Debbie Kruger
BSG Melbourne Weekly cover
July 25-31, 2004
July 28- August 3, 2004


Caroline Craig's acting career has come full circle with her return to the theatre. Story by Debbie Kruger. Photographs by Keith Saunders

It’s all thanks to Kenneth Branagh, she explains, somewhat embarrassed. She fell in love with the English actor’s portrayal of Henry V on screen and her vocation was decided.

Given that Caroline Craig achieved both acclaim and celebrity as a policewoman on a high-rating television drama, the Henry V connection seems like a bit of a stretch. But this elfin thespian had always held the prospect of performing with a professional company in a Shakespeare play close to her heart as she climbed the relatively short ladder to success. Now, wide-eyed and unfashionably excited (“I’m such a dag!” she remarks several times), she has the leading role of Viola in the Bell Shakespeare Company’s production of Twelfth Night, opening on August 10 at the Victorian Arts Centre Playhouse.

The Windsor resident has been rehearsing with the ensemble cast in Sydney through July, fondly reminiscing about her three years in the harbour city as a NIDA student before moving back to Melbourne in 2000 to play Tess Gallagher in Blue Heelers. She left that role a year ago specifically to pursue stage work, giving up the regular salary, fashion spreads in TV Week wearing Lisa Ho gowns, and tickets to the Logies. “Oh, I loved that! I miss that, I miss the dresses!” Craig admits, chuckling.

This self-confessed romantic wasn’t necessarily attracted in the first instance to the literary merits of Henry V. It was a more visceral response to the leading man

“I just fell in love with him; he was so sexy and passionate and the battle scenes were so bloodthirsty and he’s so gutsy. I completely fell in love with him,” Craig says, almost swooning at the recollection.

“I saw the film maybe five times, I got my family in England to send me over his autobiography, written at 28. I read that and then I learned all the Henry V speeches. And then I did Shakespeare at school. We did The Tempest; I played Miranda. But that’s what made me really fall in love with Shakespeare, I fell in love with a bloke, it’s such a typical story.“

The seeds had already been sown. Growing up in St Kilda, her parents had a great influence on her cultural tastes. “My Dad used to come up to Sydney for business, my mother would be with him and they’d go and see a few plays. They’d always bring me back the program, and I used to read – What have they done? Where have they been? Cate Blanchett was pretty inspiring for me. And Jacqueline McKenzie.”

At 13 Craig had already performed in the original stage production of Seven Little Australians, directed by and starring John O’May. That secured her an agent, but an innate shyness prevented her chasing traditional “child star” opportunities. Instead she disappeared into the cinemas every weekend.

It was the sirens of the golden era of Hollywood that especially mesmerised Craig. “I always went to a lot of movies. People who can really take you into a magical world. Vivien Leigh, Lauren Bacall – they’ve got something magical in their eyes, a whole inner life going on.”

Then, of course, there was Branagh, and other eminent male actors. “I love voices. I used to love Richard Burton. Mad things like War of the Worlds. We had a lot of tapes in the car, we’d be driving out to the country, go on these long drives and listen to all these voices. We had this great tape of Peter Sellars and Spike Milligan and they’d do different songs and stories about animals and Wind in the Willows, all those kinds of things.”

Craig’s father gave her a great sense of a magical world at play. “Every night he’d make up a story about these little people made out of pegs who were on a boat and went down a river, and that adventure would continue every night. So I had a lot of stories as a child.”

After finishing high school, Craig and her then boyfriend went to London for a year, where they lived above a dodgy insurance agency in Kings Cross. “We rode our bikes around, I worked in pubs and sang and travelled.” Although her budget precluded frequent theatre-going, the lofty dream of being a part of that enchanted world was never far away. “The pub that I worked at was great because the guy who operated the lights for Covent Garden worked there. So we went up and watched Tosca through the roof where he was operating the lights, with his flask of tea and his sandwiches.”

Back at home she began an Arts degree at Melbourne University. Having suppressed her talents due to lack of confidence during her school years, she felt comfortable in the campus environment. “It was good because everyone’s just forming their own little grotty theatre co-op groups and I just signed my name and auditioned.” Once involved there was no stopping her. She acted in university productions and in theatre-in-education touring shows with the Woolly Jumpers Theatre Company. “That was awesome. And kids really love it. A couple of years later I met some kids in St Kilda, they’d graduated, and they said, ‘You came to our school and it was great, and now I’m doing my own theatre stuff in Melbourne!’”

Craig was accepted into NIDA’s 1997 intake, and spent three years honing her craft. “Your basic training [at NIDA] is not to act, just to be truthful. So if you can be truthful, it doesn’t matter what medium you’re in. I believe that’s their philosophy, at least that’s what I’ve taken away from it. So if you get put in front of a camera or if you’re out on stage, you should be going through the same kind of motions. But of course once you actually get [on television], there are a lot of technical things that you need to learn. Not to be quite so big and theatrical, to relax in front of the camera. It took me a long time to do that, and John Wood is the best man in the world, and Marty Sacks, all those guys, they just made me feel so comfortable.”

It was a very deep end that Craig was thrown into, almost immediately after her NIDA graduation, when she took on the Blue Heelers role which was, ostensibly, taking over as the female lead following the on-screen death of Lisa McCune’s character, Maggie Doyle. Thrust into the spotlight after relative obscurity, it was more than a lesson on acting in front of the camera.

“I don’t think I was really ready for a lot of the publicity,” Craig says. “I didn’t quite understand just how many people watch television, or really appreciate the impact that television has on people’s lives. That’s one of the most wonderful things, but it’s also one of the most terrifying things about TV, that it goes into people’s homes and it is part of their daily lives. And for a lot of people these characters are real, they go into their subconscious. So Tess actually started to take on a life of her own, and I found it quite hard to separate. Like when I was at the supermarket and a woman whacked me with a packet of frozen peas and said, ‘You killed Maggie Doyle!’ I had no idea what she was saying. And I said, ‘Oh no, I’m sorry, but I didn’t.’ And then there was just this very strange moment of what’s real and what’s me and what’s her. When you’re playing the same character for that long it’s hard for the two identities not to merge. And she’s so different from me!”

So while going straight from NIDA into a national television role in a high rating series is obviously a blessing in terms of money and profile, in the long run, is it the best way for an aspiring stage actor to start a career?

“I wouldn’t know,” Craig responds candidly. “For me it was a great opportunity. I don’t know if other people would enjoy it as much. I think the best way to start a career is to get a job! I was just so glad to get a job. But also to get a job which is going to last for a while so that you can get on your feet and feel confident. It gives you space to learn.”

She relates some very amusing stories of her first forays in TV acting. “Half the time I was acting my socks off and the camera was on someone else, on the horse, or on the dog. I had no idea. John and Marty would just laugh at me.”

Craig was also determined to do her own stunts initially. “And of course, by take 23, sprinting down the road, body-slamming some guy into the nature strip, I was exhausted, bright red and sweating!"

Eventually, after Tess had been through more than enough life challenges, including a few broken hearts, fostering a daughter, going to Fiji and marrying a gay man who sold drugs to his lover, Craig figured it was time to move on. “I’d learned so much and I just wanted to do something new.”

She went straight into two plays for Playbox Theatre Company, the first, Falling Petals, a controversial play written by her friend Ben Ellis, and then the pseudo-colonial pantomime by Tom Wright, Babes In The Wood. It was during her season in the latter play that John Bell came to Melbourne to audition Craig for Twelfth Night. The whole Kenneth Branagh sensation of being stirred by an artist’s fervour came flooding back. Craig speaks of Bell in hushed, reverent tones.

“He’s brilliant. Brilliant! He came and spoke to us when we were at drama school. And he’s so inspiring and so passionate about what he does that you can’t help by get swept away on it.”

Twelfth Night director David Freeman, who has worked in Europe for more than 20 years with major theatre and opera companies, has a notably imaginative approach to his work, which Craig is relishing. “I find it very challenging and that’s probably one of the reasons why I wanted to come back and do theatre. Because it’s a real evolution. As David says, every day you’re either going to be getting better or you’re going to be getting worse. You can’t just coast along

What I love is the fact that it changes, everybody changes, and your energy is bouncing off everyone else. It’s an organic process.

“We’re working as an ensemble. It’s like when you’re with someone who’s a really good sportsman, you feel like you lift your game.”

Unmoved by the soft, pliable, tragic female figures in Shakespeare’s work, Craig loves the idea of one day playing Lady Macbeth. “She’s so powerful. I love characters that are quite complex. I like Goneril and Regan rather than Cordelia. Even Gertrude. Characters that have a real arc, and a dark side as well. I think Viola has that.”

Craig cites Twelfth Night as her favourite Shakespeare play. Viola spends most of the play disguised as a boy, and Craig likes the fact that she has a secret and that she is a fighter. “But like all women, and men, she has a very vulnerable heart.

“It’s quite mercurial, that’s what I really love about it. And I love the element of the music, which is very evocative of human emotion. There are a lot of times in life when the only thing that can really express how you feel is music. You can’t always put things into words. I think Shakespeare of anyone would know that.”

As Orsino says in the play’s opening line, “If music be the food of love, play on”. Craig’s life has been as much infused by music as by great plays and films. At university she sang with a band called Vinyl Discharge (“We rocked!” she says proudly) and even in Blue Heelers her character was afforded the opportunity to break out into song once or twice.

In her spare time Craig can be found singing in Melbourne cafés and at home she loves listening to Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald and Dusty Springfield. She writes her own songs and also writes scripts, studying screenwriting part-time at RMIT.

At other times Craig can be found walking around the local beaches or parks with her dog Biscuit – who was her on-screen pooch on Blue Heelers – and living in domestic bliss with her boyfriend Tim.

No matter how many people stop her on the street, in the supermarket, or even in an airport duty free store, as recently occurred, to call her Tess and discuss the latest goings on in Blue Heelers, Caroline Craig will smile diffidently and feel gratified.

“I’m just an actor, and I’m just grateful if anyone comes to watch.”

Thanks to the Melbourne Weekly and Melbourne Weekly Bayside Magazines
for supplying images for this page.

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