AS his fingers flex tensely on the harbourside railing, and a ferry
scurries through the glittering waters, Garry McDonald's pliable brow seems
furrowed with worry - is he pondering the seductions of fame and fortune central
to his new role in Emerald City and not without precedent in his own career, or
is it simply a case of opening night jitters?
"The air conditioning is getting to me", he mumbles distractedly pulling
at his collar, grimacing, tugging at the collar again.
"That's what I'm worried about. The throat, you just don't know ..."
McDonald has spent the last few weeks feverishly hurrying from the set of
Mother and Son to the Opera House for rehearsals of The Sydney Theatre Company's
remount production of Emerald City.
After reaping box office platinum for the Sydney Theatre Company in its
first season, Emerald City returns to the Drama Theatre with a partially new
cast, and McDonald in the lead role as Colin (played last time by John Bell), a
successful script writer whose move to Sydney with his wife catapaults him into
a quagmire of mercenary urges, insecurity and a burning lust for a harbour view.
"Colin is tempted one minute and then the next minute he wants to do only
what he thinks of as high art", says McDonald. "Even when he talks about art he
talks about it in terms of glory. He wants to make a film that's beautiful and
truthful and funny. It's an artistic version of money. He wants people running
around and saying 'My God, it made me laugh, it made me cry.' I've been through
that, and that's why I like the play," says the man who rode to fame on the
coat-tails of a cringing haemophiliac, aka Norman Gunston, his most persistent
"It's not a case of what fame and fortune did to Norman Gunston," he
frowns, "it's what it did to me. I also know writers, apart from David, who have
been through the whole thing of saying 'I'm going to produce my own script, I'm
sick of not having it my own way.' These are people who have had huge success
and they're saying things like 'I can't make enough money working for'them',
'they' make me do rewrite after rewrite.' But that's why they have the success."
McDonald's entire career with its bewildering assortment of highs and
lows, seems to roll before his eyeballs - from the heady television triumphs of
Gunston, the years spent plodding the boards and making cameo appearances in
film with the wily spectre of Norman and his blood-stained chin never far from
the public mind, to the recent more mature down-trodden comic invention of the
television series Mother and Son.
"It's a fine balance I guess," he says ambiguously. "I don't ever regret
going commercial, going to a commercial channel", which he did after starting
the Gunston show with the ABC, "but what you start to do is put all your eggs in
one basket. I've got no regrets, but you start to feel that you might just do
that one thing for the rest of your life ... ", he shudders, as if Gunston is
once again walking over his grave. "I still get offers to do it all again. There
are probably tens of thousands of reasons why I should ... I know exactly what
Colin is going through in Emerald City. Even though he sometimes says 'what am I
going to do with my life', if his wife tells him, he doesn't want to listen. He
really wants the money. That's why he became successful."
McDonald might wear his trademark air of defeat rather beautifully, but
this is one comic actor who stays consistently in work. In the last 12 months
his stage credits have included Glengarry Glen Ross, and Floating World for the
Sydney Theatre Company, a long-running stint with the musical Sugar Babies, the
lead in the film Those Dear Departed, not to mention the punishing schedule of
Mother and Son.
"I've done a lot of films that I've been put in because of me name," he
says with a dry stare. "But I don't mind cameo appearances. I prefer them I
think. And insecurity doesn't worry me. I quite like it. I like being out of
work. It's no good if it goes on for months, but it's alright when it only lasts
about four weeks. You unwind a bit."
Meanwhile, without getting a chance to unwind, Emerald City seems set to
be a gratifying experience for Garry McDonald. "We had a full house for the
preview", he says, the mobile folds of his face momentarily lighting up with
wonder. "The first line got a huge laugh. The first line!"