The 29th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the December 1996/January 1997 issue, and celebrates the return of Shortland Street to our screens this week. It still stars Michael Galvin, who was in the first episode on 25 May 1992. He’s a good writer too: spookily, three years after this interview both he and interviewer/fellow actor Peter Feeney were published in Graeme Lay’s 2000 anthology Boys’ Own Stories.
The intro read:
Is there life after Shortland Street? What’s your off-screen life like when you’re on-screen in prime time five nights a week? Do you get better service in cafes? Do you worry about being more famous than other actors who are (let’s not be coy) better? What’s John Hurt really like? PETER FEENEY grills the former Dr Warner.
MICHAEL GALVIN, ACTOR
I began by showing Michael Galvin a letter from my very own fan: the only public recognition I received from my brief appearance on Shortland Street. He read it and said:
If I got a letter like that I’d completely ignore it. We got a lot through Shortland Street, mainly from teenagers, mainly girls, really young. They were like: “Hey you’re really cool and Chris is really cool and my cat’s called Tiddles and my dog’s called Muffie. . .” It’s great they took the time. Very sweet.
You once said that after four years on Shortland Street there was so much of you in Dr Warner you weren’t sure where he ended and you began.
Maybe all that happened is that just because of the luxury of actually getting in there and acting every day, maybe I just became more natural at it. So maybe it seemed to me like it was more of myself.
But maybe that’s a good thing, because whenever you play any role there should be as much of yourself in it as possible: you should use the role as a form of self-discovery. Rather than trying to escape yourself and going, “How do people like this behave?”, try to think instead: well, what would I do if I was that person?
I think Shortland Street has made me a much, much better actor. No one at Shortland Street regards it as a soap, and if any actor does, then they’re in trouble, and they’ll do crappy work.
You were there from day one. The initial public reaction was lukewarm. . .
No, it wasn’t. It was freezing cold. It was glacial. What normally happens overseas is that a show has a pilot and all the experts sit around in a room and watch the pilot and go, “No, we’ve got to do this, and we’ve got to change this, and change that”. Shortland Street and City Life, and basically every New Zealand show I know of recently, didn’t have the luxury of a pilot. It’s a bit unfortunate.
To what extent were you affected by that feedback?
I listened to criticism, if it was coining from someone I respected, but if it was just abuse from some yob on the street, well then, you know that’s not going to do anyone any good.
Do you look at Shortland Street like the modern equivalent of the old Rep theatre in terms of the training actors?
The obvious difference is that in Rep you do a different play every week and we’re doing the same play all the time, although you’d be in a completely different emotional universe every week. [In Rep] you’d have some tragedy, then woof, you’re into farce, then you’re into straight stuff again. The main similarity is just the sheer luxury, as I say, of being able to get in there and do it every day. That’s the best way to learn. Provided of course you are committed to learning, watch the tapes and think, “Did that work well?” and “How could I do that better?”
Are you worried that people will only ever see Chris Warner on stage, not the character you’re supposed to be playing?
Honestly, that really doesn’t bother me. I toured two theatre shows while I was still on the Street, and I’m sure it wasn’t a problem. In Blue Sky Boys I think as soon as Tim [Balme] and I came out singing “Wake Up Little Susie”, people bought it pretty quickly that we were the Everly brothers. With Phantom of the Opera, people would say, “Oh, it was really strange – at first.”
Every individual has a different experience when they watch something on TV. It’s not for me to try to second-guess that. It’s just for me to make the role as fresh as I can. And the way to do that, often, is not to self-consciously try to get it different from the last thing you did.
With Cover Story, I started off doing that for the first scene or two and it just wasn’t working, so I thought, “Forget this, the stuff that worked on Shortland Street worked when I was just using me.” So I did the same thing with Cover Story, with slightly different parameters, because the character was different in certain ways: more withheld, cooler and more in control of things.
So the Shortland Street experience has helped your career?
Oh God, without a doubt, in every way.
Is Australia the obvious next place?
I just want to work and if I can get it here, that’s great, and if I can’t, then yeah, I guess I should go on over. I’ve just been over to Sydney to meet a few of the casting people over there and give them my show-reel. It looks like a good place to be, because of their quota system. The amount of film and television being made over there is staggering compared to here.
Does that mean taking the plunge and going over there, and camping for six months, waiting on tables and auditioning for everything?
Oh, absolutely. That’s what it needs. You’re lucky to get auditions over there. It’s an achievement just to get auditions. If you want to break in to the scene, you have to take that six months out, not expect to get work immediately, and when it does come, expect it to come in dribs and drabs.
What have you got coming up?
I’ve got a role in one of those Montana Theatre TV plays, so that’ll be fun, and I may be doing a play. . . and if I’m not doing that play, I might be doing another one. But I don’t know.
What about making The Climb with John Hurt?
He is literally my favourite actor. It was bizarre, because this was my feature-film debut. The first line I say in a feature film is to him. It was a nightmare, because I thought I was going to have a heart attack. I really did think I was going to have a heart attack – my heart was beating so hard that it actually hurt. But I survived. It must lift your game when you work with people who are that good. I think you do your best work when you’re relaxed and focused on it, and I think often it’s harder to do really good work if you’re in a situation where you’re allowing yourself to be intimidated. I thought, “You’re allowed to be in awe of him for this scene but that’s it, after that get over it!” That’s why I think sometimes, on Shortland Street, scenes would just be brilliant – because people were so used to it, they were so relaxed, it would just soar. If you’re too tense or nervous, you’re just shutting yourself off and nothing terribly interesting is going to happen.
There’s an old cliché that the hardest part to play is the nice guy.
Yeah, because you have to find a way to make it interesting. There’s a reason why people like Kevin Costner and Cary Grant and Harrison Ford are so famous, and so rich – it’s because it’s really difficult to do something that looks that easy.
At Drama School, Stuart Devinie said this great thing to us: “You find your own points of rest. You can always be better, but sometimes you just think to yourself, well, I’ve done this before and I can do it well, and so I’ll give myself a break and allow myself to do this thing.”
If you’re out there acting and criticising yourself at the same time, that’s going to come through and the audience are going to pick up on it.
On The Climb the lead roles were taken by foreigners. Is that an issue with local actors?
I thought my own part on The Climb was a great opportunity: I got to work with John Hurt. It wasn’t a huge part, only about three scenes, but I’m still really happy I got to do it. But generally, sure, we don’t want to be turned into a kind of colony of the American film industry. The best stuff that we do is Once Were Warriors and Heavenly Creatures. That’s the really good stuff, our own stories, and they’re also the most successful.
Having these overseas productions over here is not going to help us make our own movies – there has to be New Zealand money for that to happen. Though it will train people more than we may otherwise.
In the last three years you’ve done TV, film and stage musicals. What’s the difference in approaching these different projects?
The difference isn’t usually in the actual acting itself. For me, it’s in the environment. Obviously, when you’re in a 1200-seater you’re acting differently from when you’re in front of a camera. But not as differently as I used to think. Last year I saw Michael Gambon in Moliere’s Volpone. For starters, it was a farce, but he – and this in a big theatre, and I was closer to the back than the front – wasn’t doing much, but it all communicated.
Often the lead needs to be more contained, because he or she is on stage so much, but the contrast of “bigger” character work by the other players is just as critical to the overall effect. That is definitely something to be considered: the function of the lead is often to draw you into their world by being very minimal in emotional range compared to the, shall we say, “character actors” – but I still think that emotions can be “big” and draw you in without the performances being big and putting you off. The more I do it, the less of a difference I think there is between theatre and screen acting. It’s all just about truth.
With Ladies Night, Blue Sky Boys and Phantom Of The Opera, you’ve been involved in some of the most successful stage shows in recent years. How do you see theatre’s role?
I believe that it’s good for a society to have theatre. The really successful shows in this country are the ones written about ourselves. I went to the latest Roger Hall play and I loved it. I just thought, “Oh my God, it’s a bunch of Kiwis.” There was something just so nice and affirming about having that on stage.
It made me think: this is what’s great about theatre, it is satisfying and affirming to see a genuine reflection of your own life on a stage. It helps you sort out your own life, because a play is a work of art, and it takes certain things from the chaos of everyday life, and gives them an order that helps you bring that order to your own life.
If you go to Sydney or Melbourne, or any of these centres, it’s not questioned, it’s taken for granted that it’s good to have a good theatre and a strong theatre, the way it’s good to have a good library.
Do you ever feel guilty that you’ve achieved such fame when other actors who might have been working longer and harder are less-known?
Well, it’s not the civil service. It does happen in the theatre that someone might get the part because of their pulling power when someone else was better for that part. But all of us know that, and we all know why it’s like that – it’s got to do with whoever might help the box office at any given time.
What I found when I was doing Shortland Street early on was that some of the people who hadn’t done much beforehand, for whom this was the first thing, would say, “Oh, I’m going to leave it, I’m sick of it”, and I would think, “You are really lucky to have this job, being unemployed is a real drag.” I had acting ups and downs before Shortland Street, and that does give you a better perspective on things. It was a good place to be – it wasn’t perfect, but nothing is, and compared to the alternatives out there it was pretty damn good.
Tell me about this “fame” thing.
The trap is to regard it as a normal human interaction. Once you get over that you’re fine. If you say to yourself, “I am a person, and people have rights”, like they can expect not to have people be rude to them – if you carry that around with you, you’re going to get really pissed off really quickly. Because it’s not like that.
Now for the critical question of our time: do you get better service in cafes? Sometimes, and sometimes you get worse service, because people are making a point that they’re unimpressed. It’s a thrill at first, and it’s amazing that the thrill fades. When you start off you just think how neat it will be to go somewhere and people will know who you are, and say hello when you don’t even know them! You can’t wait for that to happen. And then it happens, and you think, “I’ll never get sick of this, this is fantastic.” And it’s amazing, but you do, and it doesn’t take very long.
Then you go through this phase of really resenting it, thinking, “Look, I’m just here to do something that doesn’t involve you.” And you either stay resenting it or you accept it. I remember someone once saying that the character that got the most fan mail ever on American television was a dog. That’s what it’s about. I mean, it’s great that people get excited enough to write fan mail and go “Hi” on the street but you just can’t give it too much value – the same as if they hang their head out a window and go: “You wanker!”
Some people are much more believable as health professionals than others on Shortland Street.
Credibility. I learnt a lot off Tem Morrison. When I started off I thought, “I am going to make this so dramatic, everything is going to be so dramatic.” I had this completely inappropriate intensity. But Tem would come along and just float through the scene and he was just so much more watchable than me when it started. I’m sure people thought, “Oh thank God it’s him, because he’s just relaxed and doing it – and who’s that blond idiot dancing around.” You learn fast.
Having solid work for four years seems unusual in a profession that is quite stressful, with loads of unemployment and uncertainty.
You go down two roads in this business: the road where you get anxious about not having work, and bitter about it when you don’t get work and other people are getting it. Or, you try to develop a kind of a faith and a confidence: a faith that you will actually be okay, you will get something.
What I’m trying to do is develop that kind of inner strength – which you need to do to stop yourself from turning into a bitter old man before your time, which is what
happens to some actors. I may not get there. I may just find it too difficult and have to just throw it in.
But the more I stick at it, the more I feel that I have a place in this industry as an actor. And because I have a place I’ll always find something.
You don’t feel any need to diversify?
I have bouts where I start to write things, but mainly I’m just focusing on my acting. Do you find your focus can get disrupted with that sort of activity?
Once I start saying to myself, “I’m not just an actor. I’m a writer and director, I’m a this, I’m a that”, I could spend my whole day running around chasing my tail.
If I just say to myself, “I’m an actor”, it gives me more energy to focus just on that. It’s also quite nice, because you don’t have so many excuses, you don’t have the escape clause of going, “Oh, I didn’t put much effort into that, but it doesn’t matter because I can always do this writing.”
Auditions are a good example. You really have to work at them – and it takes a lot of effort sometimes to really get the words down to a stage where you’re flying with them. It takes a bit a discipline, because you’re not getting paid for it. And you do so many auditions that go nowhere.
But if you say to yourself, “I’m an actor, this is what I do”, that in a way is an encouragement to yourself to really put in a lot of effort. Then, of course, you do a better audition and you’re much more likely to get the part.
Do you find it a solitary profession?
Ultimately it is. There’s usually an exchange of ideas, but most of your decisionmaking takes place within the confines of your own head. On Shortland Street I learned very quickly that the real work is done at home when you go over the lines. That’s the time to try out different ideas and see what works and what doesn’t.
And on The Climb, it was more or less the same. You come along with a finished performance that the director can fine-tune if they want to. Even auditions are like that: what they really want is for you to front up with a finished performance. ‘
Unfortunately, when you come out of Drama School that’s not what you think. You think what you’re looking for is potential: “I can dye my hair, I can get that accent – if you just give me another week.”