Actor and director Simon Buchanan talks about her career so far, Shame, Hey Dad! and Chris Sun’s horrific new creature feature Boar!
“I felt this real sense of responsibility for this character.”
Interview by Matthew Eeles
I was interested to hear you’re currently directing Neighbours.
I am. I’ve been working crazy hours and it’s been completely nuts. It’s been a very interesting thing to do. I’ve been directing bits and bobs for quite a few years now. Stuff on a much smaller scale. To come into such a large machine has been an interesting learning curve. It’s been fascinating, hard, rewarding work. It’s great and I’m really enjoying it.
How did you land that gig?
[Laughs]. Well it’s a long story. I was in the show a few years back as an actor so I’ve kept in contact with them. I worked a little bit with Jason Herbison who’s producing the show and he asked me to come in and do my director’s attachment with them. I did that then ended up directing bits and pieces of it.
One of your first credited roles was Newsfront, arguably the greatest Australian film ever made. You would have been around ten at the time. What are your memories of that shoot?
That was an interesting time. I did a few films back then that have gone on to become much-loved and well-known films. I was just a kid so I didn’t really know what I was doing but I knew it was something I loved to do. I started when I was eight, and I was into the swing of it and just enjoying it as a hobby. I really didn’t know what I was getting into. I wanted to be a dancer so I started training at this school where they also did drama. My brother was doing the drama classes and he convinced me to do the classes with him. The first film I ever did was a film called A Good Thing Going with John Hargreaves, Veronica Lang and Chris Haywood, directed by Arch Nicholson. Miles and I got the roles of brother and sister and we immediately fell in love with being on set. It was around that time that I was getting these roles like Newsfront and one in My Brilliant Career. I don’t think I realised the importance of what was happening at the time, I just remember thinking it was fun.
I imagine Newsfront and My Brilliant Career being intense sets. What a great way to cut your teeth.
I know. And you don’t realise at the time that you’re on this big set. I remember working with Sam Neill and Judy Davis and them being so good with all of us kids and taking us under their wing. I remember a warmth, and I remember Gillian Armstrong being brilliant. It was a great time and I’m really glad I got to have that experience as a kid. I think when you grow up in the industry, and you work on so many different shows, you tend to develop a level of respect for the craft and for the people you work with, which is lovely to obtain that from such a young age. There are a lot of young people who come into the industry in there teens, and sometimes for the wrong reasons like money and fame, and you notice that respect for other people on the set is missing.
You mentioned your siblings Miles and Beth, who are both actors. What was it about your household that inspired the three of you to become performers?
It’s weird, because I don’t even know. Miles and I started as something to do during the school holidays. We were always very creative kids at home and my Mum was going through her divorce at the time so she enrolled us in this school to take our minds off of all of that and to get our creative juices flowing. We just fell in love with it. My sister who is four years younger than me fell into it because Mile and I were doing a children’s television show called Secret Valley and they needed extra actors to come in, so they invited her to come in.
You haven’t stopped acting since Newsfront, having appeared in a series, short film or feature almost every year since 1978. What role has been the most memorable for you.
I’d have to say Shame. Simply because it was such a huge experience. I guess the content too. It was such an intense experience for both Deb and I – Intense for every actor who worked on it. That stays with you when you do something like that.
Does it sit well with you that you’re most famous for your role in Hey Dad! considering its controversies?
I’m really proud of that show. It did well and people really loved it. It’s a shame that it’s slightly tainted now, just for that reason, that it was so loved. I have nothing but fond memories of doing that show and I’m still in contact with all the cast, except Robert of course. [Laughs]. I have a lot of happy memories around that time. We had a blast shooting that show, an absolute blast. It was amazing.
How much did things change for you once Shame was released?
That was an interesting time. We had just finished shooting the pilot for Hey Dad! and we really didn’t know if it was going to be picked up and made into a series. So it was something I had done and had put to the side thinking it was going to be something I’d never hear about again. I went off to Perth to do Shame and when I was nearing the end of the shoot I had a phone call saying Hey Dad! was going into production. I went straight off to do Hey Dad! and that just took off. I was swept up in all of that and it became an intense time publically for me, so I was just in that time frame. There was a long time between the shoot and the release of Shame, so I think by the time that came out I was in this show which was rating through the roof everywhere and then Shame came out which was then such a departure from what I was known for publically. It was great. I loved it because Shame was so different and dark compared to this character I was playing on TV. It worked in my favour because people could see I could do comedy as well as drama.
Would you agree that Shame is more relevant today than it’s ever been?
Yes. Isn’t that amazing. It’s had this restoration, it’s being shown again and it just holds up so well. It’s so relevant and that’s an amazing thing, but it’s also a sad thing because it shouldn’t be relevant today. I think it’s fascinating that it’s doing the rounds again. When we did the showing in Melbourne there were a lot of people who came up to me afterwards to tell me they couldn’t watch it when it first came out because they had heard it was really, really sad. They’re always so glad that they’ve finally gotten to see it now.
Having the main character die was completely unexpected and rare for that time.
They had written two endings. When they were trying to sell the script to a production house nobody wanted it unless Lizzy lived. That was the sticking point for the writers because they knew that Lizzie had to die. They knew there had to be some consequence here. They finally found who they were going to go with and they agreed to do it. But yeah, originally no one wanted Lizzie to die and it was a real problem. It’s really important that that happens because it has much more of an impact.
Did you sympathise with Lizzie at the time, or where you just ‘playing the role’?
I sympathised with Lizzie very much. I felt this real sense of responsibility for this character. We had this incredible four week period where Steve Jodrell flew the entire cast to Perth before the shoot so we could have this real bonding experience. By the time we walked on set we were comfortable with each other and we were vulnerable enough to really hit the deep end together. It was really clever of Steve and you just don’t see enough of that thing these days. Part of that focus was me going to the Rape Crisis Centre over there and I met girls who had been through the same thing as Lizzie. They told me their stories and it was just amazing. One girl at the end came up to me and said, “I’m really looking forward to seeing this. Please do us justice. Please tell our story.” It made me determined to get this right. We wanted it to be good and we wanted to make it real and get that message across.
The cast is made up of some incredible actors. What impact did working with Deborra-Lee and Gillian Jones have on you at the time?
I’ll never forget it. They were amazing, gorgeous women and we all bonded so closely together. They were great and very solid and were there for me like everyone was for each other. There was a real solidarity amongst the cast. No dramas, no ego and everyone was in it for the right reasons. I think that’s why it holds up because we all put everything we had into it.
You mentioned Steve Jodrell. This was his first feature film. It sounds like he embraced the challenge.
He was amazing. He was so well prepared. As a man, Steve is a really gentle soul with a lot of empathy. All of that emotional stuff where I would just cry and cry he was there, down on the ground with me giving us the time to get into our characters and give it our all. He was the perfect director for that film. He was perfect. We worked together once again on an episode of McLeod’s Daughters and it was lovely to reconnect with him again for these screenings.
Being a Dad, it’s difficult to imagine why anyone would reject Lizzie the way her father Tim does.
Tony is such a strong, strong man and he’s such a great actor. He was onboard like everyone else. He had real issues with the way Tim rejects his daughter and he wasn’t sure if he was going to be able to play him. He came to the rape crisis centre and sat with some fathers who had done that same thing as Tim. Once he came out of there he was more confident playing that character. He struggled with that aspect of it on a human level but once he spoke to those fathers he realised the first response from most fathers was to reject their daughters and kick them out of home.
Speaking of Australian actors of Tony’s era, your latest film, Boar, stars a handful including John Jarratt, Ernie Dingo, Steve Bisley and Roger Ward. What can you tell us about your role in Boar?
What can I say about Boar. [Laughs]. It’s a mammoth production. We were working with this giant pig which they built from scratch. It’s a huge monster of a pig which can fit three men inside it. Chris wanted us to have that interaction with a real animal with no CGI. I had never done something like that. I play the mother who’s visiting a small country town to visit her brother played by Nathan Jones. It all unravels from there and this wild boar is slowly killing people off. It was physically the hardest shoot I’ve ever done. I got injured many times. We did a lot of night shooting so at three in the morning we were jumping off cliffs, swimming through river and running through tall grass with brown snakes. There are a lot of scenes with me crying and screaming which really takes it out of you. We’re all proud of it because there was so much blood, sweat and tears that went into it.
I spoke to Chris recently and he told me to ask you about a lizard in the car. What’s that about?
[Laughs]. Chis is a bugga. [Laughs]. He likes to play practical jokes with people on set. We had a scene were the family are in the car and the husband is driving and we almost have this head on collision with a Mack Truck. We were shooting this scene on blue screen and I had to be asleep in this car. Chris had set it up so he gave Hugh Sheridan a rubber crocodile and he donked me on the head with it and Chris got me shitting myself and screaming like a trooper on film. [Laughs]. Chris is a real character.