Anna McGahan is a familiar flame hair framed face from TV, playing leading roles in Underbelly: Razor, House Husbands and the very soon to be released Anzac Girls (ABC) and the feature film 100 Bloody Acres. If this wasn’t enough to keep her busy, Anna is currently starring in The Effect at The Sydney Theatre Company, and all the while maintaining her concurrent career as playwright and film maker.
Several award wins and Logie nominations later, I was keen to chat to Anna about how she has managed to cram so much into a working life of barely 5 years, but surprised to learn the answers lie in… outer space. No, really. Anna is a space loving nerd at heart, and it is this fundamental curiosity for the big, the mysterious and the magical that also underpins her drive as an artist.
Over a drink at STC’s Bar At The End Of The Wharf (um, go there, it’s fantastic), we took shelter from the cold and discussed how we do what we do.
When I Grow Up I Want To Be… An Author, an Astronomer, a Journalist, a Ballet Dancer…
Marika: Where did the seed get planted for you to become an actor?
Anna: That is a great question! [Laughter]. I think it was very late, relatively.
Marika: How old are you?
Anna: Well, I’m 26 now, but most people say, “from the age of 2, I wanted to be on the stage”… I definitely showed symptoms, but I certainly didn’t have it as a goal. I wanted to be a ballet dancer or an author.
Marika: I read that you trained as a ballet dancer.
Anna: Yes! Yeah, I did it for like 15 years.
Marika: Is that what you wanted to do?
Anna: Well, I wanted to be an author or an astronomer or a journalist. I had this list and ballet was something that I was doing that I loved and that was my experience of performance and of being on stage. That was my creative outlet, and I spent so much time training… though I technically never had… I never had enough visibility or enough turnout or any of those things, but everyone said, “you’ve got expression and that’s all that matters”. And I thought, “at least I’ve got ‘expression’, whatever that means”…!
Marika: What does it mean?
Anna: A massive part of dance in ballet is the sense of… what your face says and what your body emotionally expresses and I can do that.
Marika: You are good at that bit!
[pull_left]It never really clicked that dance was connected to acting…To me, acting was for girls that were very funny and popular and stuff like that[/pull_left]
Anna: I can do that bit. [Laughter]. But it never really clicked that dance was connected to acting… To me, acting was for girls that were very funny and popular and stuff like that…Drama never fit with me at school.
Marika: Obnoxious drama kids scare you?
Anna: Well, they were just very extroverted and they were very good and, you know, I was at a private girls school… if you couldn’t get up there and make every single girl in that room laugh…
Marika: Do you think we actors do tend to fall into two categories – either like, “Howdy! look at me!!!”, or like, “…Actually, I’m not extroverted, acting is my way of expressing myself”?
Marika: I’m the second one and I get a little bit intimidated by the former one, but I admire them so greatly.
Anna: I know, so do I. I feel so impressed with those who are like that. Yeah, absolutely agree.
All Aboard The Drama School Training!
Anna: I left high school and went and studied psychology and I always made this deal with myself that I’d join the amateur theatre group when I got to university and so I did and I was just in love with it. I think our first thing was this political musical. I had one line and it was very exciting!
Marika: Is that where the bug bit?
[pull_left]It was then I discovered that you could actually be quite introverted and understated on screen and that was a celebrated thing and, I don’t know, it suddenly made sense[/pull_left]
Anna: I think I fell in love with the community then. The bug didn’t hit properly until I started doing the short films… I don’t even know how I got into it, but I saw short films and I just wanted to do it. It was then I discovered that you could actually be quite introverted and understated on screen and that was a celebrated thing and, I don’t know, it suddenly made sense. After that, I really craved it, and so I kept seeking out any opportunity to do that stuff all the way until I got to this point of, ‘I’m just going to audition for drama school’.
Marika: So, then you did the QUT thing?
Marika: How was that?
Anna: You know, it was… did you go to school?
Marika: Yeah. I went to Theatre Nepean, which isn’t there anymore. So, it’s kind of sad when I say that now because everyone either goes, “huh?”, or, “aw, that’s sad that closed”. I feel a bit ripped off that the legacy of my training is either sadness or people don’t know what it is anymore.
Anna: It’s really hard with a lot of places having so many schools. It’s really devastating.
Marika: When I first came out Joel Edgerton had just gotten his big break and David Wenham was really famous and so it was like, “Go Nepean!”, but now it’s like [sad face], “aw, Nepean”. [Laughter]. Anyway, it was great training, I had a ball – but it was full on.
Anna: I feel like they must all be the same, ultimately.
Marika: I think they must be.
Anna: You are just face with yourself and a whole bunch of other people in the same room for three years and you have to deal with survival. I felt like I was on Survivor.
Marika: It’s a reality show without people watching most of the time…
Anna: Yes! It was really quite traumatic, but wonderful. I was always a bit of a black sheep. I never really fit into the mould particularly well and I kept wanting to run away and do other things all the time and the people (who were running the course at the time) were very lenient of me because they had a very astute process. They do follow this particular guy, Eric Morris, an American teacher. He was really big in the 70s or 80s.
Marika: I googled him!
Anna: Ha! They have all these pictures of hippies with really great long hair, lying on the floor doing sensory exercises. So… I found it very funny. It does use a lot of emotional activation, I suppose you could say. The first year is all just your feelings and you don’t do any text or anything for the first year.
Marika: How old were you when you did that training?
[pull_left]In TV you are memorising eight different scenes every single day and it just churns in. It goes in, it goes out, it goes in, it goes out. But on stage, for three months, to have the lines and you can’t throw them away and you can’t forget them[/pull_left]
Anna: I was 20. So, I got out when I was 22. I made the most wonderful friends. By the time I graduated, I was like, ‘I’m not going to get any work, I’m going to become a playwright’. I had basically given up on the dream by the time I graduated. I really didn’t think it was going to happen for me and I was really surprised when I got my first job.
Marika: What was your very first job?
Anna: Julius Caesar at La Boite (2011)
Marika: And did you get that almost straight away?
Anna: I got that just before I graduated.
Marika: Yay! Have you had a clean run where you haven’t had a massive chunk in unemployment so far?
Anna: So far.
Marika: Yeah, that’s great.
Anna: With the operative words being ‘so far’. [Laughter]. I’ve been very lucky.
Razor Sharp Freedom
Marika: It would probably be remiss of me, if I didn’t ask about Underbelly: Razor. Was Underbelly your first big kind of TV thing?
Anna: Pretty much. I had done Spirited and that was a really big deal for me personally because I was in love with it. And Claudia Karvan.
Marika: It was amazing. She is.
Anna: I remember getting my first call sheet. I had done one little guestie on something else, but I remember getting my call sheet for Spirited and our names were on-
Marika: -the same page!
Anna: I took a picture and I sent it to my mum!
Marika: I told Anne Looby that she was my person for that when I did my first guestie on All Saints and I saw Anne Looby’s name on the same page and she thought that was hilarious, but I had grown up watching her in A Country Practice and thought she was the bees knees. Still do.
Anna: It’s those people that are sometimes the reason you are doing it anyway.
[pull_left] I was really surprised when I got my first job[/pull_left]
Anna: Claudia Karvan was one of those people for me, and she was so lovely. I had a tiny role, but she just sort of nurtured me through it and supported all of my choices and was so generous about everything that I was giving. It gave me the confidence to then walk straight into Underbelly.
Anna: By the time I got to Underbelly immediately after, I understood enough about set etiquette, about what was required of me, all those things. To go into what was such an intense six month shoot. I was green but I was ready.
Marika: Was Underbelly a game changer, in the role of Nellie?
Anna: Very much so. It was very empowering and it was… Honestly, it was just very beautiful. There was a lot of respect, a lot of love in the cast and in the production. They were incredibly nurturing and supportive again and they just understood me, let me have so much creative freedom and that was invaluable. When a job is generous like that, you can flourish as a performer. You just bloom and it gives you a lot of confidence.
Marika: It’s a weird safety that allows you to be unsafe.
Anna: Absolutely. And you meet all these amazing directors. I think there is a real freedom as well in playing real people, in playing a real character.
Anna: Definitely. Because you have the facts. I really like boundaries. I think it’s really creative to have boundaries. So, the more boundaries that you have, the more…
Marika: The creative you can be within that construct.
Anna: Yes, you know that you can go that far because that’s a real person. Real people are really weird and really extraordinary. When you have fictional characters, we think, “Oh, we can’t possibly make them that strange or that… flamboyant”.
Marika: I had never thought about it that way, but that’s a really great way to think about it.
Anna: It was same for Anzac Girls, which is just about to come out on ABC.
Marika: You are playing a real life person? I didn’t realise. I know it’s based on true events, but I didn’t realise it was specific to real people.
Anna: Yeah. All the girls really existed. We have all their diaries so you sort of know who they are, intimately.
Marika: Aw, that’s incredible.
Anna: So, you are able to just push. You have something to work with. It was Screentime again actually. They are just…they know how to write women.
Treading The Boards The Best Training
Marika: It’s interesting to me that screen is kind of what made you get into this work, and consequently now screen is really kind of what you are known for. So, between Julius Cesar when you first graduated and now being here in Sydney doing The Effect at Sydney Theatre Company, has it been mainly screen?
Anna: Mainly screen.
Marika: Is it nice to be back on the boards?
Anna: It really is. With this show, I was so ready. By the time we got to rehearsals, I was sprinting to the theatre. I was so excited. I had never done a role quite this large or quite this demanding and it is something that you know in your own body and spirit, “I know I can do this, but it’s going to be a challenge”.
Marika: Yeah, and until you’ve done it, you want to know for sure that you can.
Anna: Totally. So, it was really exciting to get in there, but it also turns out that a play like this is extraordinarily exhausting and intense and I didn’t expect that. I didn’t think I quite expected the emotional impact it was going to have.
Anna: The Effect is quite…it can be light in parts. It’s just the subject matter is such that she doesn’t really resolve a lot of issues, she just provokes in us a lot of questions. The audience leave quite weighted, in a great way, with these questions going over and over in their minds and it’s sort of the same for us and it’s just a journey every night. A whole journey, and you can’t present what you presented the night before.
Anna: I mean, it’s sort of recreating an entire life. My character and Marc (Leonard Winter)’s character go through every single stage that you can go through in a relationship over this two and a half hour period and it just like guts us on stage. You genuinely feel like you have just cut yourself open and gone, “here you go”! It’s a really liberating feeling, but it’s…I’ve had to get fit. When you are in series TV, you certainly have a pace to what you do. You certainly know how to think very quickly.
Marika: There is a joy you need for that eight show a week situation. It’s so different to that focus you have to try and maintain on a set – that kind of I shoot, then I wait, then I wait, then I wait, then I shoot, then I wait, then I wait. Theatre is all here, now, live. It’s just a totally different thing.
Anna: In TV you are memorising eight different scenes every single day and it just churns in. It goes in, it goes out, it goes in, it goes out. But on stage, for three months, to have the lines and you can’t throw them away and you can’t forget them. You can’t run away from them. You actually have to press in and they are confronting things.
Marika: So, how does this feed you differently to TV?
Anna: I mean, you are with the audience, you are using your body. You are used. It’s that sense of…it feels almost athletic in that sense, where you get to the end of the working day and you know what you’ve done, you know what your body’s done and it’s sort of all about recuperating, but I feel like with this it’s like going back to acting school. It’s like training again. In some ways with a TV schedule, you can compartmentalise. You can have your life and then you can have work and you can go to work and you can play a role.
Marika: That’s so true, isn’t it? That’s really true. Whereas I find when you are in a show, you are in the zone of the show and everything is about, what do I eat so that I feel okay to do the show? How am I sleeping so that I’m rested to do the show? Oh, I’ve got Mondays off, what will I do on Mondays so that I feel like I get a break from the show? It’s all about the show.
Anna: Yes. I think that you are really faced with yourself and you have to deal with your crap. You have to…if there is something going on in your life, you can’t…it feeds in.
Marika: No matter what. The way your life just intricately combines.
Can Acting Be Taught?
Marika: You get to do the theatre thing AND the TV thing. Was that always the plan?
Anna: Actually it was. It was.
Marika: It was a conscious thing to make sure that you do both?
Anna: I had genuinely sort of thrown my hands up a little bit, and whatever comes my way, within the right context – and this is how its fallen. But when it came to a job like The Effect, I actually prioritise this. So, I ended up choosing to leave the House Husbands shoot that little bit early so I could do this. Once I read the play I had to block out the time.
Marika: Time fills up whether you want it to or not, right?
Anna: Yeah…with anything really. So, it is conscious in my heart, it always has been, and I think as actors we need theatre. It humbles us and it pushes us and it retrains us. Ultimately, a lot of my training at acting school was just the fact that we did plays and we had to get better at doing plays. I feel like that is sort of what trains me the most, is having to do the same thing night after night and you understand what it means to rediscover and refine something. Refine your own skill set and your own voice and train your body in the same way. Watch how your voice improves over a certain period of time. Learn how to work with other people in an intimate way, because even in TV you can go through shooting and not have a relationship with the people that you are related to on television.
Marika: Totally, and the guesties, and the turnover and…
Anna: You can’t avoid anyone anywhere in theatre. You are a company.
Marika: Totally. It’s really cool. How much of the Eric Morris stuff is what you do? Is how you do what you do or is it more what you’ve learned throughout your career and you sort of just get better at instinctively working?
Anna: I don’t know. But…I don’t know if you can teach somebody acting. I don’t know if you can teach somebody a methodology like that. I feel like we are who we are. We express in very unique ways and we express our understanding of the other or a character we are playing in a unique way, because of how our life has formed our understanding. So, when I think about acting school, I almost think, ultimately, we all sort of knew how…we had our own things as actors. We understood how to act just from our life process and acting teachers can sort of put different constraints on it or try and tailor it and move it in a certain direction.
Marika: What you have is what you have?
Anna: Yes…it’s like being raised by your parents. When you are raised by your parents, you can’t forget the things that you were taught. There are things that I will always rely on and I will always appreciate about the drama school process and the teachers, particularly Diane Eden’s teaching. She was an incredibly good teacher and she just laid this wonderful foundation for us, but I think I learned probably the most in the first six months out of acting school than I had before then. Not because the teaching lacked in any way, but because suddenly it was real for the first time and as soon as that happened, as soon as I understood the pace at which I had to work, I stepped up and I had to. Does that make any sense?
Marika: Yeah. I mean, it’s really interesting. Very few people in this series are able to simply articulate, “that’s how I do it”. I think I’ve had one or two people who have gone, “yeah, I’m method, that’s what I do and I follow it this way”. But it’s really rare. Everyone kind of…and I think particularly the people who have been working for years, you can’t articulate it because you don’t actually follow it, you just sort of do it and every project becomes…who you are working with and bouncing off and how it goes in the room and all that stuff. Probably if you broke it down, it’s quite an impressive skill set, but you don’t ever think of it that way because it’s just a part of your artistry.
Anna: Perhaps you’re right. I definitely feel like it’s a thing that we can refine and change and improve upon or can let sort of weaken in a sense too.
Marika: I mean, voice training is voice training and is a really useful thing to do technically.
Anna: I think also… you are a singer as well. I always find it really interesting watching actors that can sing and can use their voice in a very particular way because they have incredibly beautiful voices and resonant voices, in a way that only people who do understand their own voices can. I find it so beautiful and really interesting. It’s something I really admire, but I’ve always come from a physical place because I was just doing it through movement and dance. My starting point was always physical and I know that…it’s so interesting talking to different actors, even in this company at the moment, we all work so differently in our way and it can be really confronting when you don’t know how to combine-
Marika: -It can be the best or the worst. It can be amazing, like, “wow, you work like that and I couldn’t do that, but I love watching how you do that!”, or it can be like, “that’s…yeah, um, I don’t know…” Thankfully I haven’t had too many experiences like the latter…!
Anna: [with quizzical expression] “I can’t believe you… what?!”
Marika: [feigning confusion] “Stop it! Be more like me! I don’t get it. What are you doing…? Um, just no”.
Redhead Space Odyssey – A Cabaret
Marika: You make films as well? Short films?
Anna: Yeah, a little bit.
Marika: Tell me about making work. What stuff do you make? Is writing still something you pursue?
Anna: I do. I write plays. I have had only one play produced in Brisbane and I am sort of working on another one.
Marika: Wow. Bravo.
Anna: Film is something that I’ve been moving into slowly, but it sort of began with a little film that I made with a friend, and then I made another that isn’t public, but was a really good point to start pitching ideas. That opened up a couple of doors which was really lovely, because I really love filming. I really love editing. I’m just finishing off a little documentary that I made about NASA. I went to NASA last year.
Marika: Jesus Christ! NASA?!
Anna: I went on a nerd convention and I just interviewed the nerds and it was the most extraordinary experience of my life.
Marika: Such a small idea to start with for your first documentary…NASA!!! Ha!
Anna: I know. I know. Well, here is the thing. I really love space. I’m quite like an addict anyway. I was one of the nerds that was like, “I’m going”. I won a competition to go and watch this rocket take off.
Marika: [Laughter]. Of all the things I thought may be revealed in this chat, space was not what I imagined…
Anna: There were a hundred of us that got to go. It was called a NASA social, and you go and you tour NASA for three days and you see all the rockets and the buildings and the things, and then watch this launch. It was a rocket going to Mars. So, I went to Florida and I started to film people and they are the most extraordinary people I have ever met. So, I am just finishing that doco, which is really, really fun.
Marika: That is so fun. I can’t wait to see it.
Anna: I had very limited resources at the time. I had a very little camera and I didn’t have proper sound. So, the whole thing is just very… it’s very much my first documentary and I’m okay with that. It’s fun.
Marika: I’m a doco addict.
Anna: Really? So am I! Oh my gosh, I’m going to send you my NASA film…
Marika: Oh, I need to see it… because if I’m at home and I’m at a loose end, I immediately go to ABC or SBS iview and just watch docos. Anything. I adore it.
Anna: So do I.
Marika: I literally just go to the documentary genre and I just watch the most random stuff.
Anna: They are so interesting.
Marika: They are so interesting. Australian Story is the best…I need my hit. I’m obsessed, because they’re real people. They have incredible stories. I think that’s the one thing that’s helped keep me sane in the cabaret world, because I was never really like [does jazz hands], but the idea of storytelling… or finding out stuff from people, that’s interesting to me. I’m still working out how that all works with music because…it’s just a really difficult medium. I find it really hard to work out what to do with my singing. Do you know what I mean?
Marika: When I work it out, it will be the best day of my life. [Laughter].
Anna: I was going to ask you how you survived in a cabaret setting as an introvert.
Marika: -Well, I didn’t at first. I sucked. [Laughter]. I didn’t, and I tried to fuck with form and then people told me, you can’t do that, and I was like, “what? huh?”
Anna: What do you mean ‘you can’t do that’?!
Marika: I was like, “I don’t get it”, and then someone smart said to me, “At the end of an hour, we need to feel like we’ve got to know the person. That doesn’t mean that the audience need to hear the story about how your cat died or deep personal stuff necessarily, but they need to feel like they get you and they’ve spent an hour with you”. That terrified me, because I don’t want people to know my stuff. I like other people’s stories.
Marika: I like telling other peoples stories and I like being in a role… so, it’s been a really long journey for me working out how I can fit into that world, because I have a singing voice that lives onstage and yet it doesn’t work for me to walk the same path…you know what I mean? It’s a real tricky one. So, I just keep going and just keep writing shows and I think the last show I wrote is the closest to finding that balance of storytelling and musicianship, but it’s still an ongoing challenge, because also those shows don’t make money. [Laughter]. That’s a problem. My target audience is people who like SBS documentaries and are really curious about the world, but also don’t mind a show tune or two…! That’s a tricky audience!!
Anna: That’s quite specific…!
Marika: A completely specific target audience. If I ever find them, oh my god, I will be a wealthy woman. The world will be mine.
Anna: Funnily enough, a lot of people that like NASA, also like show tunes. I don’t know what kind of relation is in that, but there we are.
Marika: What?! So, is the trick that you are going to have to write me a show?
Anna: Oh, that sounds fun. I could do that.
Marika: Something where we get the space nerds and the show people who like red headed women like us… I don’t know, there is something coming together here…
Anyway, on that note… Thanks hun.