Interview: Susan Prior

“I’m really interested to see this film and see the dichotomy between comedy and truth which really is my flavour,” said Susan Prior when I asked her about her new film, Book Week, which recently wrapped filming.

Book Week is an anticipated new film from director Heath Davis, who made his directorial debut with the 2016 gambling drama Broke starring Steve Le Marquand as a disgraced sports-star-turned-gambling-addict attempting to pull himself out of the gutter and turn his life around.

Broke was one of the films of that year which really got under my skin and I could see that Heath was so passionate and that he puts his money, or lack of money, where his mouth is,” Prior said of her director.

Prior certainly left an impression on Davis because his compliments were equally effusive.

“Susan is easily the most hard working, passionate and prepared actress I’ve ever seen,” Davis told Cinema Australia.

“She puts her heart and soul into everything in order to find the truth of a scene. She lives and breathes it like all the greats.”

Prior’s body of work across film and theatre is an impressive one. She may not be a household name, but with three projects set to be released this year, as well as her high aspirations within the industry, it’s only a matter of time.

Airlie Dodds, Tiriel Mora, Rose Riley, Cindy Pritchard, Ben Scales, Susan Prior and Tommy Green in Book Week. Photo by Sie Kitts.

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Interview by Matthew Eeles

Researching your career is tough. It’s so hard to find information about you online. Is that intentional?
Look, I am a quiet achiever. Im probably pretty loud when you’re working with me but I keep to myself and I keep my head down. I’ve probably come out a little bit over the last five years and I guess up until that point I wanted to let my work speak for itself. I’m a big believer in growing so I still see myself as being in an apprenticeship. You never assume you know everything and you’re always learning. That’s where I’m coming from and I enjoy to learn a lot of different things from a lot of different people and not just from the people who they tell you to learn things from.
I’ve also done a lot of theatre and I’ve loved doing theatre as much as I’ve loved doing film. My film work has grown between my theatre work but this is my first year where I’ve made a definite decision to only do film and film aspects.

Does that include television?
Yes, television as well. Really good quality stuff. It took me a while to gain confidence in film because it kind of stuttered in between theatre. But it came to a point where I had done five plays in two years and I thought if I really wanted to concentrate on my other love of film then I really had to have some time away from theatre, so that’s what I’m doing.

The interviews available online are all during the release of The Rover. A lot of questions being asked were about working with Guy Pearce or Robert Pattinson, but nothing really about you or you career.
Did you see it as a benefit to your career to be answering questions about your male co-stars, or was it a hindrance?
It’s hard. Whatever comes comes, it doesn’t really bother me. It did cross my mind that people were asking about some of the amazing directors I’ve worked with, so I understand that angle. As I said, I’m a quiet achiever and I’m quite patient so I thought at the time that at some point it will turn and people will understand who I am and start to learn of my body of work which I’ve been quietly growing.

Quietly growing since Muriel’s Wedding.
[Laughs]. I know, right.

Your first credited role was in Muriel’s Wedding as Girl at Wedding. Is that where acting officially began for you?
I started in music, dance, photography and writing as a child. I was connected to the Australian Dance Theatre in their youth company called Mummy’s Little Darlings in South Australia. I was obsessed with dance and photography and music and writing. I was also crazy about sport. I was very shy so theatre and speaking other people’s words gave me a confidence I didn’t really have in real life. I made a decision that I wanted to get into NIDA so I went about making that happen. I wanted to make it hard for myself so instead of doing it in Adelaide where I was up against 250 people, I thought If I was any good I’d be able to make it in the big pool so I auditioned in Sydney just to make sure I was good enough to pursue this career. I got in and it was the greatest thing in my life at that point.
Of course NIDA was pretty much focused a lot on theatre, so gradually I’ve just grown this film thing on the side and It’s something I’m really passionate about.
As far as Muriel’s Wedding goes I just really wanted to be in that film. [Laughs]. A lot of people I knew were going to be in that film and there was a big buzz about it at the time so I felt completely chuffed to be, what was it? Girl at wedding?

Girl at Wedding.
[Laughs]. Completely chuffed. I learnt a lot.

Did you ever consider audition for the role of Muriel.
No, I didn’t, but I did audition for the role of Checkout Chick and Checkout Chick became Girl at Wedding. [Laughs].

Tell us about that buzz you mentioned surrounding this film.
I knew a lot of people involved. I knew a lot of my contemporaries were going to be in it and I just wanted to be a part of that crew. There was a massive buzz about Toni Collette right from the beginning because she had already been in Spotswood and I knew her personally and I admired her greatly. I just thought it would be amazing to be in it and it was.
I ended up being in Scotland after it came out and it was a really moving experience to see it.

Susan Prior in Puberty Blues. Photo by John Brawley.

Now that you have a solid portfolio behind you are you a little more choosy when it comes to the roles you want to take on?
I think so. If I choose to do something I’ll look at it with a fine-tooth comb. I’ll look at what the director has done and what the writer has done and who else is involved. I’ll go through it thoroughly and If I think I can learn something and be challenged and give something back to the production then I’d like to be involved. I want to be one hundred percent committed. There’s nothing worse than feeling you’re half in and half out.
I’m still growing.

So after you’ve done your research, what is it that attracts you to a particular character?
It depends. Sometimes it’s the writing, other times it’s someone else involved and of course it’s whether or not it’s a character whose story I think is worth telling. I definitely feel stronger about expanding out to other parts of the world. I have a British passport and I have an American manager so I’m in the process of feeling my way around other nationalities.

At the risk of sounding completely selfish I’d like to say no, don’t leave us!
[Laughs]. Well thank you. That’s very nice of you. I also feel like at some point I’m going to burst out and try these different things.
I was writing for Inside Film magazine on-and-off for a period of about ten years because I really wanted to learn about how the industry ticks and I wanted to ask all the questions I had to people and I learnt a lot from it. I’ve squirrelled away on a number of projects quietly which I’ve kind of left to the side but I know there’s something inside of me asking if I could possibly explore something other than acting. I think the only actors I get jealous of, which surprises me because I don’t often harbour jealousies, are actor/directors or actor/writers.

You’re one of those aren’t you? In 2003 you co-wrote a feature film called A Cold Summer. Can you tell us about that collaboration process?
That was so fantastic. That really pushed the boundaries with all of us and it was really exciting for that reason. All of us were at a turning point in our lives and a lot of us were discovering how the world works and where we fit in it. Paul Middleditch, who also directed, honed in on that. He was in a state of flux, going through a divorce, and if you see the film you’ll see it’s quite personal.
We got together at the Tropicana and we got so excited about this idea of working together and working in a Mike-Leigh-esque kind of way where you improvise the story, film it, transcribe it, edit it and then build it again with improvisation. It was really exhilarating and it uses all your skills and is completely invigorating.

Did the experience leave you wanting to write another film?
That’s the dream. I was in the UK a couple of years ago and I wanted to write something every day and see how far I could get and see how disciplined I was and things really did start to formulate.

You mentioned researching the people you work with. What made you want to work with David Michod again after Animal Kingdom?
I had known David for a very long time in a different capacity because he was the editor of Inside Film Magazine and I’ve always been interested in his work. I like David as a person and I like the way he ticks. I love it when people are very passionate about what they’re doing and David is one of those. I greatly admired that he had taken his time with Animal Kingdom and that he allowed that film to have a period of gestation. I loved working with him on set because he would allow us to discover new things about our character as we’re shooting, even to the point of developing my character for The Rover while I was having my hair cut just for that role. Of course I leapt at the opportunity to work with him again on The Rover after Animal Kingdom.
My character in The Rover is probably the closest character I’ve ever played who represents who I am inside.

Watching you in The Rover, I felt like you were the most comfortable you’ve been playing a character in a film.
It’s so strange because I’ve always felt quite boyish. I like that solitary character because I’m quite a solitary person. I liked the thought of learning about this relationship which comes out of nowhere. Directors who are passionate about the roles that their actors are playing are sometimes the most exciting directors to work with. When I was doing Puberty Blues I knew that Glendyn Ivin and Emma Freeman were really passionate about my character and it made me feel like I wanted to take the character as far as I could. I’d love to work with David again.

He’s working overseas at the moment. There’s you foot in the door.
[Laughs]. You can never assume anything. You can’t assume anything. I hope I’m lucky enough to get that chance to work with him again. I love all the Blue Tonguers. [Laughs].

Susan Prior in The Rover.

So let’s talk about Book Week which recently wrapped filming? Tell us about your character, Lee.
Lee is the head teacher.

A principal?
No she’s just under the principal. Let’s just say she’s under a principal who’s not quite as good as she is in the curly hierarchy of teaching. [Laughs]. I don’t want to give much away but she’s in love with the main character, Nicholas Cutler, who is played by Alan Dukes. It’s a secret relationship which we find out quickly because her character is in the book room at the beginning of the film with Mr. Cutler. It’s an amazing insight into the private lives of certain teachers. She’s a great character who definitely has a secret.

Did playing this character take you back to your school days?
Yes. I mean playing this type of character will always take you back to what it was like for you at school personally and you start to remember all the things you forgot like the teachers who cried because it was too much, or the teachers who would give you something to do then sit back and read a magazine so you mine a bit of that kind of thing. It makes you wonder how you would be if you were a teacher and always being on show and always having to be the sensible one and the prepared one and the mother, guider, the everything.
I went to Newtown High School of the Performing Arts for a day and that was really interesting. I was amazed by the tenacity of these teachers and the good-hearted nature of what they do which is something about teachers which I had completely forgotten about. They have the patience of Saints.
What we’ve explored in Book Week are some of the frustrations of trying to find a relationship when you’re working for such long days with all these children. It’s just so tiring.

Heath is a director who manages to get things done, despite being restricted by budget. What was it like to work with Heath.
He wooed me over a couple of beers. [Laughs]. He gave me the opportunity to explore this really interesting character. I loved Heath’s first film Broke and I love Steve Le Marquand as an actor and I knew there had been a bit of leeway with the script in that they would all work together to develop these characters. I found the passion in Broke to be palpable. It was one of the films of that year which really got under my skin and I could see that Heath was so passionate and that he puts his money, or lack of money, where his mouth is. You’ve got to have that drive to make a film happen because often you’ll be taking up so much of your life to bring this thing to life. I’ve got such a good feeling about Book Week.

Susan Prior in Book Week. Photo by Sie Kitts.

Our industry is very small and I love to make connections with people’s careers along the way. Max Cullen worked on Broke, and he also worked on a short film directed by Erin Good, who you’ve just worked with on Jade of Death.
What can you tell us about it and your role in Jade of Death?
I play an elegant bogan.

Your dream role!
[Laughs]. With everything I do I try to push the boundaries. With this particular role, Sara West and I pushed the boundaries of bogandry to the limit. [Laughs]. They gave me the best costume and the best T-shirt ever came from Sara West. There was so much atmosphere on set. But you see, these labours of love are the ones which are going to reap all the rewards. Just because they don’t have the money doesn’t mean they don’t have the passion and the dedication to make something great.

You have another film coming out this year called The Second, written by Stephen Lance who I adore. Can you tell us about that?
I’m a big admirer of Stephen, also director Mairi Cameron. I’ve known them for a very long time and they’re very passionate and they’re a great pair. It’s produced by Leanne Tonks who I think is a terrific producer.
Look, I had a five year period where I was cast in similar types of roles and It started with Puberty Blues. I decided I was going to change my body dynamic and explore different characters and different energy levels and in the case of The Second they were going to give me an opportunity to explore something I’ve never explored before and I’m really thankful to them for giving me this opportunity. Unfortunately, I can’t say too much about my character.

I’m interested to hear that you wanted to change your body dynamic to attract different roles because I found the two roles you’re best known for in recent years, Puberty Blues and Jasper Jones, are both very similar characters both emotionally and physically.
I had surgery just before my audition for Puberty Blues and I gained a bit of weight. I wanted to use whatever I was at the time to help me get the role. I loved that character and I really wanted her to be curvaceous and I really felt that because it was set in the 1970s that it was really important for her to be curvaceous and really important for her to have that change of rhythm. In between the seasons I did The Rover and I lost a bit of weight but then I wanted to go back to curvy for the remainder of Puberty Blues. I enjoyed that period of time but now I want to change my body dynamics again and explore different things. Puberty Blues and Jasper Jones was a sign that it was time to switch it up.

Book Week and The Second are currently in post-production.

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