Life Support: articles

Comedy team's lifestyle decision

IT LOOKS and sounds just like an average TV lifestyle show. It comes in half-hour doses, dispenses a range of do-it-yourself tips and even the hosts seem strangely familiar.

But SBS’s new series, Life Support, is not quite what it seems.

The show is instead a satirical look at the genre through four oddball characters. There’s do-it-yourself carpentry and cooking expert Todd, patronising and egotistical health spokesman Dr Rudi, street-wise hippie Penne and a conservative, doily-lover named Sigourney.

Writer and director David McDonald says he and business partner John Eastway chose these four characters and their roles carefully to express the full range of absurdity involved in lifestyle shows.

McDonald comes from a healthy comedy background, having worked with Andrew Denton and Libby Gore (Elle McFeast) and watched countless episodes of Mother And Son, which starred his father Garry.

But he admits Australian comedy shows are often difficult to produce and maintain. “The thing in Australia is that we don’t give things time and we don’t seem to have the money to give things time,” he says.

“If you look at Mother And Son and even SeaChange, it took a second run for them to really pick up. You’re very lucky if you nail it first time and the way it is in Australia is sudden death. Ordinary drama is totally acceptable but ordinary comedy is not.”

With Life Support, McDonald says a decision was made not to parody commercial TV’s lifestyle shows and their presenters. “We’d rather have our own characters. That was probably the best decision for us because we could develop them a bit and enjoy them a bit more.”

The tips these characters advocate certainly show how far they have developed from their more serious counterparts. Todd tells viewers to rip the pages out of large books and store videos inside their covers. Sigourney, meanwhile, covers “unsightly” objects with the pink fabric and lace confections that generally cover toilet rolls. Getting the wrap include the tyres in front of Kombi vans and one girl’s conjoined twin.

McDonald says he chose to satirise lifestyle shows because it is different from the usual news or current affairs spoof and the shows are “a nice target”.

“Every commercial station has one and for the bulk of middle class Australia that’s what they are watching so we’re taking aim at them as well.”

McDonald says Life Support won’t be “ball-tearingly high rating” straight off, but he hopes the show would grow in popularity.

By Jennifer Dudley
August 23, 2001
Daily Telegraph

Simon van der Stap and Rachael Coopes

Happy family… Life Support’s tiny crew films Simon van der Stap and Rachael Coopes.

Don't try this at home

Money’s tight, the crew’s tiny and everyone seems to be doing two jobs at once. But the makers of Life Support wouldn’t have it any other way. Greg Hassall reports.

It was one of the funniest local comedies in ages, but last year Life Support slipped by almost unnoticed. Sharing SBS’s Monday night comedy slot with the brash, publicity-hungry Pizza, it was virtually drowned out. But it was always the more interesting proposition.

A satire of lifestyle TV, Life Support avoided the easy piss-take. After all, how do you ridicule something as ridiculous as Changing Rooms? Instead, it used the genre’s relentless optimism and superficiality to deliver a gleefully twisted guide to modern living. The four hosts employed a kind of manic deadpan to deliver tips that were macabre, surreal but somehow strangely sensible.

Back for a second series, it now will follow John Safran’s long-awaited return to television comedy. The shows are a natural fit and represent one of the smartest hours of comedy in a long time.

That Life Support emerged so confidently was no happy accident. The show’s got pedigree. It’s obvious from the moment you enter the modest Crows Nest production office, where yellowing posters for Aunty Jack and The Norman Gunston Show adorn the walls. John Eastway, who worked on both those shows early in his career, is one half of the creative team behind Life Support (he is also currently producing Grass Roots for the ABC). The other is David McDonald, whose father, Garry, appeared in Aunty Jack and went on to play Gunston.

At 30, McDonald looks like a thicker-set version of his famous dad. He’s affable and unpretentious—a result, perhaps, of having started at the bottom. Despite both parents being involved in the industry, a career in TV was no foregone conclusion.

“At the time I left school my sister was acting as well, so it was all three of them,” he recalls. “So I thought absolutely no way.”

When he did get his first television job, on Nine’s 1990 drama Family and Friends, it was “studio floor, at the bottom with a broom”.

He continued to work in props, landing a job in 1994 on Denton, which was being produced for the Seven Network by Eastway. It was the start of a fruitful relationship.

“He was the props guy who has learned lots and developed massively and is now my partner,” Eastway explains. “The fact that he’s Garry’s son has never been an issue. It might have helped him get an interview for the props gig back in ‘94, but it’s been David doing his own thing.”

It’s just gone six in the morning and it’s all systems go in the busy production office. Rachael Coopes (Sigourney) is being made-up for the morning’s shoot at Royal North Shore Hospital while the small crew makes the most of the thin autumn light streaming in a window to shoot an interior scene with Alison Barnes (Penne).

This is one lean operation. No trucks spilling leads, no mountains of equipment. Just a couple of station wagons and a handful of people, criss-crossing Sydney guerilla-style, dropping in and out of locations begged and borrowed. “We touch the ground lightly,” McDonald says as we head to the hospital, which has donated a room in the maternity ward for a few hours.

Once there, the scenes are set up and shot so quickly that even Zack, the four-month-old extra, keeps his cool. Just a handheld camera and a boom mic, McDonald cheerfully calling the shots. Props appear as if by magic, shots are set up and everyone hits their marks. It’s a pattern that continues all day.

As we arrive to shoot the next scene at a small electrical store on a busy Willoughby road, Brendan Cowell rounds the corner, already dressed as Todd the handyman. A makeshift pawnbroker sign is stuck to the window while Cowell runs through his lines a few times. The scene is shot in gaps between passing trucks and a steady stream of glassy-eyed patrons from a local pub, before Cowell disappears as suddenly as he arrived.

It’s lightning fast and done with a minimum of fuss. Of course, modest production values are part of the joke. “Continuity—what’s that?” McDonald laughs at the hospital when someone notices a light wasn’t on for the last take. But there’s nothing slapdash about it. McDonald knows what he wants and the crew knows how to get it done quickly.

It’s clear McDonald’s background helps, being across so many areas of TV production. In fact multi-tasking is something of a company credo. “Hyphenates”, is how Eastway describes himself and McDonald. “We produce, we direct, we write… And the people we hire are similarly minded. I think that’s the key to survival these days.”

While it’s an approach born of necessity (the trade-off for SBS’s fearless support, Eastway explains, is “tiny budgets”), no-one’s complaining. The vibe on set is constantly upbeat, McDonald’s enthusiasm contagious.

McDonald and Eastway came up with characters for Life Support in 2000, but were unsure what form the show should take. “Is it just going to be a lifestyle show, is it going to be a sitcom or is it going to be a docu-soap?” McDonald recalls wondering. “If you’re going to satirise a lifestyle show, what can you do with it? It’s more fun to hit, hopefully, some bigger targets.”

Last series, one of those targets was the hysteria over refugees, with the suggestion they be kept in backyard chookhouses. Both creators, however, were keen to avoid political satire. McDonald was a director on last year’s The Election Chaser, but as a writer he was more interested in social satire.

They were determined also that Life Support should operate, on some level, as a genuine lifestyle show, however absurd. It’s in these terms McDonald justifies the use of vox pops—real voices from the street—after sketches. Many critics thought they jarred with the tone of the show, but McDonald has no qualms about using them.

“That’s part of our lifestyle show,” he explains. “We’re not Don Burke and were not Backyard Blitz… It’s supposed to be our show and part of that is that we have a view from the street.

“Sometimes they work really well,” he insists, pointing to two of last season’s more controversial sketches—the refugees and one about domestic abuse. The vox pops, he believes, provided a context for the humour and showed “anything that we were saying, the people out there were saying much worse”.

While the vox pops may provide a touch of realism, it’s the four well-drawn characters that make the show work. Sigourney, the defiantly superficial “modern woman”; Penne, the feral, street-wise manipulator; Todd, the blokey handyman and cook; and Dr Rudi, the smoothly amoral, white South African medico (“our token ethnic,” jokes McDonald). While it’s basically sketch comedy, the interaction of the hosts provides a sitcom-like framework and helps ground the often bizarre humour.

“It’s character-driven, so we can rely just on the characters when we have to,” McDonald explains. “Of course, they wouldn’t have an out-and-out fight on camera, because there is a producer there and a director who would go, ‘Stop, what are you doing?’… Once you’ve played too much of that hand, I don’t know if you’ve got anywhere further to go.”

Weak characterisation, McDonald believes, is the undoing of many Australian comedies. “They’re either too big or they’re too shallow. There’s not enough in them to hang the whole show on, so instead of it being written for those characters, you have stand-up jokes that aren’t very funny.”

Once McDonald and Eastway came up with characters strong enough to hang a show on, they knew they needed actors, not stand-up comedians—people who could make the hosts work as more than parodies; who could make them believable and likable.

They chose well. Coopes and Cowell are naturals for their roles. Watching Coopes shoot her scenes in the hospital, it’s hard to tell where she stops and Sigourney begins. As someone struggles with a faulty lightbulb, she recounts how she had to call a friend over to her place recently to change a bulb. McDonald laughs: “I love typecasting; it makes my job so much easier.”

Simon van der Stap, on the other hand, is barely recognisable as Dr Rudi until he dons his white coat and stethoscope and adopts that outrageous faux-Afrikaans accent. It’s an uncanny transformation.

It’s Barnes as Penne, however, who illustrates the importance of using actors. She replaces Abbie Cornish, who left to pursue a film career. It’s a skilful, seamless transition, and one that, as Eastway puts it, conveniently “echoes the reality of the pretty experts who are all through these lifestyle shows. They change seamlessly anyway.”

McDonald, too, is happy with the way Barnes has worked out, but adds: “I’d hate to lose any of the others.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is the show’s warped sense of humour. In the first episode tips on date rape and vulva-shaped canapes set the tone. McDonald, who writes about a third of the material, says he considers most subjects fair game, although he’ll reject “things that aren’t in character, things that are smutty or just being black for the sake of being black. That’s easy; anyone can do that. It’s like bestiality jokes”.

And domestic abuse? “At least that had a satirical point. It’s not something you’re supposed to laugh at, which makes it perfect to have a go at… You’re going to run that risk of someone not getting it, but you can’t dumb it down. That’s boring for everyone.”

The first series attracted some flak but got away with a lot, due mainly to the unflinchingly upbeat delivery. The actors never resort to those dreadful “aren’t we clever” winks to the audience that spoil so much comedy. It’s a deliberate approach.

“The worse thing I think I’ve ever seen any sort of comedian do,” McDonald says, “is make a joke that’s a bit risque and then apologise for it. ‘Sorry, I’m just joking’. Oh, what? Be truthful, just say it, because its got a point behind it.”

SBS, as Eastway acknowledges, is “pretty fearless when it comes to satire”, so it’s no surprise Life Support found a home there. But could it work on the ABC, or even the commercial networks?

“I don’t know,” Eastway laughs. “I love the ABC, and I particularly love the ABC’s audience. I don’t know what their attitude to Life Support would be. I don’t know if they would have taken the original risk that SBS took.”

“I think some things, if it was on the ABC, they wouldn’t let us do,” McDonald says. “I think it could go on commercial telly, but the way it is out there, possibly not. Possibly SBS is the only place we could be.”

So, SBS willing, will there be a third series?

“There’s certainly room to move as far as we’re concerned,” Eastway says. “We love the show, we love the people and we love doing it.”

“Maybe they [the hosts] don’t do Life Support,” offers McDonald. “Maybe they do a spin-off show about auctions, or top and tail imported shows from America for Channel Ten.”

By Greg Hassall
Photo: Quentin Jones
June 24, 2002
The Sydney Morning Herald

Do it yourself, switch on to SBS

Before you know it, and just like that, you’ll discover Life Support is just the ticket.

Two tradesmen sit outside a restaurant, eating meat pies and watching men in suits enjoy a pleasant meal and drink cold white wine (I’m guessing semillon). One tradesman asks the other if those poor bastards (who I hope are enjoying a nice piece of Murray cod and a mountain of kipfler potatoes) have any idea what they are missing (referring to the pies). They laugh at the men in suits, and decide that they do not (know what they are missing).

If the men in the suits had said of the tradesmen, “Do they have any idea what they are eating?”, that would make sense. The meat pie remains one of the great mystery foods of the world.

Let’s not open a can of worms here. But it has been suggested that meat pies contain snouts, sticking plasters, entrails—in fact everything but an actual can of worms. The pie people must think we’re idiots.

“Mmm, I’d prefer my dough, snouts and sauce to a well-prepared piece of fresh fish.” What do they take us for? Morons who believe everything we see on those lifestyle shows?

You see, if we believe that, we’d believe a house could be renovated in two days. A rusty bucket should be wrapped in rope, spray painted and reincarnated as a lamp base. All those bilious shades on the colour charts actually belong on somebody’s walls. We’d believe that kids would feel loved if their bedrooms are stencilled with ducks.

On Room For Improvement (Seven, Saturday and Tuesday) Scott MacGregor and his band of punctual pie-loving tradesmen showed us how to hang a door, a huge door with glass panes and three deep brass hinges. It took them just a mo. It was so simple, a girl helped! Surely this is a job for a real carpenter, not a stingy optimist. These shows are an insult to people who are trained to hang doors and make lamps. (Always happy to insult professional duck stencillers.)

I’d like to see them attempt some dentistry with the same breezy approach, or even DIY TV. There isn’t much at stake. If you make a crap TV show, clearly there are no repercussions, but surely many doors and hinges and fingers must go to God when people heed MacGregor’s advice.

The producers of lifestyle shows are in cahoots with craft shops and privately owned casualty wards. The style of my life will not improve when I get a glue gun and make a rocking horse out of pine cones.

Cooking segments are exempt from this tirade. Although most of us won’t make sticky date pudding this afternoon, we don’t have to settle for Chicken Tonight, or snout pie ever. We all gotta eat. We don’t gotta make picture frames out of peanut shells.

The lifestyle shows. They opened the door for comedy and the guys from Life Support (SBS, Monday) just walked right in. This, the second series, really sparkles.

They all get the language and the patronising delivery just right. The trick is to string together a bag of tabloid cliches—five star, gourmet, just the ticket, creme de la creme, like an expert, before you know it, just like that, transformed within minutes—while smiling and walking on an odd but flattering diagonal.

Todd the handyman (Brendan Cowell) has the idiotic smile and she’ll-be-apples demeanour of the genuine article. “Wanna save thousands in the property market? Buy a cheaper house!” His grins and winks often accompany some quite pornographic content, making him the most believable tradesman on the box. Todd’s canapes of salmon genitalia are only funny because his delivery is cooking demo perfection. Not every day that you see a TV presenter pick a strand of alfalfa out of his teeth.

The material is edgy. South African Dr Rudi’s guide to date rape drugs is a treasure. He genuinely feels for the fellas who come undone with the law when they’re “just trying to show a girl a good night’s sleep”.

Some skits hit. Some miss, and ultimately Life Support falls safely into the honourable category of cheap timely parody (Fast Forward, Late Show, D Gen). For some genuine mould-breaking, look no further than John Safran’s Music Jamboree (Monday, also SBS, bless it).

Cynic, prankster, small-time anarchist, you’ve got to love a guy who cares enough to present the top five songs likely to bring a patient out of a coma. (Don’t wait for your parents to rifle through your CD collection when it’s too late. Get your coma card printed now.)

Had Eminem executed his hours of community service at a child-care centre, the outcome couldn’t be better or funnier than Safran’s Green Eggs and Ham rap duet with an Elton John look-alike. And torturing talkback’s Steve Price by pretending to produce drugs carrying his station’s logo, well, that really is a community service.

Safran is so genuinely bright and shiny, he belongs in a pie.

June 29 2002
The Sydney Morning Herald

Simon van der Stap

Australian Simon van der Stap as South African Dr Rudi.

Accent on arrogance

“HOUWWZITT?” I bark down the line to Simon van der Stap, fully expecting Life Support’s suavely amoral, stethoscope-wearing South African medico Dr Rudi to reply in an Afrikaans accent thick enough to choke a talking horse.

The reply? “Gidday, mate. How ya goin’?”

“Oh my God. What have you evil bastards done with Dr Rudi?” I ask fearfully. Have Philip Ruddock’s henchmen, angered by what is easily the most hilariously tasteless show on television, sent the foreigner whose philosophy of life I have come to live by back to his homeland?

“I was born and raised in Bondi,” explains Van der Stap, whose Dr Rudi has become the cult breakout character of Life Support, the ingenious SBS series that spoofs those annoying lifestyle programs.

“Everyone assumes that I’m South African because of the name,” he explains. “But my father is Dutch so there is no South African connection at all. Sorry to disappoint you.”

Obviously, it is not so amazing that Van der Stap fooled those of us whose familiarity with the South African accident extends only as far as Tony Greig’s pitch reports, the confessions of Hansie Cronje and villains in second-rate American action movies.

However, The West Australian has enough South Africans to form its own scratch rugby team and several of them are absolutely convinced that Van der Stap is a genuine yarpie. “Maybe they need their ears checked,” says Van der Stap, slipping into his best Dr Rudi accent.

Van der Stap explains that he picked up the accent while working on the door of a Jewish club in Bondi. “Many South Africans would come in and instead of saying hello they would say, ‘Houwwzitt?’,” recalls Van der Stap, who says that working as a security guard gave him plenty of spare hours to practise accents.

All those years toying with characters in his mind eventually gained him a place in NIDA, Australia’s top acting school.

There he worked his way through the classics, performing in everything from Shakespeare to Chekhov. Ironically, it wasn’t his ability to intone “To be or not to be” but his facility with the South African accent that got him his first major acting gig as Life Support’s resident men’s health expert and financial adviser, Dr Rudi.

During auditions for Life Support, which is halfway through its second season, Van der Stap “bunged on the accent” for the writing-producing team of John Eastway and David McDonald (son of Garry “Norman Gunston” McDonald).

They were searching for an ethnic type to become a part of a team of four presenters who collectively would spoof the ubiquitous lifestyle program—those relentlessly cheerful infotainment shows in which common sense is dressed up and sold as genuine wisdom.

Specifically, they wanted a stereotypical know-it-all to play Dr Rudi, a gynaecologist who specialises in giving advice on men’s health to complement handyman Todd, home-hints guru Sigourney and street-smart scam artist and youth issues commentator Penne.

“They were thinking upper-crust English or German—types that we associate with arrogance. Dr Rudi is so convinced that he has a simple solution to every problem experienced by men, be it erectile dysfunction or how to make your children appreciate you more, they need the twang of unchallenged self-assurance,” says Van der Stap.

“So I slipped into South African and the producers bought it immediately. It struck me that the South African and Zimbabwean accent is truly odd and among the stupidest I have ever heard.”

As good an ear as Van der Stap has—he’s spent several years training as an opera singer—the South African accent is not easy to master and the 30-year-old actor accepted help from any source he could.

“When I first began I had a Zimbabwean friend read my lines into a dictaphone. But this was such a labour-intensive exercise that the accent occasionally drifted into Pakistani.”

That labour was well worth the effort because Van der Stap and the producers of Life Support have created one of the most unique characters to appear on Australian TV—a creepy, ever-smiling fascist whose solutions to life’s problems are so politically incorrect yet madly practical that you’re half-tempted to give them a try.

This “wisdom” ranges from the hilariously obvious—”eat less,” Dr Rudi advised overweight viewers in Life Support’s first season—to the utterly outrageous, such as the episode in which he told date rapists how to save money on the drug Rohypnol by plying victims with alcohol “and you’ll save money on breakfast”.

“Dr Rudi is great fun to play,” says Van der Stap. “He really believes that he is right and everybody else is wrong. So how could you not love a character with that kind of blissful, maniacal self-confidence?”

By Mark Naglazas
The West Australian
August 19, 2002

series 3 cast photo

The cast of the SBS sleeper comedy Life Support, now in their third season.

Lifestyles gurus to the rescue

Everyone needs sage advice now and then. If you can’t find it, there’s always Life Support. Paul Kalina reports.

Self-proclaimed modern feminist Sigourney understands that the two most pressing issues for young women in Australia today are knowing how to keep their husbands happy and their houses beautiful.

But it’s the plight of the single thirtysomethings that sparks her deepest sympathies. “We’ve seen that period when single women were running around on the streets and having a great time, but at the end of the day they’re all very lonely and sad.

“Deep down those women want to settle down and nest. This takeaway lifestyle of women in their 30s isn’t making them happy.”

Sigourney wants to empower Australian women by “putting them in their right place”. And with a direct line to the nation’s population, sensible shoes and endless wardrobes of floral frocks, she hopes to be the one to set the example for others to follow.

Anyone who has caught even a glimpse of the sleeper comedy Life Support, which returns to SBS this week for a third season, should have little difficulty detecting the biting satire as Rachael Coopes explains what makes her character Sigourney tick.

Sigourney is one of the four young and good-looking presenters of Life Support, a surreal and often very amusing parody of cloying and relentlessly optimistic DIY lifestyle programs.

The humour is sometimes a mixed bag, its shards of blackness unlikely to warm the hearts or minds of all viewers (one segment gives advice on getting your teacher accused of pedophilia), but the corrosive and macabre views it presents on Australian life strike a chord rarely seen or heard these days in home-grown television comedy.

Satire, Coopes concedes, is a hard nut to crack, and it’s not uncommon for viewers to complain about the very things a segment has targeted. It’s also not uncommon for viewers to stray on to the show and only gradually realise that what they’re watching isn’t, say, The Great Outdoors, but a monumental pisstake of the genre.

According to Coopes, Tom “the chippy carpenter” Williams, from the Seven Network’s lifestyle show, is an avid fan of Life Support’s happy but dim, corner-cutting handyman Todd.

The satire works, Coopes believes, as the characters are “all people we know”. Importantly, too, the show taps the pulse of the popular zeitgeist. “At the end of the day, Australians are obsessed with watching television to solve their problems. So we’re doing exactly that; telling them how to live their lives so they don’t have to think about it.”

David McDonald, who has directed all three series, is one of the principal writers of Life Support, which he produces with his business partner, John Eastway.

“At the time it first came out,” McDonald recalls, “no one was doing this kind of satire, using satire to say something or as a launch pad to target things. I don’t consider All Aussie Adventures a satire, even though it’s a pisstake of the Leyland Brothers. There was nothing that was taking a few big swings,” he says.

Life Support has found an appreciative home at SBS, complementing shows with surefire young viewer credentials such as Pizza, Crank Yankers and (last year) John Safran’s Music Jamboree. McDonald is quick to agree that he wouldn’t get away with such risque and jagged humour elsewhere on Australian television—the ABC included.

The most notable change in this latest series comes with the introduction of Jack Finsterer and Duncan Fellows in the roles, respectively, of Dr Rudi and handyman Todd.

Dr Rudi, as close to a cult character as the show is likely to have, is a South African men’s health expert and financial adviser whose insensitivity and tactlessness borders on the grotesque.

“He’s the token ethnic of the group but happens to be whiter than white,” explains McDonald. For the show’s makers, having new actors fill old characters’ shoes is an opportunity too good to let slip.

After a skiing accident, Dr Rudi has had some, ahem, corrective surgery to make him look “more heterosexual”. When we meet him in the series opener, his face is completely bandaged, Invisible Man-style, but for slits at his eyes and mouth.

Recalling one his favourite soap opera cliches (Rebecca Gilling’s return as the sister of her character, who had been killed off, in Return to Eden), McDonald says he’d already thought of putting the old Dr Rudi through a similar plot twist—but with an extra twist: “When the bandages came off viewers would discover there was nothing different.”

This time, however, viewers will notice something different about Dr Rudi, although for McDonald, this actor swap is just another dimension to the satire. “In the cookie-cutter style of television presenters, there’s always someone ready to step in. Like a warehouse of these people, you open a door and there they are.”

As for Todd, he’s the same old happy-go-lucky, mindlessly satisfied bloke, and in many ways an emblem for McDonald of what makes all the characters work. “The charm of Todd is he’ll go to extraordinary lengths to achieve the most miniscule result and be proud of it. They’re all incredibly earnest, they take their jobs so seriously.

“As soon as there’s cynicism or a wink to the camera that they know they’re ‘on’ and being funny, you’re dead. I think that would undermine the truth of it,” McDonald says.

“As patronising as they are as characters, if we started doing that, we’d be patronising to the audience. If we know it’s a joke straight away, it loses its impact.”

The third series of Life Supports screens on Monday at 9pm on SBS.

By Paul Kalina
September 18, 2003
The Age

Grace under fire ... Abbie Cornish is now being recognised for the right reasons.

Abbie Cornish's Star is rising

Fame has been a hellishly hard road to travel for the woman being billed as both Australia's brightest young export and Hollywood's hottest Oscar contender.

While no one can deny Abbie Cornish's incredible acting talent, she's had to endure the rockiest of entries into the often-callous world of celluloid celebrity.

On screen, she's become everyone's darling as the heroine of Jane Campion's keenly awaited new movie, Bright Star, playing the demure lover of the great Romantic poet John Keats.

Off screen, attention seems always to be focused on casting her as a real-life villainess, a result of her relationship with actor Ryan Phillippe, whom she met on the set of Stop-Loss when he was still married to Reese Witherspoon, the mother of his two children.

Cornish resolutely refuses to comment on the scandal, saying it's a private matter. But she admits all the paparazzi and gossip writers' interest has been tough to cope with.

"In a normal successful career, someone usually learns these things bit by bit," she says. "For me, it was like night and day. I woke up one day and there was this whole new thing I had to process and deal with."

It's been hard for the 27-year-old to escape its reach. At the premiere of Bright Star at this year's Cannes Film Festival, she did everything possible to avoid being photographed with Phillippe, 35, whose Los Angeles home she now shares and who was also in Cannes to promote his next film, The Bang Bang Club.

Despite their carefully choreographed separate comings and goings, they were finally snapped together, hand-in-hand, at a private party that they'd believed no photographers were allowed to attend. Still, Cornish managed to keep her cool and the couple slipped out soon after.

Cornish only seems to relax when discussing Bright Star, the film that suddenly looks likely to rocket her into the ranks of Hollywood royalty.

Already being compared to Kate Winslet and Meryl Streep, Cornish looks set to follow in the hallowed footsteps of Cate Blanchett, with an Oscar nomination a distinct possibility.

Film critics have hailed Cornish's charisma, praising her understated and restrained, yet vibrant, performance.

The simple love story between the poverty-stricken and sick young poet, played by British actor Ben Whishaw, and his stylish neighbour, who loves making clothes, is beautifully shot and poetically told but it's Cornish who holds the whole thing together.

"I really did love this film and I'm pleased at people's reaction to it," Cornish says, suddenly appearing to channel all the diffidence of her character, humble seamstress Fanny Brawne. "I fell in love with the film instantly, no question about it, and also the character of Fanny," she says. "She felt so alive and present and somehow ready. She fell so incredibly deeply in love with Keats and we see that deepening even more and maturing through the process. There was definitely some gusto to Fanny Brawne that really appealed to me."

Symbolically, it's the sewing we see her doing through the film that becomes a theme.

"Jane [Campion] was very particular about the image of me sewing," Cornish says. "At the beginning of the film, Fanny is sewing and at the end of the film, she's sewing a completely different outfit.

"There's something very focused and dedicated about her doing that. There are links all the way through. It's almost the thread running the whole way along."

For Cornish, who grew up in the Hunter Valley as the second of five children, it was a fabulously different role from the kind she's had before.

After a television career with regular parts in shows including the gritty cop drama Wildside and the family show Outriders, she first hit the headlines in the 2004 Cate Shortland movie Somersault, about a troubled teen who runs away from home to a Snowy River resort, wrestling with childhood, sexuality and vulnerability. It swept the board at the Australian Film Institute awards, winning an unprecedented all 13 categories, including best actress.

Later came the darker Candy, alongside the late Heath Ledger, in which she played an art student who falls in love with another poet and shares his heroin use on a mutual path to self-destruction.

Bright Star, a sumptuous costume drama, must have felt almost like light relief, especially after the less-than-joyously-received A Good Year, with Russell Crowe, and the controversial Stop-Loss with Phillippe.

"As soon as I read this script, I knew I wanted to do it," Cornish says. "I think I was the first person to audition for the role but then I had to wait months to hear whether I had the part.

"But it was such an amazing script and I loved Keats's poetry. I read all of it and then the letters he wrote to Fanny and the letters she wrote to his family.

"I also researched that period of history and was entranced. It was a much slower, more languid kind of time, so gradually I managed to start doing everything more slowly, too.

"It felt a time of such truth and honesty; I loved the experience and I loved playing someone so much in love."

For someone now so much in love, despite that troubled start with Phillippe, it must almost have been a home away from home. "Fanny's just starting to discover love and find herself through love," she says. "When someone's in love, they kind of are at their best. Everything becomes brighter and more vibrant and they are connected to everything."

She smiles. But that's the life of her on-screen characters; of her own romance, she isn't telling.

Bright Star opens on December 26.

By Jimmy Thomson
November 16, 2009