Dear Melissa: How not to get lost in the soap wash-up
In the latest showbusiness brouhaha that has inflamed the world like an extremely important ingrown toenail in the past couple of days, actress Melissa George insulted every proud Australian by telling them to stop referring to her past as a soap opera ingenue. Instead they should focus only on her more recent work, lest she become enraged and abandon this country forever to spend more time eating croissants with her dog.
The issue has divided us, some claiming George should remember the opportunities that her days in Summer Bay afforded her, while others insist it is unfair to concentrate on the work she did almost 20 years ago as if quizzing David Bowie on The Laughing Gnome.
But it's a problem faced by all ex-soapie stars, from Dannii Minogue to Ashley Paske: how do you shake the shameful dandruff of soap opera stardom from the shoulders of your career, when you're out in the wide world trying to make a go of it as a legitimate artist? Luckily for them, entertainment gurus like myself are around to supply lists of Foolproof Ways To Escape The Soapie Spectre:
Melissa George is tired of people referring to her as Angel because of her teenage role in Home and Away. Photo: Jacky Ghossein
1. Move on quickly: You can't hang around a soap opera too long if you want to ever be referred to as anything but “Neighbours star Kym Valentine” or “Home and Away's Kate Ritchie” or “whatshisface off E Street”. For example, Russell Crowe's stint on Neighbours was relatively brief, and he won an Oscar, whereas Tempany Deckert did five years on H&A, and today I am not even sure whether “Tempany Deckert” is even a real person. So the rule with soaps is: get in, get famous, get out. Don't hang around, or your chances of forging a new identity will be as dead as Craig McLachlan's stand-up career.
2. Don't multi-soap: The aforementioned McLachlan made the mistake of appearing in both Neighbours AND Home and Away, meaning he's doomed to always be better remembered for his soap sojourns than for his much-lauded turn as Jeff Kennard in Hating Alison Ashley. It's important that you stick to just ONE soap opera per career, if you want to end up more Guy “Mike Young” Pearce than Bruce “Constable Max/Brad Cooper/that guy who was French but then wasn't” Samazan.
3. Don't sign a contract stipulating you must play the same character in the same show for the rest of your life: Take it from Ray Meagher, this can really come back to bite you in later years.
4. Stretch yourself creatively: Perhaps Melissa George suffers because all the roles she's played since Home and Away have been variations on “woman who looks like Melissa George”. If you want people to forget you were a soapster, you need to go a bit more experimental. Play a skinhead psycho like Crowe, or a Norse god like Chris Hemsworth, or a demented game show host like Cornelia Frances – anything to put the memory of your soap character out of people's minds. If Alex Papps had quit Home and Away to play a transsexual werewolf on The X-Files, maybe he'd be a major film star now, instead of the poor man's John Waters on Play School.
5. Don't go into music: Some might say, “But what about Kylie?” to prove this point wrong, but Kylie is an exceptional case. In almost all other instances, moving from soap to singing just cements your “former soap star” status. As soon as Stefan Dennis released Don't It Make You Feel Good, his fate was sealed: he would be Paul Robinson forever. And Melissa Tkautz? Sure, Read My Lips wowed the critics, but it held her back from escaping that sticky soap opera web. If Daniel Amalm hadn't tried to crack the music biz with Classical Gas, we might be aware of where he is now.
6. Don't make yourself too memorable: Again, Kylie seems able to break through any barrier, but Jason Donovan showed that becoming an icon of Aussie TV doesn't really help when it comes to getting people to forget you were an icon of Aussie TV. Consider Naomi Watts: nobody remembers she used to be in Home and Away; but everybody remembers that Nicolle Dickson was, and that's why she didn't get cast in King Kong: Peter Jackson just couldn't block out the memory of Bobby's ghost appearing in Ailsa's fridge.
7. Don't make yourself too un-memorable: You don't want to be typecast, but you do want to be noticeable enough to find work after you leave. You want to achieve the Isla Fisher level of “oh yeah I remember her” and not the Shane Ammann level of “was he the one with the hair?”
8. Choose your next move wisely: Where you go after abandoning soapland is crucial. Simon Baker learnt that taking a small role in a classy, Oscar-nominated adaptation of a James Ellroy thriller is a “good” move; Annie Jones learnt that joining the cast of an awful sitcom is a “bad” one.
9. Master accents: You'll never escape the emotional gulag of soap opera history if you hang around in Australia, playing Australians. That's why Georgie Parker has now come full circle. If you want to get out, get good at playing other nationalities. Russell Crowe mastered American, English, and Roman-speaking-English-in-English-accent, while Alan Dale is now known as “the man of a thousand accents”, rather than “Jim Robinson”. Admittedly all of those accents sound like Jim Robinson, but that is not the point.
10. Be young and attractive: I can't stress this enough. Hemsworth, Fisher, Pearce, Minogue, Watts – all saw their careers blossom after making the decision to be young and appealing.
So there you are, soapsters. Apply these principles, and you'll have left your past behind quicker than you can say, “Where to now for Tammin Sursok?” Off you go now – good luck, and may you end up more Kwanten than Elmaloglou.