One of Australia’s best- known stars continues to make scintillating cinema after more than 30 years in the business, writes Sally Browne
ON a sunny afternoon, Sigrid Thornton is trying to find a quiet spot in a Sydney cafe in which to have our chat.
Her only interruption is a passing labradoodle. She has a dog of her own at home in Melbourne, called Baz.
‘‘ Hello darling, you are lovely! Sorry, that was a labradoodle passing by,’’ she says cheerily down the phone line.
Thornton is on the phone to talk about her new movie Face to Face, a gripping courtroom drama without the court – about a group of people who come together to settle a dispute at a community conference.
Based on a David Williamson play and directed by Michael Rymer ( Battlestar
Galactica, Angel Baby), it tells the story of an angry young construction worker who rams into his boss’s Jaguar after being sacked.
The main players – including Vince Colosimo as the company boss, Luke Ford as the troubled young man and Matthew Newton as the mediator – meets to nut out their differences, revealing much in the process.
The very human story, which was shot in Melbourne over 12 days, has been well received in the US – winning awards at the Sacramento, Colorado, Newport Beach and Santa Barbara film festivals.
Even documentary filmmaker Michael Moore is a fan, describing it as ‘‘ an amazing piece of cinema – riveting, thought-provoking, transformative’’.
‘‘ It seems to have captured people’s imaginations overseas,’’ Thornton says. ‘‘ I think it’s probably refreshing for an American audience to see a film that’s completely unpretentious.
‘‘ It’s a very clean, crisp, small film which is character driven.
‘‘ There’s absolutely no reliance on special effects and all that kind of stuff.
‘‘ The story and the characters are strong, so I think people are responding to that.’’
Thornton plays Claire, wife of CEO Greg ( Colosimo). It’s not the first time she has starred opposite the Melbourne actor.
In 1984, when he was a fresh-faced actor of 17 and she was a well-known name at 24, she played his girlfriend in the AFI-nominated teen drama Street Hero. Both actors played 17-year-olds.
‘‘ I couldn’t in truth tell you how long ago it was but it’s going back, I can tell you that,’’ Thornton says.
‘‘ It was actually his second film. I remember it very fondly.
‘‘ I remember Vince very well, being young, very talented, ambitious, in all the right kinds of ways. He handled his career development in a really smart way.’’
By then, Thornton was already an accomplished actor, having experienced the calling at a young age.
As a girl she spent time acting in London and Brisbane, where she studied at the Twelfth Night Theatre.
At 17, Thornton left Brisbane to follow her dream, moving to Sydney and then Melbourne.
She has been the face of Australian drama ever since – saddling horses in The Man from Snowy River, tackling colonialism in All the Rivers Run and dishing out justice as a judge in
SeaChange and a sexy cop in Underbelly. One of our favourite leading ladies, she has even had a phenomenon named after her, the ‘‘ Sigrid factor’’. It was coined by sociologist Bernard Salt, who noticed that towns in which she had shot a film or series seemed to flourish afterwards.
Born in Canberra, Thornton moved to Queensland with her academic parents when she was small. Her childhood was far from ordinary.
Her parents Neil and Merle Thornton were both politically active, and social justice issues were a common topic at the dinner table.
Merle Thornton, a pioneering feminist who taught women’s studies at the University of Queensland, famously shaped history when, on an ordinary day in 1965, she and her friend Rosalie Bognor, chained themselves to the bar of the Regatta Hotel in suburban Brisbane after being refused service.
At the time it was illegal for women to drink in public bars alongside men in Queensland. But the incident had a profound effect, with the laws being changed soon afterwards.
Sigrid was just six years old at the time but recalls being allowed to stay up to watch her mum on television.
‘‘ It was a pretty big deal at the time. It did really help shake the laws up and the laws changed soon after,’’ Thornton says.
‘‘ She was pretty bold. She still is bold, my mother.’’
Being the daughter of such socially and politically active parents meant Thornton experienced things most other schoolgirls did not. One significant memory is when her parents took part in a protest against the Vietnam War in 1972.
‘‘ I was pretty much a child, I was 13, on the cusp at that age and I remember it being a very exciting experience as a matter of fact,’’ she says.
‘‘ It was frightening in some ways. I think I had a more relaxed attitude to what was going on, being a child, than a lot of other people. I certainly understood the ramifications of what we were doing well enough. But when my father was being arrested, that was excruciating.
‘‘ In the end I had an experience that I won’t forget in a hurry – and that was being locked up in a watchhouse and all that kind of stuff. It seemed a bit of an adventure for me. It was all fine. We got out all right.’’
Thornton is still very close to her parents, who are still happily married and live near their daughter in Melbourne.
‘‘ We were always a close family; we’ve remained a close family,’’ she says.
‘‘ Both my parents were very supportive of my desire to be an actor from a very young age.
‘‘ I started talking about it probably from age seven. They were far from stage mothers and fathers, a long way from that, but they knew that they didn’t have much of a choice in it. They helped me shape my attitude to the work by giving me a really strong work ethic, which I think has stayed with me.’’
Their positive influence must have rubbed off in other ways too, because, like her parents, Thornton has bucked modern trends by remaining happily married. She met her husband, producer Tom Burstall, through mutual friends at a party when she was just 18. A week later they were living together.
They have two adult children, Ben, 26, and Jaz 19.
Despite being married to one of the most beautiful women in Australia, Burstall has never felt threatened by any of the hunky leading men in her life – including William McInnes, David Wenham and John Waters.
‘‘ Tom understands what it is to be an actor,’’ Thornton says with a laugh. ‘‘ He’s got a very good head on his shoulders.’’
At 52, Thornton is just as vibrant and vital on screen as she ever was. She says she’s had a lucky run in this competitive game. So of all her characters, is there one she remembers most fondly?
‘‘ SeaChange I’m very fond of,’’ she says.
‘‘ It came at a time in my career when it was important to explore new areas and it gave me an opportunity to play a really interesting character.
‘‘ She was flawed, she was neurotic and had qualities both good and bad, and that’s really what human beings are like. I loved the whole experience really.
‘‘ It was great material to work with – the writers would write to the actors’ strengths. They learnt how to write to my strengths and to the entire ensemble.
‘‘ They were wonderful writers so I had fantastic material to work on every day. So it was a luxury.’’