Mcleod's Daughters: articles

A risky proposition

Gillian Alexy with Nathan Phillips and Khan Chittenden

Gillian Alexy with Nathan Phillips and Khan Chittenden in West.

Former child actor Gillian Alexy landed the lead in new Australian film West only when the director had a last-minute change of heart. Now its break-out star, she speaks with Penelope Debelle.

In the hotly contested Australian market for attractive young female actors, it takes a lot to get yourself noticed. Even then, career paths can boil down to a gut-wrenching last-minute change of heart by a film director who had cast a better-known rival in the female lead role.

"They both did good auditions and we were sitting around saying, 'Well, the other one was more known', whereas Gillian wasn't, and we thought the other one will get more press so we should go with that," says Daniel Krige, the writer and director of West, a new Australian drama set in the violent heart of Sydney's western suburbs.

"It was the first intellectual decision I had made in the casting process and it was just one of those niggling things."

That night Krige went home, looked at the tapes of the audition and went to bed before sitting bolt upright, stricken by the knowledge that his judgement was wrong and the role of the tough, feisty female lead who comes between two best friends should go to Gillian Alexy.

Desperate that it was already too late, he sent a text to the casting director saying: "Please tell me you haven't already offered the role." The the next day Alexy, a former Perth child actor who was cast as Tayler on McLeod's Daughters only after making West, was offered the role of Cheryl.

Alexy, a composed 24-year-old with a creamy complexion who could pass for 17, was blissfully ignorant at the time about what was going on behind the scenes. She had gone after the role of Cheryl with a single-minded passion, after reading the script and knowing she was absolutely right for it but also that the producers would take some convincing.

"West is one of those scripts that when it came out, everyone wanted a piece of it and everyone wanted to be involved in it," says Alexy during a break from filming McLeod's Daughters in Adelaide.

"It's a really strong script and, in terms of the characters and roles, every actor wanted to be Pete, Jerry and Cheryl and I was the same. I read the script and I really wanted to be Cheryl, I really badly wanted it."

The cycle of auditions was nerve-racking, with call-back after call-back as she engaged more deeply with the casting panel. By the time of final audition, she was in the middle of making a short film in Perth and disrupted its production by flying to Sydney for the day.

"It caused havoc for that production but my agent and I made the decision that we had to say it was really important to do it," she said. "I did it and then jumped in a taxi and jumped on a plane and it's all a blank now but something worked because I got the role."

Having landed the part, Alexy had to find her way inside the skin of Cheryl, who was able to weave and manipulate her way through the violent, often loveless and hopelessly blokey culture of Sydney's drug and drink-sodden suburban west. The sex scenes are particularly confronting, not because they are graphic but because they are driven by sexual need and not romance. Filming them was always going to be difficult, so Krige decided to get them out of the way as soon as shooting began.

"Gill's first day on set was a sex scene," Krige says. "She arrived on the set and the first thing she does was the scene in the bedroom with Nathan Phillips (Jerry). I think the nerves helped."

Finding Cheryl's "voice" was the key to unlocking Alexy's performance and she spent time in Sydney's west following girls around to see how they spoke and interacted with each other.

"I had some trepidation about being able to do justice to the character because I have had a very different upbringing to Cheryl," says Alexy, who grew up in middle-class Perth with parents who were both dancers. "I've had a very easy upbringing and I'm definitely not from those suburbs. It's a very harsh kind of environment they live in but these kids don't know how tough and harsh it is. That's life for them."

The film reflects that toughness and is part of a new wave of gritty suburban Australian cinema that in recent years has produced Little Fish with Cate Blanchett, Candy with Abby Cornish and Heath Ledger, and the small-budget teenage suicide drama 2:37.

Krige, who dedicated the film to his brother, Michael, who committed suicide after the film was written, grew up in the Blue Mountains but hung out in the western suburbs of Parramatta and Granville and the fictionalised stories and characters were painted onto a broad canvas drawn from his own experience.

"I've lost a lot of people to suicide and drug overdoses and so on," he says. "I saw one of my best mates get hit by a car. He died in reality but in the film it was better for the character to live for the story, but those were all things that I drew from in life."

In bringing such conviction to the role of Cheryl, Alexy has outgrown her earlier resume of children's television that included parts in The Gift, Fast Tracks, and Parallax. As a teenager, she spent so much time on television she was schooled on-set and worked in theatre productions before leaving for Los Angeles where she began a theatre degree.

Her parents were contemporary dancers who met in New York; her mother is French and her father American, so a career in entertainment was never an issue. But she felt something was missing and returned to Australia after a few months, convinced she should build a career from her existing contacts.

"It is important for me to do it step by step because (in the US) you are just another face," she says. "You are almost just another face in Sydney but you create your background and your stepping stones that lead to the next and the next. It is very rare that you have just done nothing then you're in the next Hollywood blockbuster; it just doesn't work like that."

After first moving to Sydney, she had a tough year and worked in a gift shop, but sought out local theatre and did a dance class; anything to stop waiting for the phone to ring, she says. After West, which was filmed two years ago, she won the part of Tayler Geddes on McLeod's Daughters, her biggest commercial break but a project she admits has limited long-term appeal. The open-ended role of the vengeful daughter who was tamed by Drovers Run is not the sum of her ambition, she says.

"It's fun doing McLeod's but at the same time the show doesn't go very deep, so there is only so far you can go with a part like that," she says.

She has almost no interest in taking the well-trodden soapie path of a role in Home and Away or Neighbours. She has had guest roles in All Saints but is not looking for the success that comes with being a face on television.

"There are so many people who want to be the next person on Home and Away, or they just want to be on the cover of a magazine and they don't really understand the craft," she says. "They're not interested in theatre, they're not interested in the art. The commercial world is all they know and all they see and all they want and there is a market for that but it's short-lived. I'm not interested in that."

Her plan is to look for more interesting film and theatre roles that will establish her in a career that spans the US and Australia. Something along the lines of Naomi Watts would do, although Watts famously took more than a decade of call-backs before she was discovered by David Lynch and cast in the eccentric thriller Mulholland Drive.

"You have to just believe in yourself," says Alexy. "I know that sounds so cliched but it's true. And it is hard, it's hard."

Krige is still shaking his head over the near-miss casting of Alexy, whose showcase role in West, selected as Australia's entry in the Berlin Film Festival, is being talked about as a possible AFI acting nomination. Always trust instinct over intellect, he says, even though Alexy's resume of childhood roles and guest appearances made her on paper the film's biggest risk. She had never carried a film and some actresses, no matter how promising they seem, never reach the point where an audience buys into them on screen.

"That instinctive kind of gut feeling really paid off because she nailed the role," says Krige. "For me, she is the discovery of the film."

By Penelope Debelle
July 8, 2007
The Age