Now 55, much-loved actor Sigrid Thornton is back in the spotlight, performing for the MTC. By Romy Ash.

Beloved Australian actor Sigrid Thornton enters a new stage

Sigrid Thornton at MTC rehearsals.

Sigrid Thornton has a cockatoo-ish quiff of hair, an exclamation at the top of her face. A mime-black outfit, black boots. She swivels teenager-like up onto the side of her chair. Her legs hang over the chair arm, dangling, swinging, as she talks about acting. 

“It’s a very interesting line of work,” she tells me. “It’s never ceased to fascinate me because it’s… It’s an extremely satisfying creative outlet because one uses one’s whole body and imagination. The actor’s tools are the body and the mind. Every facet of a person is at work and at play. It creates this – that is what I think people go to see in the theatre. They go to see living people creating work – flesh and blood like themselves, and to feel that connection.” 

Her voice has perfect elocution, but as she speaks, there are large pauses between words. It’s not nervousness. The 55-year-old is anything but nervous, casually flung over her chair she looks completely comfortable in her skin. She has been working professionally as an actor since she was 13. It seems instead a tic of the considered. 

“There’s a level of just spontaneity. The spontaneous part of the self, that comes from a real place – but it’s a place that’s rather hard to identify verbally. Sometimes it’s quite visceral. Just as an emotional response can overcome or overwhelm a person quite unexpectedly, the work of an actor can be – the work of creation for an actor – can sometimes be unexpected for the actor themselves,” she says, slowly finding her way to the right word. She says acting in theatre always has a level of fear and anxiety. “It’s really scary. It’s a bit like taking off all your clothes and jumping off a cliff. Really,” she laughs uproariously.

“The other critical thing about performance work is that it’s seldom done in isolation – almost never. It’s almost always a genuine collaboration between other people and other minds. It’s a sort of meeting of experiences. In the rehearsal room you’re responding to the sometimes very unexpected work and input of another person,” she says. 

We’re in the kitchen at Melbourne Theatre Company headquarters. To the right of us is a masking-tape grid on the table and inside each square is a novelty mug – hot pink or lime green. The grid is labelled with names. Thornton is obediently drinking out of her cup. 

“I tend to arrive in the rehearsal room on the first day without my lines,” she says. “I don’t like to learn my lines in advance, off by heart. I enjoy the process of finding the subtextual – that is, of course, what every actor does; some actors just do it the other way around. Some actors don’t like holding the scripts in their hands when they’re rehearsing. I find I sort of wean myself off – ‘off book’ it’s called in the theatre.” 

The next time I see her, she is off book, and it looks terrifying. She’s rehearsing for the MTC production of The Effect, by Lucy Prebble, which in 2012 won the British Critics’ Circle Theatre Award for Best New Play. It’s a four-hander – Sigrid, who plays a psychiatrist, shares the stage with Nathaniel Dean, Zahra Newman and her SeaChange co-star William McInnes.

“Can we go from, ‘My heart…’,” says Leticia Cáceres, director and also associate director at the MTC. She’s sitting, watching. 

Two plywood “beds” face off against one another on the stage. Scrappy red curtains line the perimeter of the room, black curtains are at the back. To the side, there’s a doll’s house-sized diorama of the set, a little white paper version of Thornton stuck to it with tape.

“… my heart, my heart, my heart …” Newman and Dean echo one another. Thornton stands calmly at their centre as they fling themselves across the stage. 

“I can hear my heart beating in my ears,” says Newman grasping her hair, baring her face.

“I feel like I’m at the top of a ride and whhooosssshhh,” Dean jumps from the plywood bed.

It’s an anxious scene. They’re talking about their anxiety, and they’re talking about love. The room is positively humming with the repeated rat-a-tat of their dialogue. They’re nutting it out, this effect. 

Thornton says the play is skeletal. “It’s bare words on a page,” she says, “albeit very detailed conceptually. But it is not at all… A lot of theatrical works are quite prescriptive. This play is completely open book. So the director and the actors are required to absolutely make even more creative decisions than one would normally – than one would sometimes have to make. It’s very freeing – extremely intense.” 

I watch as the play shifts and changes, it feels liquid, in a process of reaction. Thornton is wearing a white lab coat over her black outfit. Her earrings flash, her eyes flash in late afternoon light that streams in from high windows. 

“Glasses on, glasses off. Can someone make a note of when my glasses are on, and when they’re not?” Thornton takes her glasses off, puts them back on. “I think I’ll have them on in this scene.” 

“Is there anything underscoring this?” asks Newman.

“Yes, but it hasn’t been created yet,” says Cáceres, and they all smile. They go over the scene again. 

“Line!” Thornton almost yells. 

“Line!” says Dean. 

“What’s my fucking line?” says Thornton. “Sorry.”

By the end of it, Newman lifts her shirt over her head in the style of a goal-scoring soccer player, though there’s no celebration here, she’s just hiding.

“Is that right?” asks Thornton. 

“No, I’m not making myself clear,” says Cáceres, who gets up out of her chair to demonstrate. “Like this.” 

Dean presses Thornton’s shoulder. “We’re doing ace,” he says. He’s wearing soft purple tracksuit pants and a faded green T-shirt that looks like it’s gone through the wash too many times. I’m not sure if this is his character, an unemployed costume, or just the soft clothes he likes to wear to rehearsal.  

“Should I turn like this?” asks Thornton. “It plays less stagey.” 

1 . Falling in love

In the kitchen, I ask Thornton what it’s like to act in this play about the chemical and emotional process of falling in love. The premise of The Effect is a clinical trial, for antidepressants, where the test subjects fall in love. Thornton shifts in the chair, pulling both legs up, so that she’s contained. She’s small enough to fit. She has been with her husband, Tom Burstall, himself an actor and film producer, for 35 years. They were living together a week after they met. I want to know what it feels like, as someone who fell in love 35 years ago, to interrogate this idea of the fall. 

Thornton says the play, “… it’s less about – no – it hints at long-term love. It discusses that, but it discusses that less than the initial infatuation of new love – of falling in love. That they are two sides, of something like the same coin, is interesting to me. And it also tries to talk about… It’s a very hard thing to describe what it feels like to be in love.

“The way in which someone builds a loving life with a partner is unique to that partnership. It is… You build a kind of emotional house together and that is – every house is so different, but there are commonalities when it comes to that initial falling in love.” 

She says acting “is so deeply connected to one’s life experience – so inextricably connected. So that I suppose that one constructs a kind of emotional and psychological landscape for a character, based on one’s own.”   

Thornton gives the feeling of telling everything, of openness and generosity, and yet in a way she gives nothing away. She talks in generalities, never referring to anything specifically from her private life, her “real life”, as she calls it, as opposed to the life where she pretends to be other people. 

“I’ve been quite a private person throughout my life,” she says, “in terms of not including my immediate family in my public life.” For someone who has been in the public eye since she was 13, this seems quite a feat. 

Thornton grew up in Brisbane, in the Joh Bjelke-Petersen era, in a politically active family. Her parents were both lecturers at the University of Queensland. When she was 13, she was arrested with her mother and father at a Vietnam moratorium demonstration, a “sit-down” in Queen Street, in the city’s centre. 

“It was certainly a fascinating period to be a teenager in. It was hard on the so-called freedom-loving generation. Certainly that sector of the teenage population found it rather more difficult than they would have in other states, let’s put it that way. It was pretty hard to go driving with your long-haired boyfriend. You wouldn’t be surprised to be pulled over and searched. It was a really rigid regime,” she says. 

In 1965, her mother, Merle Thornton, and Ro Bogner chained themselves to the bar in the Regatta Hotel in Brisbane. It was illegal for women to drink in Queensland bars and they were often seen standing out the front of pubs, waiting for their menfolk to emerge. Merle and Ro’s chained protest was a defining moment for the Australian feminist movement. 

Thornton has grown up on the screen. As a teenager, she acted in various television dramas, but her first leading role was in Snapshot (1978), where she plays the most exquisitely awkward young woman, Angela. She was shortlisted for an Australian Film Award for Best Actress. Pulled from a hairdressing salon and persuaded to be a model, the audience watches Angela walk topless through the shallows of Port Phillip Bay on a freezing Victorian morning. Uncomfortable in the water – they’ll make it look like the tropics in post-production – uncomfortable with her own beauty, her own body. The character knows she is being taken advantage of but seems at a loss to fight it.  

“With television and film, there’s a layer that’s about the fact that once you’ve done it, and once it’s been printed, so to say, it’s there forever, it’s not ephemeral like theatre.” The image of Angela – arm slung across her bare chest, looking off into the freezing bay – is iconic, nothing ephemeral about it. 

Thornton is beloved by Australian audiences. She was voted Australia’s Most Beautiful Face in 1989 and Most Beautiful Eyes in 1990, by Woman’s Day readers. When I speak about how beautiful she looked in The Man from Snowy River (1982), she blushes, deflects the conversation to the beauty of the alpine landscape. “Australia had never seen the bush, the alpine landscape filmed so beautifully.” But this was also the first time audiences were really seeing her. Snapshot disappeared from the cinema after only two weeks, and her previous roles were minor. There she was atop Rabbit the horse with her opalescent “most beautiful” eyes and her own mane of hair whipping in the wind. 

“It took people’s breath away – and it certainly took my breath away riding in that environment,” she says of The Man from Snowy River. Despite never being “one of those girls who liked ponies”, it was a defining role for her, if only for the fact it’s the role people remember her playing. “People often speak to me of it,” she says.  

“But most roles worth having are taking you in a different direction. And I suppose that’s what an actor seeks – to be taken out of their comfort zone each time, if possible, preferably. I do anyway.”  

2 . Finding a connection

Back in the rehearsal room, in a new scene, William McInnes, who plays Dr Toby, has his legs around Thornton. They’re on the floor. She leans into his chest and he enfolds her. He’s smoking a fake cigarette, holds it like he enjoys smoking – or maybe he’s just acting. Their ease with one another doesn’t look acted. It looks natural. They sit there happily entangled.

They say their lines. McInnes gives Thornton a drag on the cigarette and the scene is palpably perfect. 

“Great,” says Cáceres. “Great.” There’s laughter, relief and this high feeling of joy in the room, in getting it just right. This is the connection Thornton was speaking about – the flesh and blood at work.  

The pair disentangle themselves and McInnes stands; Thornton’s on her knees in front of him and she’s half his size exactly. He’s so tall. His hair is very straight, very grey. His shirt blooms around him. 

“Stay on the ground. It’s sexier,” Thornton says. 

“We’ll let the audience decide. That’s the magic,” he says with the warmth of a radio voice. He saunters out of the room singing loudly. Sigrid Thornton gets up, turns to face the audience that, for the moment, is just us.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 23, 2014 as "A new stage".

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Romy Ash is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.