The Surgeon: articles

Nicholas Bell and Justine Clarke

Justine Clarke in her new series The Surgeon.

Look every which way

Justine Clarke seems to be everywhere at the moment, but this overnight success story has been a long time coming. She spoke with Brian Courtis about her latest role.

Whichever way Justine Clarke looks right now, life is pretty good. There has been critical acclaim for her performance in the movie Look Both Ways, she is about to appear in the new Network Ten drama The Surgeon and, in the mail recently, she received a reminder of where it all began, a long-lost tape of her as the young star of an advertisement for Arnott's Humphrey B. Bear biscuits.

That TV ad - one of the many she made between the ages of seven and 12 - helped convince her she wanted to be an actor. She had tried to find a copy as a souvenir, but nobody knew about it and it didn't seem to exist. She began to wonder whether she had actually imagined it all, if perhaps it had been a fantasy.

"Then, there it was, out of the blue, just after the wrap party for The Surgeon, a tape of those commercials sent to me from Arnott's," Clarke says.

 "There was this little girl there but, you know, strangely, I think I saw in her the beginnings of a style."

From bikkies to bigger things; from drama school to theatre, television and cinema. From Anna Goanna in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome to Monnie Malone in Come In Spinner. From Play School to Golden Fiddles and many others.

But perhaps it was playing spirited Roo in the early years of Home And Away that won her most early attention. There are fans still waiting for her to return from Brisbane or wherever it is that favoured soap stars are sent into exile.

"That's right," she says. "They usually do get sent there to live next door to Charlene, don't they?

"Roo was special to me. I was happy on that show. But Roo went to New York, you know, and she's still there, and that happens to people. Sometimes people never come home."

Later would follow Danny Deckchair, a movie in which she played carping, ambitious Trudy; Japanese Story, in which she was Toni Colette's efficient offsider; and, most recently, her role as co-star with William McInnes in Sarah Watt's multi-faceted gem on life and death, Look Both Ways.

Clarke has built a reputation as a jazz and cabaret singer, too, a popular drawcard on the Sydney club circuit.

She has also managed to sustain a career in the theatre, landing roles in such Sydney Theatre Company productions as The Man with Five Children, Trelawney of the Wells, Cyrano de Bergerac, The Herbal Bed and Stiffs, as well as the MTC production of Trelawney of the Wells.

"It depends on the project, but my first love really is theatre," she says. "I love the immediacy. Every night is something new."

So what is bringing Justine Clarke back to television? In The Surgeon, a series opening somewhat cautiously with just eight 30-minute episodes, she plays 32-year-old Eve Agius, a surgical fellow making her way through her final year of training. She is in a largely macho, male-dominated world, the last bastion of sexism in medicine.

Eve's colleagues in the new series are played by Nicholas Bell (as a surgeon), Christopher Morris, Matt Newton and Sam Worthington (as anaesthetists), and Katie Wall (among the nursing staff). On the surface, Eve, a competent doctor, works hard and efficiently, occasionally displaying reserve and a mild cynicism that allows her to cope with the work.

Clarke says she was attracted by the scripts.

"I thought they were engaging and filled with tension, a real achievement for a half-hour format. So I was really drawn in, by the story rather than the character. Her character is something revealed slowly. What the first few episodes focus on is each operation and its complications or developments."

Her character, she says, is "aloof, driven and dedicated to her work". Well-rounded, then?

"She just doesn't really know how to engage with people on a social level. That doesn't mean she's not without feelings, but she's still quite vulnerable, not really hard-nosed and tough."

To research the role, Clarke talked with a number of female surgeons about their lives and careers.

She felt there was remarkable stoicism there. She also noted a reluctance to show emotions, particularly in front of their consultants while still in training, because this was likely to be used against them. And she thought it was still very much a man's world.

"It is changing, but yeah, it's still male-dominated," Clarke says.

"The hours are really made for a man who has a wife doing all the other things, whereas a lot of women have to do that as well as all their ironing, cooking and everything. I think it's more difficult for a woman to work those hours and to find somebody who's willing to sort of come second to your career."

As a working mother herself, that's something she understands. "I think balancing an artistic life and supporting a family can be challenging, though I have been fortunate," says Clarke, who has two young children with actor Jack Finisterer.

"There have been times when I've wanted to do a job and it just hasn't been possible, because you have kids. There's no way I would change that. But they certainly change the focus of your career and your choices."

Not that the actor doesn't know her way around the television hospital wards. In the late 1990s she appeared as Dr Samantha O'Hara in All Saints.

Eve, however, is likely to be a lot closer to the life-and-death decisions. And it doesn't seem to worry Clarke that The Surgeon will be jostling for attention in a schedule that, with House MD, Grey's Anatomy and the like, is becoming crowded with medical dramas.

"It's very different," she says of her show.

"It's not a slick American look; it's a little bleak, a much more minimalist design. The design is very stark and the colour… well, there are lots of greys and browns, so the tone is very different. It's a quiet show, a thoughtful show."

It has been a remarkable year for Clarke. The reaction to Look Both Ways, which recently won one of the top prizes at the Toronto International Film Festival, has surprised her.

"For the first time I've experienced first-hand the power of filmmaking," she says.

"The personal responses I've been getting - the emails and texts, people stopping me in the street, or at a party, introducing themselves and talking about the film - is something I haven't experienced before.

"You know, you can play roles and be in films and learn stuff for yourself and it's great for your own growth as an artist. But when people respond to a story, and if it's powerful for them, then that really does make it all worthwhile."

The Surgeon screens on Thursday, October 13, at 9.30pm on Channel 10

By Brian Courtis
October 02, 2005
The Age