One of the greatest privileges and joys I have had in my career was standing next to Lisa McCune for a curtain call after a South Pacific performance.
The public persona of Australia’s so called ‘golden girl’ of Australian TV is pretty close to the mark – Lisa is simply one of the loveliest, warm and generous people you could ever hope to meet. As a colleague however, she is also a fiercely fine actress, displaying a flexibility and commitment on the rehearsal room floor that immediately explains her long and very successful career. Oh, and she has a very cheeky sense of humour, and is the first to have a laugh on set.
Ladies and gents, it’s a pleasure to offer you a chat between Lisa and I, this one over dinner in the Queensand Performing Arts Centre green room before a Friday night show.
If ever there was a class act, it’s Lisa McCune.
The beginning bit
MA: So, how did you start?
LM: Lara Mulcahy
MA: You’ve known her that long?!
LM: Yes, her Mum had a dancing school in Perth (where Lisa grew up), and I went to her dancing school, and did classes there and met Lara, and LOVED it. And then I auditioned for the academy (Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts) and I got into the musical theatre course. My plan had been to go to the Conservatorium.
MA: To study pure music?
LM: Yep, and then I decided that musical theatre would be a great thing for me, because I was never going to be an opera singer, and I didn’t know if standing around a piano was right for me. So I sang ‘Think of Me’ for my audition… and I got in. It was a life changing moment. You know, you kind of look at those later and see that. I had a bit of a moment the year before, when Geoff Gibbs who worked at the academy had seen me sing somewhere and said: ‘Who is that little girl? I want to talk to her about coming to the academy’. And that inspired me too. Isn’t it funny how sometimes people will say one thing to you and it can be a life changing thing.
MA: Yes… And so, what did that training give you?
LM: Discipline. I also worked out I’m really good at being institutionalised
MA: Which is why long term projects work?
LM: Yeah. I’m really good at series television. A lot of actors really shy away from that and I don’t, because I find that’s where I actually blossom. I blossom when I know people really well. I don’t know about you, do you find that?
LM: I’m better in a company.
MA: You don’t have a low boredom threshold?
LM: I do… but that’s why I love the company we have in our show for example (Opera Australia’s South Pacific, in which Lisa played Nellie Forbush, and Marika the Head Nurse). The Follies scene is an ever changing scene, it’s the highlight of the night. It’s like going out there and doing an impro. I find that really fun.
MA: Yep! But within a set parametre.
LM: Yeah. And I find I get ideas from people. I need to feed off people.
MA: It’s true. It’s such a comforting environment, being part of a company.
LM: Yes, it’s a family. We are a family. And coming back from Christmas break to the show was glorious. I found that inspiring. I work well with people. I talk constantly, it’s so
annoying, but if someone says something to me, I just go (mimes head exploding with ideas). It takes me off on other tangents, and I love that.
From MT to TV and back again
MA: You are most famous for your TV work, so how did that come about? Because that’s not necessarily a well trod path, is it? Graduating in musical theatre and becoming a prime time TV star. I mean, possibly there are people who would be surprised to hear you came from the musical theatre strand and not the acting strand at WAAPA.
LM: Well, when I finished at WAAPA, I was 19 years old, I was very young, which was very fortunate.
MA: Did you look younger than you actually were? Like now?!
LM: Totally. I looked 16. So that opened up a lot of doors for me. And on the TV shows that were being produced at that time, it was very rare to have a trained 19 year old on the market… now it’s very different.
MA: So, you were really cast-able.
LM: Yeah. But I had that discipline. I was used to working really long hours. And my first gig was a Coles commercial. And it was my first experience with cameras, and I just thought, ‘oh, wow, I LOVE this!’ I loved the camera thing, you know? It was really technical. And interestingly coming from a musical theatre background, I kind of had an innate sense of timing, with cameras. There’s something about it. We just seem to be good at it. We’re used to the way things ‘cut’ on a stage.
MA: Yeah… I hadn’t thought of it that way.
LM: You know how when you are doing a performance, and you are always aware of where the audience’s focus is going?
LM: That’s kind of like what working with cameras was like for me. So I kind of fell in love with the technical side of things. And my agent Robyn Gardiner said to me at the time, ‘You’re going to work on television’. And I thought, ‘Oh yeah right’, because all I wanted to do was Les Mis…!
LM: But interestingly for me it’s probably been why I ended up with the career I have had in musical theatre – because of my television profile.
MA: Yes. I mean, it’s probably harder for performers to do it the other way around to be honest.
LM: Totally. Would someone have taken a chance on me way back when if I hadn’t had a TV career…? Roger Hodgeman was amazing, because about 4 years into Blue Heelers he auditioned me for A Little Night Music. And he offered me the role. If I hadn’t have done that, I don’t think I would have ever gone back to musical theatre. Because it would have been too long.
MA: What?…You would’ve felt like maybe you couldn’t?
LM: Yeah. Cause I just hadn’t sung. I mean, I think the hardest thing for me to do now, when I go back to musicals, is the length of down time I’ve had in-between. I’m doing stuff with the kids, or working on something else, so going to singing every week is not something I get to do. So it takes me a while to get show fit.
MA: Do you have a particular method you adhere to or do you change your process within each project?
LM: I learn off people. Working with Peter Carroll blew me away.
MA: You are the second person I have interviewed for this series to have said that.
LM: I did Into the Woods with him at MTC and I would always get to the theatre really early.
MA: We are both compulsive early birds to the theatre!
LM: Yes! And Peter is meticulous with his warm-up. He is just such a calm performer. Same with (his daughter) Tamsin.
MA: I LOVE Tamsin. She is wonderful.
LM: Their work ethic is so great. And that work ethic is so important. I mean, it’s great to have a good time, but I discovered pretty early on that your work ethic has to be strong. I would sometimes shoot all day and then go to the theatre at night.
MA: Oh wow. You had periods of your life doing both?!
LM: It was just insane.
MA: That’s madness.
LM: I would be madly learning lines between scenes on stage. (Marika gasps)
It was unbelievable. I look back now, and I don’t know how I did it actually.
MA: So your process doesn’t differ hugely, say from film and TV, to stage?
LM: Oh, I think the physical side of theatre is so much greater than the mental torture of learning dialogue for television. The stamina required for each is different. I don’t know if you find that, when you need to get show fit? I mean, how many weeks are we into this season now, and I am only just feeling show fit.
MA: You wake up warm
LM: Yeah! It’s no longer a mountain to climb, it’s okay. I don’t know if it’s my age or 8 shows a week or-
MA: You are the star of our show Lisa!! You are on stage a lot!
LM: Do you find eight shows a lot? Just being here that amount of time?
MA: Well, yes, in terms of time consumption, it is a lot… but your show demands are far greater than mine on this one…!
Working with the Broadway’s best
MA: Well, we’ve had this conversation before, talking about how when our director Bartlett Sher was working with you, he’d said something along the lines of his job being to give an actor a choice, work with that, and then help them to choose the one that worked for them best. But with you, every single choice or direction he gave you, you could do!
LM: Ha! And there’s me, on the other side of the fence, so damn confused. I don’t know if you find this, but when you get a script, the more you get to know it, the more you start playing with the lines, and you see the infinite possibilities. So you need someone who is a good director, like Bart, to bring me back together again. Bart was amazing. He’s an inspiring guy. And he’s the best in the world!
MA: We were lucky to work with him. I think we all felt that. He was a real actor’s director.
LM: Yeah, and the notes. From where I was when he left Australia (having just started previews) to recently when he visited – I got streams of notes. He doesn’t let anything go. And I love that.
MA: Yes, but you are and I are note fiends!
LM: Yes! I love them! I need Bart to pull me in from the infinite possibilities. But that’s television training.
MA: Being able to make quick choices?
LM: Yeah. And also, young actors should never turn down working on Home and Away or Neighbours because the training that you get, the exposure to a different director every week.
MA: It’s a paid acting class
LM: And look who’s on those shows! Sonia Todd and Georgie Parker. I mean, even to be exposed to those people is fantastic!
On art versus motherhood
LM: I was an overcommitted youngster. I didn’t really go out. I was happy to give up everything.
MA: Yes. I get that.
LM: Until I had kids. Then that changed everything.
MA: Without dwelling on that, but as an artist who has children, and working crazy hours, as we do, and having a job that isn’t something you can start and finish at ‘X’ o’clock – how do you do that? How do you learn lines when you’ve got a screaming baby?
LM: You have to plan. And support. But that [kids] was not a part of my life I was willing to give up. I would give up my work – and miss it terribly – rather than miss having a family. I’d teach or I’d be involved in some aspect of it.
MA: Did you ever think you might give performing up for your kids? Because, it’s not like you have one kid – you have three!
MA: That, to me, is amazing.
LM: I think we are quite lucky, as women…we are able to do more than one thing at a time. I think of Anne Wood – she’s doing it brilliantly. Sharon Millerchip is a great working mum. It’s amazing the support system you get. But it’s that early morning thing, of getting up to make school lunches. When we were in Melbourne (with South Pacific) I’d get home from work at 11.30pm, and have to be up at 6am to get the kids ready for school. You just get very good at grabbing time. And I’m not prepared to have nannies or have a PA or any of that stuff because it defeats the purpose.
MA: Well, it wasn’t so long ago, if you were an artist, be it a painter or a musician or whatever, you weren’t serious if you had children. And now we live in a world where we can ‘have it all’ but at the same time, it’s hard. And arguably no different a battle for any working parent who works long hours. But because we are creators, and have to keep our voices in check and stay fit and learn lines, it is sometimes different.
LM: I think you have to be really organised. You have to have support. And yet if you are freelance, you have to earn a living. Which is a reality check. But acting is my hobby as well. I mean, I don’t have another hobby that I love to-
MA: You cook! You bake!
LM: Yes, I do…(laughter)
MA: And you do push-ups!
LM: Yes! But acting is my hobby. My passion. It’s what fuels me. And I’m really happy as a mum when I’m working.
MA: You think you’re a better artist cause you’re a mum?
LM: Yes. You’ve got so much to draw on and there’s a freedom about you, because you think, ‘this is not the be-all-and-end-all’.
The fame element
MA: Do you find because you have – how many Logies do you have?!
LM: It’s actually quite funny. I have ten.
MA: So they’re basically holding up pieces of furniture in your home?!
LM: It’s very very funny. But you know what’s great? All these years later, I’m not embarrassed by them anymore. I’m quite proud.
MA: By the 10th one, were you just a bit… [mimes being arsey & nonchalant]
LM: No, but I think everyone else was. By that stage there were mean cartoons. (laughter)
MA: What?! (laughter) The newspapers were drawing mean cartoons…?
LM: But I was so humbled by it. I felt like I almost had to work harder. I couldn’t rest on my laurels looking at my statuettes, because that’s not the actor I wanted to be.
MA: Do you find that fame has affected your ability as an artist to do things, or has it just given you freedom?
LM: Well it’s funny, because I used to think that. I thought, ‘oh, if only I had a name I’d get my foot in the door’. Then, when you get a profile, they don’t want to see you, because they think they know what you do. So they won’t give you an audition then either.
MA: So the Maggie Doyle thing is a double edged sword?
LM: Absolutely. Like, I’ve never done a film, a feature film, because I’m very much seen as a TV actor. But theatre has been my saving grace. Because it’s actually given me a tiny little bit of weight. I think that’s been good for me. Theatre is so well respected, it’s so-
MA: – people are immediately responsive. And I see that 8 shows a week when you come out for your bow. I literally watch the faces of people in the audience light up.
MA: You’ve brought them so much joy. It’s amazing. It’s immediate. There’s no other rush like it. Even when you’re having a shitty show, you walk out to bow – particularly in our show which is such a heartfelt piece – you walk out, even after a dud run, where someone’s fallen out of a cartwheel on stage-
(huge laughter as Lisa recalls the reference to her falling on stage accidentally instead of cartwheeling)
LM: Oh, that is up there with the most embarrassing moments, my god!!!
MA: That was amazing! But even after those shows, those faces are so excited to see you.
LM: I’m THRILLED when ‘mistakes’ like that happen. Because it’s tightrope walking. That to me, is what is so brilliant, when you have 2000 people in the house and you fuck up, it’s thrilling! And you just think ‘what do I do next?!’ And I love that. That’s what is so great about theatre. It’s not ‘cut! Let’s do that again’, you have to keep going.
The bucket list
MA: What challenges do you have left on your professional to-do list?
LM: I think that being a performer is a life-long education
LM: You never stop learning. I’d love to do more Sondheim. I would love to be responsible for other performers that I know, who are amazing, who may not have had the vehicle that’s catapulted them into the arena that I know they should be seen in. When I go away from our show and tell people of the talent on that stage! I hope I never stop being inspired by other performers. I’ll be interested to see what roles I move into-
MA: That’s interesting. Do you mean, as someone who has always looked inherently younger than their age, you’re excited to get into some ‘old’ roles at some point? You’re excited to see how your cast-ability alters?
LM: It is interesting. I mean, I’ve just started playing a mum for the first time, on TV, with Reef Doctors.
MA: Isn’t that mad? You’ve been a mum for so long but you haven’t ever played one.
LM: Yeah, but I skipped toddlers – my character has a 16 year old! That’s terrifying. (laughter)
MA: Ah, the world of television…
LM: It will be great to see what I do and where I go. I reckon I’m a good blank slate. Even though I have a certain look, with the blonde hair and the-girl-next-door tag, I’m a bit of a blank canvas, and I reckon you can throw lots of things at me and I’ll hopefully manifest it. I would love to look back and on my headstone it read, ‘Lisa McCune – Chameleon’. That to
me, would be the greatest compliment. That’s what I’d like to do.
MA: Are you aware that you’re going to be one of those old ladies that get’s up to present at the Logies, and everyone will stand up for you? Isn’t that exciting?
LM: I don’t know that I will be one of those treasures… Your desirability in the Australian industry ebbs and flows. I believe that.
MA: What grounds you then through that bullshit?
LM: Having a normal life on the other side. Something else. There’s always disappointments. The Cabaret experience for me was…(mimes shudder). I mean Twitter is a terrible platform for a performer. Performers of the future are going to have to develop thick skins very quickly, they will have to. Because when you sit and read stuff about yourself on Twitter….I’m horrified that people are so bored. So bored to write such nastiness. But at the end of the day you just think, well they’re wasting their time, I’m not wasting mine.
Read it, move on.
My skin’s thick now.