Tara Morice clearly remembers a day some 30 years ago when her NIDA acting course classmates were asked to nominate which animal her personality most closely resembled.
“We all had to do this exercise where you go and study animals,” Morice recalls. “They give you one animal that’s most like you and then you have to pick an animal that’s the least like you. Everyone said I was a penguin.”
According to her NIDA acting teacher, the young Morice had an issue embracing high status. “My natural inclination was to play lower status … so they sent me out to Taronga Zoo to study the giraffes.”
Morice admits it didn’t really help her acting – “I took it as a bit of a day off” – although she did get to witness a giraffe give birth.
“That was amazing, actually,” she says. “They were running around after the mother for ages trying to make sure the baby didn’t just drop out on to the concrete.”
In the end, Morice didn’t absorb much in acting terms from her giraffe encounter but her natural inclination to play penguin stood her in good stead after she graduated and became internationally known for the ugly duckling role of Fran in Baz Luhrmann’s 1992 movie Strictly Ballroom.
The film remains a highlight of her 30-year acting career but for a long time, casting directors and audiences could only see her as Fran. “People even called me Fran by mistake,” she says, laughing. “I took it as a compliment. I’m so fond of Fran … but for quite a while I was cast as the homespun girl, the dag, or the downtrodden girl with a heart of gold. I needed to break out of that.”
Morice lives in the inner city with her 22-year-old daughter Ondine, and her daughter’s Chihuahua Enid. She aims to do a stage play every other year, in between her screen work, which includes Dance Academy, Rake and Home and Away.
Her recent stage performances include the acclaimed production of Good People at the Ensemble, Once in Royal David’s City at Belvoir, and an unexpected turn in Trevor Ashley’s bawdy pantomime satire Fat Swan.
Right now, she’s performing at Griffin in the premiere season of Brooke Robinson’s Good Cook. Friendly. Clean.
“People don’t always know what to expect, sometimes I’m quite different on stage,” she says. “I looked into the audience at Fat Swan and I saw these bun head ballet girls looking up at me quite shocked and I thought, ‘oh, you know what are you doing here?’ They knew me from Dance Academy… and even at Griffin, I had these German teenage girls who saw my face on the poster and came to the show because they were also fans of Dance Academy. That’s how it is for me. If it gets people to the show, that’s really cool.”
Today, Morice is sitting in the Griffin foyer, sipping water, in the cushioned nook by the window. She is almost fully recovered from the flu virus that has plagued the cast of Good Cook. Friendly. Clean. Her hair is in a low bun at the nape of her neck. She wears a vintage-looking black dress, black floral tights and Mary Janes.
She looks nothing like her character in Good Cook – a 50-something single woman who finds herself suddenly homeless – but she shares the character’s quick thinking and the quiet sense of unease around ageing.
“There are a lot of things in the play that I can relate to easily,” Morice says. “That sense of invisibility older women experience. I’m over 50 now and yeah, I feel it, the way your currency flips. It’s something really particular to western society, I think. We really don’t seem to have much respect for women as they get older.”
Morice plays Sandra, a lifelong renter given two weeks to move out of the room she has lodged in for four years. In eight blackly funny scenes, the audience watches her endure a series of increasingly fraught audition-like interviews. For a woman who is physically and emotionally vulnerable, the process becomes unbearable.
“People have this idea of homeless people as addicts or alcoholics, or people who are itinerant,” Morice says. “But the biggest rise in homelessness is among women over 50. It’s shocking really and such an unrecognised problem.”
The premise of the play is dark, Morice adds but the bad hand Sandra is dealt is a source of comedy, too.
“It’s a very sad play in a lot of ways but the comic elements of it seemed quite strong to me, which is one of the things that attracted me to the show. The comedy is the seam in the darkness of the play, you just play it for truth, but now it’s in front of an audience, I’m surprised how funny it is.”
In some scenes, Morice is almost unrecognisable in a wig or a grubby old beanie as her character slides deeper into poverty.
“You have to let go of your vanity,” says Morice.
“That can be a challenge sometimes because you have to confront the fact that you are, as a person, ageing, and that can be quite intimidating. Doing that in front of an audience difficult. But I suppose it’s like my daughter said to me: ‘you can look like crap because it’s not you’.”
Good Cook is Morice’s first production at Griffin in over 20 years. She last played on this famously compact small stage in 1996 in Hilary Bell’s play Wolf Lullaby. The theatre space is much the same, she says, but the backstage facilities have improved. They couldn’t have gotten much worse.
“When I first worked here there was no toilet in the dressing room. There was a bucket if it was an emergency. The only toilet we could use had a door falling off its hinges. When anyone went everyone would sing to drown the noise.”
Morice says she enjoys working in the close confines of the Griffin. “If you haven’t acted on stage for a while [this is Morice’s first stage outing since she performed in Good People in 2016] it’s a really good place to work because the audience is so close.”
“You have to find that truth and you can’t bullshit at all.”
“Working here always reminds me of acting in a film. I can always remember when I was at NIDA a film teacher holding a piece of paper in front of my face and saying that’s how close a camera is so that’s how believable you have to be. It’s the same here.”
Glancing back over a 30-year stage career, Morice says it’s the work she’s done in new Australian plays that she’s proudest of. “I love that sense of doing something really fresh and that you feel you can instill with the most amount of truth because you’ve actually experienced it.
“I still think it’s a great honour to be able to play a role first,” Morice adds. “You know that you’ve had some kind of input and that there will be things in that role that are your own personality and understanding.”
Next up, Morice is performing in The Harp in the South, a two-part stage adaptation by Kate Mulvany of Ruth Park’s beloved novel, at the Sydney Theatre Company.
“I play Miss Sheily, she is quite intense and quite dark,” Morice says. “So I’m headed into the dark territory again. I’m finding my inner angry frightening lady. I can’t wait to do it. You look at Australian classics and think, ‘wow, there are actually quite a lot of great female roles and stories that exist yet to play. I’m hoping I get to play a few more yet.”