first musical theatre role in The King and I (albeit one without any singing), but is an award-winning stage actor and one of the most prolific Australian TV actors of the last two decades, best known for his work on City Homicide.
The pair have now been on the road together since April in Brisbane, Melbourne and now Sydney, and took the time talk to Daily Review, reflecting on their careers.
The famous versatility of Australian actors comes about, largely, due to necessity — the industry is relatively small, and even for actors with a great public profile, it’s essential to adapt to whatever situation is thrown your way to stay in work.
“You think it’d be great to go from feature film to feature film, but then you miss out on so many opportunities,” McCune says. “The actors who do that and then go to Broadway are taking a huge risk — they can get bums on seats, but they’re always putting themselves up to be lampooned if they’re not good. We are lucky, in some ways, that we can do that.
“I think actors who sing bring something really special. It’s like seeing Geoffrey Rush do musical theatre — once you get over the fear of singing, the book is so important in musical theatre and the actors sing because there are no words they can utter anymore. If you have that thought behind it, it’s very powerful.”
Australian performers are also in a fairly unique position in that they can often be doing television and theatre at the same time. Adam recalls a period in 2010 when he was working concurrently on City Homicide and Dead Man’s Cell Phone at Melbourne Theatre Company.
“I was working on TV during the day and going to the theatre every night,” Adam says. “I was running on literally two and a half hours sleep for six weeks. But it’s kind of fun. You get to the end and have a collapse.”
McCune has also done the dual TV shoot and theatre season and says that it takes a special commitment.
“You have a routine and you just stick to it,” she says. “Bert Newton used to do it extraordinarily well. He’d do The Sound of Music every night but was still doing two or three hours of live TV a day. And he thrived on it.”
Both McCune and Adam say that those situations are rare and something most actors would dream of. But there’s always the difficult art of managing competing offers.
“The thing that’s really difficult is juggling the ‘bird in the hand versus two in the bush’ thing,” according to Adam. “You might have one project locked in that’s kind of okay, but something else could be on offer that you like a lot better. Knowing what to sign up to is really tough.
“I tend to make really crap choices — I’ll read something and think that script is no good, and then it becomes a hit.”
The other great challenge is managing the shift between two different modes of working.
“When you’re on stage, you know all the material,” says McCune. “You’re more physically tired, but when you’re doing TV you’re mentally tired because you have to constantly learn lines and changes. But I love going to set at 5am and not leaving until 7pm.”
So then how does TV compare to theatre, when a TV actor is constantly working on new material and theatre actors are locked into their performances during the rehearsal period?
“The only way you can survive a long run like this is when you’re reinventing every night,” Adam says.
McCune agrees, saying that the audience always affects how a performance plays out. “The theatre breathes differently every night, depending on the house. If you have a leader at the beginning of the night, they’ll lead the audience into laughing and relaxing. That’s what’s fabulous about theatre — it’s never the same.”
Adam says: “The thing that amazes me about theatre consistently is how an audience, whether it be 20 or 1800 people, can take on a personality.”
Apart from the work itself, actors are constantly on the move and having to adapt to wherever the work is. But according to McCune, it’s not a unique situation.
“I jump on a plane on a Sunday night and I see heaps of people going to start their working week in another city,” she says. “I just think everybody does it, no matter what profession you’re in, everybody juggles. Particularly if you’ve got children, the balance is hard to achieve in any job.”
But how do they cope living out of suitcases, in hotel rooms? There are a few essential steps for turning a hotel room into a home.
“I just get candles and fresh flowers,” says McCune.
It’s a different process for Adam. “I just take down their artwork and put it behind the couch.”