How We Do What We Do… Christopher Stollery with Marika Aubrey
For this month’s HWDWWD I am joined by one of our countries most in-work and well loved actors. There aren’t enough hours in any day to list his credits that span nearly 30 years of work across theatre, film and TV.
At the beginning of 2013 when I made a list of the names of artists I’d most love to chat to, Christopher Stollery was immediately added (for reasons you’ll need to read on to find out). And with no less than 110 mutual Facebook friends, turns out it wasn’t that hard to get in touch.
Over coffee at Lot 19 cafe in Elizabeth Bay, we discuss how we do what we do…
Marika Reveals A Secret…
MA: I have to reveal something very embarrassing to you firstly – at risk of the rest of this interview being extremely awkward…You’re one of the reasons that I am an actor.
CS: Don’t blame me for your fucking problems. Jesus.
MA: Taming of The Shrew with Essie Davis. Bell Shakespeare. Civic Theatre in Newcastle, where I grew up…I think it was 1994 or 1995?
CS: Oh it was 94, I remember it well.
MA: And I was watching that show. And fell head over heels in love with that show. And everything that it was. And when Essie was doing her monologue at the very end, I realised, ‘that’s what I have to do’.
CS: Wow. That’s not embarrassing, that’s very very touching.
I’m amazed by that time time with Bell. We lurched from one season to another at that time, always at risk of financial collapse. Darren Gilshenan and I had been through NIDA together so a lot of that tour is…a bit of a drunken haze I must admit-
MA: That would have been character informing (Stollery played roguish Petruchio)
CS: It was! But the fact that those Bell shows – and we would do the school shows very early and very hung over – they really touched young people. In the right sort of way…
To Be or Not To Be?
CS: I remember we did Macbeth in the same season. In fact it’s sort of well known for being infamously bad…
MA: I think I saw that too. It was the version that was futuristic?
CS: Yeah, the witches were like aliens.
MA: But that was Bell’s thing during the early 90s. That really high aesthetic framing the Shakespeare plays, so we viewed them anew.
CS: Yeah. That’s right. And we fought that battle. We received a lot of, “oh, can’t you just do it like the original version?” The sort of same debate that goes on with Simon Stone now.
MA: A-ha…you have an opinion on that? It’s quite contentious.
CS: Well, it brings back bad memories of those days where we had to justify everything we did. Not wearing doublet and hose and all that. And I got really tired of having that argument. Mostly with people who really didn’t understand Shakespeare and what it was about. It reminds me of those days, and I think it’s a misplaced controversy.
MA: Okay. You think it hinders rather than helps?
CS: Look, I went and had a Simon Stone kind of week last week. I went and saw Miss Julie at Belvoir, and then I was in Melbourne and saw The Cherry Orchard, and he is undoubtedly a very very clever theatre practitioner. No doubt. And if that’s what his thing is…then let him do his thing.
MA: Yeah… see, I’m not a purist, but I do think that something like an Arthur Miller is inherently very much American…I mean, the dialect alone-
CS: But it’s not like a piece of theatre is a vase and if you crack it it’s ruined forever.
MA: That’s true.
CS: Go and put the play on the way you want to do it somewhere else. It’s not ruined. The fact that this is what one person does with theatre…bridging a classic piece of text… it is a valid form of theatre. It’s what Shakespeare did with everything. Nothing he wrote was original. They were all from somewhere else. The Greeks get reinterpreted. It would be different if it was a new play, and the playwright didn’t get a voice. I think 60 years on it’s okay. It’s right to be reinterpreted.
Christmas With Uncle Bertle
MA: Back to you. If my moment was watching you guys in Taming of the Shrew when I was 13, did you have a moment like that where you perhaps realised you wanted to be an actor?
CS: It goes back for as long as I can remember. It’s really, really sad. I can only ever remember that that was what I was going to do. The crystallising moment that I remember, was we were doing the primary school Christmas pageant.
MA: Were you the wombat…or…?
CS: No I was called ‘Uncle Bertle’. My best friend from school, who I’m still great friends with, I was playing his Uncle. And a nun had given me this funny cap, a scarf, maybe some glasses to wear-
MA: Good acting with props…!
CS: On the night there was thousands of people (in reality, it was probably 120 parents), and there was one microphone on a stand. So you had to walk up and say your line. I remember they were introducing all of the cast. I think the idea was we were meant to take a bow when our name was said, to identify us to the audience. But I remember thinking, “I’m going to do this in character”. And so rather then just do a bow, I took the pipe and did this (Stollery gestures with flourish, waving the pipe above his head)…the audience fell about laughing.
MA: You felt that moment of having them!
CS: It could have gone either way. I could have been humiliated. But it fell the other side. And I felt this enormous power in it.
MA: And you’ve been addicted ever since…
CS: That has always been what I loved. Refining moments where you feel you have the audience. I absolutely love it.
MA: You went to NIDA?
CS: I did.
MA: How old were you?
MA: Did you like it?
CS: Did I like it?! We are talking about NIDA here?
MA: (laughter) I guess no one ever says they ‘liked’ drama school. Let me try again…What did it give you?
CS: It was absolutely invaluable. I mean, I was finally doing what I wanted to do for years. When I was growing up, everyone seemed to be obsessed with films and theatre and actors, but no one ever said they wanted to be an actor. They wanted to be dentists. And I thought, “oh, I get it, it’s like sex. No one is ever really very upfront about it”. So I thought everyone was in the same position as me.
MA: What, that everyone secretly wanted to be an actor?
CS: Yeah. So I never spoke about it. But then they went off and became dentists and accountants, and I thought “…really?”. I finally fessed up and became an actor. It’s only in later years that I have realised that all my accountant friends did want to become actors-
MA: Did they?!
CS: Yeah, and now they are lawyers. Who want to try stand up comedy.
MA: I had a similar thing though. I went to a youth theatre where I grew up and all my friends and I were very passionate about being in shows, and the whole time I thought they were like me, and really thought they were going to do it. Of course they finished school and studied speech pathology and other things, and I was standing there thinking, “oh, I thought we were all going to actually do those things we dreamt and talked about!”
CS: I know! That’s it! It was the same. It was never in doubt. And it’s still not – as exhausting as the business can be. And dispiriting and heartbreaking and all those things. I still can’t imagine turning my back on it. It’s a bit of a torture actually.
MA: I had a conversation recently with another artist about when you are at a low point, feeling creatively frustrated or out of work or whatever, and then you realise, “this could be it” and you STILL want to keep going. That’s the moment I think that you know you’re never going to do anything else. Because on the shitest day you still can’t let go.
CS: I know. It’s sad. It really is.
MA: Well, how pathetic of us. Excellent.
MA: You strike me as, well, you are the kind of actor I certainly aspire to be – in that you don’t ever seem to ever stop working, you’ve worked with all the main stage and independent theatre companies I can think of, done a heap of TV and film. Have had such a great run, a great gamut of experiences. Are you very discerning with the gigs you take? Or do you just want to work?
CS: I pretty much just want to work. I find it really hard to say ‘no’ actually. There have been times I have made deliberate choices – some of them bad ones! The best ones have been flukes. Like years ago I did a co-op at The Old Fitz and I had no idea what it would be like. It was a new script, and I didn’t know many people doing it. But decided to do it. And oh my god, it was a defining moment – not professionally, but personally, really.
CS: Well it was written by Toby Schmitz…
CS: And Travis Cotton. The music was by Tim Minchin. It starred Ewen Leslie. Rohan Nichol. Emma Jackson. All who have become very close friends of mine. So it was a defining turning point for me. You just never know when something is going to deliver. And alternatively, the other way around, I’ve done stuff where on paper it looked fantastic and I thought it was going to be great, and it turned out to be a chore. You never know what you’re going to get, so there is a fair amount of trust involved. I haven’t been very strategic though. I think, especially in my early days, I had opportunities to go overseas-
MA: I wanted to ask you about that actually. Cause I think your actor identity is pretty Australian… I feel like now, young actors get out of drama school and kill time until they can get to LA. Which is fine…but did you ever think about going there?
CS: Well I was going to go. Back when I was the ‘right’ age, 24 or 25, and I’d just done series television here. But my agent discouraged me from going. She said, “no, no do something here…”. Because this was pre-Russell… it was still only Mel and Judy who had gone that way.
MA: The Cate era was yet to come!
CS: Yes, Cate would’ve only just graduated. And I think my agent was right, in a way. LA is a town you really want to be invited to.
MA: Do you still think about working there?
CS: Oh, I do. In fact I’m finally in the process of getting an 01 visa together. I don’t know why I’ve left it this long. I guess I’ve gone with whatever is in front of me, and that has played out.
MA: What’s the impetus to go there? A bigger or new pool to play in?
CS: It is..it is…and things have changed here…When I first started out as an actor, the priorities in the business were very very different. It used to be that your chops as an actor were earnt on the stage, and then maybe you might branch out and do some film. Whereas now, if you want to get a job onstage you have to have a TV/film profile. It’s completely turned around the other way.
CS: I don’t want to give up what I have here. I baulked at the idea of moving over there permanently. It is a great life here in Australia. But if you can be back and forward. Things are a lot easier now with doing that. You can audition here for something there.
MA: That’s it. That’s what has changed. The world is smaller.
The Company He Keeps
MA: If this article is titled ‘How We Do What We Do’, did NIDA give you a particular technique or style I guess of acting that you subscribe to?… At risk of revealing your secrets…
CS: If I reveal them, please let me know what they are…! No, I think there have been many little things, that I guess that become custom over time, that I wouldn’t be clear about what they are. Certainly the practise of doing it everyday. You know? I first worked with John Bell at NIDA. I worked with Gale Edwards there. With Nick Enright. It was the practise of doing it. It was invaluable. I got seen. I got an agent straight out of NIDA. Young actors ask me today about that – how to get an agent – and I have no idea. It’s so much harder now. Coming out of NIDA in those days you were pretty much guaranteed of getting some sort of representation. And now it’s like you have to go and make your own work. And that’s a pretty frightening thing to happen after 3 years of study, no representation.
MA: You’ve worked with a lot of famous people.
MA: Who have you learnt the most from? Who has inspired you? The ones you watch from the wings and think, “fuck, you are incredible”.
CS: Well, you know, you would have to be obtuse to say anyone other than Ms Blanchett (Stollery co-starred in STC’s Gross und Klein with Cate last year, touring to Europe).
MA: She is good at her job.
CS: She is good at ALL her jobs. She has quite a few hats she wears and she is pretty faultless in all of them. Yeah, I think she has cloned herself and there are actually 4 of her.
CS: Her work ethic is amazing. She sweat blood out there every night. And in London she was on death’s door. Had a terrible flu. And no one knew in the audience, but she would come off stage and collapse. Just incredible commitment and positivity. And smart.
MA: She is an intelligent actor.
CS: But the big highlight for me was working with John Cleese!
MA: For his comedy tour? I auditioned for that!
CS: Oh did you?! Well fortunately I’m good friends with Bille Brown, god bless his soul, and he is really good friends with John. They did Fierce Creatures together. And so Bille recommended me to him. And I just turned up, didn’t know what the project was, but oh my god! That was the most amazing thing! It was 2 minutes on stage and only a couple of shows but I was a Monty Python NUT when I was younger-
MA: Oh my god! That would have been such a thrill!
CS: I thought perhaps he could be a cantankerous old fuckwit…but from the minute I walked in the room he was so beautiful. Honestly, he was just delightful. And after the first run that we did in The Opera House, he came backstage and said, “Why do you think the moustache gag isn’t getting the laugh that it should?” – John Cleese is asking ME for a note! So I said, “you know I think the music is too long in that bit” and so on, and he said, “Right!” and off he goes to cut the music down. So this memory of a 13 year old kid who watched Fawlty Towers getting to play with his hero AND being asked for a note…It would have to be the highlight of everything!
Life Upon The Wicked Stage
MA: Sandy Meisner wrote that it takes 20 years to be an actor. How do you feel now that you have passed that benchmark? Does the insecurity level or the torture decrease as you get older?
CS: As an actor? No, I don’t think so. I mean, I’ve never had stage fright. I feel more at ease on stage than anywhere else. For me there could be no safer place in the world. Because we’ve done it a hundred times. Some brilliant playwright has given me great words. Life is where you should be terrified. I have to write my own script every minute of the day – and I don’t know what’s going to come next! Th-at’s terrifying! The stage is comfy security.
MA: Yep. I have had it said to me more than once that I’m a little bit socially backward and not that excellent in real life but when I’m on stage I seem extremely relaxed and calm. And I get that. I do feel very comfortable and it’s weird that I give myself permission in that realm to just…I feel like it’s limitless.
CS: Yeah. Me too. I know what you feel. You understand what I’m saying. Life is hard. Acting is easy.
CS: Because the parameters are clear. It’s a shared lie.
MA: It’s a beautiful agreement we all enter into.
CS: A complicité we all enter into, yes. Whereas in life we have no idea what the rules are. I have no idea.
MA: There are rules?! Where do I find the rules?!
CS: Ah yes apparently, but everyone has different rules.
MA: Ah shit.
CS: So does it get easier? Some things do. Hopefully. I still enjoy it. I relish the challenge.
MA: Well, there’d be a problem if that ever changes…
Marika Aubrey is an Australian actor, singer and cabaret artist. Visit marikaaubrey.com for more information