Rain Shadow: articles

Rachel Ward

Rachel Ward relishes good scripts and female competition in Rain Shadow.

Breaking the drought

Rachel Ward says her role on ABC's Rain Shadow is tailor made for her. By Michael Idato.

When actress Rachel Ward was approached with the idea for Rain Shadow, a new ABC drama set in a drought-stricken outback town, she knew immediately it was something she wanted to do.

"I was definitely in the mood to work," she says. "I'd just gone through and come out the other side of having kids, I'd spent the past 10 years writing and I was really over sitting and really over my own company. I was really ready to get back into the circus."

Ward plays Dr Kate McDonald, a vet working in the fictional town of Paringa. As the community struggles with the drought and debt, Kate must deal with the death of her husband and the arrival of a new, younger vet, Dr Jill Blake (Victoria Thaine).

The scripts, written by Tony Morphett (Blue Heelers, Sea Patrol) and Jimmy Thomson (Crash Palace), played a major part in Ward's decision to accept the role.

"In a way you're used to people building something up, you read it and you're disappointed, but this absolutely delivered," she says.

"Tony and Jimmy's scripts were terrific for me. At nearly 50, you do not take it for granted when you work and I very much appreciate being an actress of a certain age who has a lead in an ABC series."

The series is filmed on location in South Australia, an hour's drive south-east of Adelaide, with the real townships of Callington and Monaro South standing in for Paringa, a town described in the program's production notes as "on its last legs since about 1960" and "all but finished off" by a decade of drought.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Rain Shadow is its raw tone and a noticeable lack of sentimentality.

"It's very unsentimental," Ward agrees, "and hopefully that lets the words speak for themselves. It's quite easy as a performer, and a filmmaker, to play to television perceptions and truths, rather than real truths. You almost get used to how people react on television and you start to mimic that rather than how people really behave.

"It's been interesting going back in front of the camera, having been behind it for a while and having watched performances as a director or editor, to see how often we're underlining our work, whereas we ought to have faith that if it's well written, the words will speak for themselves. You don't want your performance to get in between the audience and the drama. You want to give them a chance to empathise with, and interpret, the situation."

The parallels between Ward and her on-screen alter ego are tantalising. "It's an English woman who's lived here for 25 years," Ward says, laughing. "Don't anyone tell me how to play it."

Ward was particularly drawn to the way the series explores the cross-generational relationship between Kate and Jill.

"You see a lot of cop shows that tackle generational relationships with men - old cop and young cop, veteran and rookie - but how many do you see with women? And they're very interesting inter-generational relationships between women. They're probably less supportive than they ought to be, there's a much greater sense of competition, which perhaps there is with guys, but you assume with women there will be more support and nurturing. No, we're not. This woman doesn't make it easy."

Ultimately, however, it is a story about boundaries and knowing when to say goodbye. "How long does it take to become a member of a community? It's about having been an outsider, and the perspective on being an outsider, and how long it takes to become an insider," Ward says.

Ward brings an intriguing body of work to the role. Her most recent acting gig was on the US soap Monarch Cove, in which she played Arianna Preston, "a sort of drunk trophy wife, which was fun because there was room for humour," she says. But her resume includes John Duigan's Wide Sargasso Sea, Russell Mulcahy's remake of On The Beach and the critically acclaimed television series Twisted Tales and Two Twisted, on which she collaborated with her husband, actor/producer Bryan Brown.

"Careers are a bit like sex, really you want to climax at the end," she says. "You don't want to climax early and it's all downhill from there. It's been hard for me to get good work here; my work has been mainly American work. I haven't enjoyed a spectacular career as an actress, I've never really had that role that absolutely suited me and played into my qualities."

For many, however, she will always be Meggie Cleary, the heroine of the television miniseries The Thorn Birds, who memorably embarked on a tempestuous affair with the priest Father Ralph de Bricassart (Richard Chamberlain). Despite its success, it was not a role Ward enjoyed.

"I hated it, I absolutely did not like The Thorn Birds at all. It was an incredibly difficult experience, which was difficult because it was hugely popular and it was one of those things that one should feel enormous pleasure about being in, but I couldn't stand it," she says.

Her discomfort stemmed, in part, from the challenges of playing melodrama. "Soap operas are the hardest things in the world to pull off," she says.

"I had a line, to Richard Chamberlain, which was, 'Go on then, go to that God of yours, but you'll come back to me because I'm the one who loves you', and I defy Meryl Streep to pull that one off. How the hell? I did it five times and nobody could work out how you did it. I certainly couldn't work out how to do it. It was a ridiculous line to say.

"What I didn't really understand at that time is that there are different tones. If you're playing McLeod's Daughters, you're playing at a certain pitch and you have to understand what that pitch is, and what you're delivering."

There are no such risks with Rain Shadow. "This is probably one of the best parts I have ever had to play, so I am very grateful to Tony Morphett and (producer) Gus Howard for almost tailor-making it for me. Sometimes, it's timing - you mature at a certain time, something comes along at the right time."

By Michael Idato October 4, 2007 The Age