Mcleod's Daughters: articles

The black sheep

Known for her edgy urban roles, Jessica Napier tackles the part of a troubled country girl in McLeod's Daughters. Michael Idato reports.

Jessica Napier laughs when reminded of the old Hollywood adage: never work with animals or children. As one of the stars of McLeod's Daughters, the Nine Network's new drama about women on the land, it's difficult to avoid the former. In a short time, Napier has learnt to muster cattle and ride a horse at speed and has become more au fait with sheep docking than she ever thought she would. Yes, she smiles, the adage holds true.

"You can't tell a sheep to hit its mark or to just be quiet," she says. "We were shooting a scene involving docking sheep and they split the lambs from the mothers. The noise from the bleating to get back to each other was just incredible and I freak out completely in situations like that. It felt like I was trapped in a nightmare. It can be trying at times, but I am over the moon."

McLeod's Daughters has been a long time in the making. Executive producer Posie Graeme-Evans conceived the 1995 telemovie, which gave birth to the 22-part series, after seeing a photograph in a magazine.

"It was that simple," Graeme-Evans says. "A bunch of girls hanging over a five-bar fence with these big hats, cobalt-blue skies, shadows cutting their faces in half. It was an article about girls being taught to work cattle on horseback in the Northern Territory and, honestly, the pitch to the network was that simple: 'What about a bunch of girls running a cattle station?"'

Having commissioned the 1995 telemovie (starring Jack Thompson as station-owner Jack McLeod, with Kym Wilson and Tammy McIntosh as daughters Tess and Claire) on the strength of that pitch, Nine's head of drama, Kris Noble, happily bought the idea for a series.

First, he says, he was interested in a break from genre shows such as the police and medical dramas that continue to dominate program schedules. Second, he says, it was life-affirming.

"We have had every conceivable medical and police show and they will never go away because with those shows the stories walk in the door," he says. "You don't have to torture the concept to make the show work. But every day you poke your head out the window and test the temperature and see what the audience wants. You also have to think 18 months in advance, and when we looked at McLeod's Daughters it felt like people wanted to see something more life-affirming, more accessible. It ticked all the boxes."

The television series retains the principal elements of the original story. Sisters Tess and Claire, now played by Bridie Carter and Lisa Chappell, clash after their father's death because of their different perspectives—Tess is a city girl, while Claire was raised on the land.

Thrown into the mix are the station's housekeeper, Meg (Sonia Todd), her daughter Jodi (Rachael Carpani) and local bad girl Becky (Jessica Napier). Add a tough-guy neighbour, Harry Ryan (played by Marshall Napier, Jessica's real-life father), with two ruggedly handsome sons, Alex (Aaron Jeffery) and Nick (Myles Pollard), and you get something that sounds suspiciously like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

In fact, the series would more appropriately be called The Women from Snowy River.

"It's about these five women working the land," Napier says. "It's about them surviving and making ends meet. The women do everything and the men always show up too late and the women have solved the problem," she laughs.

Napier's character, Becky Howard, comes to the Drovers Run cattle station after a turbulent childhood in a nearby town. "She's from the not-so-nice family and she's a bit free with her sexuality. She's a happy-go-lucky girl and when some bad things go down, the Drovers Run girls take her in."

Napier's first regular gig in television, the 1995 evening series Echo Point, was cancelled after barely four months on air. Few actors would think the experience a positive one, yet Napier is grateful for the lesson it taught her.

"It was probably the best thing that could have happened to my career… because I wasn't a soap star," she says. "It was a blessing in disguise, though it didn't feel like it was at the time."

In fact, for a perilous moment, she thought she would never work again.

"But every job is like that," she says. "Absolutely every single job. You go, 'Well, that could be the last one. I'll never work again. I'm over with. Oh, no, what do I do?' I don't know how to do anything else. I only know how to pretend I know what I'm doing."

Curiously Napier never set out to become an actor. "It just ended up that way; I don't think it was a lifelong dream, it was just one of those things that happened." (It may have helped, however, that her father has worked as an actor in television and film for almost 30 years.)

Despite the early setback, Napier jnr landed on her feet. After small roles in the films Love Serenade (1996) and Blackrock (1997), she was cast in Wildside (1997), the ABC's critically acclaimed police drama, as social worker Gerry Davis.

Wildside's directors included Peter Andrikidis and Michael Jenkins, both ranked among the finest in the Australian television industry. The show's most peculiar quality was the method of acting it employed—a mixture of improv and loose scripting.

How unusual this approach was didn't really hit Napier until she left Wildside and joined Nine's undercover cop series Stingers.

"That was the hardest thing for me, because I was used to so much freedom," she says. "Suddenly to have them going, 'No, no, they're not the lines, go back to line four.' I was like, 'I just chuck in anything I like and so long as it's got a vague connection to what's going on, it's fine.'

"That was really tough, but at the same time, with Wildside it was always to understand what the scene was really about. Whether you got the lines right or not, it was more important to understand the essence of the scene."

It was during Wildside that she caught Kris Noble's eye. "I thought she was a star," he says. "She just needed the right vehicle, to take a role and make something bigger of it. We used her in Twisted Tales (Bryan Brown's 1996 mystery anthology series) and she was terrific. She brings something quite different and unusual to the roles she plays. She doesn't bring the obvious to it."

Graeme-Evans agrees. "Everyone has been talking to me about her for years; friends and collaborators have said when you start doing this you should look at Jess," she says. "She has courage on screen, she will go where angels fear to tread. It's a string cast but she holds her own, especially as her story gathers pace."

After her turn in Stingers, Napier concentrated on film work, landing four movie roles last year—Angst, Twitch, City Loop and Cut. She declined a long-term contract with Stingers because it required her to move from Sydney to Melbourne.

What chance, then, of her signing up for a television series to be filmed on a 55-hectare property one hour from Adelaide?

"What can I say?" she laughs. "Adelaide is a beautiful place, but it's not home and I don't think it will ever be home."

The reason she took on the project, she says, was Graeme-Evans. "Being as passionate and in love with it as she is made it feel like a worthwhile project. I felt it was a project that was loved and one they would go all out to make work.

Mcleod's Daughter's premieres on Wednesday at 7.30pm.

By Michael Idato
August 07, 2001
Sydney Morning Herald