Calamity Jane:

From All Saints to all-singing, all-danc­ing star of the stage, Sue Smethurst shares life lessons and laughs with a star at the top of her game.

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Contents - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY ● AN­DREW FINLAYSON STYLING ● JAMELA DUN­CAN

Vir­ginia Gay on her spir­ited new role

Vir­ginia Gay bounces into a Melbourne cafe at what would be con­sid­ered an un­godly hour of the morn­ing for many ac­tors. A quick skim latte knocks the cob­webs off a late night tread­ing the boards and she chats en­thu­si­as­ti­cally, al­beit through the side of her mouth, as her lips grip pins she uses to ca­su­ally whip her long blonde curls up into a bun.

From the mo­ment she sits down, the stat­uesque ac­tor, who rose to fame in the Seven Net­work’s All Saints then ce­mented her star sta­tus in Win­ners & Losers, barely draws breath, ef­fort­lessly criss-cross­ing con­ver­sa­tions rang­ing from the ju­bi­la­tion of the mar­riage equal­ity leg­is­la­tion passing par­lia­ment to the dark­ness of her beloved in­dus­try rocked by the

Har­vey We­in­stein-led scan­dal.

The world­wide wave of the #metoo move­ment has her­alded a new era for women in show­busi­ness, and Vir­ginia Gay is seiz­ing the mo­ment by tak­ing to the stage to rein­vent a woman “decades ahead of her time”. This month, she will reprise the role of Calamity Jane, the wild west pi­o­neer made fa­mous on the sil­ver screen by Doris Day in the 1950s. The spir­ited fron­tier fem­i­nist has re­ceived a mod­ern-day makeover by the charm­ingly self-dep­re­cat­ing Vir­ginia, whose per­for­mance in its short sea­son in Syd­ney last year was de­scribed by crit­ics as “un­miss­able”.

Role of a life­time

“Oh my good­ness, it’s my dream role!” she gushes, her heart al­most vis­i­bly skip­ping a beat. “I grew up with the mu­sic and the movie and I loved it, so play­ing Calamity Jane is amaz­ing, al­though of course

Doris Day was like this fab­u­lous, fine china doll with a del­i­cate­ness about her, all pe­tite, whereas I have this big hulk­ing body – I’m like a bear in a hat,” she jokes. “But I think Calamity Jane was so far ahead of her time. She had com­plete dis­re­gard for the ex­pec­ta­tions of gen­der, she pushed bound­aries and she’s fear­lessly try­ing to work out who she is, which is so rel­e­vant to what is hap­pen­ing right now,” Vir­ginia says.

While Hol­ly­wood is un­der­go­ing an equal­ity re­nais­sance, Vir­ginia Gay is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing some­thing of her own com­ing of age. From the age of six, she dreamed of be­ing a per­former but as­sumed when she grad­u­ated from drama school she’d be out of work. To the con­trary, she is one of our most in-de­mand ac­tors and she has barely had a day off since she waltzed onto our screens as the no-non­sense nurse Gabrielle in All Saints.

“I never thought I’d work on screen be­cause I have a face like Mount Rush­more,” she quips, her throaty laugh catch­ing the at­ten­tion of cafe pa­trons. “All Saints came out of the blue and it was a game changer for me. But I say yes to ev­ery­thing be­cause I am ter­ri­fied peo­ple will stop ask­ing me to do things. As an ac­tor it’s a gift hav­ing work, but I’ve never been some­one who has sat back and waited for a script, I’ve chased ev­ery op­por­tu­nity. There is some­thing in me that says, ‘life is short, do ev­ery­thing, be grate­ful of ev­ery op­por­tu­nity, take it, em­brace it and say ‘great, now what do we do next?’.”

For the past two years she has

vir­tu­ally lived out of her suit­case, trav­el­ling con­stantly with shows such as Dusty, Jerry’s Girls, High So­ci­ety and The Pro­duc­ers. She is also a highly ac­claimed singer and co­me­dian, and was in­vited to per­form her one-woman stage show Dirty Pretty Songs at the pres­ti­gious Ed­in­burgh Com­edy Fes­ti­val in 2012, but her suc­cess has meant she hasn’t put down roots for longer than a few months at a time and her sched­ule de­mands she won’t be any time soon.

“My car is a mov­ing stor­age cage,” she jokes, “ev­ery­thing is in it. Any­one who has the mis­for­tune of be­ing in my car will be like ‘hmm, in­ter­est­ing Vir­ginia, there’s four pairs of sum­mer shoes, an evening gown and a sack of dirty wash­ing, are you okay?’”

In the year ahead she is di­rect­ing a short film, adapt­ing a novel for stage, try­ing her hand at Hol­ly­wood’s cut-throat au­di­tion sea­son and tak­ing to the stage at Syd­ney’s Opera House in Funny Girl – The Mu­si­cal in Con­cert, but the cherry on top is starring in the na­tional tour of the clas­sic Calamity Jane. Gay starred in the role in a short sea­son with Syd­ney’s Belvoir The­atre last year; it sold out and was such a suc­cess, the pro­duc­ers will now take the show around the coun­try.

“Calamity was made for me, she’s just won­der­ful, pi­o­neer­ing, brave, take-no-pris­on­ers at­ti­tude, un­ruly, un­pre­dictable, and her bold­ness and in­no­cence was very much me as a 14-year-old – I sort of knew who I wanted to be but I wasn’t quite do­ing it right! That’s Calamity.”

“The show is set in­side the Golden Garter Sa­loon and the au­di­ence is right there along­side us, sit­ting at ta­bles as ho­tel pa­trons. We in­ter­act with them when they least ex­pect it and they be­come part of the show. Some­times they even chat back, which I love! You never quite know from one night to the next what you’re go­ing to get, so ev­ery night is a big thrill.”

Vir­ginia Gay was born for stage and screen. Cre­ative blood flowed through the veins of her par­ents Rob and Pene­lope, who met while per­form­ing stu­dent the­atre. Vir­ginia cut her teeth en­ter­tain­ing guests at her par­ent’s dinner par­ties. Rob was quite the racon­teur, but he was quickly out­shone by his six-year-old daugh­ter.

“Mum and dad had all of their friends around and I seized the op­por­tu­nity to take cen­tre stage,” she ex­plains. “The adults du­ti­fully gath­ered round while I told a story and I can still feel the tin­gling sen­sa­tion when they broke into laugh­ter, it was amaz­ing.”

“I didn’t know what that feel­ing was, but I re­call think­ing ‘I like this’. I guess I was en­ter­tain­ing them and I felt the sense of em­pow­er­ment. As a kid you have no power, so the fact that I could har­ness their at­ten­tion and get a re­sponse was a very pow­er­ful thing.”

She grad­u­ated from the New­town High School of Per­form­ing Arts in Syd­ney and was ac­cepted into the Western Aus­tralian Academy of Per­form­ing Arts, burst­ing to bring to life the colour­ful char­ac­ters she’d dined on as child.

“Some peo­ple go into act­ing be­cause they want to be fa­mous. That was not me, I was the op­po­site. I grew up want­ing to tell sto­ries, other peo­ple’s sto­ries. Par­tic­u­larly the sto­ries of flawed char­ac­ters, who are al­ways the most real, the sto­ries that make you look deep into your­self, char­ac­ters that make you want to yell ‘you’re not alone’.”

Of course, if you are as suc­cess­ful at the art of sto­ry­telling and make a con­nec­tion with an au­di­ence as

I never grew up want­ing to be fa­mous, I just wanted to per­form... I find things like the red car­pet a bit awk­ward.

Be­ing an en­ter­tainer comes nat­u­rally to Vir­ginia. As a child, “I seized the op­por­tu­nity to take cen­tre stage.”

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