WHEN Kerry Armstrong, Tim Robbins and John Cusack auditioned for Saturday Night Live only Kerry got offered the gig. But she turned it down to do Shakespeare on stage.
When the Shakespeare run ended she was back in Australia and doing SeaChange – and promptly got cut out of the first six episodes because she wasn’t funny enough. SNL hadn’t thought so.
But she got her own back and turned the Jelly-with-a-backbone into one of Australian TV’s much-loved characters. Heather Jelly was as solid as they come. Like Kerry herself. Just don’t call her a celebrity.
On the eve of her latest show, The Wrong Girl for Channel 10, Kerry has made a new movie about life at street level in Melbourne, called Pawno.
I s’pose this is your first Pawno. Huh! When my three sons heard the name of this film they were absolutely horrified! They said Mum, no! They were laughing but they also said it’ll take too long to explain to all the other kids that I was making a movie called Pawno! And my mother, who’s just divine, said to me: “Now I haven’t mentioned it to the girls at the gym or the girls I run round the lake with because I’m just trying to work my way round the title!”
Clearly, it’s a play on words. It means “pawnbroker”. It could've been called The Pawn Shop but Pawno of course has that double-entendre.
Whom do you play? My role is beautiful. It’s been so clearly defined for me because there were hints Damian [Hill], who wrote the script and who’s the lead actor [and co-producer], based it on parts of someone very close to him. I play a mother who’s supposedly looking for her items of jewellery in a pawn shop but what she's really looking for is a clue to where her son’s been and how he disappeared.
There's the most beautiful poignant moment when she doesn’t seem to be worried that he sold her diamonds and her rubies and her necklaces. It's when John Brumpton [as Les Underwood], who’s extraordinary in this film, says he was here four weeks ago and she asks did he sell his PlayStation? She’s heartbroken and remembers her son when he was five and six and the thing he loved best. And now he’s sold it. Now he’s somewhere in the abyss of drugs and an addict, not even called by name, just known as an addict. Yeah, that's my role.
I’m deeply aware that when I do work for a writer I’m representing a whole section of the community who are so, so, so devastated by what’s happening. So for me it’s really important to commit to that and to make sure I honour what people are going through.
The key scene for me is when you're standing alone in your house, not moving, almost a statue, only brief but the camera plays on you and your acting is heart-wrenching. It’s a credit to you that you appear to be doing nothing and yet are so profoundly moving . . . Ah. It's interesting – thanks for saying that Ian – I've been teaching acting for the last four years because I needed to stop acting while my boys were going through years 10, 11, 12, because I knew there'd be more football pick-ups and lunches than one could do during 14 hours on yet another ABC series.
It’s been really interesting teaching because you have to understand the alchemy between human beings which is the basis of acting the truth. The audience knows what you're thinking, they can actually feel it, so if you don't believe what you're thinking you're just putting a false bit of acting on top of it which doesn't correlate and, you know, you're going to really, really decimate any truth.
Funnily enough I’ve just appeared in another film in which I knew I'd actually bombed terribly. I thought wow, that went out on the full; that wasn't even a point. It was nowhere near the goal, Kerry. And I watched myself in post and thought isn't it wonderful that in life you can choose to be extraordinary and then you need to have the courage to be dreadfully bad.
Or you can just hedge your bets and be mediocre for your whole life.
My decision has been to try to aim for the stars which means that when I miss it gets very, very dark [laughs] and not that good.
How honest are you! Oh, you know, I think we need to push ourselves. When I look at Jacki Weaver’s work as an actor I’m so thrilled and so proud she exists because we seem to have killed off most of our actresses who are over 50 [laughs] and Jacki sort of rose back up to say: “I'm here, I matter and watch me roar!”
Well you matter, too! You say “yet another ABC show” but they’ve made you a part of our lives. Yes, funny in a way. My brother said: “You're so lucky, everything you’re in does really well.” And he said: “What's the common denominator?” [smiles] I said I don't know, they're all so different. And he's looking at me and he said: “You’re a classic!”
He asked me if it’s because I won't stop until it's believable, it’s like my pledge to the viewers is to make sure they’re entertained. I thought about it because it really matters to me, coming back to Australia from Hollywood and the whole of the Eighties, it really matters to me to come back here and contribute in a way.
It’s so fascinating to be trying to do your job rather than trying to keep your job. There's a big difference. And what I love about Pawno is that I watched Paul Ireland direct it with absolute courage. He stepped into this role of first-time director and conduct like Leonard Bernstein at Carnegie Hall – it was absolutely fantastic.
We've got Damian's script which is beautiful and Damian in the lead role and he has so much beauty as a man. It’s the first time in a long, long while in Australia we've really seen a clear-hearted broken man on film.
He brings to the screen I think a really important part of the Australian male, which is somebody trying with all their heart to be better every day and to actually believe in life and love.
There are people on the streets of Footscray who struggle to survive and then there are people who are absolutely and utterly determined to survive well, even on half a can of noodles. I think for me this role was important because she's among so much of society and humanity and I love that I'm one aspect of that.
Having done so much TV work, from Prisoner to Skyways, SeaChange to MDA and beyond, has made you a part of families across the country and yet you've always eschewed the notion of celebrity. How important is it to have some celebrity for the sake of your career? Or can you completely ignore it? Ian, don't have any notion, any association, any affiliation with the word “celebrity” or the entire thing. I refuse, until my dying breath, I positively refuse to be associated with that word. It's hilarious. It's just not even, I’d rather be called anything other than a celebrity. I’d wear any other badge.
I think if you’re going to celebrate something it should be for good reason and what we've done is taken everyone, every single person in the world, and you can watch anyone on My Kitchen Rules or Married at First Sight or any of those shows and they know that any second they’ll be the most famous person in Australia.
The notion of celebrity is just a sheer accident and it’s who’s the loudest? Who wants to be seen the most? That’s the opposite of wanting to be an actor, Ian. As an actor, I just want to disappear.
The irony is that the industry, especially in the US, and let’s go back to the ’80s when shows like Dynasty were based on the notion of celebrity, presenting their stars as glamorous and untouchable. Oh, you know what? I’m gonna disagree with you Ian in a sense that when you say Dynasty was based on the notion of celebrity. I worked with John Forsythe and Joan Collins and they weren't celebrities, they were actors. They knew it was a high comedy spoof. They understood that.
And everybody working on that show knew what they were doing, everyone was a trained actor. Every now and then they’d bring in a Catherine Oxenberg from London to do a wee role and funnily enough those roles never stayed, they never stuck, because they actually couldn't keep up with the rest of the cast.
Joan Collins was so, so extraordinarily professional. She'd arrive every day on set at, you know, 5am, walk in with hair pulled back, in a velour tracksuit, beautiful, beautiful woman, she must have been in her late 50s, and she’d come out three hours later from makeup looking like a transvestite [smiles].
But she could act! Someone saying they can act is like someone saying I’m a surgeon and I can take your appendix out, just pull over to the side of the road and I'll begin [smiles].
When you’re opposite somebody who knows how to take out an appendix you're pretty sure they're in the right area but lots of times when I’m standing on stage with people and, literally, it looks like they're about to chop off a leg rather than take out an appendix! They don’t know what they're doing! [smiles]
Stanley Tucci and I did a play with Tom Stoppard years ago and some of the actors were untrained or whatever and Tom Stoppard said the Australian seems to be the only one who knows what's going on and her friend over there, Stanley Tucci.
And I remember saying to Stanley isn’t it funny you've trained and I’ve trained and when you're honouring a writer you're actually delving into something much deeper than just trying to fake being believable?
So, yes, I love that there's a discrepancy between “celebrity” and “acting”, you know. God bless everyone who wants to be a celebrity, that's great. But it's not what I want to be!
SeaChange even cemented a new word into the Australian vernacular. So many people took a lot away from that show. What did you take away from it? Ah, I loved it because Andrew and Knight and Deb Cox were such brilliant, brilliant writers and Heather Jelly -- you know, I got cut out of the first six episodes?
They said I wasn’t funny. I thought I was funny and I wasn't. I remember someone saying you think you're Barry Humphries but you’re not funny. And I remember thinking yeah, I just turned down Saturday Night Live – Bill Murray thought I was funny! [smiles]
And I came back to Australia and what I got out of it was that the underdog can rise here. I had so much support from costumes and props who just kept piling Heather Jelly with all this stuff.
We did a really important thing. John Howard [as her pompous bogan husband Bob Jelly] and I, and Bryony [Price] and Cameron [Nugent] who played our kids Jules and Craig, the producers wanted us to hate each other, the whole Jelly family.
On the first day of rehearsals I asked could we try and love each other? We'll let everybody else think the Jellys are dreadful but it'd be really good if we loved each other. And Ray Argall and Sue Brooks, the directors, and Alison Telford, the casting woman, were brilliant and they said yeah, let's do that.
So also what I took away from SeaChange was that audiences will watch you if you care about each other, if you actually put your heart on your sleeve.
I’m really lucky 'cos Kevin Harrington and I have just start working together on a new series for Channel 10 called The Wrong Girl. Kevin of course played the Dad who sat with his son at the end of every episode. He's a magnificent actor.
You said no to Saturday Night Live? I did. Tim Robbins and John Cusack have a theatre company called The Actors Gang and I was part of it and Saturday Night Live flew all three of us there to audition. I was the last one to test and I got in and Tim didn’t and John didn't. And I was also offered a part with the Royal Shakespeare Company at the same time, Isabella in Measure for Measure, which was my dream role.
And my agent said to me: “OK, this is your choice -- you can get 15 grand a week and a three-picture deal on Saturday Night Live or you can get 500 a week for three months and do the largest female role in Shakespeare. Which are you taking?”
I said I'm gonna do Isabella and Shakespeare. And he said: “And this is why I have Harrison Ford on my books so I can actually bear to have Kerry Armstrong on my books.” [laughs]
■ Pawno is now screening in selected cinemas.
■ Read Ian Horner’s other celebrity interviews here.