The Secret Life of Us: articles

The Risk Taker

Claudia Karvan is going to bail me out. Meeting the media is not her favourite hobby and we've already spent an hour and a bit talking in a St Kilda pastry cafe. But it seems I've managed to find out stacks about her long, mostly shiny career, and almost nothing about who she actually is.

We know she's gorgeous, the camera adores her and so did the men who sat one after the other at the table next to us, unable to resist gawking at the radiant actress and the large jam doughnut she had with her peppermint tea.

We know she survived the journey from pretty screen baby to believable maturity; we know her biggest professional influence was Judy Davis, who guided her as a 14-year-old through the making of Gillian Armstrong's High Tide, and left an indelible mark.

At the cafe she had been a Lord Snowdon study in monochrome; black polo-neck, no make-up, jewellery, nail polish or any adornment besides the chestnut hair. But after what felt like a warm experience with the 28-year-old veteran, the tape reveals I somehow did a job interview, running through the CV but not unearthing much else.

She admitted that hitting the public gaze as a nine-year-old (opposite Garry McDonald in Molly), and the big-time in her teens (High Tide, The Big Steal), sometimes threatened to unhinge her but she said it so matter-of-factly she might have been at a first reading.

She said the whole publicity scene had been intimidating and alienating, but that seems incredible, given the complete detachment she could recall it with.

Did she inherit Judy Davis's disdain for media and learn to filter herself, or was it something missing in the questions? It turns out be neither, and a bit of both.

Karvan is gracious as she phones back on her first available break in the heavy shooting schedule of the Ten Network's twentysomething series The Secret Life of Us. It's a Saturday morning and she has been working extremely long days on set at Crawfords in Box Hill and at locations in St Kilda, but she's already found time to go shopping with a five-year-old niece before she calls at 10am.

She apologises for calling five minutes late and generously refrains from sniggering when I admit the reason for the call: "I didn't find out much about you, the person—sorry." So, I need to ask, are you protecting yourself from the rigors of fame and interviews or are you really as in charge of the world as you seemed?

"When I was younger, I didn't keep a distance, and that, combined with puberty and being a young 20-year-old, [meant] I would go through emotional highs and lows. Nothing drastically extreme, but still quite painful. And as I've got older, I have definitely found a way to keep it at arm's length.

"I don't know whether that's improved my acting. It's certainly made my life a lot easier to lead. I suppose time will tell whether it's helped or hasn't. I feel it's helped but maybe it's because I feel like I'm in control now—and maybe it's better not to have control."

She admits to having been "struck, paralysed with embarrassment" about some of the things she said in interviews in the early days.

Karvan may be the picture of self-possession but it turns out she is very much the feeling type. So much so that up until about three years ago, she subscribed to the theory that being in a certain amount of pain was good for her art.

She immersed herself in the moods of the characters to the point where if she had to play distraught the next day, she would work herself into the appropriate state of unhappiness the night before.

You would never pick that now from her sleek performance as a skilled but lovelorn young doctor in The Secret Life of Us or her turn as the corporate femme-fatale in her new film, Risk.

But despite the stream of AFI award nominations (she won one in 1996), she says she was super-self-critical for most of her career. For example, she earned one of her seven AFI nominations for her role in The Big Steal with Ben Mendelsohn, a film she shot in the same year she completed and did well in her HSC at Sydney Church of England Girls' Grammar (SCEGGS). Karvan was praised but she says she did an ordinary job.

"I was probably overcritical of my role, I guess because I was the girlfriend and the love interest. I was 17, 18 and had aspirations of being quite serious, as you do, going through that late teen stuff. I don't think I was very comfortable. I don't think I did a particularly good performance."

Similarly, she tied herself to her work so closely that she became disillusioned and unhappy when it thinned out after she returned to Australia from a trip to the Cannes festival to promote The Big Steal. For a start, she had trouble with the disparity between being at the centre of all the film fuss and scraping along on her wage in a health food shop by day.

"There was something perverse about having a film out, doing all the publicity and then you usually can't pay your rent. It made me a little bit impatient. I thought, what is this all about? You don't have the security to back up all the exposure that you're getting."

Was it really as hard as all that, especially given Karvan has been received warmly by film writers, even as her talent was developing?

"Intimidating and alienating in general. I didn't really know whether it brought out the best in a person."

Karvan appears to lack the aggressive self-promotional drive employed by other young actresses to push ahead here and then in Hollywood. She has never courted publicity for its own sake, which many do, and says she would not take herself off to L.A. unless there was sufficient interest generated by a successful film.

In fact, she says that after The Big Steal, "There was a big lull for a while. I don't think I was very happy, in general."

She enrolled at the University of Sydney and started studying philosophy and English and was "very much out of work".

The interviews from around that time usually include a few quotes on Karvan's cynicism concerning actors and acting (she prefers the Shakespearean term "players"), and her suspicion of the industry in general.

Even as a girl, she would have known what she was talking about, since she lived among the Sydney film glitterati who flocked to Arthurs, in Kings Cross, the '80s nightclub run by her mother and stepfather.

It was a hub for industry types and Karvan even remembers being at Bryan Brown's surprise 30th birthday, then aged eight.

She co-stars with Brown in Risk. She auditioned twice for the role as a greedy lawyer who manipulates insurance scams pulled by Brown and Tom Long. It was the chance to work with the director Alan White (Erskineville Kings) that attracted her, as well as the script and she seems pleased with the outcome.

It comes after a string of good roles in local films, including three by Paul Cox, notably Lust and Revenge. She was the unrequited love of Percy Grainger in the bio-pic Passion, starred in Emma-Kate Croghan's second film, Strange Planet and appeared opposite Guy Pearce in the life-switch comedy Dating the Enemy.

It is a great career already and she is not yet 30. But for years Karvan appears not to have acknowledged that she was a good actress with a future.

One reason may have been the nagging feeling she may never recapture the joy and satisfaction she felt making High Tide, aged 14.

For years after she worked with Davis, Karvan says no film or TV project came anywhere near it. The first time we met, Karvan introduced the topic herself, naming the film as the moment she felt she could really be drawn to acting: "Judy really took me under her wing—I probably wouldn't have been able to give the performance I gave if she didn't set up a kind of a world outside of the film that supported a sort of narrative.

"There was a directness about Judy that I always adored as a kid—in her personal dealings and as an actress. There was a real focus and a charge there that I don't know if I've ever come across since. And that was quite electrifying to be around and to act opposite.

"Really, it was baptism by fire to see something like that and there were quite a few years afterwards that I was kind of looking for that again and it wasn't around. Everything I was doing up until three or four years ago, I kept comparing to working with Judy and High Tide in general."

In the film, which was critically acclaimed in the United States but disappointingly met here, Davis played a road-weary rocker and Karvan was her estranged daughter. The second time we talked, I asked her if Davis, as famous here for her historically torrid relationship with the media as she is for her talent, had influenced Karvan's expectations of the performing life.

"With added distance, it may have even been too high a standard, which may have influenced why I felt so kind of ruthless about particular jobs I did after that."

Karvan has remained in touch with Davis but they no longer see each other regularly. The last time they met was for dinner two years ago.

In the meantime, much has changed for Claudia Karvan. She says the combined effects of yoga, falling in love (with non-actor Jeremy Sparks), growing up and experience have changed her perspective.

"Those three things all kind of came together at one crossroads and everything started to fall into place. Whether that makes me too secure and too unrockable, I don't know." A few days after our interview, rumours surface in the Sydney press that she is pregnant, but she declines to respond. "She prefers not to discuss extremely personal issues," her agent says.

She has a five-times-a-week yoga body and alternates between the model's exercise of choice, the physically demanding ashtanga school (loved by Gwyneth Paltrow, Christy Turlington and Madonna) and iyengar yoga. She is also an avid surfer.

And acting has become less the art of mind-bending. "I've read interviews with Anthony Hopkins where his wife says he can play a murder scene and come home and be cheerful to her and sit down to dinner and they have a lovely night. I suppose that's what I aim for.

"But whether that's having your cake and eating it, too, whether that's wanting my emotional stability and my lovely life and to do gut-wrenching scenes during the day, I wonder whether that balance is feasible or not. I feel it is." Acting is "maybe less abstract, less complicated than I initially built it up to be".

"And so it doesn't necessarily have to be about mind games with yourself or the people you're working with. There is a professional aspect to it I really love now. It's not as confronting or confusing. Like yesterday I did a scene four minutes long absolutely balling my eyes out about a particular juncture in a character's life.

"When I was young, I would have sat up all night and got myself into a state to do that scene and now I can do it with the lightness, with laughing."

With 18 episodes made, Karvan is still enjoying the filming of the 26-part The Secret Life of Us, and has also finished a telemovie for Ten of the George Johnston classic, My Brother Jack.

She has moved from her Bondi apartment to Melbourne for the long shoot and is staying with her close friend, the actress Catherine McClements. The friendship with McClements, best known for her long run in the Nine series Water Rats, is also a source of strength. They met on the set of the first film Karvan made after her dry spell, the comedy-thriller Redheads, in which Karvan played a teenage firebug, a role for which she won a French film festival award.

Karvan says she decided she would be open to a stint on a TV series after seeing McClements' work routine on Water Rats (where, coincidentally, she starred opposite Judy Davis's husband, Colin Friels).

Whereas Karvan had not entertained the idea of being in Heartbreak High, the TV series that flowed from The Heartbreak Kid, she felt the quality of script for the telemovie The Secret Life of Us warranted a commitment to at least four episodes.

"In the back of my mind I was always looking out for something like that and Catherine, who's one of my best friends, was doing Water Rats. And I got an insight into her life. I just found the idea of working every day really attractive and kind of an invitation to be part of the real world for a short time.

"I've always been interested in doing a short stint on television because I think it's a fantastic way to learn."

She is full of praise for the series producer John Edwards (Police Rescue, On the Beach), whom she applauds for allowing The Secret Life of Us to have a strong female voice. She says he is brilliant at diffusing potentially emotional situations on set.

"I was bit hesitant about making that leap of faith (committing to the 26-part series). That's not what I've been doing all my career—I see one script, I know what I'm in for.

"But you've got to believe the quality of the show is going to remain consistent and that the integrity of your character is going to be looked after."

She knows there will be comparisons made between The Secret Life Of Us, with its morally ambiguous bunch of young searchers, and the ABC's Love Is A Four Letter Word.

The latter is slick, creatively put together and street-smart but has been branded as too inward-looking by some TV critics. Karvan says The Secret Life of Us, which is an important series for the newly revamped network, has managed to avoid that potential pitfall.

"The criticism people have been making of Love Is a Four Letter Word is that it's aimed at a particular age group. I was concerned (about that) with The Secret Life of Us because it … reflects a certain audience.

"But I was at a friend's 50th birthday recently and so many people came up saying they'd seen the telemovie and were really interested in the series. It's not self-consciously groovy."

She likes the interaction between female characters in the series and its propensity to "allow people in on those secret conversations women have. That's quite unusual, particularly for commercial TV. God knows why it hasn't been explored more."

The Secret Life of Us screens on Channel Ten in June. Risk, starring Claudia Karvan and Bryan Brown, is on in cinemas now.

By Wendy Tuohy
May 21, 2001
The Age