Noni Hazlehurst gets to the Truth of it

TRUTH UNDERMINED | Noni Hazlehurst (left) and co-stars Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett in the US film Truth, made recently in Sydney. Scenes were shot at St Marys and Penrith.
TRUTH UNDERMINED | Noni Hazlehurst (left) and co-stars Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett in the US film Truth, made recently in Sydney. Scenes were shot at St Marys and Penrith.

Noni Hazlehurst, one of our national treasures, is presenting the one-person show Mother at The Joan at Penrith on October 7 and 8, part of a national tour. We know and love her for Play School, A Place to Call Home, City Homicide and a string of highly acclaimed movie roles over the years.

But most people won’t know her for one of her best roles, perhaps her best ever.

She plays a distressed wife who has to stand by and watch her husband get hung out to dry by CBS in the movie Truth, a gripping account of the downfall of US 60 Minutes anchor Dan Rather.

Rather (played by Robert Redford) and his producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) took the rap for bad research on a compelling story about George Bush’s dubious war record. They claimed that Bush used family power and privilege to avoid war service in Vietnam but 60 Minutes’ evidence evaporated.

It ended both their careers but they continue to stand by the story. The film is based on Mapes’ book.

So strong was Blanchett’s pull she was able to bring this American movie to Sydney to shoot. Scenes were shot at the Wagon Wheel Hotel at St Marys and in Panthers carpark at Penrith.

Bringing the production here gave a lot of work to a lot of local actors, including Rachael Blake, Andrew McFarlane, Lewis Fitz-Gerald, Philip Quast, Steve Bastoni, Helmut Bakaitis, Christopher Stollery, Martin Sacks and Hazlehurst.

So why have so few people heard of it? Hazlehurst didn’t even get to a cast and crew screening, much less the media. And therein lies a story and a half, which Hazlehurst was more than happy to tell when we spoke to her for Mother. More on the stage play soon.

But first, Hazlehurst agreed it was Blanchett’s pull which brought the American production to Sydney, giving work to locals. But make no mistake about it, we certainly didn’t get American money on the film. But we were all very glad to do it for the experience and it was a terrific script.

I’m just sorry that because of the politics of it the film suffered pretty much a shutdown in America. And it was not given any publicity here at all. Just a very limited release in very small cinemas. No publicity at all. CBS in America refused to publicise it on any level – protection of the Bush family is pretty ironclad.

So ironclad that a film would be buried over here – where it was made? Extraordinary! Yeah, it is. It is. I mean, I only saw the film for the first time when I went to a little 100-seat cinema in Brisbane where it was on. It was a $9 Tuesday and I had two friends with me. The girl at the counter asked: “Any concessions, love?” And I said: "Well, I'm in the movie . . ." And she went: "Yeah, that'll be $27 love." [laughs] The few reviews it did get were good. Margaret Pomeranz said to me: "I can't believe this film is not being better released."

I wasn't aware of a campaign to shut it down. You weren't aware of a campaign to publicise it either. And if Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett can’t pull people I don't know who can. It was quite deliberate.

Who exerted that pressure? I've got no idea. CBS did not want it publicised at all. It was based on the book by the 60 Minutes producer Cate plays. The Bush story she did with Dan Rather ended both their careers. So, you know, it was pretty clear what was going on.

Who believed in the film most – Redford? I don’t know. I literally was introduced to Redford and did one scene in the background with him there and that was it, so we didn't spend any time together really. But I think it was as interesting a film as All the President's Men [1974] and it's a real shame more people didn't get to see it.

How was it sold to you originally? I didn't have to be sold on it. I just read the script and I was very keen to be on screen with Redford, and Cate again [after Little Fish in 2005]. Stacy Keach played my husband and he was just wonderful, an amazing actor. He was just lovely, and all the other people who were in it, like Topher Grace, were terrific to work with. Had the script been weak it would’ve been less appealing. The cast was certainly appealing and I loved the script and the role.

UNDER SIEGE | Stacy Keach and Noni Hazlehurst on location for Truth, with Cate Blanchett (obscured).

UNDER SIEGE | Stacy Keach and Noni Hazlehurst on location for Truth, with Cate Blanchett (obscured).

Were you aware of the ins and outs of the story before you got the script? No, only vaguely I knew there were rumblings about Bush family cover-ups.

Did you chat to Cate about it? Not really. We didn’t have rehearsals before filming, you just get there and you do it. She was in so much of the film that apart from sitting down at lunchtime and talking about the next scene we didn’t have that sort of time with her. She has a great many demands on her and we just fitted in where we could around her and tried to support her in what she had to do, which was substantial.

Did you discuss the story with others on the film? Not specifically. I mean you’re just there to do the filming, unless you’re one of the leads and talking to the director [James Vanderbilt, also writer] during preproduction. I only had contact with the director at my third screen test, and then on the day of shooting it's not something smaller part players are involved in.

Three screen tests for a smaller part? My goodness! Yeah, yeah. One of the gratifying things was none of the American reviews picked up on the fact there were so many Australians trying to play Americans – we had a wonderful dialogue coach from LA ’cos I had to have a slight Texan twang. The accents had to be seamless and the Australians pulled it off really well.

UNDER SIEGE | Robert Redford (as Dan Rather) and Cate Blanchett (as his producer Mary Mapes), besiged by their own industry in Truth.

UNDER SIEGE | Robert Redford (as Dan Rather) and Cate Blanchett (as his producer Mary Mapes), besiged by their own industry in Truth.

I was just excited to work with Jamie [Vanderbilt] and with Cate and particularly Stacy [Keach] with whom I did most of my work. He was just a delight. Obviously he's on a different plane to me but, you know, we've had similar careers in that we do theatre and television and film and we just love telling great stories. He's not an egomaniac, he's a humble man and has no particular agenda than let's just get the work done to the best of our abilities. So he was delightful.

Given the attempts to squash the film it's ironic it was called TruthYeah! [laughs] That’s the truth of it!

It would appear your play Mother is a rather confronting look at parenting. The truth is we all try really hard at it but we all fail. [Noni laughs]. Well, hopefully, we have some wins [laughs]. It’s swings and roundabouts, I think. It’s the mothering aspect which resonates most with me.

And the theme of homelessness. There but for the grace of God, and a few bad decisions, and some environmental influences, go most of us, in terms of homelessness. Homeless people are increasing in every capital city and in every town, particularly homeless women, who don't often appear in the statistics as much as they should because they don’t sleep out.

It's not safe for them to be on the streets so they sleep in cars, they couch-surf. It's an increasing problem. There are something like 270,000 people waiting for housing in Australia and we just file that away somewhere. Mother is saying every one of these people has a story and we live in a very judgmental period where political debate comes down to I’m right and you’re wrong which is clearly nonsense.

It asks people to walk a mile in someone else's shoes for a moment. Perhaps it's less confronting doing it through the arts.

Homelessness is confronting and uncomfortable. It’s easier to save the planet or promote marriage equality. We're pushed into a very divisive paradigm. We’re pressured to avoid people who look different to us, or whom we don’t relate to easily. We’re told we have to close our borders and protect ourselves. There's a lot of fear being engendered.

My feeling is we share more similarities than differences as human beings. It’s the function of the arts to remind us of that. Look, all the problems we face are huge and yet we expressions like “compassion fatigue” – how is that even a thing?! You know, we’re all fellow human beings trying to make a life for ourselves.

I don't believe people who haven't made it in life just haven't tried hard enough, you know. There are people who slip through the cracks, who don't want to be leaners, you know. Leaning isn’t exclusive to the poor. And we have many examples every day in the media of upper-level leaners, you know [smiles], who seem to think that’s their entitled right.

So, you know, please, please, let's just look at each other as human beings and not as enemies or people who aren’t struggling or don't have families they care about the same way we do. Of course they do.

Compassion fatigue is a modern social symptom – you’d think the internet would bring us all closer but it’s done the opposite. It was meant to give us all a lot more leisure time but it’s just created more and more egocentric attitudes. It’s all about me and how people are reacting to me and what they want of me. We're very introverted by the internet. We get so fascinated and distracted by our news feeds, by Facebook, and we're led up the garden path if we click on something. It's a great time-waster.

And it’s isolating us more, definitely. It's become a forum for people to vent their anger, and that's a valid thing, we should all be able to do that, but not in such a destructive way. It’s a problem for children and young people who don’t remember life without this stuff. We now have generations of children thinking Real Housewives are real housewives and that reality shows are reality!

Their world is a very small place, full of egocentricity and trolling and people caring about appearances, and porn. Which is why I thought the furore about the Safe Schools program was nonsense – as if kids can’t access anything they want anywhere and any time, whether it’s at your house or a friend's house or somewhere in between.

What was intended to promote equality and tolerance and empathy has turned into something outrageous and evil and vile because it’s suggesting there's something other than the way we want to live. I find a lot of people are speaking for me as if it's my . . . no, I won’t go there. I’ll stop that right there! [laughs]

The mother you play, does she have a name? Christie.

So she's not so much Everywoman? Not anonymous, not faceless? Well, she thinks she is and most people's attitude to homeless people is that they’re anonymous and faceless and she does tackle that, that she feels worthless, and she didn’t think she’d ever feel like that.

How does the playwright paint her in? Oh, that's a hard question. She no longer cares about anything other than what's going on in her head. The world around her ignores her. Or worse, vilifies her. Daniel Keene is a remarkable writer. He creates this amazing character as her story unfolds. There are things people will hate about her, there are things people will find moving about her, everyone will have a different response. Some people won’t like her, at all.

Do you like her? Of course. Because I feel for her. I like everybody until they give me reason not to [laughs]. That's my opening gambit you know, You have my respect and my attention until you prove yourself unworthy of it.

She's a survivor, you know. She hasn't been beaten by this life. She's chosen to remove herself from the world. But she's still a very astute observer of it. She's outside of everybody else's lives, and her perspective is unique and comes from her own experiences. There's humour and there's tragedy. It's a real thumbnail sketch of a life.

Why is it called Mother, and not Wife, or WomanBecause the thing that’s driven her to be who she is now is her mothering experience. That's the primary factor that created the life she's lived.

As parents we all have these moments we remember where we let our children down. It’s impossible to stop them haunting us. Hm.

Does she find a way to get through that? Ah, well she's not dead, so she's got through it to some extent. But it has haunted her absolutely, you know, the consequences of her choices and her actions. She had no advantages, she had nobody in her life, no significant others, to help her. The experiences she's remembering happened in the '70s when she was a very young woman. She had very little education, a dysfunctional family, was poverty-stricken, and, yes, she’s now haunted by the consequences of her actions and her regrets.

WITH SONS CHARLIE AND WILLIAM | "Every day mums would stop and talk to me about Play School. When my son Charlie was 8 he asked 'Mum, why do people all think you’re so wonderful?' I said to him: 'Cos they don’t know me like you do.' And he said, knowingly: 'Oh, right.' Play School is the most rewarding thing I've ever done."

WITH SONS CHARLIE AND WILLIAM | "Every day mums would stop and talk to me about Play School. When my son Charlie was 8 he asked 'Mum, why do people all think you’re so wonderful?' I said to him: 'Cos they don’t know me like you do.' And he said, knowingly: 'Oh, right.' Play School is the most rewarding thing I've ever done."

You of course are the perfect mum. [Noni snorts]

We’ve seen you on Play School year after year and you always get it right. I think perfect aunt, perhaps, rather than mother [laughs]. Every day of my life people would stop and talk to me about Play School, which I love, and I remember when my son Charlie was about 8 some other person had come up and said “Oh, we think you’re wonderful and love what you do” and Charlie said to me “Why does everyone think you’re so wonderful?” And I said: “’Cos they don’t know me like you do, Charlie.” And he said, knowingly: "Oh, right, I see." He's 28 now.

I’m sure he still pays you out for Play School. Oh, no, look he's incredibly proud of Play School. Play School's position in Australia is unassailable, you know, because it loves its audience and works hard for its audience's great affection and attention, which is rare in television.

Both my boys know how important it was to me. It changed my life and taught me how to communicate and how to be truthful in the moment as a performer which, you know, is profound. It taught me so many things – that there's no such thing as perfection. Their motto is practice makes progress, which was an absolute revelation to me [smiles], being brought up by a perfectionist. So, they’re very proud of the Play School factor in my life, as I am. I think it's the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.

The press release says Mother draws on Medea and Dorothy Hewett, an interesting combination. The Greeks certainly had a very bleak view – Sophocles wrote the world's most famous play in which a son beds his mum and Euripides wrote the yarn of a dumped wife who gets even by killing her kids. To what degree does that inform your play?! It's all part of what is set into Daniel's [Keene] writing, these influences of other artists in other times, these eternal themes. So many valuable lessons came from the Greeks, their approach to drama, their approach to the human condition. These days we tend not to focus on history so much, so we're not learning from our past mistakes, we’re making them all afresh.

Dorothy Hewett was a great influence on all of us – our director Matt Scholten and Daniel and I. I was in the first production of The Man from Mukinupin in Perth and also for the Sydney Theatre Company. She’s one of our many many writers, particularly female writers, who are largely unheralded these day. Her writing is extraordinary, her poetry particularly. This is our way of honouring her. She had a pretty difficult married life and mothering experience in the early days so there's an homage to her implicit in the work.

But it doesn’t depend on you having read any` Greek drama or any Dorothy Hewett to appreciate what’s there.

You did that wonderful Hall of Fame speech at this year’s Logies in which you talked about the need for positive upbuilding programming. Anything ever come of that? Well, the truth is I was on a 9 o'clock flight the next morning after the Logies back to A Place to Call Home which didn’t finish till mid-July and now I’m touring this play so I really haven't had a chance to push ahead with it yet but I had an overwhelming response from people wanting to help, wanting to be part of it, telling me about things they're doing in their own communities, and I've got this massive file now of people I can draw on.

So it's up to me to drive it but I’m just looking for a little spot in my schedule where I'm not actually working.

I had an interview yesterday and the journalist was asking about this and she said “But doncha think people'd get bored watching good news all the time?” I said good heavens, I'm not suggesting they watch nothing else! [laughs] I's interesting how people take these things and try to make you sound like you're an idiot [laughs].

I just want some balance. I just want to be able to know it's there if I need it. I’m certainly not suggesting we ban all other forms of entertainment and just have good news television! What sort of an idiot would I be!

But I'm trying to point out that there’s no balance now and it’s really difficult unless you have someone on Facebook who’s sending you uplifting stuff, it's really hard to find it. I certainly know the correlation between relentless negativity and antagonism and combat and the rise of anxiety and depression and suicide. I don’t think it’s an accident, you know. I do think people are thinking this is a shocking place. If I was a Martian and Ianded on earth and switched on the TV to see what the place was like I don't think I'd stay long!

What sort of format do you envisage? If it were a channel I’d love there to be something like Morning Meditation and I’d like to see the best of the variety shows from the Sixties and Seventies, you know, The Carol Burnett Show and The Red Skelton Show and The Dean Martin Show. Have a slot where you could run the best entertainers in the world, not wannabes who are cheap.

You know, we're dumbing down audiences and their expectations of what amazing talent can do. There’s nowhere on television in Australia for a great performer to strut their stuff. I remember seeing Mandy Patinkin, who’s won every award, Golden Globe, Emmy, Tony, you name it, who’s on Criminal Minds on Seven and he was touring Australia with his accompanist of 40 years doing concerts – he’s one of Sondheim's greatest exponents – and the only show on television he could appear on was a morning show so 8 o'clock in the morning, I think it was Sunrise, he sang an absolute cracker of a Sondheim song and nailed it, live.

On walked I think at the time it was Mel and Kochie, saying who knew you could sing! Which was unforgiveable but where do you see these amazing people?

I'd also love to have an interactive element where people could nominate Australia's next top role model where you could actually share information about things happening in your community or around` the world that might inspire you to do something similar.

Just something to say, look, the world is not unrelievedly vile. Just as no one is only tragic, or only funny. We're all very complex. And we need to see there are other things going on in the world besides people corrupting each other and hurting each other and ripping each other off.

I hope you can get something up. Well, I’m gonna try!

  • Details, tickets here.
  • Due to the intimate nature of the performance Mother has a strict lockout policy. No one will be admitted after the performance has begun.

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