Face facts

One of Aus­tralia’s best- known stars con­tin­ues to make scin­til­lat­ing cinema af­ter more than 30 years in the busi­ness, writes Sally Browne

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - Front Page - SI­GRID THORN­TON

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.’’

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