Christen O'Leary: On acting, mentoring and La Boite's production of Blackrock
Barney Lewis | On 19, Jul 2017
The Creative Issue had the pleasure of speaking with Christen O’Leary in the lead up to the La Boite & QUT Creative Industries production of Nick Enright’s,Â Blackrock.
Christen O’Leary is one of Queensland’s most celebrated performers having carved out a successful career on the stage and screen. Success however, was not immediateÂ for the diminutive actress. It took Christen four years to be cast in a Queensland Theatre CompanyÂ (QTC)Â production and even then she was typecast in every maid’s role for what seemed an eternity.
As Christen herself puts it, she was not “cardboard cut-out pretty” and struggled to obtain roles outside of quirky or character roles. It took her a while to grow into her niche however her differences soon became her strengths, but it took a while to deliver. At the time it seemed that all theÂ main roles were going to the tall, attractive actors.
The Creative Issue delved into casting, acting,Â mentoring and the upcoming production ofÂ La Boite’s,Â Blackrock.
The Creative Issue: Do the pretty blonde girls still get most of the parts, or has it evolved and changed with time?
Christen Oâ€™Leary: I think weâ€™re in an interesting wave in the industry now, particularly, theatre companies particularly and slowly, slowly, I have to say, â€œslowlyâ€, and television producers are realising that diversity is not only what is whatâ€™s required, but I can feel a wave, thereâ€™s a political shift in artistic directors now where they understand, they are more interested in looking at a diverse picture.
TCI: Does that come from Artistic Directors coming through (the system)?
CO:Â Some of it comes from a, an upheaval, a cultural upheaval where people go, this isnâ€™t good enough anymore, itâ€™s not good enough anymore that there arenâ€™t enough roles for women, itâ€™s not good enough anymore that there arenâ€™t enough roles for indigenous actors, actors of minority, Asian actors, for disabled actors, it isnâ€™t good enough anymore that there arenâ€™t stories being told for the myriad of human experiences that we have in this country and I think leaders, artistic leaders who are worth their salt know they canâ€™t ignore it anymore. Having said that, I think it is very interesting that when I walked in on first day here, now I donâ€™t know the whole of the third years (QUT), I only know eight of them who are in our show, and I think there might be as many of them doing another show, but I was amazed at how white bread and beautiful they were. And I thought, well isnâ€™t that interesting, the irony was when I went through uni there was much more diversity in acting courses. People were fat, people were tall, people were skinny, people were black, people were Asian, people were unusual and you had your beautiful ones, so I think whatâ€™s going to be interesting for new generation of straight white men or straight white women, pretty white women, pretty white men, theyâ€™re going to really have to carve a niche for themselves that is unique and incredibly strong because just being â€œthatâ€ is not necessarily going to be enough for them anymore. I always think it never is really, because pretty people are a dime a dozen, you know, I think there will be a point where you realise there are a lot of people who can be pretty, a lot of us arenâ€™t, but weâ€™re so used to looking at beauty on a screen, that itâ€™s just another year, another beautiful face and it might be a new so and so, but I think now people are more interested, I can feel a shift in companies where they are interested in creating a diverse culture in the theatrical landscape. And itâ€™s about time. And I suppose if you talk to indigenous actors or Asian actors or disabled actors or artists, not just actors Iâ€™m sure they would say that the movement is incredibly slow. Itâ€™s like turning the titanic around in the ocean, but I think leaders know they arenâ€™t going to get away with it anymore. That itâ€™s not interesting anymore.
TCI: What is it like working with the third year students as a professional, and as a seasoned professional? What was their (the students) initial reaction to you and the other professionals when you all first met, what is the dynamic like now (day three of week four into rehearsals) and do you as professionals in these circumstances feel a sense that you have to mentor or share knowledge?
CO:Â Fascinating. Really great question. Well, the thing that amazed me, itâ€™s very interesting because the professionals are outnumbered in the room, now that already puts a dynamic in the room, the eight have come through nearly three years of uni together, so theyâ€™re a little cohort that understand each other and they have a level of subconscious or a subliminal relationship that theyâ€™re familiar with that weâ€™re not familiar with and that we are slowly learning. I think for instance if there were eight of us (professionals) and three students they may be very different in their behaviour or their manner or their sense of confidence. I think because of that, I was overwhelmed with how confident young people are. Because when I was young, I had a certain amount of confidence but when I got my first gig and I walked into my first gig out of uni, and these guys are still at uni, when I stepped out into my first gig in a cast full of professional actors it was like, I thought I was king of the world until I faced professional actors and I thought â€œOh my God, I donâ€™t know anythingâ€. So Iâ€™m amazed at how confident and brave they are. I donâ€™t know how they felt because to me I didnâ€™t get any sense that any of them were going, â€œOh my Godâ€¦â€, whatâ€™s interesting about, I do take the, when you talk about mentoring, nobody has asked me to be that but I did take this job very, I take every job seriously, sometimes a bit too seriously, but I did take this particular job seriously for that point of view because I think we learn on the job and whether people know it or not they, they see how you behave in a room, they see how you behave with a director, they see how you behave with a work, how you approach the work and whether they know it or not, everything we do, me versus Amy versus Joss, and we all apply very different processes and weâ€™re all very different people, but all of that somehow goes in. Iâ€™m very careful, Iâ€™m very, I have very strong opinions about work in every show Iâ€™m in, but also I was trained in and came up through a type of discipline where there was a hierarchy in a room, where the director was the person who, it was the directorâ€™s vision that we are serving, the playwrightâ€™s and the directorâ€™s, and as Iâ€™ve got older and Iâ€™ve got more mature in the industry and I can feel a respect in the industry, people will often defer to me or ask me my opinion so that line, my opinion is asked for more often than it may have been 20 years ago in the room, but I was very mindful in this room, of, thereâ€™s a big â€˜no noâ€™ with actors and young actors tend to do it a lot with each other or people do it to young actors, where they direct each other or people think they can tell them what to do, and Iâ€™m very careful never to give any actor any note, or I might think what theyâ€™re doing is completely wrong, but thatâ€™s not my place to say that, and I would never do it. Having said that, if somebody just today came and said, â€˜Iâ€™m having trouble or something, could you give me your opinionâ€™ and I went to Todd the director and I said, â€œthis personâ€™s asked me this and I said I donâ€™t want to step on any toes but, would you be alright if I spoke to herâ€ and itâ€™s interesting because in this environment he is asking me to kind of, he is asking my opinion a lot more than he might in another room. If it was a room full of 12 professionals I donâ€™t think he would, heâ€™s asking me to sometimes look at scenes or help people out a bit or asking my opinion about things in another environment he may not do that as much. But I have always made a point of never going to an actor and going, â€œyou know what I reckon you should do?â€ If somebody came to me, if a professional came to me and said, â€˜what do you reckon about this?â€™ Iâ€™d go, â€œoh for what itâ€™s worth I reckon thisâ€, but Iâ€™d never proffer it. I feel like itâ€™s not my place.
TCI: I was speaking with a young actor who is working in Melbourne and has only been in a couple of shows however he was saying when he first began heâ€™d observe in the work room but a lot of the learning went on outside of hours over a coffee or a drink. Does that take place with you guys in this environment?
CO: Yes it can. And sometimes you get to talk to the director outside the room and because Iâ€™m imagining for the director he or she, is, he is steering a ship and heâ€™s got a lot of personalities and a lot of creatives to balance, um, you do discuss the work a lot, and you can think about, I think about peopleâ€™s positions in the show and Iâ€™m not even in their role, their dilemmas, their character dilemmas, so yeah you do, you do outside the room there is a lot of discussion, sometimes yes over a drink over a coffee or whatever, people doing homework themselves. Sometimes though, the talk can get you in a spiral and you have to go, you have to just find it on the floor. Because talk can only get you so far. And research will only get you so far. And homework will only get you so far. Having said that Iâ€™m a massive homework person.
TCI: Are you?
CO: Yes. I will research the work because I find all of that helps me. And you donâ€™t carry that in with you, you donâ€™t carry that on the stage with you, but it just informs the world.
TCI: Itâ€™s â€œjust thereâ€ I assume?
CO: Yes. Yes it is â€œjust thereâ€.
TCI: Thatâ€™s a big assumption and I apologise for such a big assumption.
CO: Yeah, no. Not at all. Yes it is there. It feels like itâ€™s in your marrow somehow. So Iâ€™ve had to, for instance and example of that is, weâ€™re dealing in this play with um, a play that is based on, loosely based on a real crime that happened in Australia, so of course I did all the research on that real crime. Iâ€™m also dealing with a character who has been diagnosed with breast cancer so of course Iâ€™ve had to research, and she has to undergo a mastectomy, during the course of the play so of course thatâ€™s an avenue or research I would have to do. And sheâ€™s a survivor of domestic violence, so thatâ€™s just three things of the top of my head and then of course youâ€™ve got the time it was set, the place itâ€™s set and so all those things are actually very fascinating. Even if theyâ€™re disturbing and upsetting, theyâ€™re actually really interesting.
TCI: Well I imagine you have to go there?
CO: Well yeah, you have to go somewhere. So the more research you can do the less you have to act it. You know.
TCI: So maybe this is going to be the difficult question then. From when they (the students) started until now, whatâ€™s the dynamic now? Has it changed or did they go through a period of being overlyÂ confident and did it break down after a little while?
CO: I donâ€™t know. And I havenâ€™t seen it breakdown. Some, there are moments sometimes where youâ€™re, there are things that, you know everybody has to do some difficult stuff in this play and the subject matter is very difficult, and you learn as you get older how to drop into something difficult and disturbing and take yourself back out. But itâ€™s very emotionally and physically and psychologically draining and I did a bit of directing for the first time this year and I went, Iâ€™m always someone who gets knocked around by acting. I can find it very tiring and draining. And I found I wasnâ€™t exhausted in the same way as a director and I think itâ€™s because of that. I think because as an actor you are dropping yourself into something and having to wrench yourself back out of it. But a director, even though youâ€™re having to juggle every ball, youâ€™re sitting outside the work, you arenâ€™t physically going through it and I did watch one actor one day and I felt, my heart broke for her because it was tough for her, and I could feel, it was just exhausting for her and she didnâ€™t, sometimes when youâ€™re younger, before youâ€™ve worked out, honed your techniques, itâ€™s harder to go, you feel like you actually have to drown every time, rather than just put your toe in the water. And you donâ€™t want to drown, some days you donâ€™t want to drown again. Because theyâ€™re still carving technique. Otherwise youâ€™ll send yourself mad.
TCI: You canâ€™t give it, everything, every day.
CO: No. Youâ€™ll go mad.
TCI: Is that something that as a young actor, is that something that you have observed that particular member just struggle a little bit with?
CO: Yes. Thatâ€™s right. And sometimes as a young actor you donâ€™t know, itâ€™s scary and vulnerable and you look stupid or, because you fail, and you look ugly or you make mistakes, and youâ€™ll feel the actors who just donâ€™t want to try or go at all, theyâ€™ll put a wall there and youâ€™ll go, â€œyouâ€™re coming hereâ€ (to a point), you know when an actorâ€™s gone there and when they havenâ€™t, and then the technique comes where you can appear to go there. You go to a certain place thatâ€™s connected to something real and visceral, but you have enough of a technique to be able to deliver that eight shows a week, and not send yourself into alcoholism or to a psych ward, you know, thatâ€™s craft. That balance of those two things. And sometimes that takes a long time to hone, that balance.
TCI: Are there more pathways now for young actors then back when you were coming through?
CO: You know what I think has happened, young artists now are thankfully encouraged to create, to create their own work and their own avenues. When we came through it was like, â€˜Iâ€™m going to work in theatre. Iâ€™m going to be a theatre actorâ€™. Then there was a wave of â€˜Iâ€™m going to be a film actorâ€™. Now they are multi-faceted commodities and they understand that theyâ€™re going to step out into the creative industries where they are, they make have to create their own stories, they are their own package. Their story is their package, and that you canâ€™t be any one thing and you donâ€™t need to be any one thing. And there are many many way of creating art and working with other artists and it isnâ€™t necessarily a mainstream walk into a theatre company or into a television show, that the arts are much more complicated and malleable than that.
TCI: Was something like, this working with professional actors available to you back in the day?
CO: No. When I was at uni you werenâ€™t allowed to do anything outside of uni?
TCI: Oh really?
CO: No. You werenâ€™t allowed to do anything. We did our own productions within each year. Once we got to second year we started doing public performances. But no, we werenâ€™t allowed to do anything. Itâ€™s great for them. It would be fascinating for you to talk to some of them because I donâ€™t know, they could be going, â€˜we frigging hate it, we canâ€™t bear those old bitchesâ€.
TCI: I should try and get some time with one of them.
CO: Iâ€™d be fascinated to know how they, because they all, I look at them all and I go wow, â€˜you all just look calm and confident as you did on day oneâ€™. Iâ€™m amazed. They could turn around and go â€˜oh itâ€™s so hard or we love itâ€™. Nothing would surprise me.
TCI: What turned you onto this play?
CO: I was attracted to this, ironically I approached Todd because I thought, â€˜bugger, I would have loved to have been his Assistant Director on the show. And I went â€˜bugger, I wish Iâ€™d thought of it earlierâ€™ but of course he had someone else, of course, a fabulous young man who was already attached to the project and I said, â€œOh, I wish I had thought about it last year because I would have just loved, you know because I have just started to put my toe into the directing pond and he said, â€˜you can always come and observe in my room anyway, in my rehearsal roomâ€™ and I said, â€œoh, I wouldnâ€™t do that to actors because I think some actors might think, â€˜what is Christen Oâ€™Leary sitting here observing actors, get outâ€™. Because actors can get a bit funny with people in the room. And then he turned around a week later, and I just assumed his whole show was cast, and a week later he turned around and said â€˜instead of ADâ€™ing why donâ€™t you be in in?â€™ and I went â€œI thought you would have cast it?â€™ so he gave me this fabulous role in it. And of course, well its two things. You say yes because actors want to work, actors need to work and Iâ€™ve got children to feed and also this is one of those beautiful Australian plays and Nick Enright is one of the greatest Australian, one of the greatest playwrights Australia has ever seen and he has, oh my God. Um, sometimes you work on plays that, culturally this play is very important to revisit, I think, because we have to revisit in this country this crime happened in the 80â€™s and this play was written in the mid to late 90â€™s, but you have to question how much this culture of violence and this rape culture, in our country, how much has it shifted?
TCI: And I wanted to ask you that. Have we as a society progressed?
CO: I think the fact that we can still do Blackrock today when we flip open our laptops or our phones or whatever people use and you see a month ago private school boys filming the rape of a girl at a party and posting it on Facebook and you go, what is, something is rotten. We arenâ€™t learning the lessons and what is this culture where this can happen and itâ€™s interesting because in this play heâ€™s working, heâ€™s dealing with a working class town that has a middle class across the river so heâ€™s so insightful, because heâ€™s not just talking about this is a working class issue. We know that this is not purely a working class issue. We know that violence happens in the homes or all people. Middle class people. Upper class people. In the homes of bankers, of school teachers, of nurses of doctors of politicians of footballers, it happens across our society and thatâ€™s why you go, this is worth talking about, this is worth doing. And also, just on a purely technical level itâ€™s a play that is perfectly perfectly written for you. So youâ€™re not struggling against a play that you go, â€˜oh, geez if onlyâ€™. You know, this man is a master and he is a master of the Australian idiom.
TCI: So it has just held up?
CO: Oh, it has held up. You just read the play and itâ€™s there. You know, and our job is to do that man justice and do that girl justice. Because there was a girl once, that this play is based on and she never really saw the justice she deserved. Itâ€™s a horrible, horrible, horrible crime and all of those things are. I mean, some jobs you do because they are a delight, or a celebration of the joyous elements of humanity and sometimes we do plays and we create art as a warning, as a reminder, as a call to arms and even if they are draining, they are stories that need to be told.
TCI: So this was a piece that you really wanted to do at some time in your career?
CO: Well yeah. And itâ€™s great because ironically now that Iâ€™m 50, â€˜oh my God she said itâ€™, now Iâ€™m getting roles that I never thought Iâ€™d have got. You know, so this role is just beautiful, itâ€™s perfectly written and I keep coming home to my husband saying â€˜thereâ€™s no excuse to fail in this roleâ€™, because sheâ€™s a wonderful character, perfectly written so Iâ€™m lucky, you know, youâ€™d be an idiot to turn the role down unless you couldnâ€™t afford to do it, or someone gave you a role that was bigger and better and it was on a film set paying you ten times the money I suppose, and you went â€˜no, Iâ€™ve got a mortgage to payâ€™. Artistically it was a no brainer.
What: Blackrock by La Boite & QUT Creative Industries
When: 22 July to 12 August
Where: La Boite Theatre, Kelvin Grove
Tickets and information: www.laboite.com.au or 07 3007 8600
Cost: $30 â€“ $60