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:: Spotlight :: Interview with Madeleine West (You And Your Stupid Mate)

By: Catherine Naghten

Despite a recent mauling by a large Siberian Husky, Madeleine West still manages to look stunning, her naturally blonde hair now a rich russet brown, as she discusses her new film, You and Your Stupid Mate, and gives us some insight into the mysterious world of TV soap…

How did you become involved in You and Your Stupid Mate?

I’d been doing stand-up for about three years now so two years at that time. And I think Dave O’Neil had recommended me to Mark Gracie. He was one of the writers. So me and Marc met, had a bit of a chat - didn’t even really audition me - we just chatted about the film, about the script and then I signed up.

You worked with a lot of comedians in this film- Akmal Saleh, Dave O’Neil, Angus Sampson. What was that like?

It was great to be allowed to watch these people working their craft because comedic acting is quite distinct from dramatic acting. They share the need to be very specific with timing but it’s a real skill to play what is a funny scene very seriously so the audience gets the laugh.

American comedy is very different. It's very sarcastic, very in the vein of Seinfeld where they really weight the line and its like badda badda - here’s the punchline! Australian comedy’s more, you play it like ‘this is serious, it’s a normal situation’, when the circumstances are very hilarious, but you play it like ‘I’m dead set serious about this”.

It was really great to watch them in that respect, doing what they do and yeah, I like to think I learnt a lot. The funny thing about comedians is that they’re all very serious when they’re not actually ‘being funny’. So it was fun seeing them break into character on set and then go away and have a very intellectual conversation about the stock market and stuff like that.

Has that inspired you in your comedy pursuits?

I think, rather than explicitly going in one direction its just another string to your bow. I’m a believer that performers need to be really well versed in everything because you don’t know what role is about to come up. So for me it’s just something I like to do, another tool I like to have in my belt.

How was it being an ex-soap star playing an actor in a soapie?

It was an extension of what I’m already quite adept at doing. It was more the opportunity that attracted me too, because I got to play another soap character and also the actor behind it. So there was potential for me to play the nasty stereotype of soap actors, which we commonly see on film and TV. They’re portrayed as being a bit dumb and not very good at acting, and kind of nasty and horrible to their fans. The reality is, most soap actors are actually very fine actors and its just employment.

You do it and its enjoyable, and we’re all well aware that if there were no fans of the show, there would be no show, hence no job. So we certainly don’t disrespect our fans. We all have a lot of time for our fans and I tried to convey that and hopefully I succeeded. Rather than taking the piss, I really wanted to reflect on the soap industry in a positive light and of course, we all poke a bit of fun at it.

Hammed it up a bit?

Exactly. The soap industry is well aware of that. It knows that’s what happens and that’s half of its appeal. It is escapism. It isn’t reality. So we all have a lot of fun with that. But hopefully it will make people stop and think, “wow, there’s actually a serious actor behind that soap actor”.

Certainly Neighbours has been a great training ground for movie stars…

Absolutely. Well it teaches you. It's one thing to have acting skills; it's another thing altogether to be aware of working in front of the camera, to appreciate continuity, to have the discipline of having to learn that many lines, or do that many scenes in the space of a week.

Its enormous pressure, especially when you’re very young, (Madeleine was just 18 when she joined the Neighbours cast) and it’s the best way to learn. No acting school could teach you what a show like Neighbours does.

In the film, Emma represents everything good and kind and beautiful to Jeffrey. Do you get people like that who confuse you with your character?

Absolutely, and it says a lot for the believability of the character that people actually invest in it and think that’s a real person. Sometimes it can be a concern where you need to say well no that’s not me, that’s my character. But it’s lovely. People get to follow your progression, your story so its just natural that people come to think of you as a friend because they see you go through all of your ups and downs. Emma is one of those characters that is very angelic and very perfect and sweet, so I guess Jeffrey’s experience with her is what you can expect from a lot of fans.

What was your favourite scene to film?

I can’t reveal too much but probably the scene where Emma is supposedly about to die, lost out at sea.

And you have a scene with lots of scouts…

Oh yes, some 300. Absolutely a hoot and that’s sort of what I’m referring to when you see what goes on there. It was just such a funny thing to film. It was freezing cold, and I’m there in a bikini out in the middle of the ocean.

It was one of those experiences where I couldn’t wear a wetsuit because you’d be able to see it so it really tested my mettle. I figured if I could do that, I could do anything. You get out of the water and think “wow, I’ve really put a day’s work in”. It took us three days to shoot it at the end of May when it was absolutely freezing down at the beach off Mount Martha.

Was it a bit like the real soaps, where Australians wear t-shirts all year round?

Absolutely. The pool in which you see us swim (in Neighbours) is not heated and we’re shooting those scenes in August so they’ll actually air in summer. And yes, there are days when we were shooting what was supposed to be a bright sunny day and it was actually raining, you can see the raindrops on our t-shirts. So yeah, it’s funny.

How did you become an actor?

I grew up in Woodend, in country Victoria. I started acting in school productions when I was about five and then got spotted by a local theatre company so started doing amateur theatre productions, which led to doing professional productions, which led to me doing acting courses out of school.

From the ages of about 10 to 16, I won three scholarships, which paid for a lot of training for me and then I was at university when I got the job on Neighbours. It's all I can do and all I’ve ever done and its to this day my obsession and greatest passion.

Is it very different acting in a film compared to a TV production?

Yes, it’s a different discipline, which keeps it interesting. Acting for films is a lot more subtle, you get a lot of time to examine your character and peel back the layers. There isn’t that sense of rush with television. You can take a day or two to complete a single scene. So in that respect it’s all about the detail.

And compared to the stage?

Yeah, that’s different because you get the immediate response. You know if you’ve done it well, you know if you’ve done it badly, because the audience is right there. So it's completely different altogether.

Do you prefer one to the other?

No, they’re too different. I can’t really compare them.

How do you normally prepare for a role?

I generally do a lot of research and write a back-story, which for me justifies every decision and pretty much everything my character says in the script. I find that very important. It grounds my character and puts their feet on the ground. It’s a lot easier to slip into their skin when I feel I know them well. Once I’ve done that it dictates the choices I make because it all becomes dependant on my character’s psychology and their background and their socio-economic positioning and whether they get along with their family, whether they’re good at making friends, whether they’re aggressive or submissive. All those factors come into play so essentially if you do the hard yards at the beginning it makes the rest of the process easier.

So lots of research?

Yeah, especially if they’ve got a specific skill. In Big Reef my character was a scuba diver so I had to do that and I needed to be very physically strong and muscular. By the same token, it was her career so it wasn’t about image or anything like that. She wore a bikini all the time, not so she could be ogled but because she swam a lot. Those kind of factors all come into play.

What’s coming up next?

I’ve got two films coming up at the end of the year so in between I’m just sort of floating around enjoying the period where I’ve got some time to write, which is my other passion, and sort of focus on that. I’m going for a trip to Europe later in the year. I’ve never been there so hopefully it’ll give me a whole new perspective on some different things.

What sort of things do you write?

I write a lot of comedy of course, because I’ve been doing standup for so long. I want to write a novel. I’m a voracious reader. I love reading. I’d love to do sort of a comedic novel and I’m in the middle of writing one based on some of my experiences. And I’ve written a TV show, which we’re working on to make it tight and put it into pilot form and show the networks. That’s a comedy also.

And you write songs as well?

I do. I write music and that’s something I’ve done for a long time but it only became a focus about two years ago when I was spending a lot of time on it in America and the UK. It’s another thing I enjoy doing. It started with writing poetry at a very young age. I’m not looking to be a singer myself but I’d love to see some of my words and music treated by another artist and see where that takes us.

Do you think you’ll eventually leave Australia as your career blossoms?

I really can’t say. I mean, there’s lots of opportunities in Australia, provided that Australians actually support the Australian Film Industry, which we’ve never been great at in recent times. There’s so many people screaming for Australian content in films and television and yet if there’s a choice between seeing the new Will Smith movie and an Australian film they’ll see the Will Smith one. So, I really don’t know where my career will take me. I’m the kind of person who just has a lot of faith that if it’s meant to be, its meant to be, so just follow the road.

'You And Your Stupid Mate' is screening on general release.

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