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.
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.”