Nobody does blonde and ditzy better than Wicked star Lucy Durack. But now this winning witch is also turning her creative powers to writing.By Romy Ash.
Totally wicked Lucy Durack
As Lucy Durack opens her dressing-room door, in the bowels of Melbourne’s Regent Theatre, she’s still undoing her pin curls. She’s no longer wearing her sparkling blue ball gown, or her tiara. She’s showered but her show face is still on. The make-up, up close, looks a little clownish – exaggerated, so that from the seats in the theatre it will look natural.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m normally a bit quicker, it’s just that I fell.” She grits her teeth. “I’m clumsy. In real life I’m a clumsy person.”
Real life, as opposed to the life where the 31-year-old is Glinda the Good Witch in the musical comedy Wicked, a role she played for three-and-a-half years. She had a year and a half off but, now, the musical has a second run and she’s picked up her wand again. In the interim she starred as perky Elle Woods in Legally Blonde – The Musical, for which she won a Helpmann Award for Best Female Actor in a Musical, in 2013. Both these roles she plays with the squeaky voice and hair flicking of an American sorority girl.
“I’ve fallen before, in full light!” she says. Tonight’s fall happened in the dark between scenes, without the audience knowing. “It’s the bubble dress,” she says. “Once I fall down, I can’t get back up.” A dancer from the ensemble had to reach down, grab her arms and pull her to her feet.
Durack sits down in front of a mirror rimmed by light bulbs, and from the pink of her lower eyelid, she peels off a fake eyelash.
“Two nights ago, Elphaba and Glinda go to the Emerald City – and we have a really fast change. It’s this magnificent big number with everyone wearing these beautiful Tony Award-winning costumes and Jemma [Rix, who plays Elphaba the Wicked Witch] and I run off in our outfit and we have a 15- to 20-second change and run on again. I change out of this cream skirt, but it has those hooks that skirts have and it got caught on the bottom of my shoe – like toilet paper – and I was running on stage and Jemma was like, ‘Oh my god’, and I was like, ‘Oh no.’
“Things happen – it’s live theatre. Nothing’s been disastrous – as in people being seriously injured. People do get injured, but usually it’s just a hilarious mishap,” she says.
Durack wipes some of the stage make-up from her cheeks and reapplies foundation and blush.
“The costumes, particularly in Wicked, really do help you get into character, because they are monstrosities. I wear this enormous dress at the start of the show [the bubble dress] and it used to weigh 20 kilos. They’ve since made it a bit lighter, but it’s still really heavy. It makes you move in a certain way. The more that I go on with Glinda as well, she’s evolved – my interpretation of her – she’s a bit goofy, a bit clumsy. I mean I feel like I’m kind of walking like a robot or something. I can’t really walk properly in this dress. I don’t think I’m a particularly elegant person, so I think, Use what you’ve got. I end up going for the physical comedy, within the physicality of the costumes.
“I like that juxtaposition. It is a beautiful dress, and I’ve got this beautiful wig and everything is pretty and sparkly but within that I’m a bit awkward.”
The costumes line the wall behind Durack, monstrosities of sparkle and engineering. The ball gown needs to be hooked into a mechanical bubble by which Glinda flies through the stage air. Laid out by the mirror are her jewels: huge plastic diamonds that even in the dressing room catch the light.
“It wasn’t something that I saw coming, I really was the least funny person I know.”
I’ve a vision of Lucille Ball, who paved the way for women in comedy and in leading roles. Ball, like Perth-born Durack, started out in the chorus. In 2002, Durack was first cast in the ensemble of Mamma Mia! in her last year at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA). But Durack took time to realise her own comic potential.
“When I say I was the most unfunny girl, that was when I was at uni. We had this clown week, and we had to wear a red nose the whole time. We did this one exercise where you got up in front of the class and you used physical comedy to make people laugh and, if they didn’t laugh, they were allowed to yell out, ‘Money back.’ It was brutal. I got up there and I was like… I actually had this moment of, This is the worst moment of my life, and then my jeans split right down the back. It was the best and worst thing that could have happened to me at that moment.
“Up until that point I had no idea how to do comedy – I just loved watching it. That kind of made me go, Oh yeah, things can go wrong, and to just commit to it. My ideas on comedy started there.”
Playing it for laughs
On stage Durack plays Glinda with great comedic rhythm. She intentionally trips over her toes, half falls, stumbles and jumps over props. Flowing with her clumsiness, she falls into the comedic.
“Obviously with musical theatre you do need to heighten it so that the people in the back can feel what’s going on. But I always think everything has to be based in 100 per cent reality and truth,” she says.
“My movements, I’m naturally not huge. No matter what I’m doing, I always get notes to try and make it bigger. Get to the back. I’m not naturally someone who goes there, I’m always trying to work on that, trying to get it bigger, get it to the back, I’m usually trying to get it as realistic as possible, but that’s...” she says reaching her arms wide, “not realistic.”
She puts her wedding rings back on. Her recent marriage to choreographer Chris Horsey on idyllic Rottnest Island in Western Australia was widely reported as “storybook”. As Glinda, Durack has the look of a fairytale princess and even here, with her long hair now falling around her shoulders, curling wildly, you’d be forgiven for thinking so, but that would be to misjudge her. Durack is a famous name in WA, her forefathers brothers Patrick and Michael Durack (her great-great-grandfather) drove cattle from Queensland to the East Kimberley, near Kununurra, to establish Argyle Downs in 1882, and she’s not without that drive and vision.
Durack has begun branching out from musical theatre, both on the stage with Private Lives at MTC, and appearing alongside Portia de Rossi in the film Now Add Honey, written by Robyn Butler, the co-creator of Upper Middle Bogan. Arenas where she can minimise her movements and play with a certain realism impossible in the wide armed, big smiling world of musical theatre.
“I did Private Lives at the start of the year, and I played this English character – I mean she was blonde – but she was quite different to the other characters I’ve played.”
I get the feeling that people ask about her hair – a lot. Even though Legally Blonde and Wicked are, in a lot of ways, about breaking down the stereotype of the ditzy blonde, the airheaded pretty girl, Durack confronts these preconceptions on a daily basis.
“I’m naturally a mousy brown kind of girl, I just made myself that [ditzy blonde] type because I wanted to play Glinda.”
“I’ve started to write,” she says offhand, shyly, “with a couple of friends. We’re writing comedy television, which is really one of my biggest passions.
“I’ve got some really great people to look up to. I mean obviously Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, but here in Australia Jane Kennedy and Robyn Butler. There’s some really funny clever women who are just doing amazing work, and writing their own stuff and being really smart about it. There seems to be a movement (I don’t know if it’s a movement or if I’m just more aware of it at the moment) of really funny women both here and overseas. And not just being funny, but also being really supportive of one another and banding together. I find that really inspiring.
“People who are really funny and using their smart, witty powers, and using them for good.” In the mirror, she gives me her Glinda the Good Witch smile.
“Look,” she says leaning over, showing me her forehead. “I’ve got a permanent groove here, where my mike goes.” Like a pockmark, it’s a little scar pushed in by years on the stage.
“We’ve got mikes and two battery packs in case one goes down. Jemma, she’s played Elphaba for years. She’s permanently a tinge of green. In her ears, at her hairline.” Elphaba is the misunderstood wicked witch: born green, with magic powers and a soaring voice that echoes to the back of the 2000-seat theatre.
“I felt like I failed actually, after Mamma Mia!,” Durack told me earlier in the week, when we met to chat near her Port Melbourne home. “It was a great first experience but I actually decided maybe performing wasn’t for me. I was really homesick, my family was all in Perth. I felt lost, I didn’t feel like I’d really succeeded in that show myself. I’d worked my hardest but I didn’t feel like I’d succeeded. So I actually started a law degree at Sydney Uni and then that wasn’t what I thought it would be either. It was one of those weird things. On paper, everything seemed to be going fine. I was doing fine in the course, the course was actually really interesting, I’d made a group of friends – and I was actually miserable.”
Durack quit her degree, moved back to Perth – for five days – before deciding she needed to commit to performing.
“I like being really prepared. I guess it’s the underlying fear that I’m not good enough, because if I’m really prepared then I’m like, Look, I’ve given it my best shot and if people don’t like it then that’s not my fault, I’ve done everything I can. I’m pretty prepared, line-wise, music-wise. I try to do as much thinking about the character and their backstory as I can. How they got to where they are at the start of the play. You end up making up most of that sort of stuff yourself. It’s fun and it gives you something to work with, something to hold on to. It helps you be more inspired in the choices you make on stage.”
Back in the dressing room, Durack leaves the door open, the mirror lights on, and leads us through the labyrinthine hallways beneath the theatre. On the stairs up to the stage the prop master is surrounded by the thick stink of spray paint. He’s on his knees touching up the leg of a wooden sideboard. Above him a bed hangs from the ceiling. All the props are hung from the ceiling to save space in what is a narrow side stage. At the back of the stage are her wands – the “fight wand” she throws to the floor during the performance, and the much prettier “dress” wand, as well as a collection of wicked witch broomsticks.
Lucy draws me through a room walled by wigs. What seems like hundreds of foam faces stare blankly at us as we pass.
“Everyone is wearing a wig. Even the boys with short hair – it’s a wig,” she says. There is a remarkable variety of wildly shaped hairdos on display. Some of them do look unnecessary, they sit like skull caps on the foam heads; others stretch 30 centimetres high. Durack’s own hair is dyed the exact same colour as her wigs.
A group of the chorus passes us in the corridor and Durack calls to them, “Have a good weekend,” she waves, laughs. It’s Sunday night, the end of opening week and a five-show weekend. “By Monday, you feel like you’ve been run over by a truck,” she says.
Outside, in a dark alley, at the back exit of the theatre, there’s a group of girls waiting for her. “I might have to sign some things,” she says, giving me a hug before she opens the door. Outside she says to the girls, “You guys look beautiful.” One of the girls has a 21st sash strung over her sequined dress. The girls rush at her, and she lets them. They take a photo, and I can see why Durack has kept most of her make-up on. She still looks like a star. A car beeps as it emerges from the car park, lighting them with its headlights. Durack has her stage smile on. Her teeth sparkle, her bottle-blonde hair shines bright.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 31, 2014 as "Totally wicked". Subscribe here.