The cream of Australian acting is returning from the US to make TV on home soil

Paul Kilina

20/09/2015

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It’s not that long ago that Australian screen producers were lamenting the loss of our finest actors to Hollywood. It was a bitter pill to swallow, especially given that in many cases they had given those actors the gigs that brought them to public notice in the first place.

But the tide has turned, and the prodigal sons and daughters are now streaming back to make TV on home soil. Among the bone fide A-listers now making TV here are Anthony LaPaglia, Jacki Weaver and Guy Pearce.
Penny Win, Foxtel’s head of drama, believes there are two main reasons for the turnaround; the quality of the projects on offer and the actors’ relationships with the producers, directors and writers of the shows.

She says that over the past five years in particular more money has been spent on writing, development and production values. “[The actors] know aspirationally that where we want to be – and I’m not just speaking for Foxtel – is with US premium-cable-quality, binge-worthy shows.”
Another factor, says producer Ian Collie, who has lured Pearce back to film a six-part series based on Peter Temple’s private detective Jack Irish as well as Aden Young in the forthcoming The Principal, is the international shift to shorter-run series, which made it possible for Young to fit The Principal around his commitments to US drama Rectify. Collie says that unless an actor has relocated their family to the US, they will be inclined to return to work in Australia, “particularly if it’s projects and characters in the project they can relate to”.

For the makers of these shows, the ability to cast marquee actors has several benefits. It helps them to finance, sell and market shows, while the skill set they’ve acquired working in the US in turn enriches the local industry. “The rising tide lifts all boats”, Win says.

In many ways, Rick Donald’s experience is emblematic of how the formula of a successful career is now being rethought. Donald was cast in the CBS sitcom Friends With Better Lives.

It was any actor’s dream break (he got the role after a Skype audition). For three months after the sitcom had been filmed he “sat on his hands” doing promotional duties, stymied from undertaking other jobs because of a contract to do a second series. But the show wasn’t renewed, and he returned to Australia, where he set about writing and producing a feature that he is about to start filming and landed a plum role in Seven’s new drama 800 Words.
“In the industry there is such a big pull for Aussies to make their way over there and to have a crack in that market and I don’t think it’s the wrong thing to do,” Donald says. “In the States they have so much amazing writing and there’s a lot of opportunities but there’s also a lot of actors, so it’s kind of the same. You go in for five or six auditions a week, there but you’re also going up with five times more actors than you would in Australia.”

But there are still challenges to stemming the brain drain. Casting young actors for Australian shows during the US pilot season is “a nightmare”, Win says, and often the perfect actor for a role won’t commit beyond the initial run to remain open to other offers. “It does reduce the pool a lot, which is why the actors coming back and putting time into Australian TV is a wonderful thing.”
Anthony LaPaglia (Without A Trace) plays a former international security operative in season two of The Code (ABC).
Guy Pearce (Memento) plays Jack Irish in a six-part miniseries (ABC).

Aden Young (Rectify) plays a police detective in The Principal (SBS).
Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook) plays a Labor powerbroker in Secret City (Foxtel), a mini-series based on the books by Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis.

Alan Dale (Ugly Betty) plays the Australian prime minister in Secret City.
Anna Torv (Fringe) plays a political journalist in Secret City.

Rick Donald (Friends With Better Lives) plays the surf-loving carpenter Woody in 800 Words (Seven).