Marika Aubrey’s feature series – How We Do What We Do – continues today on AussieTheatre.
At the Melbourne Vietnam Noodle House, over a shared bowl of raw beef pho, Virginia and I meet after her very very long shoot day on the set of Channel 7’s ‘dramedy’ series Winners and Losers.
On our TV screens for the better part of a decade, and squeezing in solo cabaret work in any spare time, Virginia and I chat about facing our fears, pushing the boundaries – and compete for who is funnier (She is).
An itch to scratch
VG: How is life post-South Pacific?
VG: Excellent. And you’re very good in it. Which really helps. I mean, you’re a powerhouse anyway, but it’s a great piece for you. Come on stage, make some jokes, kiss a girl…
VG: A regular Wednesday.
MA: We should talk about how we do what we do…
VG: Oh yes, let’s…
MA: How did you start in the biz? You trained yeah? WAPPA?
VG: Yep. But I wanted to do this my entire life. And I’ve tried to give it up about three times. You know, ‘there’s no future in this, I gotta get a real job’, and it just didn’t stick. Like each time, I ended up spending all of my time doing amateur theatre. So, half way through my second year of Uni-
VG: Arts degree in English Lit… I wasn’t turning up to classes, I was doing all of my essays 40 minutes before they were due, and spending all of my time in a lightless hall called ‘The Cellar’ – which was the Dramatic Society’s tiny little room, where we would stick audiences in this fire trap and put on these little Tommy Murphy shows (Murphy would go on to pen the award winning Holding The Man and Saturn’s Return). Eventually I thought, I just have to audition for drama school and give this a go. I gave myself until I was 30 years old. I’ll put everything in until I’m 30 and if I can’t support myself by then, I’ll do another degree, I’ll be an academic, or a writer… So I gave myself until I was 30 (Virginia is 31. Tick)
MA: Did you do ‘acting’ or ‘musical theatre’?
MA: Why did you choose acting? Cause I did that too.
VG: Really?!?! Where?
MA: Theatre Nepean
VG: Oh yes! That was a good course…it doesn’t exist anymore, does it?
MA: No. Damn shame.
VG: That’s shit. That’s astonishes me too because you’ve got the greatest belt in the business. The idea that you didn’t study musical theatre is laughable.
MA: Ha! But drama school was alright for you?
VG: Drama school was… good, hard, and emotional nightmare. I hated myself consistently. I think everybody does at drama school. You’re in your early twenties and you’re like (Virginia wildly gestures and in funny voice) ‘What am I? I don’t know! Do I love anyone, let alone myself?!? God, I spend all this time with myself. I hate myself so much!’ (huge laughter)
And then in 3rd year, we did this screen acting course-
MA: Did you like screen work straight away at drama school?
VG: Nah! It’s not that I disliked it, I just thought I will never work on screen. I’ve got a face like Mt Rushmore. I’m built for the gods. I’m nearly 6ft tall, and every choice I make in life is (Virginia gesticulates big and dramatic)-
MA: You’re 1500 seats?
VG: Correct. And I’ll sell em out every night!
MA: I’m Broadway!
VG: And so I thought, oh this TV stuff is all very delightful, but I will NEVER get work on screen. It won’t happen.
MA: How did it happen?
VG: They were looking for the ‘new face’ of All Saints (Channel 7’s popular long running medical drama). They had cast the net very wide. The producer at the time was really interested and really committed to new faces.
MA: How very Grey’s Anatomy of her.
VG: Is that a thing?
MA: Yeah. The creator of that show didn’t want it to be a bunch of white TV-perfect established faces… and that’s why if you look at that cast, without being tokenistic about it all, they happen to have a cast that is made up of really diverse looking people.
VG: Yes! And Christina (Sandra Oh)…surely one of the greatest, most beautiful actresses
MA: But she’s not there because she’s Korean, they don’t make a thing of it. She just happens to be Korean.
VG: And that character is such a wonderful cross section of the female psyche, you know? Her decision making – competitive, ambitious, emotionless decisions… I love that. And you never see that in women in storytelling. Or you rarely see it.
MA: Yep… We got sidetracked!
VG: Right! So Channel 7 were looking for a new face. The brief read: “young, beautiful waif-like. The kind of girl who’d pick a flower and put it in her hair on the way to work”…and I went, well, that’s NOT this kid (pointing at herself). I’m just not that girl. But I thought, ok, I’ll learn it a million different ways and be ready to do whatever they need.
MA: This was all still while you were at WAAPA?
VG: Yes. And I did the casting as a tape to be sent in. So did the whole class. And never thought of it again. And our teacher said, ‘nothing will come of this, but we’re sending it because they’re casting the net wide and it’s a great experience for you all’. And I get a call about a week before I’m due to finish drama school – in the middle of showcase – and the school says Channel 7 want me to come in and have a little chat. They don’t want you for the flower-in-the-hair girl (later played by Jolene Anderson), but they want you to come in and read for a bit of the Nursing Unit Manager character. Went in. Read. Went back in. I was still doing Showcase at night. Went in a third time with different directors. And the whole time I thought, ‘oh they don’t want me. This isn’t a thing’… Then they called me 3 days before Christmas and said, ‘Happy Christmas, you have a 3-year deal with Channel 7’ and I got off the phone and ran into my parents and screamed, “I’m going to be Georgie Parker!!!”
VG: And it was NEVER meant to happen like that!
Time on Ward 17
MA: It’s amazing that you came out of drama school and have been pretty much on television ever since.
VG: Yes, and weirdly, I feel like what I’ve been doing is working back to the path I originally thought I’d take (and the time of publication, Virginia is slated to star in The Production Company’s Pirates of Penzance).
MA: What was the experience like of coming straight out of an institution and going directly into an established – and very famous – prime time TV show?
VG: Terrifying! It was so frightening! Everything I did was ruled by fear. Every choice I made was about please-don’t-fire-me!!! Everything was about not being worthy enough… even though everyone was SO nice, and the producers really took time to make me feel comfortable. They wanted me to feel safe. But I was like, ‘I don’t deserve to feel safe! There are better people out there!’
MA: Wow. And how did you overcome that stuff?
VG: Okay… How did I overcome that stuff? After a while, the fact that I wasn’t getting fired wore me down (laughter). I thought I must be doing something alright. And… just occasionally I’d do things where I’d think ‘yes, I felt like I got that’. It only happened once every 8 weeks, and for only one take, but I’d be like, ‘YES!’ But it took me, definitely towards the end of three years to feel like I even faintly deserved it.
MA: So, was getting Winners and Losers a nice change to feel ‘I’m here, and I’m older, and I know what I’m doing’? (Virginia currently plays Frances James on the popular TV series focussing on 4 women who were best friends in high school reuniting after taking different paths into adulthood)
VG: Totally! But even when All Saints ended I was like, ‘I’ll never work again!’ It never ends.
MA: I agree. I have this theory that Nicole Kidman is sitting at home right now complaining, ‘oh they won’t see me for that role. They never think of me that way. I’ll never go to the Oscars again’. I just think it exists on every level, and never stops because we’re artistic, sensitive creatures who love what we do.
VG: Totally. But there are things I have learnt to do in the last two years… I’ve realised how much time I waste on self doubt and double thinking a decision. Doing the scene in the car on the way home and going, ‘That was it! That was what the director meant! Ugh!’ to the rear view mirror. I’ve realised how much time I waste on that and I’ve slowly become more economical. I’ve tried to clean out some of that clutter in my brain because it’s not serving anybody. It doesn’t make me playful and alive on set. And I couldn’t say categorically that it results in better work. I hope it does. But I feel like it does. And also results in better working practices.
MA: Do you have a particular process?
VG: Well television is so quick, as you know, and the great directors are very trusting of you knowing your character, so that you often go with your first instinct and then learn to back it. That’s the most marketable skill in television, I reckon. Just going, ‘Right! Well I’ve done it once. I’ve hit this mark. They are now lining up these cameras on me, so I don’t have time to think, “oh, that doesn’t feel supported anymore”… You have to think, I can do this again and again for you. We don’t have time to change it. I can sell this moment from here now. I can keep it fresh and make it honest from here’.
MA: Something I find interesting, as would anyone who knows you…you are one of THE funniest people I know-
VG: That’s high praise coming from you, one of the funniest people alive.
MA: That is not true.
VG: Yes it is. You and Celeste Barber (actress from All Saints, Home and Away and The Matty Johns Show).
MA: Well, you two are in my top 5. Easily.
VG: Bullshit! That’s really REALLY high praise. She is incredible. Someone give Celeste Barber her own show.
MA: Yes! The point is though, you do get cast predominantly as these characters that have a tremendous strong earthy gravitas-
VG: -Uptight often…!
MA: And don’t get me wrong, you are an excellent dramatic actress, but I just think it’s so funny that people who perhaps only see you on TV, don’t actually know that-
VG: I’m a f*#king goofball?
MA: Yes. Anyone who is in your company is always belly laughing. Do you wish you were doing more comedy?
VG: That’s one of the huge attractions of Winners and Losers. There are four of us, so one of us will generally be carrying the heavy emotional storyline. Often a second character is helping that one through their story. And then there will usually be two carrying the light material, who are doing wacky stuff – falling over things, falling in love. So I’ve gotten to do some slapstick and 2 minute comedic monologues which I LOVED. But sometimes I would love to do a sketch show so much.
MA: I could see you in that world.
VG: I would love to be putting on 6 wigs and just going punchline to punchline. That would be awesome.
MA: Well, you look at an actress like Catherine Tate, being classically trained, thought she’d be doing legit theatre, and became such a famous sketch comedy artist-
VG: Bullshit! I didn’t know that!
MA: Yeah, I saw her in an interview talking about it once.
VG: That’s really embarrassing, because she was doing Much Ado About Nothing when I was in London. And I thought, ‘I’m not going to go see sketch-comedy Cath do a Shakespeare!’ Oh, I’m mortified.
MA: It’s funny that it became her career. It fell that way. Who did you want to be when you were little?
VG: When I was little I used to watch a lot of Mel Brooks movies, and I was all about Madeline Kahn. It’s not as if we’re similar in any way, but her comic timing was so impeccable… my father and I would watch together and we can do whole scenes together. Who did you want to be when you grew up?
MA: When I was really little, I just wanted to be Shirley Temple. I used to watch those movies on a sunday, the ones Bill Collins would introduce. Those were the days.
VG: But now – I want to be iOTA.
MA: I think everyone wants to be iOTA.
MA: What irks you about our Australian industry?
VG: Ah… I see a lot of really really really amazing stuff coming out of independent theatre, of the Hayloft Project, or OpticNerve (Pale Blue Dot), Fraught Outfit, or Lucy Guerin Inc – I want to see those companies up on main stages…and I feel like if more people had the opportunity and the nous to get out and see that…If they were more personally motivated to see that stuff it would change the lives and change the face of the Australian theatre scene.
MA: And culture in Australia.
VG: Fingers crossed. That’d be awesome. And always the focus on Australian stories. That’s very important. The sound of Australian voices on Australian television is very important.
MA: Agree! So, what is left for you in terms of your career check-list?
VG: Wow. Well basically I was reading your chat with Mitchell Butel and he spoke to us at drama school 8 years ago. And I have always known his is the career I want to emulate. Doing heaps of things. Different spectrums. Always working. And he always makes great, inventive choices with joy.
MA: It’s so funny you say that, because when that interview went live online, so many people said that to me. Mitchell had cited Peter Carroll as his inspiration and many readers look to Mitchell for theirs. I love that.
And now for a song
MA: So, the last time we were together in Melbourne we were singing for our (liquid) supper at Chapel Off Chapel together.
VG: We f*#king were, weren’t we?! That was EXCELLENT
MA: That was the first time we’d really hung out properly
VG: And it was hanging out in a good chunk. We also hung out with iOTA-
MA: And nearly missed our flight to Sydney…’Paging Ms Virginia Gay, Mr Trevor Ashley, Ms Marika Aubrey…’ All of us, running for the plane, with disastrous hangovers, like naughty cabaret kids-
VG: We lost iOTA
MA: He didn’t MAKE the plane! Remember?!
VG: Wow. They were the days. Remember when we were young?
MA: Would your general public, Logie voting, TV audience and fans even be aware you can sing?
VG: I don’t know. All of the girls on the show can sing-
MA: That’s interesting.
VG: And like, really impeccably well. And we’re always on set being told to ‘shuuut uuuup!’. And we did do a charity gig together and it was incredibly excellent. I mean, generally people come to my cabaret shows knowing I can sing. It’s not like they come thinking, ‘Ugh. Let’s go see this woman explode on stage – Good luck TV lady!’
MA: You have done a fair bit of cabaret now, in-between television, is that something you want to do more of? Does it feed you artistically? Is that why you do it?
VG: Yes, but it’s also – and you would know this – there is an extraordinary high that comes when it’s just you in front of 150 people or however many it is, and a joke, that you have created lands and you get this wave of joy back. And you think, ‘I earned EVERY single part of that!”
MA: So it’s for the live audience buzz?
VG: It’s for that… cause it’s like a drug. The first time you do it – again, not sure about you – but I’m like, ‘why do I do this?
MA: ‘This was a mistake’
VG: ‘I don’t deserve to be here’
MA: ‘No one’s going to come. Oh god, they’re here. Why are they here?’
VG: ‘Everybody should go home’…then you get this terrible terrible rush. You get out, and you do it. And it’s exponentially bigger, because you’ve gone so low, then so high. I feel like for the rest of the run, you are chasing that high… Gillian Cosgriff (Melbourne singer/songwriter and cabaret artist) and I were talking about this the other day, you know? Why don’t I just live a safe life? Why do I risk every piece of self esteem I have for the love of an anonymous mass who will not keep me warm at night.
MA: Nor pay my rent.
VG: There’s no guarantee of that either because they’re fickle! Why don’t I just marry an architect and make a baby?!?!
VG: Because I would be bored out of my mind, that’s why. I have a terrible lack of patience for things that bore me. So I’m basically always looking for the next high.
Working now on ‘Winners and Losers’
MA: To what extent was the character in Winners and Losers written for you?
VG: It was.
MA: It really was?!
VG: Amazingly, yes. Bevan Lee who worked with me on ‘All Saints, who’s the network script executive. We’d had lots of chats about how the insecurities and memories of high school stay with you. And he then called me about a month after All Saints finished, and I was thinking of going to America and starting again from scratch, and then he called and said, ‘just stick around another month….there’s something in the pipeline I’d like you to see’. And I got the series bible, and next to each character had the name of the sort of person they’d want in the role. And it said: Frances (like Virginia Gay). And I read that and just went (gasps suddenly). Incredible! And it will never happen again. It will never be this good.
MA: Are you loving this project?
VG: It’s great. So good.
MA: Is it the female camaraderie? Or the fact it’s a bit more in your world than perhaps All Saints was? I mean, All Saints was almost a procedural.
VG: It was – exactly.
MA: One or two of the weekly story-lines were procedural by nature and usually wrapped up within the episode.
VG: Exactly. And you learnt to use those medical story-lines as metaphor for the subtext in your character.
MA: That’s what it must be like for actors on Law and Order. I mean, much more so. Because we see so little of their back story or personal relationships. They must just get the script and go ‘where can I add a lingering look to indicate some subtext’!
VG: Totally. And that’s why the fans are so loyal because they are always looking for that stuff. The connections they can make.
MA: Whereas Winners and Losers is much more a series in format.
VG: Yes. I wasn’t used to that. Because in All Saints, at the beginning of every episode, someone would storm through the emergency doors and scream: “My wife!!! My high stakes! I’m bringing the drama!!!” So I got the first scripts for Winners and Losers and thought, there’s a lot of me in this…And then I realised… shit – I’m the emergency doors. The four of us are the emergency doors. We bring the drama every week. It’s us.
MA: Wow. That’s amazing.
VG: But working and learning in All Saints was a different head space. Winners and Losers is joyful. It’s a beautiful tight, tiny cast. I mean, we’re shooting up at this farm at the moment. Often television looks very beautiful but actually at the shoot you’re cold, and wet-
MA: And it’s tiring
VG: Yes. It can often take a lot of effort to make it look effortless – And look, that’s one of the very few downsides to it! But today we were on this farm. It was 27 degrees, and we were all sitting at a table that had cheeses and fake wine and grapes on it, amongst wheat fields and dappled light. And I was sitting surrounded by some of the people I love most in the world, who make me laugh more than anyone else in the world… and at one point I had to say, “This is what the world promised us shooting television would be like!” And occasionally it really is what it looks like on the camera. And those are the moments you think, ‘this is the MOST incredible job’.