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Published 12 December 2012 15:22, Updated 13 December 2012 05:37
The hair has changed, the denim, too, but the path has been constant – from Ramsey Street to Rodeo Drive, from Summer Bay to Malibu, for many of Australia’s wealthiest entertainers, working life began on the soap operas Neighbours and Home and Away.
More than one-fifth of BRW’s Rich Entertainers, 11 out of 50, began their careers on the two shows. Kylie and Rusty, Simon Baker and Chris Hemsworth, Naomi Watts, Isla Fisher and Guy Pearce, they all spent time in either Alf Stewart’s diner or Harold Bishop’s coffee shop.
However, just being on the show is not enough. Every year, hundreds of actors will have a role on the two shows – in bit parts, in temporary characters who might have a two-week run, or as full-time cast members. Only a tiny fraction have gone on to big success in the entertainment industry. Those that have share at least three traits: they are good looking, they had some luck and they worked really hard.
“A lot of people think it happened easily for them. It didn’t,” says Neighbours’s long-time casting director Jane Russ, who retired three years ago. Russ worked on the show for 23 years, auditioning thousands of cast members. She says those who had success after the show had a great passion and work ethic. They used the set as a training academy.
Kylie Minogue was one of these. She is now the Princess of Pop, having sold almost 70 million records, but 25 years ago she was just Charlene Mitchell, the tomboy of Ramsey Street.
“She worked very hard,” says Ian Smith, who played Harold Bishop – one of the great stayers on Neighbours – for almost 20 years. Smith says Minogue was one of the young actors who was always practising, even when her scenes were done.
Smith says she was intensely driven and there was nothing at all surprising about her success. “She had ‘star’ plastered all over her,” he says.
Russ can still remember her audition. “I remember looking at the monitor and thinking, ‘Oh my god! There’s something going on here’,” she says.
Another diligent young actor was Guy Pearce. Before he was Felicia Jollygoodfellow in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert or Leonard Shelby in Memento or King Edward VIII in The King’s Speech, he was, for 496 episodes, Neighbours’ Mike Young: a quiet boy with a violent father.
Smith was sure Minogue would succeed, but Pearce’s future was less obvious. “He was a very, very quiet guy,” Smith recalls. But he shared Minogue’s tremendous work ethic.
Smith says Pearce was constantly rehearsing on set and trying to learn from the more experienced actors. “I would try to teach them a few tricks,” he says.
Not all have been as focused. For many soapie stars, the two shows are their career highlight rather than a stepping stone. Russ is still in contact with many of the actors she once cast in the show. Many still work in the industry as actors, writers or directors. But many have left. Some work in real estate, others are studying, some wait tables. “Some even stack shelves at Coles,” Russ says.
With the path from the two shows to the bright lights of stardom so well established, it is a great shock to some actors when it doesn’t work out. Both Smith and Russ have seen this disappointment many times. “You can’t blame the youngsters. It’s the publicity machine that tells them they’re stars,” Smith says.
Success, of course, can come in other ways. Hugh Jackman successfully auditioned for Neighbours but decided instead on a place at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. After graduating three years later he auditioned for Neighbours again but then went to work on the prison drama Correlli instead.
Russ admires the approach he took to his career. “I’ve had kids come to me and say, ‘It’s my life’s ambition to be on Neighbours!’” she recalls. “And I say, ‘Get a life, darling’.”