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The Age

Street of DREAMS

Author: Melinda Houston
Date: 27/04/2006
Words: 4325
Source: AGE
          Publication: The Age
Section: The Melbourne Magazine
Page: 34
If you're a young actor looking for regular work in Melbourne, chances are you'll end up auditioning for Neighbours. Natalie Bassingthwaighte did and now, three years later, she's leaving in search of bigger things. Some, such as Kylie, Delta and Guy Pearce, make it, but most Ramsay Street graduates don't. Melinda Houston reports.

There's a strip of gaffer tape on the floor - the mark from which you must not move. A blank blue wall. A video camera on a tripod. One door leads to reception. The other to the office of one of the most powerful women in Australian television: Jan Russ, casting director for Neighbours.

This is the room where Kylie first fluffed her lines; where Jason, Craig and Guy performed a nervous read-through; where Delta towered and Kimberley Davies flaunted her assets. And where thousands of nobodies arrive in the hope they'll turn out just like them.

Today, one of Russ's many tasks is to cast a young girl. A tall, slender brunette with large dark eyes and large white teeth strides into the room. "Have you done one of these before?" asks Russ kindly. "A million," says the girl, rolling her eyes. She's, like, 15 years old. The kid has been acting, singing and dancing since the age of two. The character she's auditioning for is blind, and - despite her wealth of experience - she can't quite nail it.

In due course she leaves, to make way for Young Girl Number Two, the identical twin of Young Girl Number One. Their mum is waiting outside the door, with two even younger girls, also with shiny dark hair, shiny dark eyes, shiny white teeth. They're busy colouring-in, until mum instructs them brightly to "turn around and say hello to Jan!"

When it's over and Young Girl Number Two has run through her own startling work history, she adds excitedly, "I would so love to get this part. I have two goals I want to reach before my 16th birthday. I want a steady television job. And a recording contract."

"You sing?" Russ asks faintly.

"We both sing," she chirrups. "And play an instrument. We're in the accelerated music program at school."

And yes, they write their own material.

Jan Russ has been casting Neighbours since day one. Even given the extraordinary number of actors who have passed through Ramsay Street in the past 20 years (almost 13,000, including extras), she has an incredible record of spotting talent. People may sneer at Neighbours. But it's the soap that's launched a thousand careers, and that's something every aspiring young actor is keenly aware of.

What's less front-of-mind is that a stint on Neighbours can be as much a curse as a blessing. For a young actor life on Neighbours is a relentless grind of line-learning, rehearsals, publicity gigs, high-pressure shooting schedules, into which you must weave your school work and - if there's a couple of minutes left over - some kind of life of your own. Life post-Neighbours can be even bleaker. The successful ones take years (in Kylie's case, the best part of a decade) to shake off their on-screen character. The unlucky or less determined - which is to say, about 90 per cent - simply sink into the poverty and obscurity typical of the acting profession. Kylie, Guy, Jason may have become household names. But who remembers the Blakeney twins? Or David Clencie? Sarah Vandenbergh? Jansen Spencer?

Nevertheless, Russ is constantly inundated by hot new talent, agents, managers and parents. She looks at the tapes, pics and bios people send in. She also regularly visits drama schools and amateur theatre, keeping an eye out for strong young actors who might not have a publicity machine behind them. Ordinarily she'll audition for a specific part. But occasionally she'll be so impressed she'll approach the script producers and suggest they consider writing a role for a specific actor (as she did most recently with Daniel MacPherson, spotted by his agent competing in a triathlon).

One of the not-so-secret secrets of the longevity of Neighbours is its ability to continue to recruit new generations of viewers, which it does quite consciously by introducing new, young characters with whom a fresh lot of 14-year-old viewers can identify. The series always has a handful of teens and preteens in the cast, which makes Russ's job challenging: for every set of Bobbsey Twins she sees, prepared to the tips of their natural-look manicures, she'll see a dozen kids with little or no experience or training.

"It's really difficult if they have absolutely no training whatsoever," Russ says. "It makes it very difficult for the other actors. And the new kid is very intimidated." She chiefly looks for a reasonable degree of intelligence (apart from anything else, they need to be able to quickly learn lines and absorb instruction); good instincts, and passion for the job. "A little bit of understanding of what's involved is good," Russ says. "But they still have one hell of a long way to go."

In a bit of spare floor space in the main studio, some of the cast's under-25s have paired off to play an energetic game of word association. Dog-cat, water-rain, pin-needle. You know the kind of thing. "Work!" cries one young fellow. "Script!" responds his partner instinctively.

It's the Monday afternoon drama class, something in which all the younger actors participate. For an hour or so a week they're encouraged to forget the script and explore their craft, maybe through improvisation, fencing, juggling.

The classes are the initiative of Peter Dodds, the producer of Neighbours. A middle-aged guy in chunky eyewear, red trainers and a loud shirt, he has the weary, relaxed attitude of someone who's seen it all, wants to see more, but is unlikely to be surprised when he does see it. Like everyone involved in the series, from the cameramen and "boomies" to the directors and the cast, he balances pragmatism about the show (it's a soap, OK?) with real seriousness (it's a bloody good, bloody successful soap, and he wants it to stay that way).

"The fact that Neighbours is a serial is neither here nor there," Dodds says. "What you're looking for, what the audience is looking for even if they don't articulate it, is truthfulness. All good drama is based on that. And the great enemy of a show like Neighbours, precisely because we have to do so much drama in a week, is cliche."

And that's particularly a trap for young, inexperienced actors who are still struggling to learn all their lines, let alone investigate the subtext.

"Our first responsibility is to say, 'Can this young person handle the amount of material?'," Dodds says. "But we have to make sure they're learning on the job as well, they're being trained as they act."

Dodds also mentors the kids, making sure they understand their core responsibility: to take a character, convincingly, through the absurd highs and lows a melodrama throws up. "So for a young actor, you say, 'Read the whole episode. Place where your character is going in relation to the other characters in the scene and where you've been.' It comes back to Stanislavski (the originator of "method" acting) - finding an overall purpose for the character."

But that's much easier said than done, particularly if - as is the case in a long-running soap - the overall purpose of the character is constantly evolving. "Soap acting is different, just because of the script," says actor Jonathon Dutton. "Good drama to me is real, it reflects real life. And soaps don't reflect real life. That's just the nature of them." From 1998 to 2002, Dutton played Wayne "Tad" Reeves, joining the series as a 16-year-old, a year 10 schoolkid, and popping out the other end aged 19-and-a-half, much older, and much wiser.

"There is the great advantage of just doing it every day. If you were diligent and did spend time on it, you couldn't help but improve," he says. "On the other hand, you're always dealing with a very small part of acting, because you're always the one character, in the one show, and that show's a soap. So I spent the first 18 months after Neighbours reminding myself there were other ways to approach a role."

Dutton says the danger of the high-volume repetitive nature of the work is that it's easy to reinforce bad habits. And it's fast. A feature film might produce one minute, five at the outside, of useable footage in a day's filming. Neighbours must produce 25. There is no margin for error. "The directors need to get things done quickly. They don't have the time to draw a genuine performance from a young or an inexperienced actor. So you end up pulling faces. Everyone's compromised doing that."

Unlike the old days, when kids of all ages could be stuffed up chimneys or poked down coal mines with impunity, now there are child labour laws. Primary teacher Rosemary Cullinan was part of a recent working party that tweaked Victoria's code of practice. For the past six years she's also been Neighbours' on-set tutor and general child-wrangler. At the moment her charges include a very little baby; three-year old Ingo Dammer-Smith (Oscar Scully), the child of one of the technical crew who has been with the show since he was a couple of weeks old; and four high school students.

Cullinan says the rules governing "actors" under 12 weeks of age are - understandably - very strict. There must be a midwife or a nurse on set at all times as well as a parent, and anyone under three years of age can only work for four hours at a time, and no more than three days a week. But once you're eight years old you can, if you wish, work eight hours a day, five days a week. "But then you have to also provide education for them," Cullinan says. "And part of my job is to liaise with the school."

Just outside the green room and the main studio is a demountable "school room" which, along with a cot and change table, holds two desks, a computer, and a tattered sofa. It's here, during the sometimes interminable breaks between rehearsals or filming, the younger actors attempt to get some school work done. The powers at Grundy very much prefer their young actors to stay at school; most parents do too (although some, usually deluded, think Neighbours will be their kid's lifelong career passport); the kids themselves tend to accept it as a necessary evil.

Sianoa Smit-McPhee (Bree Timmins), the daughter of actor Andy McPhee, started acting and dancing at two years of age, and joined the Neighbours cast about 18 months ago, when she was 13. Matthew Werkmeister (Zeke Kinski), has done dancing and amateur theatre, got an agent at 12, and scored a role with the soap last year, when he was 13.

Both kids are now 14 and in year 9, and admit juggling school and work is a struggle. "Some of the teachers don't understand," says Matt. "If you're here from six (that's 6am) till four, and they say, why didn't you do your homework between four and seven, and you say, well I was learning my lines or eating dinner, that's a bit hard."

After some initial good-natured teasing (such as loudly singing the Neighbours' theme when they were around) their friends back at school have settled down. Having to be adult at work (focused, disciplined) then switch back to being a kid at school is kind of weird. Having strangers call out your character name in the street or ask for your autograph is also weird. But being a Neighbours kid has its upsides.

"Going to the Logies and meeting my favourite people," says Sianoa. "Yeah, meeting new people," says Matt. "And going down to the beach and good-looking ladies coming up and introducing themselves!"

"It can be hard but I think it does have benefits for them," Cullinan says. "A work ethic. It helps them to deal with people of many different ages. It gives them self-confidence. You can really see a big improvement in their reading and their comprehension. It certainly can set them up for life, a sound basis financially. It is a funny life though."

They call it, often fondly, the Factory. (Although Natalie Imbruglia reputedly called it, less fondly, the Meat Factory.)

Constructed in the 1970s along Brutalist lines, it's a sprawling complex in the wilds of suburbia. They used to film Prisoner here but the feel is more of an abandoned hospital. The heavy duty linoleum, the asylum-green walls still reeking from decades of chain-smoking. Adding to the effect is various cast members shuffling round in their dressing gowns. Hundreds of tonnes of lighting, cameras and other gadgetry requires arctic temperatures, particularly in the studios. Ugh boots and chenille are de rigueur.

Every week, everyone involved in Neighbours receives The Schedule, a multi-coloured document the size of a rural phone directory. This details what every crew and cast member will be doing for every minute of every day for the next five days. Typically, days will begin between 7am and 8am, and finish between 7pm and 8pm, for 48 - sometimes 49 - weeks of the year. The actors get it relatively easy: no character will be in every scene. The directors and the crew, though, will be on all day, every day, typically in four week cycles. Their mission? To produce five episodes, two-and-a-half hours, of addictive melodrama, week in, week out.

"It's very much a factory," says script producer Luke Devenish. "The challenge is to keep it feeling like it's lively and new," he says. "Renewing the cast is important. It's always time for someone to go." Often characters choose to go. In other cases, it's a matter of looking at a character when the actor's contract comes up for review and deciding whether they can milk that particular Ramsay Street resident any more, or whether it's time for a house fire/plane crash/trip to Queensland. All the cast, with varying degrees of conviction, admit they're expendable. They also can't help but be aware that unemployment for actors hovers around the 98 per cent mark. But there are trade-offs.

While they're there, they have an enviable profile. Neighbours provides them with an identifiable brand. They're making much more money than they would in theatre, or in the odd guest role or TV commercial. (An actor in a serial can expect to earn more than $1,700 a week; if you're under 16 it's 50 per cent of that, still a tidy sum for a schoolchild.)

Ask any of them who they'd most like to emulate, and they'll all produce the same answer: Guy Pearce. Most, however, seem unaware that Guy spent the best part of a decade in the wilderness before LA Confidential, and even after that made a string of duds before redeeming himself with Memento and The Proposition.

Sixteen-year-old Eliza Taylor-Cotter (Janae Timmins) started acting when she was 10, has had one stint in Neighbours and is now back for another bite. She's full of fire - to the point where you can't help fearing for her.

"I really can't imagine doing anything else," she says, clasping her hands fervently. "I'm so passionate about it, I just love it. And if I'm in between jobs I'm just desperate to get back on set. I really want to do film, maybe a bit of stage. I want to do some really serious acting. Like Guy Pearce. I can't wait!"

Twenty-one-year-old Damien Bodie (Dylan Timmins), has the same kind of inexhaustible enthusiasm, but his ambitions are a little more tempered. After more than 10 years in the business he has not, as yet, been out of work. But he knows it's only a matter of time. "If there is no work you can better yourself at other things. If you're not working that doesn't mean you can't be productive. Learn an instrument, do some writing, short films. I've always assumed each job will be the last. And that's what I'll do again."

Still, he can't help but be aware of those lustrous stars who have made their own way, whether that's Kylie Minogue or Alan Dale. "What's exciting about being young and being part of this show is never knowing where it might take you," Bodie says. "You'd certainly love to have something close to what they have. They've built themselves respect. Like Guy Pearce. It'd be great to be like Guy."

It's no wonder the kids have stars in their eyes. While a quantity of talent churns through the Factory without making a splash, there are still the glittering successes. People such as Delta and Dan MacPherson, whom many of these kids worked with. And now Natalie Bassingthwaighte, who is in the process of shedding Izzy Hoyland and reinventing herself as a recording star, as frontwoman with Rogue Traders.

Bassingthwaighte herself is uneasy about the inevitable comparisons. She'd been working in musical theatre (in Rent and Chicago, among other things) when she got the call to say she'd scored an audition for Neighbours.

"I said to my manager, no way," she says. "I'd made the decision I'd done my last theatre show for a while, I wanted to concentrate on singing and I wanted to give film a go. We were all a little bit over the soapie star-turned singer. I didn't want to be that." But her manager sat her down and gave her a good talking-to. "I was fearful that people would judge me. But I realised it was something I was interested in doing if I could stop worrying about what people might think."

Within a week she'd auditioned, scored the role, and moved from Sydney to Melbourne. That was three years ago.

The experience has been important for her, both in terms of developing a work ethic and gaining a thorough understanding of the process. She had only the scantiest idea what a DOP (director of photography) was, what an AD (assistant director) did, what multi-cam meant. "And it's taught me to be a bit more open-minded," she laughs. "I might have been one of those people who judged it but now I feel so honoured to be working beside the Jackie Woodburnes and the Alan Fletchers."

Now she's 30, she's had her turn, and she's itching to get back on stage full-time. LA is on the agenda. "I'm ready to do the next thing. Whatever that might be. And I've played such a bitch, you do get categorised. So even if I wanted to stay and didn't have other things to do that would be a big question mark. Because I want other acting jobs, I want to play other characters. And it's really hard to change that."

Even now, Rogue Traders audiences chant "Iz-zy! Iz-zy!". "But I would never bag this job in a million years. It's been one of the best decisions I've ever made." And if there was one ex-Neighbour whose career she'd like to emulate? "Maybe Guy. Because he's gone into the acting world that I so want to be a part of, and chosen roles that aren't about the fame and fortune, that are about characters. So, definitely Guy."

"If you have the passion for acting, or music, or presenting, I think you can really make something of it," says Blair McDonough. "Nat Bassingthwaighte is a good example of that - she's developed this dual personality, she'll go places. But Ryan Moloney is Toadie. That's it. And I think that's going to make it tough for him when he leaves."

McDonough played Stuart Parker between 2001 and 2005, coming from Big Brother. He had it particularly tough - if there's one thing worse than a soapie star-turned singer, it's a reality TV guy who reckons he can act. He weathered that particular storm, but now he's facing a new challenge: life after Neighbours. "It was a real apprenticeship. But now I'm on my own," McDonough says. "I worked pretty steadily through December and January, and I haven't worked since. The last two months have been tough. I haven't been to uni. I haven't got much to back me up. You feel very vulnerable. It is a reality check. Now you're just another out-of-work actor."

"It's difficult," says Jackie Woodburne, who, after a long career in theatre both here and in the UK, has played Susan Kennedy (and, since an onscreen marriage, Susan Kinski) for 12 years. "You don't want to crush that desire, that belief that they can be the next Guy or Kylie. We all should believe our lives are going to get bigger and better. But it has to be couched in some reality so they're not devastated if things don't turn out the way they hope."

Some of the kids she's worked with have "been on a mission", she says. Like Delta. Others have shown promise in different ways. "The ones I enjoy in a more rewarding way are the actors like Andrew Bibby, Jonathon Dutton, actors who have come in with a clear idea of what their job is," Woodburne says. "And they've gone on to do things that are not as glamorous but have made them better actors. They're the backbone of our industry."

Jesse Spencer, who played her son, and is now living it up in LA as part of the cast of House, MD, "always had the goods", Woodburne says. But there are others, unnamed, who also had the goods and ended up nowhere. "The life of an actor, the extremes are - extreme!" she says. "You have periods that are so bleak. Your confidence is shattered. A lot of us spend great periods wondering what the hell we're doing."

"As an actor in Melbourne there is fuck all," says Stefan Dennis bluntly. Dennis joined Neighbours as Paul Robinson for "episode one, scene one, take one", as he says, back in 1985. In 1992 he left to seek his fortune. "And did what everybody does. Go overseas."

First stop was LA, where he was, he says, "a cocky bastard". It is perhaps another trap for the unwary. Neighbours can convince you you're Someone. You are accustomed to success - an unnatural state for an actor. ("You could put a cabbage on Neighbours and it'd become famous," says Mark Raffety, who played Darcy Tyler from 2000 to 2003. "Two weeks later the cabbage would be on the cover of TV Week. The kids, especially, don't understand that the fame isn't about them, it's the medium.")

"I was cocky rather than enthusiastic," Stefan Dennis says. "I'd just come from a really good, well-paying job and at the end of the year I was going to another one. Not that I regret it, but I can look back now and see I played it the wrong way."

LA failed to recognise his greatness. So he moved on to the UK where he had work lined up and where he stayed for 12 years, working in West End and regional theatre, in production, and in television. At the end of 2004 he returned to Melbourne, wanting to raise his son in Australia. "When I came back, Ric [executive producer Ric Pellizzeri] and Peter [Dodds] asked me if I'd like to come back. And my first reaction was, no."

He was aware that most people in Australia had no idea what he'd been up to for the past decade. He worried that people would think he'd fallen into oblivion, then decided to return to the only thing he was capable of - playing Paul Robinson on Neighbours. "And then I thought, surely I've reached an age when I shouldn't give a rat's arse what people think. I can feed my kids and educate them and have fun at the same time." As his mate Alan Dale reminded him, you're only an actor if you're acting.

Producer Peter Dodds is aware of the assumption that Neighbours discovers stars, and those stars go on to shine in the firmament beyond the show. "But the reality is we have many dozens of actors who come through this show, yearly, who will simply pass through. We are not," he says firmly, "a star maker." Kids, you have been warned. (m)


Annie Jones

Then: geeky "Plain Jane Superbrain" Harris had a makeover for the high-school dance, and Mike Young (Guy Pearce) fell for her (1986-1989).

Now: continues to act; voiceovers for Target, Bunnings and L'Oreal.

Kimberley Davies

Then: Annalise Hartman, who was left at the altar by her fiancee, who became a priest (1993-1996).

Now: had a guest spot on Friends, lives in Sydney, is auditioning and has two children.

Rachel Friend

Then: nanny Bronwyn Davies married Henry Ramsay (Craig McLachlan) (1988-1990).

Now: hosting lifestyle TV show with husband Stuart McGill; was married to Craig McLachlan in real life.

Emma Harrison

Then: aerobics instructor Joanna Hartman, who married her businessman client (1995-1997).

Now: lives in LA. Upcoming role in feature film. Had a small role in Ally McBeal. Posed for Playboy.

Melissa Bell

Then: fell down a well, got a brain tumor and worked as a go-go dancer as Lucy Robinson (1991-1993, 1995).

Now: appeared on reality show Celebrity Overhaul. Has three children, two of whom act.

Gayle and Gillian Blakeney

Then: Caroline and Christina Alessi moved to Ramsay Street under the witness protection program (1990-1992).

Now: after brief career as pop and panto stars in UK, dropped off radar in LA.

Holly Valance

Then: Flick Scully fell in love with her sister's fiance and caused the wedding to be cancelled (1999-2002).

Now: still acting; has a part in upcoming National Lampoon comedy Pledge This!

Brooke Satchwell

Then: high-principled student Anne Wilkinson was caught skinny-dipping (1996-2000).

Now: Play School presenter, appeared in telemovie Small Claims: White Wedding with Claudia Karvan.

Craig McLachlan

Then: mullet-wearing larrikin and ex-criminal Henry Mitchell (1987-1989). Won gold Logie in 1990.

Now: actor and singer auditioning for television roles in Los Angeles.

Daniel MacPherson

Then: personal trainer and triathlon competitor Joel Samuels, who almost drowned while trapped under a ute in a river (1998-2002).

Now: host of 2005's The X Factor; had a regular role on The Bill.

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