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The Sydney Morning Herald

From Soap to Celluloid

Author: Michaela Boland
Date: 21/10/2000
Words: 1625
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: Metropolitan
Page: 5
Why young and restless television stars are seeking new careers in film, by Michaela Boland.

Are Ryan Moloney, Kristy Wright, Jason Crews, Damen Stephenson and Robbie McGregor bored with domestic adoration? They are instantly recognisable soap celebrities who share nightly audiences of more than a million Australians, yet for a few weeks last month they gathered in Jervis Bay to work free on a feature film, Enemies Closer, which may never find an audience.

On paper, it just doesn't add up. Are they anticipating the day their soap bubbles will burst, working towards futures beyond the small screen? Are they just dying to get out there and act in whatever vehicle presents itself? Do they think there's a chance of a feature film opening those dreamed-about Hollywood doors, despite the odds? Why, why, why? Why are our soap stars so keen to work on the big screen?

Most of us are likely to have heard at some stage of "Toadie" from Neighbours or "Chloe" from Home and Away. And this, it seems, is a big part of the problem. Soap characters loom larger in the collective conscience than the actors toiling behind them. And those actors don't want to spend their entire lives being recognised for their juvenile efforts.

At 16, Moloney was cast as Jarrod "Toadfish" Rebecchi, a suburban school kid with a mullet. Now 21, Toadie has experienced a few furtive romances, fought with his parents and graduated to university, where he's studying law. Acting in two-and-a-half-hours of telly every week is hard work, but at an age and in an occupation where unemployment is the norm, Moloney's not complaining.

His Neighbours years have paid for a house in suburban Melbourne and he is seen each weeknight by an Australian audience of almost one million, as well as many more internationally. He has another 18 months on his contract and insists he's happy and not about to quit.

So why did he travel to Jervis Bay for a weekend to perform an unpaid cameo as a waiter who "helps build the tension" in Enemies Closer, a production steered by a first-time director, first-time writer and first-time producer, being shot on a tiny budget without any guarantee of a cinema release?

"That role enabled me to branch into a bit more realism instead of the soapy constraints," he says. "It had a bit more edge and there was room to create a character."

Moloney says he believes in the film, a suspense-thriller about a young design student who stays rent-free in a house that appears to be haunted. Moloney loves the fact his character was just a little bit bad. "All characters in Neighbours are soapy-like, clean-cut and nice. Basically, the bad guys come in and they leave."

Wright, now 22, was Chloe in Home and Away for four years before she left at the end of last year. After deciding to pursue film work, features or shorts, she has vowed not to undertake another regular soap role. Playing the lead in Enemies Closer is her feature debut and, fingers crossed, her crossover project.

But who will see it? Even a solidly performing local feature such as Chopper was seen by only half a million people in cinemas. The Wog Boy, a very mainstream feature, was seen by just over one million. Six of the 25 feature films entered in this year's AFI awards will probably never enjoy a cinema release. Conversely, each episode of Home and Away reaches a domestic audience of 1.5 million, and millions more worldwide.

Wright says that while she hopes Enemies Closer will perform well in cinemas, ultimately she doesn't care how many people see it. What she wants is peer respect: "I'd rather have a great actor congratulate me on my work than win a popularity award."

So is pursuing unpaid jobs at the expense of paid work in television just about credibility? Wright says no, that's a common misconception. It's really about space, the room to create. She praises the Home and Away cast and crew, arguing that it takes greater skill to deliver two-and-half-hours of soap each week than an hour of a teleseries or a couple of minutes of film.

She concedes that film actors are perceived as "better", but says that's because they can afford to be. They enjoy the luxury of rehearsals, for a start. Soap actors learn their lines, memorise their cues, find their light, hit their marks and deliver. Wright says she is pursuing film because now that she has experienced the disciplines of soap she wants the luxury of being allowed to act.

But will she find that she can? Senior scriptwriter David Hannam (Stingers, Something in the Air, Pacific Drive) says soap producers recognise their own production constraints and overcome them by casting young actors essentially as themselves. "Then scripts are written around the personalities," he explains. The actors then mature into their twenties, only to discover the opportunities for character development shrinking.

Soaps have little need for twenty- and thirtysomething characters. Their two key audiences are young kids and older people. The oldies identify with the Harolds, Madges, Cookies and Ailsas, while the kids relate to the kids, their problems at school and their relationship stories. Pretty much everyone in between is watching another channel.

But if the twenty-through-forties group doesn't watch soap, it most definitely goes to the movies. The actors know it and so does the film industry. And while Hannam thinks soap actors are clever to explore other acting options early, he says their big-screen quest can be put down to a single name. "You can sum up the phenomenon in two words," he says, "Guy Pearce."

Pearce appeared on both Neighbours (1986-90) and Home and Away (1991-92) before his role in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Dessert launched him onto the world stage. LA Confidential secured his future. Pearce works in movies around the globe, has earned critical respect and is a "name actor". He is in a position to select his roles and (more or less) name his price. If he can do it, the young soapsters might be thinking, why can't I? Agent Mark Morrissey says the lesson to be learned is that young actors should get local film experience before heading to Hollywood.

Former Home and Away star and TV Week honey Melissa George left Australia to try her luck in LA four years ago and is still waiting for a significant TV or film role. Ditto Kimberly Davies, whose biggest gig this year was 30 seconds screen time as a restaurant maitre d' in Madonna's The Next Best Thing. "It's much easier to go over there promoting an Australian film. Go there cold and it's a very intimidating environment," Morrissey says. But why are actors so keen to make movies? Actors, he says, want to make films because audience members pay money for tickets, whereas TV is essentially free, so the perceived value of an actor's work is lower.

Profile clearly also matters. In film, the actor becomes the star. In soap, the character becomes the star. Pia Miranda reached a bigger audience during her Neighbours stint as Karen in 1998 than through her lead role in Looking for Alibrandi. But Roadshow's marketing campaign ensured Miranda is now a name to watch out for.

Casting agent Maura Fay admires soap actors for their bravery, "putting it out there", but says there is a lingering doubt in the film marketplace about them. For those who make the transition, the rewards can be bountiful but, despite all the ambition in the world, "a lot of people don't cross over [because they] don't have the ability to actually act".

Release of Enemies Closer is planned for next year.

As seen on TV

Jason Donovan

Was Scott in Neighbours. Film: Blood Oath (1990), Rough Diamonds (1994), The Sun, The Moon And The Stars (1996), Diana And Me (1997), Sorted (unreleased)

Kylie Minogue

Was Charlene in Neighbours. Film: The Delinquents (1989), Street Fighter (1994), Bio-Dome (1996), Misfit (1996), Cut (2000), Moulin Rouge (unreleased).

Alex Dimitriades

Was Nick in Heartbreak High. Film: Head On (1998), Subterano (unreleased).

Heath Ledger

Was Snowy in Sweat. Film: Blackrock (1997), Paws (1997), Ten Things I Hate About You (1999), Two Hands (1999), The Patriot (2000), Four Feathers (unreleased), A Knight's Tale (unreleased).

Melissa George

Was Angel in Home & Away. Film: Dark City (1998), The Limey (1999), Bring It On (2000), New Port South (unreleased), Sugar & Spice (unreleased), Mulholland Drive (unreleased).

Melissa Thomas

Was Rebecca in E Street. Film: Dallas Doll (1994), Thank God He Met Lizzie (1997).

Rose Byrne

Was Belinda in Echo Point. Film: Two Hands (1999), My Mother Frank (2000), The Goddess of 1967 (2000), Star Wars: Episode II (unreleased).

Matt Doran

Was Damian in Home & Away. Film: Lillian's Story (1995), The Thin Red Line (1998), The Matrix (1999), Star Wars: Episode II (unreleased)



Born November 24, 1978

Where Melbourne

Other TV appearances Round The Twist and the Bob Morrison Show



Born July 14, 1978

Where Sydney

Other TV appearances Above The Law, The Adventures Of Chuck Finn, Police Rescue

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