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The thing about meeting Claudia Karvan is that you don't expect her to be so beautiful. Lovely, yes, but not spectacular; just another of the thousand faces you see on television.

In fact, opening the front door, holding a baby who looks like a hobbit under one arm, Claudia Karvan is absolutely dazzling. Even wearing quite a bit of baby sick and unflattering red shoes, she has one of those world-class faces—described by one rhapsodising journalist as "part Modigliani, part Picasso muse"—that really does light up the room.

Probably it is her smile. She has pale green eyes, and dark hair with red streaks in it, and cheeks sculpted like the sweep of a bird's wing. But when she smiles—really smiles, as opposed to the small publicity smile or the controlled television smile or the hang-dog red carpet smile—she nearly blinds you.

To be honest, this brilliance is surprising. It is extremely rare for actors, however famous, to look as good off camera as on—let alone better. Penélope Cruz is terrifyingly thin; Sting looks tragically old and short; Ewan McGregor is just plain grubby. But Karvan is so beautiful she actually looks out of context here, manhandling baby equipment onto the lawn of her rented house in Melbourne. She looks as if she should be sitting in an LA hotel suite, cosseted by publicists and pointless hangers-on, drinking mineral water and talking about how great it was to work with Gwyneth, or Tom, or Steven. In other words, she looks like a movie star.

Actually, she does know what it's like to work with George. (George Lucas, that is.) "I am in Star Wars: Episode II," she confirms. "I think it's public knowledge, I think I can say—oh God…" She looks around as if she's expecting someone to spring from the shrubbery waving a writ. "I play Natalie Portman's older sister. It's only one scene," she adds hastily. "I could end up on the cutting-room floor."

This is an unusual thing for an actor to say, but Claudia Karvan is much less comfortable talking about her achievements—her nine AFI nominations (she won one for Best Actress in a Television Drama for the ABC medical series GP); or the sheer number of films she has been in—than telling stories in which she is the fall guy: messing something up, or looking stupid, or even being insulted. "I was signing this guy's autograph thing the other day," she recalls happily, "and he said, 'Yeah, thanks very much. You know, you look a lot fatter on TV.'"

She seems a very calm person (perhaps a result of all that yoga—she's been an ashtanga devotee for seven years); very controlled. "She has a will of iron," her mother will later tell me, "and she is disciplined to a fault." In old press interviews, she often seemed slightly self-critical—as if she wasn't coming up to her own standards. She used to talk about getting incredibly nervous before auditions; about preparing for emotional scenes on set by working herself into a state the night before.

"I think I thought it was a good thing," she says now. "I thought the nervous energy would feed the creativity. But it doesn't at all. I have to be as healthy and clear-minded as possible.

"But it's hard, because in acting, you really are your work. If you're an artist, your work is separate from you; if you're a musician, your music is there and you're over here. But in acting you're it. So if you do something badly, or if you're passed over for a role, the rejection is very personal. 'Yeah: we don't want you. You. You were second best again.'"

These days, however, she seems to be over all that. She can now watch herself on screen—"though there's still quite a bit of cringing and breaking into a sweat"—and sounds unfazed by less-than-perfect performances. When I ask about the sex scenes in Risk (an ill-advised white-collar crime film released last year), for instance, she grins. "Nah, that didn't bother me—there were other things that bothered me a lot more." She points at an imaginary screen self. "'Oh my God, what are you doing?'"

Whatever it was, she's been doing it a long time. She is 30 this year, and has been acting professionally since she was nine. In the past few years, among other things, she has given Alex Dimitriades an earful on the soccer field in The Heartbreak Kid; worn Guy Pearce's underpants in Dating the Enemy; and ridden in a really big truck with Hugh Jackman in Paperback Hero. For the past year, she's been starring in Channel 10's unexpectedly successful drama series, The Secret Life of Us. Interestingly, however, she still nominates High Tide, a movie she made with Judy Davis when she was only 14, as her best work.

About the only thing she hasn't done is theatre. Or rather, she's done it, but she doesn't seem—thus far at least—to be much good at it. As soon as I mention it, she begins to laugh.

"Well, I do think I got better as I went along," she says. "But it's just so bloody physical. It's sweat and spit and you're covered in bruises and you're up all night wired. But it's quite thrilling."

For some reason, at this juncture, we both look at the hobbit baby, who is lying on her back in a pram under the tree, making loud clucking noises. Sweat and spit and sleepless nights? Sounds a bit like motherhood, really.

Karvan discovered she was pregnant during the filming of The Secret Life of Us last year, and gave birth to Audrey in October. "She was nine stone," she says proudly. "No. Wait. I keep saying that. Nine pounds."

She seems delighted by motherhood. "Oh God, do you have a couple of days? I'll sicken you with gushiness. I've always really loved being around kids, and I've had a stepdaughter of sorts since I was about 22, because Jez [her partner, set builder Jeremy Sparks] has a child. But I'm pretty independent, and I wasn't sure if I wanted to sacrifice that. And there sort of came a time—at least for me—where I didn't even think about it. You just go: 'This is what I want to do.'

"I never thought it would be as exciting as it is. I think I thought it would be a little bit—well, dull. But I'm amazed at how much of your life remains. As I was leading up to the birth I seriously thought, 'I'd better get everything done, because this is my last chance.' When I was in labour I was doing my accounting because I thought I would never be able to write a cheque again, never be able to add up again. I really thought I'd be like Alice jumping down the hole—'Once I've had this child I will be down that hole and I won't be coming back.' And then, about two weeks later I realised, 'Oh, hang on, I can still go to the shop and buy milk. The world's still here.'"

Motherhood has also made her reassess her own childhood. "At the time, a childhood's a childhood, you know? It's only later that you realise that it might have been unusual."

Karvan's stepfather Arthur (from whom she takes her surname) was the owner of famous Sydney nightclub Arthur's, the last word in after-dark cool in the days when Rod Stewart could still sing Do Ya Think I'm Sexy? and have at least one member of the audience answer in the affirmative. Her mother, Gabrielle Karvan, famous for her exotically kohled eyes and extravagant clothes, also worked at the club.

"I used to go straight there after school," Karvan recalls. "We lived right opposite, so it was like a second home. I used to hang out in the kitchen making cheese and spinach triangles and folding paper napkins into squares."

Such a childhood exposed Karvan to a world of celebrity unknown to most children. She saw Jimmy Barnes play, she was at Bryan Brown's 30th birthday party, she met people like Bill Hunter, the Whiteleys, Austen Tayshus. When she was eight, moreover, her mother moved the family to Bali for a year, where Claudia learned to speak Balinese and dance the legong dance. It all sounds terribly bohemian, exotic, glamorous.

"Glamorous?" echoes Karvan incredulously. "Have you ever worked in hospitality? It wasn't glamorous at all. And there were plenty of nights when I was home in bed with Mum reading me Anne of Green Gables."

"She does have that conservative element to her," acknowledges her mother. "She always has. When she was about one, she taught herself to get dressed. She would lay all her clothes out on the floor and practise putting them on one by one. Sock on, sock off. Shirt on, shirt off. And she never told anyone she could do it—she was quite inscrutable. There's a certain duality to her, actually. She can be quite eccentric, but at the same time she does care what people think—she'll tell me off, tell me to mind my Ps and Qs. She can be quite dictatorial. She cares far more about protocol than I do."

"I've always been very conscientious and law abiding," agrees Karvan. "I'm not one to love chaos. Mum used to say, 'Can you take the day off school and we'll hang out and go shopping and go to the Cosmopolitan and eat cinnamon toast?' And I'd be like, 'Mum! I've got two maths lessons today!'" For devotees, this sounds rather like Alex, the character she plays in The Secret Life of Us.

Karvan is very close to her mother—far more so than to either her biological father or her stepfather, neither of whom has seen Audrey yet. "When Mum and my real dad broke up, she didn't even realise she was pregnant with me," she explains matter-of-factly. "So she was sort of alone. I never really thought about that till recently. But when I was pregnant, it suddenly brought me so much closer—I mean, I'm already close to Jeremy, but it actually became a necessity for him to be with me on a daily basis. I can't believe how strong my mother was not to have that.

"And also," she continues, leaning forward, "I just can't imagine the horror of not being in love with the person you've created the child with. The fact is you've got something that's going to link you together forever, and if you suddenly want to give the elbow to that part of the bargain, you can't. And the feeling of that link not being a joyous thing would be horrible."

There is a rule—a very rough rule, certainly—about Australian actors. Sooner or later, if they are beautiful enough, and talented enough, and lucky enough, they end up working in Hollywood. Think of the Golden Globes. Think of Cate Blanchett, Rachel Griffiths, Toni Collette, Frances O'Connor, Nicole Kidman. Or Karvan's own co-stars, Hugh Jackman and Guy Pearce; or even her childhood idol Judy Davis.

So why hasn't Karvan gone? Obviously it's not a question of looks. Could it be talent? Karvan, I now know, is hardly going to tell me how fantastic she is off her own bat, so the day after our interview, I visit the set of The Secret Life of Us to see for myself. Karvan is in the middle of a scene with fellow actor Samuel Johnson. Dressed in a mauve shirt and dark trousers, she has to walk through the doorway of a bedroom and speak perhaps five lines. It is quite a tense little scene, in which Karvan (as her character Alex) is trying to tell whether Johnson (Evan) still has feelings for her. The set is crowded with lighting men and make-up girls and props people, and filled with cables and cameras and booms. I watch four or five takes. Karvan walks through the chaos to the door, hits her spot, and delivers her lines. Tension, a hint of emotion, defensiveness. She does it again, and again, and again: absolutely perfect, every time. Johnson changes his word order, moves his body; stumbles over a line. Karvan simply waits for him to recover, then rolls flawlessly on. "She's sort of famous for that," whispers the press girl, "that focus. She could do that scene, exactly the same, all day."

A couple of days later, I go to the video shop and rent High Tide. Karvan was 14 when she played the long-lost daughter of drifting singer Davis. In my guise of hardened film critic, I watch unmoved until about two-thirds of the way through the action. Then there is a scene in a car in which Davis tries to explain to Karvan why she abandoned her as a baby. Karvan's teenage face is still for a long moment. Then she turns away, hitching up her shoulder and pressing her body into the car seat. At this moment, for some reason, I burst into tears.

So perhaps it's not a lack of talent, either.

Which leaves only luck. Well, in fact, Claudia Karvan did go to Hollywood once, but there was no lucky break. "I was only 20," she admits now, "which was probably premature. You know what I was saying before about nervous energy? That place made me incredibly nervous. It's not an environment that I can see myself flourishing in. Which is not," she adds hastily, "to say that if I was offered an American film tomorrow I wouldn't do it. But I wouldn't go out and seek it. Ambition for some people means going to America and being nominated for an Oscar.

But that's not really my form of ambition, I don't think. I don't want to sound like a boring old homebody, but I do love living in Australia."

I wonder if she might go in future; I suppose she might. But to be frank, her life seems a bit too good at the moment to warrant the effort. Near the end of our interview, I ask her if there's anything she doesn't like about being an actor. "Red carpet stuff," she says promptly. "Finding a lovely outfit and thinking of witty things to say. If you're in the mood it's fun, but it can also be pretty gruelling."

I look at her sitting under the tree with her beautiful face and her beautiful baby and her not-too-bad-at-all-thanks-very-much career. Well, I can't help saying, it's a very hard life you lead. Claudia Karvan looks at me and smiles: a sudden, enormous smile.

"I know," she says happily. "You've got no idea."

By Amanda Hooton
February 25, 2002
The Age