Gabrielle Scawthorn and Pauline Hanson share the same variant of the MC1R gene (hence the red hair) and a little more besides.
Before she became the One Nation figurehead, Hanson used to run the fish and chip shop in suburban Ipswich, where Scawthorn grew up.
“Her fish and chip shop was my fish and chip shop!” laughs Scawthorn. “I remember a Pauline behind the counter. She was quite tall, or she seemed that way when I was seven.”
Both women have, in different ways, taken to the stage: Hanson chases the political limelight playing dress-ups in the Senate; Scawthorn, meanwhile, has become one of the leading lights of the Australian theatre scene.
Scawthorn now calls London home but has flown back to Australia to play the central role in a dark American play: Martyna Majok’s drama Ironbound, which gets its Sydney premiere at Kings Cross Theatre.
Scawthorn plays a Polish-American woman, Darja, a caustic-humoured woman who spends much of her time sitting on a bus stop bench beneath a New Jersey overpass.
Darja arrived in America in 1992 with her would-be blues musician husband, her hopes high and her dreams intact. But when the audience first meets her, she’s 42, unemployed, broke and twice divorced.
Darja’s trajectory is a bleak one but it’s realistic, says Scawthorn.
“This play really captures the limitation of choice when you’re poor,” she says. “The luxury of love and emotions are taken away from you, because you are constantly in survival mode. When I first read it, I thought this is a writer who knows this world. She’s seen it the way I have.”
You couldn’t miss it growing up in working class Ipswich, just west of Brisbane. “I went to a school where kids had their breakfast and lunch given to them because that might be all they had to eat that day. My family is quite middle class, but I knew people who were always on the brink.”
Scawthorn was dropped off at school early. “Both my parents worked, so that’s how it was. I’d often be the first kid there but one day I remember there was this kid in my class – Miranda – who had been thrown through a window by her dad and she had run to the school and slept there because that was the safest place she could think of to go. We were 11. That’s what I grew up with.”
Scawthorn’s parents still live in Ipswich, she says.
“I took my husband there for a visit. He was raised in Mosman and there are things you don’t see when you grow up in Mosman. I took him to the club I used to go to when I was 18 and people were sniffing glue in the toilets. It’s a bit different to being on Balmoral Beach for Friday night drinks.”
It’s also a bit different to living in London, she admits.
“I live in West London now, right near Harrods. When I first moved there I didn’t understand what all the weird electricity poles were. It’s because everyone drives a Tesla. They were charging poles.”
Scawthorn’s route into acting was a circuitous one.
In high school, she wanted to be a lawyer. “But I got to Year 12 legal studies and realised that ‘that’s not fair’ wouldn’t be a legitimate argument in a court of law,” she laughs.
On a whim, she entered a competition to become a music presenter on Channel V. “I got into the finals so I left school and moved to Sydney and did this show for a couple of months,” Scawthorn recalls. “I was going to parties and photo shoots. There were 15,000 people in the competition and I got to the final two. My mum said if you can stand out in a group of 15,000 people maybe you should look into NIDA.”
She did, was accepted, graduated in 2009 and made an immediate impression in Sydney’s indie theatre scene in productions including Stop Kiss (directed by Anthony Skuse) and The Young Tycoons at Darlinghurst Theatre.
She shone in the Ensemble Theatre productions Blood Bank and E-Baby and in Sport for Jove’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, and more recently, in Hurt at the Old 505 and in British writer Penelope Skinner’s comedy-drama The Village Bike at the Old Fitzroy Theatre.
Alastair Clark, the director of Ironbound, says Scawthorn is the perfect fit for the role of Darja.
“It is a role with a lot of technical challenges – the play spans 22 years with time moving forward and back – so you need an actor with real craft. Gabrielle will be on stage the entire time and she needs to perform in a Polish/New Jersey accent,” Clark says. “Also, it’s not a character who is conventionally likeable … she comes with a complex traumatic past and we see her act in ways that might seem self-defeating or confusing.
“You need an actor who has an innate understanding of the psychology of the character, which is born out of specific socio-economic circumstances.”
Scawthorn says she’s often frustrated by the way poverty is represented on the Australian stage.
“Theatre is such a middle class profession. Lots of actors come from privileged backgrounds because that’s the only way you can do it. You have to have that support. So a lot of time poverty on our stages is romanticised in a weird way and really disconnected from what it really is.”
Ironbound tells an American tale but it depicts lives that are lived pretty much anywhere in a developed world where blue-collar jobs are disappearing and the gaps in the social fabric are becoming big enough to fall through.
“We’re being sold the lie that anything can happen and if you work hard enough,” Scawthorn says. “It is not true. It’s not true in America, it’s not true here. If you are poor, the odds are stacked against you. A lot of people know that but we all have to work against it.”
Ironbound opens at KXT on August 31.