How We Do What We Do: Harriet Dyer with Marika Aubrey
After attending The Actor’s Centre and graduating in 2011, Harriet started on the well worn path of waitressing. But it would only be 6 months until this extremely talented young lady got her break, landing a small comic role in STC’s Pygmalion. That led to being cast in The School For Wives with Bell Shakespeare, Peter Pan for Belvoir St (…which toured to Broadway. Yep, Broadway…), TV’s Lovechild and A Moody Christmas, and the lead female role in Machinal, again for the STC, for which she won Best Actress at the recent Sydney Theatre Awards.
She is currently performing in Travelling North alongside Bryan Brown at the STC before heading back to a TV role rounding out another busy year.
By any measure, Harriet has has a dream run straight out the gate. I wanted to catch up with her and hear about the ride…
Harriet: I grew up in Townsville. My dad was in local musicals and plays and I was singing in Oklahoma when I was little. Then he went to audition for Annie and he turned to me and my sister and went, “there are lots of little girls in this show. I don’t know if you guys would like to do a show with me, but there are going to be lots of kids auditioning for it so don’t get your hopes up”, and then Madeline (her sister) got Annie and I got Molly-
Marika: Did Dad get a role?!
Harriet: Dad? Yeah, I think…he did about four little parts…
Marika: So you trumped Dad to the lead roles?!
Harriet: Yep, and he’s never let it go.
Harriet: And we don’t talk anymore.
Harriet: And so that was like when me and my sister went, “oh this is cool. This is a cool way of living”.
Hear My Song
Marika: How do you go from an amateur musical production of Annie, to being one of the most in-work actresses in Sydney at the moment?
Harriet: If somebody ever told me that I was going to be asked that question, I would have said, “Yeah, you’ve got the wrong dude”. [laughter]… I turned 18 in T-Ville and I moved to Sydney to do the one year music theatre course that doesn’t exist anymore at NIDA.
Marika: I’ve heard you sing. You are pretty amazing at it.
Harriet: That’s…that’s nice. Is that true?
Marika: I haven’t heard you for a long time, but I have heard you.
[pull_left]they kind of give you like a crash course in everything. And a massive course in passion and drive[/pull_left]
Harriet: I think there is a lot more of ‘life’ in my voice now. ‘Life’, maybe… and cigarettes. [laughter] Let’s just say my support isn’t what it used to be…! I miss singing. I thought I wanted to do music theatre, but something something didn’t feel right and I just felt like maybe I wanted to do acting. So I went to The Actor’s Centre for two and a half years. That gave me lots of good things.
Marika: Why The Actor’s Centre?
Harriet: Because it was in Sydney and I didn’t get into NIDA. I got into WAAPA, but I didn’t want to move. So I went there and then I finished two and a half years ago. I got a good agent and then worked in a coffee shop for six months and then started working, and I’ve been employed for the last two years.
Marika: This series is called, How We Do What We Do. Is how you do what you do a direct result of your training at The Actor’s Centre and if so, what is that? Do they subscribe to a particular method?
Harriet: No. They don’t…they kind of give you like a crash course in everything. And a massive course in passion and drive…and doing that course reminded me that, yeah, I am an actor. I did singing and dancing growing up, but I’m an actor. Do you know what I mean?
Marika: I’m an actor. What is that?
Harriet: I just mean I was more confident walking on stage and just talking.
Marika: [Laughter]. Put simply, I didn’t want to sing anymore.
Harriet: I didn’t want to sing and dance anymore, and I also…I found that I was resonating more with plays that I read, more than musicals that I listened to –
Marika: Yes. It was 100% my decision for me to study acting and not to study musical theatre. I felt like singing is a pretty objective thing. If you can sing, you can sing.
Harriet: This is true.
Marika: But the opportunity to work and learn in a company of actors for several years, just working specifically on the acting stuff, for me, that was really valuable.
Harriet: Yeah. And I tried. After graduating my agent put me up for The Addams Family, for the character Wednesday. I spent so much time learning those songs and scenes and… it fucking traumatised me. After going into TV and play castings where everyone kind of talks to you and is really nice, it was a terrible experience. I walked in and I was like, “Hi, my names is Harr-…”and they were like, “stand on the X”. So I stood on the X and then I swear to god, there were like seven dudes sitting at a table and… just so disinterested.
[pull_right]So I stood on the X and then I swear to god, there were like seven dudes sitting at a table and…just so disinterested[/pull_right]
Marika: You’re not the first actor, not for this series and not in general conversation, that I’ve heard say that when they had their first musical theatre audition experience it was like a horrific nightmare that made them never want to do it again.
Harriet: Yeah, I don’t know. I hated it. I left crying, because at the end, the main dude, I don’t know who he is, he just said, “good for you”.
Marika: Pat on the head. [Laughter]. Whenever I audition for musicals I yearn for the process to be like a TV casting. It’s so efficient. You walk in, say hello, quick rehearsal, a couple takes, some specific direction – bing bang, you’re out in ten minutes. It’s pleasant. And you are not personally traumatised by it because it’s like, “well I did my thing and they did their thing and I’m either right for it or I’m not”. We all go home and move on with our lives.
Tip #1 – Don’t Be An Arsehole
Harriet: November 2011, I got my first job and that was a small role in Pygmalion at the STC.
Marika: And from that, did you get seen for many other things?
Harriet: Yeah. Like, the director of Machinal was the Assistant Director for Pygmalion. I had a cough and spit in Pygmalion, but she saw something in me. Also, Peter Evans directed Pygmalion, but he runs Bell Shakespeare. So, by working with them, working on that show in that tiny role…
Marika: It changed the game?
Harriet: Yeah, because then Peter Evans got me into a Bell Shakespeare tour and that changed the game in a big way too. So yeah, I started there and…
Marika: Work breeds work?
Harriet: Yeah, and also…I think, it helps trying to be a good person.
Marika: No one wants to work with arseholes.
[pull_left]I think about being a good person and I have done for the last two years because I think it’s just so important[/pull_left]
Harriet: No. So, as much as I think about work, I think about being a good person and I have done for the last two years because I think it’s just so important. I don’t know…That’s that.
Harriet: Don’t you agree? I mean…
Marika: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think sometimes it’s hard not to get bogged down by the one arsehole that you know, who is doing quite well.
Harriet: They are few and far between.
Marika: They are few and far between thankfully, and I firmly believe that nine times out of ten the people that keep working are not only talented, but they are just excellent people and they are people that other people like and respect and want to play with, because you spend so much time and you give so much of yourself to any project, why on earth would you want to do it with someone you don’t like? That’s why I completely understand, you know, people bitch and moan about seeing the same people getting cast in stuff, and I go, “yeah, but if someone gave me an unlimited budget to make something tomorrow, why wouldn’t I cast the people that I know and like and are talented and that I have fun with?” That’s why George Clooney and his mates keep making movies called Oceans 11, 12, 13 or whatever, because it’s fun to work with people you like…!
Marika: And it’s fun to watch that. That was a bad example, but you know that I’m saying… [laughter]
Harriet: I know what you’re saying. On a TV set it’s true as well because in a twelve hour day, you might do seven minutes of acting. It’s the bits in between, talking with the grips and hanging out with the nurse. It’s that shit that people remember at the end of the day. I mean, nothing really shows for that on the shiny end product, but in terms of, you know, your life and making relationships, that’s what matters.
Marika: It’s your community.
Harriet: Yeah. It is such a community.
Accustomed To Her Face
Marika: So you’ve been lucky enough to do a lot of screen and a lot of stage.
Harriet: Well, I’ve done a little bit of screen.
Marika: Well, you’ve just finished the first series of Love Child.
Marika: And also…
[pull_left]So they are different art forms and I was terrified and I still am, but I believe it’s a study in practice that you get better at[/pull_left]
Harriet: And also, there’s and ABC show that will probably come out around the same time as Love Child, which will make people think that I’m like some sort of freak.
Marika: You are a bit of a freak.
Harriet: But they were shot at different times. It’s called Janet King. It’s a spinoff of Crownies, on ABC. I don’t know when it’s airing, but I’m really proud of that. It’s a beautiful show.
Marika: How is working on screen after having predominantly stage training and stage work being your bread and butter for the last couple of years? Is that, sort of, an exciting new world, or an adjustment, or…?
Harriet: An exciting new world? Yeah. Massive adjustment, massively terrifying, because some of the immediate people that I was working with on Love Child have always worked on screen, so I couldn’t help feel less than them… but I just…I just tried to remain kind of really aware of what my face was doing…
Harriet: …whilst being a normal person, because there is that thing… I’m used to trying to hit the back row, you know, that’s what I grew up doing like, you know, the six year old in Annie. So they are different art forms and I was terrified and I still am, but I believe it’s a study in practice that you get better at. So, I may not be very good in Love Child, at all.
Marika: [Laughter]. We’ll see, wont we. We’ll see…
Harriet: Yeah, but then, you know, I might come back in season two and just kind of barely move my face and everyone will think, “what happened to her? She’s had a lot of work done. She’s had a lot of Botox…” [laughter]
Marika: Let’s talk about another terrifying experience which was you recently playing the lead girl in Machinal at The Sydney Theatre Company. What was it like carrying a show like that?
[pull_right]it’s like you forget that you are capable of doing so much. Your brain is capable of remembering so much and feeling so much[/pull_right]
Harriet: That was one of those moments where part of you only knows you can do it because other people believe in you. They’ve cast you and that gives you the first kind of belief in yourself that I think is required to take on a role like that.
Marika: Are you talking about how we don’t know how capable we actually are?
Harriet: Yeah. You don’t know how capable you are sometimes, until somebody tells you that you are. You know, some days I’ll be completely exhausted from sitting around watching Friends, and it’s like you forget that you are capable of doing so much. Your brain is capable of remembering so much and feeling so much. It was like super acting. That kind of screaming, crying, huge monologues, massive emotional scenes that we are all totally capable of, but rarely the roles call for it.
Marika: Very rarely. Do you feel lucky that you got to swim in that?
[pull_left]This is the business, this is what we do it for – these amazing roles where you can show every facet of your heart and your terror[/pull_left]
Harriet: I was so lucky, so lucky. I mean, on paper, it was terrifying. Like, “I can’t do this”! But then, once you get into the run of it you are like, “This is the business, this is what we do it for – these amazing roles where you can show every facet of your heart and your terror”. And yeah, every night I felt like I left a little bit of skin on the stage. I actually vomited in a tech rehearsal – “stop the show, guys” – that’s a day when I pushed it too hard. [Laughter]
Marika: But eight shows a week, how did that affect you? Was it exhausting?
Do you find it hard to switch off when you are doing something like that?
Harriet: No, I’m kind of…I try to keep quite normal. I was always a little bit scatty, maybe in the half hour after the show, but I had a glass of wine or talked to somebody that I enjoyed seeing. I was chatting a lot in my sleep, mumbling a lot and kind of having some weird dreams. It was a harrowing role, but I didn’t get depressed. I stayed quite light and I felt very blessed every day. Every night before I walked on stage (I had to have a little chat with myself because I didn’t get off stage for 95 minutes), I opened my door to walk on, and said to myself, “you can do this, I’ll see you on the other side”, and then I let myself go. Some nights (I don’t know if people could tell the difference in the performances), but some nights it actually cost Harriet a little bit of her heart and some nights it was just acting.
[pull_right]some nights it actually cost Harriet a little bit of her heart and some nights it was just acting[/pull_right]
Harriet: You can’t help but go, what if? What if this was me? Your body doesn’t know the difference between fantasy and reality. So my body was terrified every night.
Marika: There is a lot of adrenaline coursing through your body and adrenaline is exhausting.
Harriet: Yeah. I don’t know. Long sleeps, coconut water. I’d love to do it again because it was just such a gift.
Marika: So six months of waitressing and then a run…a run of work that has been pretty incredible, really.
Harriet: It’s all been a lovely kind of surprise. It’s been a surprise since graduating. With every job I get, there is just the most beautiful surprise.