Sorry for the radio silence; I’m back from a lovely week-long vacation in Massachusetts, where I did typical ‘Anika on Vacation’ things like read, eat, read more, eat more, swim, hang out with cousins, and my new favorite, hang on to the back of a rowboat while my sister rowed, an activity I termed ‘hillbilly waterskiing’.
Anyhoo, I’m back now, well-rested, well-fed, tanned to a deep off-white, and ready to share with you all my theory about Australian actors. Or, since I want it to sound like a thing, my Theory about Australian Actors.
You see, if you know me at all, you probably know that I have a great fondness for Australia and its delightful denizens. If you know me well, you would probably say that, instead of a ‘great fondness’, I have a ‘crazy obsession.’ To which I say, fair dinkum, I’ll own it.
Anyhoo, having been an Aussiephile for many long years, and a fan of actors for even longer, it makes sense that I would have an especial fondness for Australian actors. Which is pretty easy to do, because let’s face it, there are a lot of them to love (and if you’d like to read about some stealth Aussies in US film/TV, I wrote a nerdy post about it here) - the land down under is not slacking with their consistent export of talent.
But during my high school semester in Sydney, my fledging future-anthro-major brain noticed something interesting about Australian culture and the specific type of actor Australia seems to breed. And last week, when I was reading Ben Brantley’s breathless review of the Sydney Theater Company’s production of ‘Uncle Vanya’, a line in the review reminded me of my little pet theory. So, without further ado, here it is:
In Brantley’s review, he describes the actor playing Vanya as “the astonishing Richard Roxburgh, who seems to melt and re-form before your eyes.” Now, you have probably already seen Richard Roxburgh in something – he’s probably best known for playing the uptight Duke in ‘Moulin Rouge’ – but I doubt you would remember this if you saw him in ‘Uncle Vanya’. Just as you might forget that it was Hollywood Leading Man Guy Pearce playing the flamboyant Felicia in ‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’, or that it was the same actress who inhabited Katharine Hepburn in ‘The Aviator’ and the ethereal Galadriel in the Lord of the Rings movies. Brantley, in that phrase “who seems to melt and re-form before your eyes,” perfectly captured the particular skill that Australian actors seem to have; the ability to shed their skins and put on all the complexities of another character like they’re simply wearing a different outfit. Accents, physicality, history – the familiar face disappears, and it’s easy to forget you’re looking at anyone you’ve seen before. They are, in short, chameleons.
Now, this is not to say that actors in other cultures do not have this skill – absolutely, there are great actors in every culture who can do this. Nor am I saying that this is the highest skill of acting; I think there are many styles of acting, and I would never claim that an actor who is always recognizably himself, like Jack Nicholson or Christopher Walken, isn’t a great actor. But when it comes to chameleons, look at the list of Aussie actors – Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Hugo Weaving, Russell Crowe, Heath Ledger (RIP – oof, that one still hurts my heart), Abbie Cornish, John Noble, David Wenham, Anna Torv, Ryan Kwanten – and you have to admit they all have an ability to “melt and re-form before your eyes.”
Now, it’s pretty much impossible to spend time in Australia and not notice that there seem to be certain overriding characteristics to the culture. On the whole, Aussies are delightfully straightforward and a little bit blunt – they tend to say what they’re thinking, and have turned the gentle mockery of ‘taking the piss’ into an art form; if you are looking for constant praise or pity, it’s not the place for you (something I learned early on when I was complaining about something small, and instead of the comiserating I was expecting, heard “well, why don’t you have a cry about it?”) It’s not usually mean, just in a tone of keeping you honest – Australians have little patience for pretention or dwelling.
And this extends past just individual Aussies. Unlike the U.S.A., which celebrates the mythology of the ‘Self-Made Man’ and supports a healthy ego as a necessary element of achieving the ‘you can do it!’ American Dream, Australia instead has the Tall Poppy Syndrome: the idea that the inflated ego or showy success (the ‘tall poppy’, as it were) will be the one to be cut down. As such, being humble and self-deprecating, not too full of yourself, and not really standing out are all prized Aussie traits.
Which brings me to my theory. Is it possible that the culture of Australia as a whole, with its emphasis on not having a strongly built-up sense of your own identity, creates actors who are better able to shed their own personalities? If you are used to not being too showy, to standout, too defined, are you better able to pick up the traits of someone else?
Now this, of course, is entirely unproveable – it’s just something I think might be true. And if it isn’t, I’ll have to go to theories B and C – ‘something in the vegemite’ and ‘Australians are just better at everything.’