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INTERVIEW:
ROWENA WALLACE

 


Copyright 2005 Don Storey.  All rights reserved.


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This interview originally appeared in TV Eye No. 3, October 1994.

Rowena Wallace needs no introduction. One of Australia's best and most well known talents, she has had an extensive acting career, ranging from her controversial debut in You Can't See Round Corners to perhaps her most well-known role as 'Pat the Rat' in Sons And Daughters.

 

Where did your acting career begin?

You Can't See Round Corners was my first professional TV series. Prior to that I was working at Channel 7 in Brisbane as a newsreader, host of a children's show, and booth announcer. I worked on a Friday night variety show with George Wallace Jnr. - I was the straight girl in the sketches, and I'd sing the songs and dance with the ballet and do all of that. It was the best training I've ever had. It was Barry Creyton who got me the Corners job - he was originally going to play the lead role, which later went to Ken Shorter. He had seen me playing Calamity Jane in an amateur theatre production in Brisbane, and asked me to come down to Sydney to work in his theatre restaurant with Noeline Brown. But my mother said, "No, she's not going anywhere!". I was about 17 at the time. Barry kept in touch and eventually talked ATN-7 into flying me down to Sydney to audition for the role of Margie in Corners. I was the last actress to audition, and they gave it to me. It was the old fresh face syndrome, and I was a bit like Margie - wet behind the ears and wide eyed! I took to it like a duck to water - I just loved it.

There was quite a furore at the time over that scene in the park...

Just before we shot that scene I remember seeing Ken Shorter talking to the director on the side, occasionally glancing at me. Because I was new I thought I must have been doing something wrong, or perhaps I wasn't good enough and they were talking about improving my performance. But what he was actually telling Ken to do was put his hand up my dress - I had no idea, and that was why it was such a fantastic reaction. Ken and I ended up on the front page of the Daily Mirror with the headline 'Shock scene in new TV series!'. But it was a good little show.

Your next major series was The Rovers.

The two main characters in The Rovers, Rusty Collins and Bob Wild, we referred to as Trusty Rusty and Hero Bob. I played Trusty Rusty, who seemed to have nowhere to live. Hero Bob, played by Noel Trevarthen, had a berth on the boat, Ted Hepple as the Captain had a berth, even the cockatoo had somewhere to live, but you never knew where Trusty Rusty lived. When it came to the question of bunking down for the night Rusty just sort of disappeared. I think the producers were trying to hide the fact that she lived on the same boat as three males. We invented all sorts of places for her to go, but the general consensus was she spent her nights in the crows nest!

That was a great series to work on, I had a lot of fun doing it. It was all based at Brooklyn on the Hawkesbury River, and Noel had a little apartment because he was the star, and they gave me a room at the back of the office because I wasn't a star, but it was easy to have me there to keep an eye on me. I got fired once, because they thought my conduct was unbecoming for their leading actress, so I said, "All right, I'll go." I told Noel Trevarthen about it, and he marched into the office and said, "If she goes, I go". And they thought, "Now, we don't have Trusty Rusty, we don't have Hero Bob, all we've got is the Captain, a couple of animals and a young boy - we'd better rethink this one." So I was reinstated and back in the crows nest again!

In common with other Australian series of the time, were you required to do all your own stunts?

Oh yes, we did all our own stunts. There was a wonderful episode where Hero Bob and Trusty Rusty have to defuse a sea mine which has become unmoored and is drifting. Hero Bob goes out and he gets caught up in the chains, so Trusty Rusty has to dive off the rocks, swim out to the mine, dive under and unhook Hero Bob. So they put me in a wet suit because it was freezing cold, and then stuck my costume over the top, and I looked like some inflated balloon. Then I jumped in and swam over to the mine and attempted to dive underneath, but I couldn't - the wet suit was too buoyant, and I had no weight belt on, so I bounced straight back up to the surface. This happened about three or four times until eventually I grabbed onto something and held myself down. I stayed there for a few seconds for the action shot and then bobbed up again, and we were waiting for 'cut' as that was the end of that part of the sequence. The director, an Englishman, Max Varnel, had a megaphone on the shore and he was calling out "cut, cut", and with his accent it sounded like "shark, shark". Well, you have never seen anyone swim so quickly! I mean, it was across the water literally, I didn't know I could do it. It was incredible, and everyone was looking at me scrambling onto shore out of breath, thinking 'what is wrong with this woman?!!'. We never had any minders around with spear-guns. On Barrier Reef you'd have the guys diving off the boat, and then they'd cut to Ron and Val Taylor underneath who did a wonderful job, absolutely amazing, but they used to do it at feeding time at sunset, and you could see the sharks!

Did you go straight from The Rovers into Barrier Reef?

Yes, I went straight from one boat to another. The Rovers was filmed on the 'Derwent Hunter', a schooner, a beautiful boat but shocking in a swell. Then I went straight onto the barquentine 'New Endeavour' in Barrier Reef. They were great days because we had a wonderful ship's crew, and sometimes on a Sunday we'd take the boat out and go over to Dunk or somewhere with a few of the actors and the ship's crew, and come back at sunset singing sea shanties. We had real sea faring people on board. They were great days, I miss that - we were adventurous, enthusiastic and we had fun.

You joined Barrier Reef halfway through the series - why did they change their leading lady?

I took over from Elli Maclure as she left; Susannah Brett was the original girl before Elli - I don't know why that happened. The crew was never the same each week running. The first thing people would say in the morning is, "Who's gone today - who got pushed?" A lot of people were fired on that show - we used to put up a flag with a black spot on it - people were getting fired left, right and centre.

Peter Maxwell, who directed a lot of Barrier Reef episodes, and I had a game going where we would change the name of the episode on the clapper board. We were filming on Hayman Island, and we were all going a bit ga-ga or troppo - it all gets a bit silly - and we thought we were very clever and very funny doing all this. Finally a memo came out, I think it was from Joy Cavill or Lee Robbo (Robinson), the producers, saying they were going to call a meeting and they needed to speak to me and Peter Maxwell urgently. I thought 'oh no - I'm the next one!' Anyway, Joy Cavill comes up to me and says "We are absolutely disgusted at what you have been doing; it's outrageous and unprofessional, and we are going to punish you for it - you're not going to be in an episode!" So they made me sit on the beach and have a wonderful time; my hand was slapped and my punishment was not to have my face on television! I thought it was hysterical - absolutely hysterical.

Barrier Reef was acclaimed at the time for being the first series in the world to use colour underwater filming on location.

Some of the underwater photography in that was absolutely extraordinary - we always said that Val and Ron and the rest of the divers were the best actors; the stuff they did was superb, it really was. I can't remember much about the mini-submarine, but I remember the jet boats, and I remember having to drive one once straight at the 'New Endeavour', which terrified everybody. I managed that all right, but I very nearly got crushed between a motor launch and the 'Derwent Hunter' once in The Rovers during a swell - it was very dangerous, it was really close.

I met my now ex-husband George Assang on Barrier Reef. George was a Thursday Islander and part of the ship's crew in the show, and we used to call him the token 'boong'. Ihab Nafa, who played a scientist, was an Arab who loved garlic, and he couldn't swim. George used to keep him afloat in the water, and was always telling stories about how he was almost passing out from Ihab Nafa's garlic breath.

Two episodes were written around a cyclone which hit the area at the time.

Yes - a cyclone hit Hayman, a big cyclone which flattened the island, it really was a shocker. We weren't there at the time, we were in Townsville, so what the producers decided to do was quickly write an episode about it. So we were all off to Hayman to film this episode, and the island was wasted, littered and virtually razed to the ground. There were a few buildings half standing, so they got all these old launches and things that they could find to put us all up on. Anyway, everybody went quite crazy and Joe James got to the point where he refused to stay on board this motor boat or whatever it was any longer, demanded accommodation on the island, said he doesn't care what it is, he wants accommodation on the island. So they took him onto the island and George went over one night to see him and found him sitting up in bed with half the roof missing on this room, with a torch learning his lines!

It was terribly difficult - we'd be filming down aft or up front, and somebody would be writing a script up the other end and passing it down on little pieces of paper, and then we'd film it. It was great fun, I loved every minute of it. Peter Maxwell would be screaming out to Mike Kitchenside, the captain, to 'keep the bloody boat still', and of course you can't keep a huge barquentine still. We used to have a spy on the boat and by the time we got back to shore the production office knew exactly what had gone on all day. It was great, it was wonderful, it was such an adventure. They're gone, those days.

You did quite a lot of guest spots for Crawfords, and of course played Constable Jane Bell in the last series of Division 4.

When you did Divvy 4 and Homicide and stuff like that in the early days you supplied your own wardrobe, and if you were living in Sydney they'd ring you up and give you your flight details, details of all the wardrobe you were to bring down because of the kind of character you were playing, then they'd give you directions - get a bus to the city terminal, then a number 12 tram that would take you down to wherever, and you'd be staying at the so and so place, and next morning you're on location out at the boondocks somewhere, so you'd get on a number 42 tram to take you to Balwyn, then get another tram to somewhere else, etc. And because you had your wardrobe with you in a suitcase, you'd get off this tram and finally arrive at this location - you didn't know whether it was the right place or not, you didn't know where the heck you were - and there was no-one there so you'd sit on your suitcase like a schoolgirl running away from home thinking, "I do hope somebody turns up soon, I do hope this is the right place!". And then there weren't any caravans or anything, you'd have to change in the back of one of the crew members cars. I was one of the first agitators, a troublemaker, saying they should supply taxis for us. I went to see them in the middle of an episode demanding this, and they said no and I said, "All right, I'm going home". So then they gave us some taxi dockets.

Apart from some financial constraints, I found the Crawfords people great - they were fabulous. Crawfords was the most encouraging organisation, they were fantastic, a great stable. They were very old-fashioned, but they loved what they were doing and they were so encouraging, not only to actors but also to crew members who wanted to move up the ladder. Just about every writer you've ever heard of was with Crawfords at some stage. We all learned at Crawfords, and I think Crawfords learned from us as well, we were all finding our way. As time went on of course things had to change and one had to be treated differently, but they came to the party. They were a mainstay for so many of us, a place where we could practice our craft. Crawfords was a family, and we all loved it. All actors have very fond memories of Crawfords. I think it would be wonderful to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Homicide, and therefore Crawfords, with a special. I think you'd get a lot of support from everyone in the industry. It would rate through the roof, everybody remembers their shows, people would love it. Those Homicide and Division 4 episodes had some wonderful scripts and superb performances; they've done some extraordinary stuff which, unfortunately, we no longer see.

You played the lead role in 'Night Of The Shark', the McCloud episode filmed in Australia. Did you ever consider taking your career overseas?

I never thought McCloud would open any doors in Hollywood - in fact, I thought I was dreadful in that. When I auditioned I was unbelievably nervous, but when we started chatting they said you've got the role - they just wanted the rapport, they didn't want me to act. And I was determined to act, and the director was desperately trying to get me to loosen up, and I couldn't do it - I was a bit in awe and impressed by everything, and nervous, and I couldn't get the hang of it. But they were all very nice people, they couldn't be kinder, they did all the right things, and I was useless! So even if I had hoped it might open doors for me they would have been slammed very firmly shut after that! It was difficult because our Australian style is like 'we are now going to act', whereas the American thing is really loose - loose when you go into a scene, and you don't necessarily stop at the end of a scene, things go on, whereas in Australia once you got to the end of a sentence and that was the end of a scene you just stood there waiting for 'cut'. But these people didn't, Dennis Weaver and J.D. Cannon, they keep going. When I did an episode of Mission: Impossible up on the Gold Coast, then I got the hang of it, and had lots of fun playing this stupid Russian commandant, because I knew then, I understood.

The problem for actors in Australia is we never get all the practice we need, you do a job and then you sit around for months, and everyone says you must go back to acting class again, or this class or that but no, it's not what you need, what you need is to work. Most actors go for months without doing anything, and what we want to do most is work; it's not about money, it's not about awards, we just want to work - we love it!