Noni Hazlehurst chats with Su­san Hors­burgh about sex­ual ha­rass­ment in the ’70s, empty nest syn­drome, the joys of be­ing sin­gle and in­d­ing the hu­man­ity in ev­ery char­ac­ter’s heart.

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Contents -

with a new film, the vet­eran ac­tress is on a ca­reer high

Noni Hazlehurst stands amid racks of ex­quis­ite 1950s cock­tail dresses and lets her char­ac­ter’s stern façade crum­ble, dis­till­ing a life­time of un­re­alised longing into a look and a few heart­felt words. Find­ing the heart in any char­ac­ter, no mat­ter how prickly, is what Noni does best. This time, it is in Bruce Beres­ford’s lat­est lm, Ladies in Black, which is set in the sum­mer of 1959-’60, when post-war mi­grants were be­lit­tled as “ref­fos” and women hung on the ap­proval of thought­less hus­bands.

For Noni, who has spent the last six years im­mersed in the same era as for­mi­da­ble ma­tri­arch, El­iz­a­beth Bligh/ Goddard, in Fox­tel’s A Place to Call Home, it was the still-rel­e­vant themes of big­otry and sex­ism that drew her to the lm.

We are mov­ing for­ward on the equal­ity front, she says, but progress has been glacial “and the back­lash has be­come even more vi­cious as some men seem to fear­fully cling to their per­ceived su­pe­ri­or­ity,” she says. “It just seems so lu­di­crous to me that we are still ght­ing for equal­ity and that it is per­ceived as some kind of threat.”

Still, the cur­rent ght against sex­ual ha­rass­ment was in­con­ceiv­able in the 1970s, when Noni was start­ing out in show busi­ness. Look­ing back, she says, her shel­tered “Enid Bly­ton up­bring­ing” left her ill-equipped to com­bat the preda­tory be­hav­iour of the time. “I was the quin­tes­sen­tial young blonde,” re­calls Noni. “I got locked in a dress­ing room and had to sort of scream my way out – things like that. There were au­di­tions that I was told to come to in a bikini, which I didn’t.”

More than 40 years on, Noni is one of Australia’s most re­spected ac­tors, with a CV that spans theatre, lm and tele­vi­sion – from

The Sul­li­vans to Red­fern Now, Mon­key Grip to Lit­tle Fish, with lengthy stints host­ing Play School and Bet­ter Homes and Gar­dens along the way. Cate Blanchett calls the four-time AFI win­ner “a na­tional trea­sure”, while Bruce Beres­ford de­scribes her as “prob­a­bly one of the best ac­tresses there is”.

For the past 16 years, home has been a leafy prop­erty in the Gold Coast hin­ter­land, but to­day she chats to The Weekly from Bris­bane, where she is stay­ing be­tween sold-out per­for­mances of Mother, the one-woman play she has toured for the past two years. Writ­ten es­pe­cially for her, it is the story of a bro­ken, home­less woman – and “may well be the per­for­mance of Noni Hazlehurst’s life”, ac­cord­ing to The Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald.

As Noni joked in her 2016 Lo­gies speech, when she was in­ducted into the Hall of Fame, a critic once said that “no one does or­di­nary and vul­ner­a­ble like Noni Hazlehurst”.

Now 65 and on a ca­reer high, she wears that la­bel like a badge of hon­our. Ev­ery­one is or­di­nary and vul­ner­a­ble, she ar­gues, and it’s delu­sional to think oth­er­wise. “If you’re not vul­ner­a­ble, you’re not feel­ing,” she says. “Ev­ery­one has some­thing they’re afraid of, ev­ery­one has an Achilles heel or a weak­ness – and that’s okay.”

Noni looks at all her char­ac­ters – es­pe­cially the abra­sive ones – through a lens of com­pas­sion, which is why she bri­dles when El­iz­a­beth Bligh is la­belled a “bitch”. “Ev­ery­body is the way they are be­cause of what hap­pened to them – she’s a re­sult of her up­bring­ing and en­vi­ron­ment. If you can walk a mile in some­one’s shoes, you can nd the hu­man­ity in any­body.”

Noni says she has al­ways set out to tell thought-pro­vok­ing sto­ries that make peo­ple feel connected. When she de­clared her man­i­festo in her sen­sa­tional Lo­gies speech two years ago, she scored a stand­ing ova­tion and her words went vi­ral, “be­cause peo­ple aren’t used to see­ing some­one speak from the heart on tele­vi­sion,” she says. Noni knew her po­lit­i­cally-charged speech was risky, but she wanted to say some­thing that mat­tered to her, so she de­cried the dam­ag­ing ef­fects of the 24-hour news cy­cle on men­tal health and pro­posed a chan­nel fea­tur­ing only in­spir­ing, pos­i­tive sto­ries. “Chil­dren grow up in a state of per­pet­ual fear and pow­er­less­ness, feel­ing like dan­ger’s just around the cor­ner and the world is a ter­ri­ble place full of cor­rupt, nasty peo­ple,” she says.

“It’s not true, but that’s what gets the head­lines and at­ten­tion.”

In a world where the Kar­dashi­ans are dei ed, Noni looks to up­lift­ing shows like One Born Ev­ery Minute and Long Lost Fam­ily for a cathar­tic dose of re­al­ity. A self-de­scribed “sook”, Noni can cry on cue and her emo­tions are never far from the sur­face, so it’s prob­a­bly no sur­prise she went into act­ing. “It never oc­curred to me to do any­thing else,” she says.

Noni’s English par­ents, Ge­orge and Eileen, met just be­fore the Sec­ond World War when they were on the same bill in vaude­ville, both ac­tors and singers. The cou­ple mi­grated to Mel­bourne in 1950 with son Cameron, and daugh­ter Leonie (nick­named Noni) ar­rived three years later. A fourth-gen­er­a­tion per­former, Noni was just three when she made her stage de­but as Lit­tle Miss Muf­fet in a Sun­day school con­cert her mother pro­duced. Her pro­fes­sional fate was sealed. “Right from the start, when [my par­ents] re­alised I had some tal­ent, they made sure I had pi­ano, bal­let and cal­is­then­ics lessons,” says Noni. “We watched end­less English comedy to learn about tim­ing and they taught me about ac­cents.” The in­dus­try was tough, so she had to be ver­sa­tile.

After school, 17-year-old Noni headed to Ade­laide to study drama at Flin­ders Univer­sity at a time of free love and anti-Viet­nam War marches. She still re­calls the queue from the uni med­i­cal cen­tre trail­ing around the

cor­ner in ori­en­ta­tion week – all girls want­ing the Pill. That same week she sat in a lec­ture theatre with a cou­ple of hun­dred other rst-year act­ing stu­dents and a pro­fes­sor warned that only two of them would make it in the in­dus­try. “I re­mem­ber look­ing around and think­ing, ‘oh, I won­der who the other one is’,” says Noni. “It wasn’t ar­ro­gance – I just had no doubt that that’s what I was go­ing to do.”

After grad­u­a­tion, she nabbed a steady sup­ply of TV roles on shows like Mat­lock Po­lice and Divi­sion 4 and she was on her way. Pre­sent­ing Play School from 1978 to 2002, though, re­mains her proud­est ca­reer achieve­ment. “It made me at home with a cam­era, and it taught me that prac­tice makes progress, not per­fect – there’s no such thing as per­fect – so it was a real gift.”

To her de­light, Noni is ap­proached ev­ery day by strangers who grew up with her as their sur­ro­gate TV mum. She still re­mem­bers be­ing preg­nant with her rst child in 1988, ca­noe­ing down a river in a re­mote part of the North­ern Ter­ri­tory, when she came upon two Abo­rig­i­nal kids shing in the mid­dle of nowhere. “You’re Noni from Play School!” said one. “It re­ally hits home that you’re not just do­ing Play School for a white, mid­dle-class au­di­ence,” she says. “It truly means some­thing to chil­dren any­where and every­where.”

After two short-lived mar­riages, the rst at 21, Noni tied the knot with ac­tor John Jar­ratt at 35 and had their two sons, Charlie, now 30, and Wil­liam, 24. Noni and the Wolf Creek star hosted Bet­ter Homes and Gar­dens together, which only made their even­tual split more pub­lic. [Jar­ratt has re­cently been charged with the rape of a woman in 1976, long be­fore his re­la­tion­ship with Noni, and on this she has de­clined to com­ment.]

Th­ese days, Noni shares her home with a cou­ple of friends and is hap­pily sin­gle. “I love it,” she says. “When

I’m work­ing, I have to be on, so to come home and just do what­ever I want – to just be my­self – is a real priv­i­lege. I have close friends, I have my chil­dren – they’re the men in my life at the moment.”

For 10 years, Noni con­sciously chose to work on Bet­ter Homes so she wouldn’t be away from her boys. “I would never have for­given my­self if we got to this age and they were strangers,” she says. “I think you’ve got to give an ex­am­ple of at­ten­tion and care to your chil­dren, oth­er­wise why have them? I re­ally wanted them to have that bond and that se­cu­rity.”

It wasn’t easy, though, when they grew up and moved out. “You have to rede ne your­self,” ex­plains Noni. “Who am I with­out th­ese peo­ple as the fo­cus of my life? There’s a de nite griev­ing in­volved.”

Both men live in Mel­bourne – Charlie is a so­cial me­dia con­sul­tant and Wil­liam a mu­si­cian about to move to the US – but Noni talks to them most days. They still need their mum, she says – “ev­ery­body needs a lov­ing, non-judg­men­tal, un­con­di­tional ac­cep­tance”, no mat­ter what their age. Both sons have wres­tled with anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion and have been open with Noni about it. “We re­ally have a lovely adult re­la­tion­ship now,” she says, “and I didn’t have that with my own mother. I was very much kept out of her se­crets.”

Ear­lier this year, Noni traced her fam­ily his­tory on the SBS show Who Do You Think You Are? and nally un­der­stood why Eileen, once a bubbly per­former, was ago­ra­pho­bic and so fright­ened of the world. Noni dis­cov­ered that her mother was trau­ma­tised when her hus­band served overseas and she was left to cope alone with a small child amid nightly bomb­ing raids. The show also ex­posed her mother’s se­crets: Eileen had a brother Noni never knew about, and Eileen’s fa­ther had run off with a show­girl.

“Shame and guilt are in­cred­i­bly de­struc­tive and you can’t have open lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion if peo­ple don’t know your story,” says Noni. “I felt very sad be­cause I wished that she’d felt able to talk to me about that. There was al­ways a wall be­tween us. She said to me once, ‘I think if I start cry­ing, I’ll never stop.’” Noni, who once sought coun­selling over the fraught re­la­tion­ship, says her mother helped in­spire her por­trayal of El­iz­a­beth Bligh.

A Place to Call Home is now in its nal sea­son, and the much an­tic­i­pated Ladies in Black is set to open on Septem­ber 20. Noni has a play and two other TV se­ries in the pipe­line, as well as plans to write a me­moir or even a par­ent­ing book. She says she’s hap­pi­est when she’s work­ing – or gar­den­ing, cook­ing or read­ing.

“I’m fairly eas­ily satis ed,” Noni says. “I’m a very lucky per­son to live in this coun­try, to have work, to be a woman, and to have op­tions. That’s quite enough.”

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