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Helen Thomson has been acting for more than three decades appearing on stage in productions like Mrs. Warren’s Profession for the Sydney Theatre Company, in films like Gettin’ Square and A Man’s Gotta Do, as well a myriad of iconic Australian television shows like A Country Practice, Water Rats and Blue Heelers.
Recently, Helen was gifted the biggest role of her career to date as Elvis Presley’s overprotective and fawning mother, Gladys, in Baz Lurhmann’s latest epic, Elvis.
Here, in her only Elvis interview, Helen discusses working with the great Baz Luhrmann, replacing Maggie Gyllenhaal as Gladys Presley, and her take on the the demise of classic Australian soap, Neighbours.
“There’s a lot of love out there for Baz’s work. Everyone’s trying to obey the rules and there are a lot of cookie-cutter projects out there today. You could never accuse Baz of that.”
Interview by Matthew Eeles
Baz has been sharing a lot of Elvis premiere content on social media lately, and the whole thing looks like it was a lot of fun. How have those experiences been for you?
The Gold Coast premiere screening was amazing. I hadn’t been in a film the size of Elvis before. It was a lot of fun because they don’t just throw you in the deep end at premieres. They have wranglers who look after us actors and they tell us to, “go here, go there, stand there.” [Laughs]. They don’t leave you hanging which was a relief for someone like me who’s not so used to these kinds of premieres. We were looked after and we were back on a plane and down to do Sydney the very next night. There’s obviously a lot of excitement about it because it’s Elvis, and what’s not to get excited about when it comes to Elvis. These premiere screenings were pure Baz, because when Baz turns his attention to something, it’s just such a fantastic, glorious ride.
Describe the experience of watching Elvis for the first time with an audience.
I saw it for the first time at the Gold Coast premiere and it was on the big V-Max screen. I was sitting relatively close to the screen and I was like, “Oh God, there’s my head. I’m the wallpaper.” [Laughs]. I’m glad I saw it again the next night in Sydney and I was sitting further back at the State Theater so I could actually enjoy it more. From a selfish point of view, I was really pleased that at least ninety percent of what I filmed made it onto the screen. My brain was really quite shocked.
Is Baz Luhrmann as much fun to work with as his films are to watch?
I’m a big, big Baz fan. I think he has copped some negativity throughout his career because he’s so unapologetic that of course he’s going to divide people. Thankfully there’s a lot of love out there for Baz’s work. Everyone’s trying to obey the rules and there are a lot of cookie-cutter projects out there today. There’s a certain blandness to a lot of film and television being made today and you could never accuse Baz of that. I have a very strong theater background and one of Baz’s assistants had seen me in Mrs. Warren’s Profession, the George Bernard Shaw play at the Sydney Theater Company. He went back and told Baz, “You’ve got to work with this woman.” [Laughs]. There are a lot of Australian actors in Elvis. You’ve got Tom Hanks and Austin Butler, and pretty much the rest of us are Australian. And I think the reason for that is that in Australia actors can’t really afford to specialise in one field of acting. You’ve got to do theatre, you’ve got to do television and you’ve got to do film. And I think that’s why Baz is so keen to cast local actors because of that flexibility. Australian’s have a real can-do attitude when it come to acting and Baz has a real can-do attitude when it comes to directing. The role was initially cast with Maggie Gyllenhaal, and then Tom Hanks got Covid and Maggie pulled out because she was worried about being stuck here. So they had to look around for another Gladys and I got the part. So, getting back to your question about working with Baz, I just think one of the great things about him from an actor’s point of view is that he’s a “yes” director. If you have a request, or you’d like to try something different, Baz will more often than not say yes to your request to do another take or try something different.
Even if you’re not a fan of Elvis, everyone seems to have a story about Elvis, whether it was an obsessed aunt, or the memory of his death. Was Elvis a part of your life in any way growing up?
No, not really. I was brought up in country Queensland, so I was around nine years old when he died. I remember his death being a big deal, but my father was anti-Elvis. My grandmother was certainly anti-Elvis, because I remember in the seventies my grandmother saying that all of the rot in the world started with Elvis the Pelvis. [Laughs]. We forget that all of that wiggling was just so controversial at the time.
The film focuses on the relationship between Elvis and Colonel Tom Parker, but Gladys was a huge influence on Elvis. Her impact on this story is huge. Tell us about your research into this very interesting woman.
Well because she died in 1958 there’s not a lot of stuff out there about her. I couldn’t really find any particularly video footage of her. There are a lot of photographs which helped. A lot of the costumes that I wear in the film are absolute replicas of Gladys’s because Baz and Catherine got to go into Gladys’s bedroom at Graceland and go through all her clothes. They’re all still hanging up in her wardrobe. So there are lots of photographs and there’s a tiny little bit of audio when she’s being interviewed at some parade where I think Elvis must have performed and there’s this tiny little bit in this interview were the guy asks her, “Mrs. Presley, do you have a favourite Elvis song?” And she says, “Well I like Don’t be Cruel.” So I had that. And the audio is slightly distorted, but the one thing I could take away from that is that I knew I had to do her justice, but I also had to just do the Helen version of the character, because what I did in my audition is what got me the role, and whatever I did in that audition made Baz really happy. He told me that when he offered me the role that he loved the sheer Presley-ness of my audition. I think one of the things that I learned about her was that she was good fun. She was very kind, she was very generous. Whenever you came around she’d give you a Coke and some cookies or a sandwich, or something like that. But she also had a temper and apparently so did Elvis.
The film also plays into her alcoholism too, doesn’t it?
It does. Yeah, it’s definitely in the story. And it’s certainly something Baz chose to show. Because ultimately she dies of liver failure. Her decline started almost with Elvis’s rise to fame. Because in a lot of ways it broke their closeness and he always relied so much on his mother for everything, and she on him, and the fame just happened so fast on such a scale.
You’ve been acting for over 30 years now. Does Gladys stay with you as much as other characters have stayed with you? Or have you been quick to move on from Gladys?
Oh no, she’s staying with me, but I think that’s partly because we haven’t given birth to her officially yet. [Laughs]. The film’s not out yet. I think once it’s out there and the world’s had its feel of it and they’ve talked about it and they’ve watched it, I think then I might be able to let her go.
I grew up watching a lot of the shows you have been a part of throughout the years including A Country Practice, Home and Away, Water Rats and many others. Is there an elusive show that you wish you had appeared in that you enjoyed watching as a viewer?
I grew up in country Queensland. I was a horsey girl for most of my childhood. I had horses and I always wanted to be in an Aussie drama where I could ride a bloody horse. [Laughs]. There’s a running joke with actors that they’ll often put on their CV that they can ride a horse even if they can’t. [Laughs]. I’d say about nine out of ten actors lie about that. I’m a really good horse rider and do you think I could ever get a role where I get to ride a horse? There’s The Man from Snowy River and McLeod’s Daughters, but if I had gotten those shows I probably would have been a receptionist or someone sitting behind a desk. [Laughs].
Neighbours ended recently. A soap like Neighbours is such a breeding ground for local talent. Do you have a take on a show like Neighbours finishing up after almost forty years and how it could possibly impact the local acting community?
I’m not sentimental about a show like Neighbours at all. I’m not sentimental like that. Why did it even end? Where they losing viewers?
They lost their key broadcaster in the UK.
Had it run its course? You do raise a good point about the next generation of actors and where the next Margo Robbie or Chris Hemsworth will come from and all those extraordinary actors that have come out of Neighbours. Television has evolved and changed so much. I think these long running shows are a thing of the past. Most good television shows are five or six seasons now, and if you can get five or six seasons of a television show as an actor then you’ve done really, really well. It must be boring as a writer to write something like Neighbours. Constantly rehashing the same themes and the same ideas. The ideas get so stale. I think in Australia there seems to be so much happening. We’re producing so much at the moment that there are plenty of opportunities for young actors. I just think we’re moving into a new phase. I don’t think it bothers actors if the work is on a soap or not. As long as there’s work, actors will be fine. And hey, at least we still have Home and Away. [Laughs].
Elvis is in cinemas from Thursday, 23 June.