Entertainment

Sigrid Thornton, star of Fiddler on the Roof, reveals her near-miss with politics

In her 40-year career Sigrid Thornton has popped up just about everywhere. But the one role she turned down was on the political stage. She tells Karl Quinn why.

Sigrid Thornton welcomes me into her home like a long-overdue visitor.

"I can't believe we've never met before," she says as we settle into couches on opposite sides of a sunny living room dominated by a massive cabinet, salvaged from a long-gone pharmacy, that's groaning with books.

"They belonged to my father-in-law," she says, motioning to the library. "He was an inveterate collector of old paperbacks. He'd read them all. We've kept them the way he had them organised – by author mostly, some by subject."

Family. Culture. Order. These things loom large in Thornton's life, as becomes apparent over the couple of hours I spend with her. As guiding principles go, you could do a lot worse.

She and her husband, the film producer Tom Burstall (whose father, Tim, was a pioneer of the Australian New Wave, directing Stork and Alvin Purple among others), have lived in this house in inner-suburban Melbourne for more than 30 years.

Actually, it's two houses. They bought the smaller one before they had children, and rescued it from imminent demolition. Later, when the place next door became available, they bought that too and knocked them together. Now, their home is a big rambling Victorian with a walled secret garden so appealing it's easy to see why they've never felt the need to move on.

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Their two kids are grown up now, and to some extent that accounts for the sudden flurry of activity on Thornton's CV.

"I'm really enjoying being busy," the 56-year-old says. "While the sun shines I'm making hay. My family is older now, they're more independent, so I've got an opportunity to focus more on those aspects of my life. I've always been mildly obsessed with trying to keep some sort of balance, but I can focus a bit more keenly on a single task now."

There have been lean periods in Thornton's career – "some of them enforced and some of them voluntary" – but this is not one of them.

Last year she won serious accolades as Judy Garland in the Peter Allen mini-series Not the Boy Next Door on Seven. It was, in a sense, a role for which she'd been preparing for years. "I've been a lifelong fan of Judy," she says, though she admits she had to audition for the part because it was so far outside the range she is known for, and found playing a real person daunting, particularly in light of the fact that so many others – not least Garland herself – had performed the role "brilliantly" before. "I just had to embrace the idea of taking my slant and running with it as boldly as possible," she says.

Next year she'll be seen in Wentworth, Foxtel's re-imagining of Prisoner, in which Thornton appeared in 30 episodes back in 1979-80. "It's full circle," she says of her role as Sonia Stevens (a nod to the woman Tina Bursill​ played in the original, though she's an entirely different character). She'll be the first performer to appear in both incarnations of the prison drama, about which she feels "honoured and privileged".

I was raised in an activist family and I can't excise the activist in me.

With Wentworth castmates Marcus Graham, Danielle Cormack and Benedict Samuel last month.

She's recently wrapped a role as a cyber-security executive in the second season of the ABC's The Code, a show she lauds for the "boldness of its writing" (it too will air next year), and as a reality TV producer in the Cairnes​ brothers' horror film Scare Campaign.

And from late December she will appear on stage as Golde, the wife of Anthony Warlow's Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, first in Melbourne and, from March, in Sydney.

It's only her second musical role, though Thornton happily admits she's a shower singer of great enthusiasm.

"I love it," she says. "Music is such an important part of our lives, isn't it?"

Her first musical, also opposite Warlow, was A Little Night Music in 2009. "It was one of the most joyful experiences of my working life," she says. "I'll never forget the sheer wonder of working with an orchestra and a chorus of other singers."

She didn't have singing lessons then, but will this time. "I've always wanted to improve my singing voice, simply for my own pleasure, so this is a wonderful opportunity to do that, and to see how far I can go."

She's big on new experiences, Sigrid Thornton. She learnt to ride a horse for her breakthrough role in 1982's The Man From Snowy River. "We had a two-week trail ride through the alpine regions of Victoria," she recalls. "That was our main rehearsal – immersion in the bush – and it was just a great experience. My father comes from the land, so I'd been thrown on horses from an early age, but I couldn't really ride. Learning those kinds of skills, you can't trade it."

With Tom Burlinson in her breakthrough role, in The Man From Snowy River.

Acting is the perfect conduit to experience, she says, a way "to slip into another person's shoes" without having to stay in them forever. "You can tick off many more things on your bucket list," she jokes. "It's a great reason to be an actor."

Thornton started acting as a very young child in England (she was born in Canberra, but moved around with her academic parents before settling in Brisbane in the late 1960s). Acting was something she slipped into, she thinks, because for a child who was on the move it was a way of fitting in.

Now, she sees it more as a way of exploring herself.

She didn't have any formal training before she became one of the biggest stars in Australian film and television, but these days she takes classes regularly. "I've had tremendous breakthroughs in my life and my work through these classes," she says. "Sometimes they can be crash courses in psychotherapy."

What she might need to breakthrough on she doesn't say – Thornton is open, but only to a point; her private life is both there and not there as a topic of conversation – but she says she's at her happiest "when you're in the zone as an actor, completely and utterly in the moment, where there is no past, no future, only a present".

Not that she isn't still deeply engaged by the world around her. In the past, she's worked with charities such as World Vision and Reach, and sat on the boards of Film Victoria and the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts. Now she's on the board of the Malthouse theatre company, and is starting to work with Greenpeace. She cares passionately about the under-representation of minorities in Australian film and television, and also of that majority of the population known as women, both in front of and behind the camera (she thinks quotas to address that imbalance, as announced recently by Screen NSW, are "a really good idea").

"I was raised in an activist family," she explains, "and I can't excise the activist in me."

Were you ever sounded out for a more formal role in politics, I ask her as the conversation moves outside to the secret garden while the photographer is setting up for a second round of shots.

"Oh yes," she says, almost hooting at the memory. "Yeah, I have, yeah. I've had some nice offers, and I'd have to admit I've been flattered by them, but it's not the life for me."

Why is that?

"I think there would be enormous rewards in political life but for my money perhaps even greater compromise, which would override the rewards. One needs to toe the party line on issues that one perhaps isn't in agreement with, and I think I would find that challenging – I'm used to being able to be vocal when necessary or when asked.

"Of course," she adds, "I'd be a very soft target – actors tend to be. If I'm not even going to read reviews then perhaps I shouldn't be a politician, you know."

She confesses that very occasionally, if her husband comes across an extremely good review, she will read it, but generally "I don't think it's useful".

In part, that's because she doesn't want to run the risk of having her approach to a role unsettled mid-stream (and she says many actors feel the same way, especially where theatre is concerned). But it also goes back to that idea of simply being in the moment.

"I feel the beauty and value of my work, for me personally, is about the process of doing the work, and then leaving it, saying goodbye."

She rarely looks back at the work she has done, though she admits SeaChange was a bit different.

"That's one show I did sit down on a Sunday night and watch with my family, just as an audience member," she says. "I would have been a fan had I not been involved at all. There was an alchemy in that show that's rare."

With David Wenham in SeaChange.

What she most treasured about it was that it spoke "in a way that was gentle, simple but never simplistic" about "the nature and value of community life, and that is very important to me".

As I'm preparing to take my leave, I can't help feeling that I have indeed been welcomed into Sigrid Thornton's world, however briefly. Yes, she's a pro, and she's probably made many another journalist feel the same way, but still.

Of course, I can't really say I know her, but if you were to ask me the question people most often ask after you've interviewed someone famous – "what's she like?" – I would take a stab at answering it this way.

She's serious – about her work, about her world, about her family. She laughs easily and often. She wants to connect and she wants to find that inner tranquility where she no longer feels the need to.

And she's nowhere near finished yet.

"There is no end game," she says, and though she's speaking in relation to acting you can't help but feel it extends way beyond that too. "There is no top of the peak. And there is no being the same as another actor because that position has already been taken by that other actor.

"You can only go for personal best," she says. "And that's what I try to do."

Karl Quinn is on Facebook and on twitter @karlkwin

Fiddler on the Roof opens on December 29 in Melbourne and March 24 in Sydney. Wentworth is on SoHo on Foxtel. The Code will be on ABC-TV in 2016.

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