Mcleod's Daughters: articles

Blood, sweat and shears

BY HER own admission, Lisa Chappell's job can be a challenge. "If you swallow a fly you just have to keep on talking," she explains. "It's disgusting, really disgusting. This job is absurd sometimes."

When she's not swallowing flies, the 33-year-old former urban cowgirl spends her working days traversing sheep paddocks, mustering cattle and saddling alpacas.

Chappell even cultivates "a bit of a John Wayne" swagger, courtesy of sore horse-riding thighs.

It is all part of her role as Claire McLeod, the tough but fair co-owner of Drovers Run in McLeod's Daughters.

As the property's manager, Claire leads the pack when it comes to duties around the farm. Her authority is unquestioned by her half-sister and fellow owner Tess and all that work with her.

But in real life farm work is a new experience for Chappell, a city dweller who grew up on Auckland's North Shore.

It is a rural experience she almost missed.

Chappell moved from New Zealand to Australia in 1999 and enrolled in drama school. Sick of delivering "polished performances", she wanted to explore the acting profession and eventually establish her career in a new country.

Chappell spent two years rediscovering her craft and had just graduated at the Actors' Centre in Sydney when the chance to audition for McLeod's Daughters came about.

"Initially I wasn't interested in a lead role on a television show," she says. "I'd done a lot of TV in New Zealand and what's more a friend of mine was up for the lead role.

"But they told me I was just a guest role so I thought that would be good and went along and I ended up reading for the part of Claire."

"They didn't know me so (hiring me) was a big risk for the producers and hopefully… well, they've told me that they're very pleased with their decision."

It was a decision that earned the show accolades after its first year on television. In April, Chappell claimed the Logie for Best New Female Talent.

The actor was also a gift for creator and producer Posie Graeme-Evans, who had been searching for the right mix of five women and two men for five months.

Graeme-Evans says she worked closely with a casting director in the exhaustive search for the right balance of familiar and fresh faces.

It was important the cast seemed as if they hailed from the country.

"Lisa was the archetypal urban girl but I defy anybody to say they're not convinced she was born and raised in the country," Graeme-Evans says of Chappell's selection.

After gaining the role, Chappell threw herself into it. Eager to convince Australian audiences she was a woman of the land, she relocated to South Australia and into rural life.

"I lived on the land five minutes from the property for two months by myself," she says. "It was quite a small township with just a garage and a pub and in my spare time I would try and go up to the local RSL and see where they train horses.

"I went to a rodeo one weekend. I just really stayed observant about the way these people lived and externalised themselves."

Chappell also took to farm duties enthusiastically.

McLeod's Daughters is filmed on Kingsford, a 75ha property in Gawler, an hour north of Adelaide. The property is home to 150 sheep, 100 cattle, 15 horses, working dogs and animal wranglers headed by Bill Willoughby.

Willoughby and his team of three take care of the stock and the actors, teaching the latter skills including horse-riding, sheep-shearing, drenching and mustering.

He says he is impressed with the way Chappell embraced country life like a real "rough and tumble country girl".

She admits she occasionally takes the role too seriously though.

"I used to forget about the acting and used to concentrate on doing Claire's job properly," she says.

"You rock up to work and you've got 100 sheep and a gun in your hand and off you go.

"The problem is that all the time I have to be thinking about saying lines and hitting my marks and mustering sheep at the same time. It's like rubbing your stomach and bumping your head at the same time."

The second season of McLeod's Daughters has been easier for Chappell though, who says everything from riding horses to handling South Australian weather has become "second nature".

Chappell and company are being rewarded for their efforts in the ratings too.

Though the show recently took an enforced break due to the Queensland-NSW State of Origin series, McLeod's Daughters has earned Channel 9 and WIN big ratings in regional centres.

In regional Queensland the rural drama holds the title of the most watched regular program, averaging 203,000 viewers a week, and the most watched Australian drama, its closest rival being Channel 7's Blue Heelers with 182,000 viewers.

It's not doing too badly in southeast Queensland either, drawing an average of 298,000 viewers a week.

Chappell expects viewers will stay with the show as her character becomes more interesting.

Claire McLeod's lover recently was revealed to be married with children, a development Chappell says will give viewers more insight into her character.

"It's opened her up and we're seeing a few more sides to her and a bit more vulnerability and a bit more of who she really is as opposed to who she has become because of her environment," she says.

Expect more surprises as the show continues. Both Chappell and producer Graeme-Evans say it is only beginning to hit its stride.

• McLeod's Daughters, Nine, Wednesday, 7.30pm

Jennifer Dudley
July 04, 2002
The Courier Mail