How a stand-up type found serious success
Julia Morris with Gary Sweet in House Husbands.
DEPENDING on your taste in comedy, Julia Morris' stand-up routines will either leave you shrieking with laughter and recognition, or wanting to lie down in a darkened room with a cup of herbal tea and some whale music.
She is, in her own words, a ''nuclear'' live performer: a loud, fast-talking, ''did she really just say that'' kind of a comedian, one who riffs on the ordinary humour of domestic life with eye-rolling glee and delivers it all with a very Australian mix of f-bombs and terms of endearment.
So it came as something of a surprise when the 44-year-old was announced as one of the stars of Channel Nine's new Sunday night dramedy House Husbands, playing no-nonsense nurse Gemma, partner of Gary Sweet's Lewis and mother of a little girl in her first year of school.
Even Morris had her doubts about whether her considerable comedy experience could morph successfully into a straighter role.
''I must admit I wondered … if that could be harnessed down into a true and smaller performance,'' she says down the phone from her home in Sydney.
She needn't have worried. Not only has the show been a great success for Nine - it has averaged an audience of over 1 million each Sunday and a second series has been commissioned - but it has often been Morris who has been singled out for praise among the cast, with critics surprised by her display of serious acting chops.
It wasn't just the critics whose eyebrows were raised. Sweet says he was ''mildly surprised and concerned'' when Morris was announced in the role, because he did not know of any dramatic acting experience she may have had.
''The thing about her though is that she has all the characteristics that you require to be successful as an actor, and that is that she's incredibly intelligent,'' says Sweet, who had not met Morris before working with her on the series.
''She's curious and she's courageous. She's ambitious in the nicest way.''
Sunday Age television critic Melinda Houston says she, too, was initially surprised by how good Morris was. ''[But] I do think, on reflection, comedians are performers, and when you've got as many runs on the board as Julia Morris you do know how to engage an audience.''
Although this is Morris' first major dramatic role, she is not new to either television or acting: in fact, she has just spent the past two years studying acting in Los Angeles, hoping to crack the notoriously difficult US sitcom scene.
On a trip back to Australia last September with her family, which was intended to last nine days, Morris was offered a spot on reality show Celebrity Apprentice. After winning that, she was offered the role of Gemma, and could not believe her luck: ''There's just no way in my wildest dreams I would have expected that my first dramatic job would have been such a substantial job.''
Houston believes one of the advantages to this particular role for Morris is that Gemma seems to so naturally suit her: slightly bossy and loud, but also warm and caring.
Morris, too, accepts the parallels. Even though she sees Gemma as a more serious character than she is, she is also ''big, bolshie, kind of well-meaning, a little bit rough.
''That is me to a tee. I can dress myself up in the Armani and step out in the Gucci shoes but, really, I'm from Gosford.''
IT WAS at home in Gosford, on the New South Wales central coast, that young Julia first got a taste for performance. Morris' parents, Michael and Maureen, imbued her and her brother Brendan - who is 18 months older than her - with a sense that anything was possible.
''They've ruined my life,'' she intones in her heavily ironic stand-up voice. ''They've given me nothing but love and support.''
Then she adds, more seriously: ''They instilled a great deal of self-confidence in both Brendan and I to just go out and … give it a try.''
Blessed with a strong singing voice, Morris always assumed that her career would be in musical theatre. As it happened, her first television gig was on talent show New Faces in 1985, aged 17, in which she tied for first with a marching band.
She came across stand-up by accident - or rather, it came across her - when she agreed to MC a comedy event on the central coast for a friend.
''I think on the night I ended up being funnier than most of the comedians that were on,'' she recalls.
She established a name for herself over many years on the touring circuit, while also making regular television appearances on shows such as In Melbourne Tonight, Full Frontal and Beauty and the Beast.
In 1999, Morris took that rite of passage followed by so many Australian comedians: she packed up her particular, and by now well-known, brand of humour and took it to England, to see how she might fare there. Most Australians may be oblivious to this, she points out, but her eight-year career in Britain went remarkably well: she hosted her own BBC chat show on a Friday night, and had a radio show too.
Much of Morris' life turns seem to happen by accident - perhaps because of a willingness to roll with the punches, as it were, the unwavering enthusiasm of a performer who lives from gig to gig.
So she found herself doing a show at the Edinburgh Festival in 2002. There she met fellow comedian Dan Thomas, whom she married in Las Vegas on New Year's Eve in 2005.
''I hit the jackpot there,'' she enthuses. ''I was just hoping for a nice overnight romance but it's turned into what could possibly be a lifetime romance.''
Two daughters followed soon after and, in a neat case of life mirroring art, Morris is able to do House Husbands because Dan is the primary carer for Ruby, 5, and Sophie, 3.
''A lot of planets just happened to align.''
Never idle, Morris penned her memoir Don't You Know Who I Used to Be in 2009, which deals with moving to the UK and becoming a mother. Apart from her comedic career and her love life, the book also covers the trauma of a miscarriage and an ectopic pregnancy.
She wrote about her miscarriage, she says, because she believes in the restorative power of simply talking about things, and she soon realised that miscarriage was something women did not talk about, despite it ending about one in four pregnancies. ''It's the great unspoken weirdness among women,'' she says, her voice suddenly quieter and thoughtful. ''It ends up becoming his weird hall of shame, [a] feeling-defective nightmare.''
The title of her book is as much as plea to her children as anything else, a realisation all new mothers eventually have that life will never be the same.
''It feels like two-and-a-half minutes ago I was at Belleville in Paris dancing on a table with some really naughty boys, and now here I am working out how everyone likes their f---ing broccoli cooked,'' she says with mock exasperation.
It was after Ruby was born that Morris' life took another turn: she and Dan decided that they would prefer to raise their daughter in Australia than in England, and so they returned. Morris says she felt at the time as though she was ''starting again''.
But, while continuing with her stand-up, she had two breaks: the first was winning the singing reality show It Takes Two with opera singer David Hobson in 2008. And then, more significantly, she won Celebrity Apprentice, beating dancer Jason Coleman in last year's season.
Between those shows Morris packed up her family and moved to LA, with the aim of landing a role in a sitcom, where she found herself competing for roles against seasoned performers such as Peri Gilpin (who played Roz in Frasier) and Laura San Giacomo (Maya in Just Shoot Me).
In the two years she was in LA. before Celebrity Apprentice lured her home, Morris switched from blonde to brunette, and dropped several dress sizes.
Her shape, she says, is a ''forever-changing landscape,'' but it was her drama teacher in Los Angeles who sparked her latest downsizing. Morris was wearing a size 15, and still carrying baby weight from both her girls.
The teacher told her that she could not understand why Morris' acting career wasn't progressing as she would like, based on the work she was doing in class.
Morris recalls her saying: ''So the only thing that I can think of is that you don't look like everybody else. And the weight you are at the moment, you either need to put on some weight and become bigger, or you need to take off some weight.''
So take it off she did, cutting out carbs after 5pm and reducing her sugar intake to bring herself down to a trim size 10.
But she says she refuses to be uptight about her weight, and doesn't mind having the odd ham and pineapple pizza for dinner when she's too tired to cook. ''I don't want a lifetime of worrying about it for my girls.''
Like most children, Ruby and Sophie are apparently hard to impress with a flourishing career.
''They just couldn't be less interested,'' says Morris, though she points out that Sophie did enjoy saying ''Mum, you're fired'' for some time.
With her win on Celebrity Apprentice and her impressive turn on House Husbands, Morris finds herself in the unusual - and slightly unnerving - position of being able to refuse work.
''No one would ever have thought that I was coming back into fashion, I can assure you,'' she says drily. ''It has been my life's mantra to say 'yes' to everything, because I'm a real worker. I come from a working-class family and that's what we're like.
''Now, as I look back, it's really only since the Celebrity Apprentice that I have had the luxury to say 'no' to things.''
Having lived for so long taking any work on offer to be able to meet the bills, this has taken some getting used to. But, in typical Morris fashion, she seems to be having a blast.
''At the beginning of the year, it nearly killed me the amount of jobs I said 'No' to,'' she says.
''So we took a leap of faith, and by sweet Jesus did it work out for us.''
House Husbands screens on Channel Nine on Sundays at 8.30pm. Julia Morris' latest stand-up tour will be in Melbourne at the Athenaeum Theatre on November 3 and 4.