BEYOND THE WONDER YEARS
Saturday Extra; THEATRE
07 May 1994
Nadine Garner has grown up in front of the camera. Now 23, she’s angry that instead of welcoming her maturity, Australian television is turning to the young and the feckless, writes WENDY TUOHY.
A TELEVISION veteran at 23, Nadine Garner has seen her share of Logie nights. It’s usually a lot of fun, she says; people dress up, check each other out and have a laugh at the tizzy glamor. But this year, the former teen TV star felt anger welling up as hordes of squashed-up cleavages, sucked-in bare abdomens and stilt-heeled legs in micro dresses paraded earnestly past.
The fun was gone, says Garner, displaced by an atmosphere of desperation among teeny TV starlets urgently pushing their body bits under as many executive noses as possible.
With a fiery look in her huge blue eyes, Garner recalls the embittered young has-beens – soapie babies she says have hit 25 and been written out -she saw wandering around looking mad. She calls them “the spat- out kids”, victims of an Australian commercial TV system she believes is more mercilessly youth-consuming than ever.
Having just starred in an English comedy/drama series with the UK’s television actress of the moment, 48-year-old Joanna Lumley, Garner had had a chance to compare its industry’s preoccupations with Australia’s. She found ours dangerously obsessed with matters of the (youthful) flesh.
“What struck me so fiercely last night was that we go around revering these temporary images of stardom that only get cut down the following year and replaced by new faces and new images,” says Garner, looking a little worn, but edgily invigorated after only an hour’s sleep between the Logies and arriving for rehearsals of Louis Nowra’s `Cosi’ at the MTC.
“People, particularly young women, are having to be so body aware.
That’s what they believe they have to push to maintain their jobs with the networks. Unfortunately,” she says, screwing up unplucked eyebrows, “they’re probably right.”
Though she never resorted to the Wonderbra in her quest to stay in work after three years in the children’s series `The Henderson Kids’, Garner hints that a deal of mental toughening was needed to prevent herself joining the spat-out. The young woman once dubbed “the new Hayley Mills” and “the Face of the ’80s” talks like a battle-wise veteran about wanting to “go up and say `look after yourself, take care”’ to the owners of the boobs on legs.
You could see her doing it, too, leaning in close and offering words of support (and bimbo stereotype-busting) with one of her unaffected little arm strokes. The self-preservation credo is one she seems to take very seriously, one she developed to cope with the attention of a nation during a puberty played out before the camera.
“I was only a kid, only 13, when I started acting and to suddenly be confronted with an image of yourself can be a big brain strain, it can really be quite a jolt to your whole concept of self. I really battled with that, I was very unsettled by that,” says Garner, over a quiet bite between rehearsals. She had fallen into acting by chance, when her Ferntree Gully High class went to Crawford’s for auditions and she was cast as single-minded little Tamara Henderson.
Having struggled with “new concepts like what it meant to create character and where does the self go when you’re playing a character” in her early teens, Garner says she was “tormented” in her late teens by the enduring idea in the minds of millions that she was Tamara.
“It still confounds me how far that series sort of penetrated society,” says the scrub-faced Garner. “It’s very strange to have people sort of carrying around these notions of your childhood when I feel like I’ve been around a long time … Trying to grow up and constantly being bombarded with images of your own puberty, basically, was tough.”
At 18 and 19, Garner says she was haunted by Tamara’s chirpy image.
She countered this with a somewhat controversial stand for her womanhood, playing a sexy nun called Desire, who seduces “the Pope” in Daniel Abineri’s rock musical `Bad Boy Johnny and the Prophets of Doom’.
The role required Desire to toss off her habit and fall nude into the “Pope’s” arms, which, seen from behind, caused a stir with audiences and within the actress. She clashed with Abineri after challenging him on the “foundations” of the show.
“That was a really hard time for me that show, I wasn’t happy about having to do that, and I got into a lot of trouble for doing that, too, speculating on what the foundations of the show were, which I wanted to know, which he didn’t like me asking.
“I guess I like to know people’s intentions are wholesome or well- founded, that’s important to me. I’m not sure (what the show’s were), I wouldn’t like to say, but there was just something about it that made me not feel good about having to take my clothes off, otherwise a back nude scene would have been fine.”
Even after winning an AFI best actress award for her 1988 lead in the film `Mull’, and being very well received as the gritty Arlene the check-out chick in the 1991 Anglo-Australian TV hit `Boys from the Bush’, Garner says she is still not sure she is over the girl/woman divide in the minds of audiences and some in the industry. But, thanks partly to advice not to worry too much about it from another great Australian baby-face, Jacki Weaver, it is starting to annoy her less.
“I used to have a hang-up about playing younger roles, and that used to worry me. I used to want to dig my heels in and say `No, no no’, I want to be a grown-up!’ – now it doesn’t worry me at all, I’ve learned to embrace it,” she says. She feels she is gradually passing through the rites of passage to performing maturity.
“Because I’m still growing up, too, and still coming into that thing of womanhood and being allowed to be a woman and get older roles and all that. I’ve got heaps of years to play mature women, but it’s beginning now and my sense of self is beginning to be a more mature sense of self and it’s very exciting, it’s a very exciting time for me.”
Continuing part-time philosophy studies have only made Garner keener to question and analyse the processes of acting and of growing up, but her `Cosi’ co-star, Pamela Rabe, says that objectively, Garner’s skills have already ripened. Rabe says Garner’s strength and self- knowledge, as well as “her incredible flexibility” have already enabled her to define herself from her younger work “as if it wasn’t there”.
“I have always been struck by how mature she is, what a strong person she is … She has such a strong idea of who she is, which is quite extraordinary for someone so young,” says Rabe, who previously worked with Garner on the MTC’s production of `The Cherry Orchard’.
“She has an ability to be extraordinarily open and not be overwhelmed by it – unless she hides the struggle more than I can see it.” Garner says she did struggle with whether or not to continue acting in 1992, a year made “ghastly” by an eight-month drought of roles but that the process of deciding to keep going was empowering.
“You’re either compelled (to question) or you’re not. If you’re compelled to ask questions, it’s not something you really have a say over, you either do it or you don’t: I’m happy to ask questions,” she says. “I think any job we take on or career we choose should be acted out rigorously … we should be able to change our views on it all the time and define it and discuss it, and leave it if it doesn’t satisfy us or go back to it.”
The decision to stay with acting paid off, with roles that will reinforce Nadine Garner as one of Australia’s most promising young talents. Verity Lambert, the English producer of `Boys From the Bush’ last year invited Garner to play opposite Lumley in the seven-part series `Class Act’. She will also appear in `Romper Stomper’ director Geoffrey Wright’s much-anticipated new film `Speed’.
`Class Act’, whose current screening in England has received excellent reviews, sees her as a brassy Australian thief drawn into the misadventures of an aristocratic English woman down on her luck. The project offered an invaluable chance to work with Lumley, whose comeback as a tipsy fashion hack in the comedy hit `Absolutely Fabulous’ has made her the darling of England’s weekend magazines.
LUMLEY’S ability to defy her straight-woman image and a return to television at the age of 48, inspired her young co-star. “It’s just such a wonderful thing a woman of her age can come back and have a fantastic career, I mean she started off as a model, and did Purdey (in the 1970s `The New Avengers’ series) and was kind of typecast, and now she’s unveiled herself as this extraordinarily talented comic.”
Which brings Garner back to her passion of the moment: “Now I just can’t see us giving people a go like that in this country, particularly women. I think it’s just an uphill battle, we’re worse than the Americans for youth obsession, I think we’re more obsessed with youth than any other culture in the world.”
“In this country, you turn 25 and basically you start being cast as mothers … You start to think about throwing it in, the roles start becoming fewer and fewer,” she says. “There’s no longevity, nothing we invest in the long term, apart from, you know, your ABC … The majority of stuff that comes out of our commercial stations is just based on pure greed.”
In a very Tamara-esque move, Garner stepped right up and said something about it on Logies night. She bent the ears of writers and actors on the subject, probably giving them the full intensity of her gaze, waving her hands a lot and screwing up her eyebrows as she is now.
Although she reckons a few TV types will have woken the next morning and said to themselves: “God, that Nadine!”, Nadine Garner does not seem too concerned.
The MTC production of Louis Nowra’s `Cosi’, starring Nadine Garner, Pamela Rabe, Charles Tingwell and Kim Gyngell is on at the Russell Street Theatre until 11 June. `Speed’ is expected to be released later this year, and `Class Act’ is being considered for screening by the ABC.