Enjoying a highly regarded career that has already spanned 30 years – and is currently thriving – it feels like a Christmas treat to finish this series for 2013 with an actor of great longevity, inspiration, grace and curiosity.
Fiona Press is a veteran of Australian stage and screen, having worked with most of our national main stage theatre companies, guest starred in enough TV to create a lengthy IMDB profile, and impressed in feature film roles (opposite John Malkovich) in Disgrace, and as Therese in Waiting – which awarded her an AFI for Best Supporting Actress.
We sit down in the dining room of her eastern suburbs apartment the morning after I had the great pleasure of watching her intelligent and darkly funny portrayal of Hilda, in Neighbourhood Watch at The Ensemble. Coffees in hand, we begin…
At The NIDA Audition In School Uniform
Marika: Is it true you went to your audition for NIDA in your school uniform?
Fiona: Yes, that was me. I had just turned 15.
Marika: Were you just busting to go to NIDA?!
Fiona: Well, the weird thing was, this was back in the days when there were actually spruiking for business. So Elizabeth Butcher turned up at our school careers day.
Marika: I can’t imagine anyone going to a careers day and going, “kids – be an actor!”
Fiona: I know. [laughter] It’s absolutely bizarre.
Marika: Had you thought about it before that?
Fiona: No. I thought I was going to sort of do arts law or be a journalist or something like that.
Marika: You’d have been good at both those things.
Fiona: Yeah probably, but unfortunately it is all Elizabeth’s fault because I had never really thought about the possibility of it being a career until that time. All I wanted to do with my life, was to spend most of my time doing the thing that I like most, and seeing as most of us spend all our time earning enough money to live, then if I could put the two together that would be great. The reality, unfortunately, I was completely unaware of at the time. But yes, Elizabeth Butcher visited my school and said, “Oh, just come along and audition anyway, you know, it’s fun”.
Marika: Then what happened?
Fiona: I was hooked. I was absolutely hooked by that audition. Why did it take four goes over five years? Because a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I was very impressive that first time because I had no idea what I was doing and I was just sort of pure intuition that was available to them, but from that point on, for the second and third auditions I was convinced that of course, “I’m old enough now and I’m mature, so they must take me”. And as much as I got close each time, I was not successful. So I worked in a sandwich bar in North Sydney and took a lot of lessons with Brian Syron… I consider myself six year trained because immediately upon leaving school I did workshops and classes at The Q theatre in Penrith, and the influence of Richard Brooks, Arthur Dicks, and Doreen Warburton was really, really strong.
Marika: So, if we are talking about your work now, how much of that training from NIDA and from that time at the Q informs how you do what you do?
[pull_right]I think just like in life, the earliest learnt lessons are the ones that stick.[/pull_right]Fiona: I think all of that stuff still does inform, because I think just like in life, the earliest learnt lessons are the ones that stick. So yeah, commitment. An incredible level of commitment, and I don’t just mean dedication to the craft, but commitment to the moment, to the stakes if you like, to use that jargon, is something that I learnt from Richard, certainly. Knowledge of myself and how I present it to the world is something that, I think, Doreen first made me aware of. She pinned me straight away as the well-spoken educated middle class girl. And questions of class and politics have always been really important to me, something to do with…the difference between my family’s social milieu, and where I went to school, and then that was kind of exaggerated for me with that comment from Doreen – that I heard very loudly. It wasn’t said loudly, I just received it loudly. [Laughter]. So yeah, that has an influence on why I do what I do as well.
Politics Dolitics Schmolitics
[pull_left]‘an artist without politics is like an assassin without a gun’? There has to be a purpose, there has to be a reason.[/pull_left]Fiona: I am a subscriber to…was it Chekhov? You know, ‘an artist without politics is like an assassin without a gun’? There has to be a purpose, there has to be a reason. Yes, I admit with television ads, the purpose is the bank account and paying the bills… But finding the politics, finding the purpose in any piece of material, no matter what it is… What is it that makes this worth saying? What is it that makes this worth being seen, being heard? Why? How will it influence change, preferably for the better? How will it open eyes? It’s really important to me.
Marika: You said to me once that you think you act like a director. Is that because you are always obsessed with the play as a whole and what the audience is receiving from the play? Do you find it hard to detach from that?
Fiona: Yeah, I do. I think it makes me a bastard to direct probably. [laughter]
Marika: Because you won’t just stay on your track, you always have to think about the greater picture?
[pull_right]What is it that makes this worth being seen, being heard? Why? How will it influence change, preferably for the better? How will it open eyes? It’s really important to me.[/pull_right]Fiona: Yeah, that’s right. I have to bite my tongue and not stamp on someone else’s territory. It’s the director’s territory to take care of the whole, it’s not necessarily an actor’s. I think I’ve managed to button my tongue when it comes to my colleagues. [laughter] Most of the time that’s not a problem, I hope. But I do have a curiosity about the whole…
Marika: I love that word, ‘curiosity’.
Fiona: Yeah, so do I.
Marika: I think it’s so vital to what we do and the best artists I know have a really high level of it.
Marika: You are one of the older artists I have interviewed in this series this year.
Fiona: It’s alright, I was born old. [Laughter]
Marika: You had a great run of work initially, is that right?
Fiona: I did a lot of theatre to start with, for the first ten years – and my career is 30 years old this year.
Fiona: Thank you.
Fiona: The first ten years of my career, it was almost all theatre. I was doing two or three plays a year and to me, I look back on that and that seems like the dream decade, I have to say. The second ten years were a bit lumpier and a bit more uncomfortable, even though I started to do some screen work.
Marika: And won an AFI award!
Fiona: Yeah, but…when you say an AFI award, it makes it sound like it was sort of like an impressive body of screen work… it wasn’t. It was a day here and a day there, with the exception of the role that was attached to that award. I have still, to this day, only done two significant roles in feature films, that one (Waiting) and the one I did five years ago (Disgrace, with John Malkovich). But, you know, bits and bobs on telly doing little guesties. I have never had a regular role. It’s sort of part of my bread and butter and something I find as challenging as being on stage.
Marika: What about the third decade?
Fiona: The third decade was about diversification. Interestingly, when I became older – late 30’s I suppose is when it first started to happen – I felt like I was really challenged by the fact that people were now perceiving me as being much older, and I found that quite a difficult thing to handle.
Marika: As a woman though…Was that hard too…?
Fiona: Yes, it was. It was. I sort of felt like I wasn’t being seen for who I was, I was being seen for other qualities entirely. Well, a little bit further down the track I’m now completely reconciled with it. I’m not only comfortable, I celebrate it because it’s what keeps me in work and what also might indicate that I will work more as I get older … I actually think I was born 65 and I can’t wait to be somewhere around there. I play that age now anyway…but at the time, I think it’s a very delicate time in a woman’s life, sort of late 30’s.
Marika: I agree. I’m already trying to, even with my most recent round of headshot photos, I can recognise very objectively that I am way past ‘young mum’ on screen certainly and probably on stage as well, and I know that from how I’ve been cast in the last few years – like I’ve had daughters that are walking, talking grown humans! I am 32 years old! So now I’m pitching myself as, not only just mum, but a mother of late primary school children.
Fiona: When I was maybe like early 40’s, I actually played the mother of somebody who was three years younger than me – that was on screen!
Fiona: That was probably the beginning of feeling a little more comfortable about it because you are like, “well, okay, if I can do that I might as well just accept it”. But it wasn’t so much just about age. It was about the fact that in the earlier half of my career I had played really interesting people, because of that quality that you speak about – the sort of odd tension between youth, age, naivety, wisdom, old soul, you know.
Fiona: Silliness! Let’s face it, let’s own it! Silliness and a curious open face. Then as I got older, the characters became bland…and so politically I was distressed by being told that I was, subliminally, I wasn’t being seen as a sexual being. I was being told that politically, any women who is older is beginning to be invisible and is immediately less interesting just because she’s older.
Fiona: I was suddenly going up for straight roles whereas I had always gone for interesting roles because when a woman gets to that age she is just not so interesting anymore. I was being told that I was representative of a whole generation of less interesting, less valued, less vibrant characters and if those blander women represented the way all women of my generation were being seen in society, then I thought we were in big trouble and I found that very difficult to deal with. So it wasn’t just a vanity, or a personal thing about age. I hope the other things I’ve mentioned about me and age today prove that that’s the case. It was a bit more of a society thing.
Marika: However, it must be a real shock for someone who is a hottie, who has built a career based on this outside stuff. Even if they are extremely talented, it must be a rude shock when, you know… you see those artists start to get masses of plastic surgery work done because they’ve created this career as the ingénue, then they don’t know what happens next, you know, that must be a bigger slippery dip to slide down.
[pull_right]I have always traded on my lack of vanity really, rather than vanity, which is wonderful because it means…the more wrinkles, the more potential, really.[/pull_right]Fiona: I think so and I’m so glad that’s not part of my life or my career. I have always traded on my lack of vanity really, rather than vanity, which is wonderful because it means…the more wrinkles, the more potential, really. [laughter]
A Letter To A Young Artist
Marika: What would you write, if you were to write a letter to yourself as that 15 year old girl in your school uniform waiting to audition at NIDA?
Fiona: Patience. Gosh, what else? Quietude.
Fiona: Oh, I’ve always been a very busy brain, a very chatty face. Yes, quietude, contemplation. It’s a really, really valuable thing in life, I think, and therefore it must be in an artist’s life, because they are related aren’t they? Patience and quietude. There is this phrase I have used about myself and about a way of looking at life and about characters at times too – persistent naivety. I think it’s a quality I still have.
Marika: Which relates to curiosity in some ways.
Fiona: Yeah, I suppose it does. Yeah, maybe that’s all it is, maybe curiosity is actually a more positive way of describing the same quality. I’m still really teasable, you know, like I have a persistent naivety…maybe idealism. I don’t know, there are just so many things I still don’t get about myself or get about the world, and I am always at pains to try and own my neuroticism but maybe persistent naivety is a way of saying I fail. [Laughter].
Fiona: Terence Crawford (who was actually the year behind me at NIDA and became Head of Acting at Theatre Nepean and gave me my first teaching gig) said when he asked me would I come and teach – and I was shit scared – he said, “you’ve always been humble in the face of the work”. Now forgive the paradox of me sitting here with vanity that allows me to say this, but I think that’s related to the persistent naivety, curiosity thing. The work is always bigger than me. No matter how small the job, how tiny the part or apparently how unchallenging the challenge, the work is always bigger. It always scares me and I suppose I don’t have to write that back to my younger self because it’s still there…I think that was probably a very attractive thing about me as a young artist and hopefully it’s something that will stay with me to the grave.
Marika: It will.
Fiona: It’s something I hope to impart to the people that I have taught and do teach.
Marika: How has the teaching thing helped you to relearn or own yourself as a practicing artist? What did embarking on that sort of world or terrain give to you as an actor?
Fiona: The fact that you are…well, interestingly… I suppose you actually see the young artist that you were multiplied by how ever many people are in the class in front of you…yes, that’s right. So they…your students, reflect you back to yourself and if you are open to it you gain self-knowledge. So that’s just about yourself, but then about your practice and what you do, you have to be able to articulate it, you have to be able to describe it, you have to be able to break it down into component parts, you have to be able to depersonalise it, you have to be able to objectify it. So the process of being able to do that or struggling to sort of do that in order to be able to, you know, impart your experience to others and have that then…help them translate it into their own experience which is really what it’s all about. That’s where you also gain a lot of self-knowledge. You have to objectify, you have to be able to articulate it.
Marika: What do you love about our industry?
Fiona: Well, in recent times, due to a shift in my own personal circumstances, the remarkably nurturing, caring nature of the artistic community and the theatrical community is a great joy, and a great comfort. That has been…yeah, that’s been a bit of a revelation. It’s kind of, I mean, it’s something that objectively I had always trusted was there, I had always sort of seen it operate at a distance but I had never really been on the receiving end in the way that I have been recently and that has been just amazing. It is a great joy and politically, I suppose, it’s something that I hope I have been a contributor to for a long time.
Marika: Yes, wow.
Fiona: I have been an equity member for 30 years this year and I have never been in any doubt that the hub of our community is our wonderful union. The word union, it is us. That is the way that we are all able to contribute to the community, that we inhabit as working artists and the greater contribution you make to the community, the better actor you are. Jonathan Mill made me aware of that. Being able to improve the health of the industry in which you work, actually makes more and more opportunity for you to just do your work better when you are doing it and hopefully to get more work and be doing it more often. For me that’s a constant challenge to cast myself as one of the many who are responsible for that, but it’s also a constant joy. Giving back gives back.