Jessica: characters

Leeanna Walsman as Jessica Bergman

Leeanna Walsman

Leeanna Walsman left school at 16 to pursue a career in acting. Her first break in film came with Blackrock in 1997 and then she featured in a string of television dramas including Police Rescue, Wildside, Heartbreak High, Young Lions and the popular ABC drama Love is a Four Letter Word, in which she had a lead role. Leeanna’s work in the theatre is equally extensive, having performed to rave reviews in the Sydney Theatre Company’s The Shape of Things and in Belvoir’s The Cosmonaut’s Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union. While appearing in another Sydney Theatre Company production, La Dispute, she was spotted by the Casting Director for Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, directed by George Lucas, in which she featured as bounty hunter Zam Wesett. Leeanna also starred as Belle Ragazze in the Australian box-office hit Looking for Alibrandi.

“Jessica is the son her father never had and she was reared like a boy and helped him on the property, while her mother and her sister vied for the affections of the local well-to-do boy. Jessica is an outcast – not only in her own home, but also in her community and society. She dresses differently, and doesn’t act socially the way she is supposed to. She stands by her beliefs to the point of outspoken defiance which makes many people turn against her, but which also allows for beautiful people who are also outcasts to come into her life, such as Sam Neill’s character Runche.

“She’s got absolute conviction. Everything is heartfelt – love and truth matter a lot to her – and she has so much strength it almost destroys her. She goes to hell and back but no matter how bad the situation gets, she stands by what she believes. Her strength is that she always chooses to go on.

“As an actor the challenge is terrifying because every couple of scenes there is an epic moment. She experiences absolute unbelievable happiness through to absolute unbelievable despair and sadness, and everyone of those moments is justified by the story.

“One of the great pleasures of working with Sam Neill was watching him as a performer and seeing his ability to pace himself, to create that space in the moment. He’s an incredible man, an icon, and as a performer extremely charming and committed. I was very nervous about working with him, of course, but he is such a kind man and we became friends.”

Sam Neill as Richard Runche

Sam Neill

New Zealander Sam Neill is a major international star of film and television who, despite his substantial Hollywood career, returns often to the antipodes to work on projects which grab his interest. His Hollywood credits include Jurassic Park I and III, Robert Redford’s The Horse Whisperer, The Hunt for Red October, Bicentennial Man and Fred Schepisi’s Plenty. Sam also appeared in the Schepisi-directed Evil Angels with his Plenty co-star Meryl Streep, winning the AFI Award for Best Actor; in Jane Campion’s Academy Award winning film The Piano, receiving an AFI Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor; and in the recent New Zealand feature Perfect Strangers. His Australian films include the box office hits Dirty Deeds, The Dish, The Magic Pudding, Sirens, Death in Brunswick, Dead Calm and Robbery Under Arms. His television roles include Merlin, for which he received the 1998 Golden Globe and Emmy Award nominations, and the recent Granada Television production Zhivago. Sam received earlier Golden Globe nominations for One Against the Wind and Reilly Ace of Spies, also winning a Best Actor on British Television award. He was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for Services to Acting in 1991 and named New Zealand Entertainer of the Year in 1993.

“Runche is a barrister and a disreputable old pisspot from England – and I’m almost all of those things! Runche and Jessica are like orphans – they’re both outsiders, they’ve both lost everybody, and they’re damaged in some way or another. It is never specific what Runche’s origins are, but we know he’s from England and that he probably left the place under a cloud. He and Jessica become surrogate family for each other, he becomes father to her and she is something of a mother to him.

“I love Leeanna, she is a terrific actor and good fun to be around and those two things I value enormously. Peter Andrikidis is very energetic and moves the camera around very well. We worked out on day one that we could trust each other, we have a very present and amiable relationship and I like that… he lets me get on with what I’m doing as an actor.

“While I’ve worked in 20 or 30 countries and every one is different, I do like working in Australia and New Zealand. This is the corner of the world I come from and I like the crews here, there’s no big fuss about anything much and when you’re relaxed you work well and I think that agrees with me!”

Megan Dorman as Meg Bergman

Megan Dorman

Megan Dorman featured in several stage productions in her hometown Brisbane, where she trained at the Queensland University of Technology, before landing her first film role in City Loop, which was also filmed in Brisbane. Subsequently she had roles in the big-budget Hollywood film The Queen of the Damned and in the television shows Headstart, The Coast and, most notably, in White Collar Blue in the role of Wendy Owen.

“Meg has been taught to always look beautiful and that that is the way to marry a man. She is Hester’s chance for a better future and really trusts her mother, but part of her also looks at Jessica rolling around in the dirt with the dog or riding horses with a certain envy, and she wonders why she has to always look so perfect and have no freedom. Jessica is the one who can be the free spirit.

“To put myself at ease in front of the camera I live the character and let the character breathe in me so with Meg, who is very girly, easily manipulated and worried about the way she looks all the time, I walked around noticing the way boys looked at me, noticing what I look like in clothes, worrying about doing the right thing in social situations; things I normally wouldn’t allow to seep into my life.

“I stayed with Lisa Harrow in her house while we were on location in Orange and that was wonderful. In the script Hester and Meg are a partnership and very close knit, so it was very helpful for us to be living together, cooking meals, waking up in the morning and having Lisa give me a hug.

“It would have been so easy to play Meg as a stereotype, but I worked with all the layers of lies she had to keep under wraps. Imagine if you were 19, conned the man you loved into marrying you when he actually loves your sister, faked being pregnant for 9 months all the time wandering around keeping up appearances – it’s mind boggling!”

Lisa Harrow as Hester Bergman

Lisa Harrow’s career has seen her in major television, film and theatre roles in her native New Zealand, Australia, the UK and the US. In the UK she is best known for her work in theatre – including four years early in her career as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company – and for television in such programs as Kavanagh QC, Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, Nancy Astor, Inspector Morse and Poirot. In Australia Lisa won the 1992 AFI Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role for Gillian Armstrong’s The Last Days of Chez Nous and was nominated in 1995 for the film That Eye The Sky and in 1989 for the television mini-series Act of Betrayal. She won a Film Critics Circle of Australia Best Actress Award also for The Last Days of Chez Nous and was nominated for That Eye The Sky. Her television roles in Australia also include Come in Spinner and Always Afternoon. For the past few years Lisa has been based in the US with her American husband, working primarily on the stage, in such productions as Medea for the Pittsburgh Public Theatre and The Last True Believer for Seattle Repertory Theatre.

“Hester is a victim of her circumstances, but she is also a survivor and that’s what makes her so appalling. She is triumphant in her ‘appallingness’ because she is one of only two survivors in this whole story, everyone else is laid waste for Hester’s ambition.

“To play this kind of character you have to find the human being beneath the monochrome, to discover the humanity driving her. Hester’s need is to be in a better place; she wants her family, particularly herself and Meg, to be more comfortable…whether or not that justifies what Hester does I can’t say, is not for me to judge, but it is pretty scary.

“What appealed to me about doing Jessica is that, apart from Medea, I’ve never played a character who is so fundamentally focused on getting her own way and who will go to any ends to achieve that. Medea has a classical quality around her which Hester doesn’t have, she’s just a driven human being, which I thought would be interesting to explore. As my son says ‘you’ve got to explore your dark side’ and that’s what I did with Hester. The notion of a mother who sacrifices one child for another is certainly horrible. Sometimes I would go home from set quite nauseated by what I had to do as Hester.

“To me acting is an imaginative response to the text and I think that once I read a text and I have a sense inside me as to the emotional pressure that’s going to be in the scene, and I let that cook and I characterise it as going through a door. I simply go to a place within myself where I am riven with anger, or hate, or another emotion. I do as much as I can in my preparation, by a scientific analysis of what makes the character tick, so that when I suddenly have to, for example, turn to Joe and say ‘I hate you’ I can do it.”

Tony Martin as Joe Bergman

Tony Martin won the AFI Award for Best Male Actor in a TV Drama for his portrayal of underworld figure Neddy Smith in Blue Murder, then TV Week Logie Awards for Most Outstanding Actor in 1997 and 1998 for his performance in the series Wildside. Tony also had long-running roles earlier in his career in E Street and in Heartbreak High. He was nominated for a Film Critics Circle of Australia Award for the feature film The Interview and has also had roles in such films as Fred Schepisi’s Evil Angels, Inspector Gadget and The Killing of Angel Street. On stage, Tony has appeared for, amongst other companies, the Sydney Theatre Company, Belvoir Street, The Ensemble and The Stables.

“Joe’s a battler and has been all his life, although he marries ‘above his station’ or so his wife always tells him. He is under a lot of pressure, his wife manipulates him into doing a lot of things he doesn’t feel comfortable doing and he’s like a pressure cooker that builds and builds until he realises he just can’t take it any more.

“I liked the character because there is that struggle and I loved the story because it is about a woman who fights the odds. Being set in the early 1900s there is the race issue, the Christian ethics issue, there’s the female trying to battle along in a male world, and I love the aspect of Joe being aligned with his daughter supporting her through the struggle; you usually get stories about the father/son relationship, this one unusually is about a father/daughter relationship and that attracted me.”

John Howard as George Thomas

John Howard has become one of Australia’s best loved actors for his work in such television series as SeaChange, for which he received the 2001 Silver Logie Award for Most Outstanding Actor, and Always Greener. One of the most in-demand actors in Australia for television, film and theatrical roles, among John’s numerous credits are the acclaimed recent television mini-series The Road from Coorain and Changi. He has appeared in the films Japanese Story, which was selected to screen in the 2003 Cannes International Film Festival, The Man Who Sued God (with Billy Connolly and Judy Davis), Dating the Enemy, Blackrock, In a Savage Land, Young Einstein and Evil Angels. Among John’s television roles are Stingers, Water Rats, State Coroner, Heartbreak High, Joh’s Jury, A Town Like Alice and Water Under the Bridge. John received the Variety Club of Australia Stage Actor Heart Award in 1992 and the Sydney Critics Circle Best Stage Actor Award in 1991.

“George is an Ignorant, arrogant, bully of a man with little or no humanity and not much of a sense of humour. He’s obviously new to money, thanks to his wife who owns everything, and I think because of that he takes out his weakness on anyone who is near him. The moment which defines him is when he steals the jewellery from his just murdered wife’s fingers and from around her neck.

“A lot of the characters in Bryce Courtenay’s book are Dickensian, so I’ve attempted to give George no redeeming features whatsoever in a Dickensian kind of way, as well as physical characteristics like Il Duce. But the observant will notice that he’s also a servant to his wife, for example he pours the milk in her tea revealing who is the boss, but he’s a resentful servant. Hatred defines their family.”

Oliver Ackland as Jack Thomas

Oliver Ackland is a newcomer to Australian television, with his first role in 2000 in the series Outriders. After training at the Australian Theatre for Young People and at the NIDA Summer School, Oliver quickly attracted the attention of casting directors winning roles in All Saints, Pirate Islands, Young Lions and Always Greener, before landing the romantic lead role in Jessica. Oliver will also be seen in P.J. Hogan’s adaptation of Peter Pan, filmed recently at the Warner Bros. Gold Coast studios. Oliver’s skills at horse riding were put to good use in Jessica and he is proficient at numerous sports, including surf lifesaving. He’s a member of the world famous Bondi Surf Lifesaving Club.

“Jack is the black sheep of the family and in fact doesn’t like any other member of his own family. He prefers the company of his best friends Jessica and Billy. George resents his son and Jack is just at the age where he starts to stand up for himself in defiance of his father.

“This is the biggest acting role I’ve done so I had a great time sitting back watching the other experienced actors and just soaking it up. It was a lot of fun – I had to learn to ride a horse, drive a manual car and shear sheep. Wil Traval and I had a shearing lesson at Carcoar, near Orange, and meeting those blokes was a bit of a highlight. I couldn’t master wrestling the sheep to the floor, so they had to have a docile one waiting on its back for me!”

Natasha Wanganeen as Mary

Although only 19, Natasha Wanganeen has already appeared in some of the most high-profile Australian feature films of the past few years – Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit Proof Fence, Black & White and Australian Rules. Natasha acted throughout her school years in school and church productions and she was also part of a youth theatre workshop and a rock eisteddfod while in secondary school.

Wil Traval as Billy

Wil Traval graduated from NIDA in 2002, although his earlier life suggested a career in science rather than the arts. Wil began university level mathematics at the end of Year 10 and later won a university mathematics scholarship, before that he wasn’t cut out for campus life. He travelled and then began making films with a friend before auditioning for NIDA. The role of Billy, the brain damaged best friend of Jessica and Jack, is his most substantial to date. Wil has also been cast in three episodes of White Collar Blue and as a guest star in All Saints.

Heather Mitchell as Ada Thomas

Heather Mitchell received an AFI Award nomination in 1999 for her performance in the mini-series The Day of the Roses, one of numerous roles in film, television and theatre for which Heather has received acclaim. She has featured in such mini-series and telemovies as Bodyline, Seven Deadly Sins – Lust, The Love of Lionel’s Life and On The Beach, starred as Ashka in two series of Spellbinder, and has had roles in All Saints, G.P., Boys From The Bush and Cody. Heather’s film credits include Thank God He Met Lizzie, A Little Bit of Soul, Children of the Revolution, Muriel’s Wedding, Proof and Malcolm. Since graduating from NIDA in 1980 Heather has also performed regularly with the Sydney Theatre Company and the Melbourne Theatre Company.

Kerry Walker as Mrs Baker

Kerry Walker was awarded an A.M. (Member in the General Division of the Order of Australia) in 1994 for Services to the Performing Arts. She is an actress familiar to any Australian who watches television, or goes to theatre or the cinema. Kerry has been in some of the most popular Australian films including Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, The Dish, Looking for Alibrandi, The Piano, Babe, Holy Smoke, Cosi and Road to Nhill. She will next be seen in director P.J. Hogan’s big-budget adaptation of Peter Pan. Kerry has had roles in major landmark Australian television productions for some 20 years, including Poor Man’s Orange, Vietnam, Come In Spinner, The Leaving of Liverpool, Heartland and, more recently, Worst Best Friends, and the series Murder Call, All Saints and G.P. Her theatre credits are substantial as evidenced by her long list of awards and nominations including the 1984 Victorian Green Room Award for Best Actress for Pack of Lies, a 2002 Victorian Green Room Award Nomination for Best Female Actor in a Leading Role – Holy Day, a1989 Victorian Green Room Award for Best Actress – Knuckledusters: The Jewels Of Edith Sitwell, a 1990/92 Australian Artists Creative Fellowship and two Sydney Theatre Critics’ Circle Nominations. Kerry was also nominated for AFI Awards for her work in The Piano, Twelfth Night and Bliss.

Huw Higginson as The Prosecutor

Huw Higginson is a familiar face to fans of The Bill in which he featured as PC George Garfield. Huw has recently returned to Australia after a considerable career in the United Kingdom, appearing in numerous BBC, Granada, Yorkshire and Thames TV programs such as Heartbeat, Eastenders and Flood Tide, and on stage including for the Royal Shakespeare Company in Henry IV.