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LYONS, SUSAN : Crackers

NOT ALL ITS CRACKED UP TO BE
From political activist to union president, actress Susan Lyons, one of the stars of the latest Aussie screen comedy, Crackers, candidly concedes to PAUL FISCHER that being an actress in Australia ain't no laughing matter.

Rumour has it that all is well and dandy in the Australian film industry, but not if you ask actress Susan Lyons. She readily admits that life for our actors is getting harder, not easier. "Oh God yeah, it's getting tougher and wages are dropping. Touch wood I'm getting the work, but actors are getting paid less now than they were 10 years ago, not including inflation."

"If I could think of somewhere to piss off to…"

And Lyons would know. As president of Actors Equity, she has been very much involved in the recent High Court decision to count New Zealand product as Australian, which may well have a detrimental effect on local content. "The whole thing is just so absurd, and a major travesty." Be that as it may, Lyons is reluctant to quit Australia for greener pastures – she can’t think of any: "If I could think of somewhere to piss off to…"

Yet despite her disappointments in the acting profession, Lyons has carved a respectable niche as a stage, television and now film actress. Asked why she is an actress, there's a reflective pause. "As much as I hate to admit it , I think there's an urge to be approved of, which you have to get rid of pretty quickly if you want to survive as an actor, or you end up as a neurotic mess."

Set around an Aussie Xmas lunch, Crackers revolves around a somewhat dysfunctional Australian family seen through the eyes of a lonely, attention-seeking young boy. Lyons plays his self- absorbed mother, coping with her troublesome son and a new relationship.

Despite the film's comic tone, Lyons had no difficulty relating to the situations of family crises in Crackers. "I think it's something everyone in Australia, if not the world, can understand. No matter how perfect a family is, come Christmas, they always become dysfunctional." As for playing a single mother, Lyons understood those problems. "The pressure to do that would just be enormous, though for much of the movie you have no idea where dad is or how recently he's not been around. I think she's trying to deal with all sorts of her own troubles, and her son is nearly going off the rails."

"David Swann... has tapped into a real Australian insanity, yet managed to retain emotional truths as well"

Film comedy is often tough to pull off, and this is no exception. For Lyons, the key to good film comedy is "having a good director because you've got to all know that you're operating in the same world. There are so many pitches that you can play at for comedy; it's such hard work." She has much praise for the film's first-time feature director, David Swann. "He was really astonishing during that shoot and had SO much energy and time for everyone in the cast and crew. He must have been exhausted by the end of it, driving it while still keeping everybody around him buoyant and hysterical with laughter." Asked then what makes Crackers unique in terms of Australian cinema, Lyons believes that Swann "has tapped into a real Australian insanity, yet managed to retain emotional truths as well. So it's not just madcap for the sake of it; there's a real heart through the movie, without being sentimental."

Brought up in Sydney's lower North Shore, ("only because my dad worked at the ABC and didn't drive, so we had to be within walking distance of Gore Hill") Lyons went to school in the academically selective North Sydney Girls' High School, and certainly stood apart from her peers. "I was the kind of shy, hidden-in- the-corner, tall, skinny one with glasses. I had one high school teacher who actually referred to me as 'the tall ugly one with glasses'."

"I think our family was considered very eccentric at school."

Lyons never took part in the school plays but kept very much to herself. "I think our family was considered very eccentric at school." Yet for some reason, she admits that she "kinda knew from when I was really young that I still wanted to be an actor despite this shyness I had." Lyons decided that it would be better "to get school out of the way before taking this acting thing seriously." A couple of years before she left school, however, she landed a job working for the Australian Opera. "I started out as an extra, then they used to give me little bits where I could get pushed down a flight of stairs and get the crap beaten out of me."

She was then encouraged to audition for the prestigious National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA), got in, and had to reinvent herself. "When I first got to NIDA I found it so difficult, that I actually came down with glandular fever two-thirds of the way in the first year." That changed, and Lyons immersed herself in her acting. After graduating in 1980, she fell immediately into the theatre, appearing in seven plays in her first year alone. She made her television debut in 1981 For the Term of His Natural Life, and has been rarely out of work since. Lyons made her film debut with the inauspicious and little seen Winds of Jarrah (1983). She has since appeared on the big screen in the likes of The Umbrella Woman (1986), No Worries (1992), The Roly, Poly Man (1993), and now Crackers.

"There's something about the concentration of working to a camera that I just love."

Lyons says that she's now rediscovering the camera. "There's something about the concentration of working to a camera that I just love." And hopes, that despite the problems facing actors in this country, to do more. "One has to be optimistic, doesn't one?" Lyons is about to head off to New Guinea to shoot Bill Bennett's In a Savage Land, which stars Rufus Sewell, Britain's flavour-of-the-moment. That tall, ugly, bespectacled teenager has grown into something special.

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"No matter how perfect a family is, come Christmas, they always become dysfunctional."

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