Five minutes with Noni Hazlehurst
Noni Hazlehurst is one of Australia’s best known, and most well-loved actors. In a career spanning decades and including shows Play School, Better Homes and Gardens and A Place to Call Home, Noni is a household name. In March 2019, Noni was at QPAC to host Songs of Hope and Healing, a concert with a cast of more than 200 performers and which supported the work of the Friends of HEAL Foundation, an organisation that improves the wellbeing of young people from refugee backgrounds through specialty mental health and arts therapy programs.
QPAC: How can arts support refugees?
Noni: The arts and artists have a responsibility to promote projects that unify us; to try and counterbalance what is divisive and pits us against each other as human beings. The arts are about connection. People don’t come to see me in the theatre, they come to see themselves. If you can leave your ego at the door as a person and as an artist and just tell the story, there’s a connection created on a deeply human level. That’s what we’re all missing today. So the role of the arts is to promote that connection and to do everything we can to say there are other ways of thinking about the world and looking at the world.
QPAC: Last year when you wrote a piece for Story magazine for QPAC, you said the arts teach us that everyone has a story.
Noni: Oh, absolutely. The thing is, we’re all acting all the time, whatever interaction we have, first thing in the morning – consciously or not – we choose to play a role. I’m here playing the role of an actor who has a confident opinion about things, but deep down I’m going, “Did that sound alright?”
We all have very many layers; we’re all very complex. We live in a reductionist society where people say you’re just a housewife, you’re just an actor, you’re just a journalist, just a politician – no, we’re all deeply, deeply complex. That’s why the great writers write to serve humanity, because they reveal these layers in people and the consequences of making wrong and right choices – these deeply human things that we all face.
QPAC: Can we focus on mental health for a moment; when you performed in Daniel Keene’s Mother, it was for a number of years. What’s it like to inhabit that role for so long? And is it hard to disentangle yourself from the character?”
Noni: I don’t disentangle myself from the character because she’s inside me. She comes from my experience and my understanding of how I would be in that situation; walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.
I remember once after coming off stage playing Mother, I was in the foyer, chatting with some friends, having a drink and laughing, and this woman came up wide-eyed and said, “Where do you put her?” And I was confused…I thought, do you think she’s in a bag in the dressing room? No, she’s inside me!
The thing that I love about acting is that you get paid – if you’re lucky – to psycho-analyse yourself. Everything that I need as an actor is inside me; I am my own tool. But I’ve chosen to have certain parts of myself that I face the world with and the other bits that aren’t so useful are left out. The joy of acting is you get to play these roles where you can actually bring these other things to the surface that aren’t necessarily socially acceptable, explore them, and expose people to them.
In that way, you’re connecting. I’ve had people say to me, “I’ve never thought of people like that, a dirty homeless woman in the street that looked dirty and smelly; I’ve never actually thought that she might have a story”. We all have a story, but we’re made to feel insignificant by the focus on celebrity and power that means you’re only interesting if you’re rich, famous, outrageous, sexy – whatever. But actually, everyone is interesting.
QPAC: Do you find that you learn things about yourself when you’re acting? And is there a difference between acting on stage or on screen?
Noni: Well, technically there is, yes. Both media have different challenges, technically. But to me, nothing beats theatre, because it’s the last human contact art form left in a way; the last live one left. I always learn something about myself from every role I play, and in a way, that determines the choice of what I do as well. I just played a couple of roles, one role in particular, where I play a very controlling mother who has to learn that her kids are actually okay without her interference, and that has certain resonance for me with my children who’ve just recently turned thirty and twenty-five. There’s always something to be learned, whether it’s that the role or someone in the audience who thinks, “perhaps I should revise my attitude”.
QPAC: A lot of Australian actors end up working overseas, either having to work overseas or choosing to work overseas. You built your career here in Australia. As an industry, do you think we have to do more to inspire Australian artists to stay and create art here?”
Noni: Yes, we’ve got to respect the arts. The budget for the arts has been shrinking and shrinking and shrinking. And yet, we know that the benefits of the arts are manifold, there’s so, so much we can do to enhance learning and empathy and cooperation through the arts.
We have this attitude that the arts are a luxury item; an add-on you don’t really need, and the word ‘elite’ is banded around a lot. Well really, there’s nothing ‘elite’ about being an artist in Australia. Most artists, I think 90% of actors, are out of work at any given time. Most artists are trying to cobble together a living of some description, so, there’s nothing elite about it. Often the audiences could be accused of being elite…
Having toured Mother regionally and seeing how little there is of serious artistic merit that’s being offered to regional audiences, it’s quite disturbing. The general menu doesn’t have much that is actually enriching and causing an interaction or a discussion about the importance and the value of what the arts can do. I remember one guy who came to see me in Mother (a lot of people came because they’d seen me on TV and they’d never been to the theatre) and this guy said, “I’ve never been to the theatre and I’m gobsmacked, I’m making a donation to the homeless shelter” – so, people are hungry for this stuff.
QPAC: What is it like to be recognised? Is that a bit of a responsibility to be carrying around?
Noni: Absolutely it’s a responsibility. I think any person who is in a position of public recognition has a responsibility to think about what comes out of their mouth and to think about the work that they do and what that’s saying to people. I hold my ‘demographic’, if you like, in great regard because I did Play School for twenty-four years and it taught me more about communication than anything else. It really made me understand that that pre-school age group is utterly crucial in a preventative sense – if you don’t put the right resources into that age group, then everything else you’re doing after that is band-aiding. With the rise of suicide and depression and anxiety in our young people – I suspect largely because they feel powerless and unheard, and they see these examples of horrific adults around them all the time through mainstream media – the chance for us to counteract at that imbalance is crucial.
One of the few good things about getting older is that you don’t give a damn about what people think of what you say. Having said that though, I’m very conscious that I don’t want to alienate people because I espouse views that might be contrary to their own, so my thing is always, empathy, humanity, connectedness, tolerance, peace. It’s not about ‘this side’s wrong and that side’s right’. That’s so puerile.
QPAC: Who or what inspires you?
Noni: Little children inspire me, because they just ‘are’. I think acting is quite easy, but I think the hard thing is ‘being’; being in the moment, being present, being connected. Their purity and their lack of social chiselling is what inspires me, because they’re unafraid, ideally.
The great writers also inspire me because they do write to serve humanity and my job as an actor is to serve the great writers and to get these messages across. But I’m also inspired by nature. I’m inspired by greenery, and the constant example that creatures in nature give us of connectedness and lack of difference and the empathy that animals have towards each other, and we somehow think we’re superior.
QPAC: And finally, do you ever give people advice?
Noni: Oh, constantly, I never shut up!
QPAC: So what’s your best advice?
Noni: Well the interesting thing about advice is I always feel like, when I give advice, I need to hear it myself as well because we don’t always give ourselves the best advice. So I often say to someone who needs help, “What would you advise your best friend to do? And why wouldn’t you do that for yourself?”. I’m very lucky because I’m an older woman whose opinion is sometimes sought. A lot of older people, their opinions are never sought, and so, the wisdom that comes – if there is any wisdom to come from age, even if it’s just through bitter experience – doesn’t get passed on. As an older person, I think it is my responsibility particularly to pass on what I’ve learned to younger women, but also to young men and I do that through teaching.
My acting guru, Larry Moss, who’s an amazing teacher, said that, “We do what we do as artists, to empower women and to help men to heal their broken hearts”. And that’s a wonderful mission.