The Craft: An Interview with Jennifer Ludlam
The first in a new longform interview series, Josephine Stewart-Tewhiu talks to Jennifer Ludlam about running away, showing off, and not wanting to play a foil.
Jennifer Ludlam has consistently worked as an actor in New Zealand (a rare feat) since the 1970s, and was in the very first intake for what is now Toi Whakaari, New Zealand’s National Drama School. Many people will recognise her from Shortland Street, where she currently plays Leanne, but I know her from watching her on the stage.
The first time I ever saw Jennifer perform, I was in my final year of drama school. She was cast as the Doctor in the Peripeteia Players production of Three Sisters, and spent a good portion of the show travelling from one end of the space to the other (to pour herself a glass of water) and back. Her movements were slow, focused, and precise. Although there were flurries of scenes happening all around her, I could not take my eyes off this creature. But really, it was with Silo Theatre’s When the Rain Stops Falling and ATC’s August Osage County that I knew I was lucky enough to be watching one of our greats. Her focus is electrifying. She commands the stage with a single glance or a toss of the head.
This interview took place over two sessions at an old villa in Mt Eden, a home where she stays during the week while filming in Auckland. We sat on the back deck in the autumn sunshine. The garden was free of a landscape designer’s touch, perfect in its imperfection. We both wore sunglasses the entire time.
Our second meeting was a typical grey and rainy Auckland day. We sat inside, the living room an eclectic mish-mash of comfy chairs, couches and art on every wall. I was struck by her warmth, intelligence, and her incredibly humble approach to her craft and her career.
You don’t give many interviews.
No. I don’t give any interviews, I haven’t given any with Shortland Street. I don’t like it. My mother died last year and any interviews I used to do before that, it was really all for my mother. So that she would see something, and since she died I don’t need to do that anymore. She used to keep a scrapbook, so I would cut out the things and send them to her and she would scrapbook them for me. I’m really quite a shy and private person, so I don’t really want to be in the magazines. It’s got nothing to do with what people know, or want to know but I just don’t really enjoy it. I don’t enjoy having my photo taken and I don’t enjoy the publicity of it.
Were you born in Auckland?
No, I was born in Taumarunui, in 1951, on the 23rd of July, to very working-class parents. My father had worked his way up – he was a painter and paperhanger – and I’m the middle of three children. Two brothers. I went to school in Taumarunui and got interested in drama at high school. I had a very good geography teacher, who probably would have been an actor if there were any acting jobs in his generation. He ran the local repertory society and he taught geography, which turned out to be my favourite subject but probably because he was teaching it. He was directing all the school plays and that’s where I got interested in it, at high school, through him really.
He suggested I go to Rathkeale College, which used to do in-house drama schools for two days in the school holidays. It was actually for adults but I went as a seventeen-year-old. I was quite young. It was there that I met people who were in a group called The Children’s Art Theatre. which was run from Wanganui at that point. It had people like Paul Minifie in it. They toured all around the lower part of the North Island to primary schools.
I remember my mother saying, “I’m not going to help you pack your bags.”
Anyway, I made good friends with them and I thought I was in heaven. It was wonderful to be eating and sleeping drama. Then I went back to high school and I didn’t know what I was going to do. I think Paul Minifie suggested I audition for Children’s Art Theatre, which I did, and then a couple of weeks later they said someone’s pulling out, do you want to come? I remember my mother saying, “I’m not going to help you pack your bags.” I was seventeen, and there had been no hint of any kind of drama in my family at all. So it was a very odd thing to do. But I knew I had to get out. I was a very shy wee girl, but I knew I had to go. So I said, “I’m going.”
I remember my father driving me up to National Park and I hopped out of the car with my suitcase and hopped into this van. There were five of us, two women and three men and they were all gay. Three gay men, one lesbian and me, hopped into this van and off we went to Wanganui and I sort of grew up. The first job I had with them was The Princess and The Drummer Boy at Downstage Theatre in Wellington. I was bad. I was really bad. It was a wonder I didn’t actually get fired because I was just not good.
What makes you say that?
I can just tell by the photographs that I was very stiff and shy. I didn’t lose my job, and we went back and started touring around primary schools for the rest of the year. At the end of that year Toi Whakaari was started with Nola Millar, it was called the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council Drama School. 1970. I was accepted into that and I did that for a year.
You were the first intake?
I was the very first year of what is now Toi Whakaari. So very guinea pig. It was only one year at that point.
You moved to Wellington. Did you stay in Wellington and continue?
No, after that I went to Four Seasons Theatre in Wanganui. In those days there were community theatres that employed you.
You worked in a company.
Yeah, the company was me and Paul Minifie really. So in Lysistrata, which we did, I was the female chorus and he was the male chorus. We did everything.
Why do you think that doesn’t exist anymore?
I don’t know. It’s a real shame. It’s fantastic training. We did everything. I did the lights. They were often theatre restaurants, so we were setting up for meals and we’d either be doing the props or the lighting or acting. It was fantastic. So I did that for a year then I went to Tauranga. There was another one there called Gateway Players, Centrepoint Theatre which is still going, then I came to Auckland and joined Theatre Corporate and Mercury Theatre and then TV2 was starting and I was in their early television shows, that was in the 70s. I’m giving you a very potted version of my life!
Was there a family member that influenced you the most as an actor?
That’s a hard question. None of them had any interest in the arts at all. Are you talking about emotionally, what I could cotton onto? Or...
More like, was there a storyteller in your family or anyone who inspired you?
You just fell into it from your geography teacher?
He would be the one that inspired me but nobody in my family. No.
Have you always worked as an actor?
Not many people can say that in New Zealand.
There was one point when I had been overseas in my 20s, and I came back I couldn’t get into the Mercury Theatre or Theatre Corporate, so I was doing little bits and pieces. I worked as a toll operator and I drove a man around who had lost his license, and I pumped petrol. That was for about 6 months until I got into Mercury Theatre Company.
Once you were in that company and post-drama school, who was you mentor?
Always the older actresses. I’m surprised these days when people don’t know what the older actors have done. They’re probably names that would mean absolutely nothing to you, but people like Lee Grant, and Raymond Hawthorne, he was there as an actor and director. He was the one I wanted to work with the most. He was terrible, he’d break you down and make you cry. He was hard.
Those stories have trickled down and I heard them when I was at drama school.
We are very good friends now. I loved those older actresses like Dottie McKegg and Lee Grant. They were playing the leads when I was in my 20s and they were probably in their 40s.
I’d rather play someone who had some flaws. I don’t like playing when it’s described… 'Her Mother'.
You’ve said before that you can’t stand being cast as someone’s mother or a social worker.
You said that on a NZ on Screen interview.
I was probably talking about how I’d rather play someone who had some flaws. I don’t like playing when it’s described… 'Her Mother'. That’s when I came back to do Leanne [on Shortland Street] they said I was going to have my own arc and be a person. I’d rather play somebody slightly off-centre.
Do you find that happens a lot as you get older, when you read a theatre script, have you noticed that there’s a shift in roles for women? That it becomes more 'cookie cutter'?
It hasn’t been for me but then I haven’t had a lot of them, but the most amazing roles I’ve had recently, which is Violet in August: Osage County and Elizabeth Law in When the Rain Stops Falling – were just [Jennifer raises hands towards the sky]. So I feel really lucky. And I feel really lucky playing Leanne too because they’ve created a character there which is quite funny and blinkered.
You can play.
I can play with it. But I’ve got friends that would be going, “There’s nothing”. And I might be saying that in a minute.
You were quite electrifying in August: Osage County. It was three hours long but I didn’t feel it. When it was over I wanted more.
It was a real soap, wasn’t it?
One of the actresses in it said in that dinner scene, where everyone’s sitting around the table, she said every night you would pick one actor and nobody knew who it was. And Violet would be so awful to them, she would throw the nastiest lines to them or shoot them daggers with her eyes. Were you conscious of doing that?
No. Absolutely not. I had no idea what that play was going to be like. I was probably a bit young for that role, and I know Colin had tried to get Stockard Channing to do it from America, and I was just like, “This is amazing.” When we were rehearsing it I had no idea it was going to be so amazing. I remember we all just thought it was a bit soapy. But we all gelled very much. Another actor said that about me, Gareth Reeves said he felt very unsafe in that scene. Look I had no idea and I couldn’t tell you from moment to moment.
She said she’s never felt like that as an actor. Sitting onstage with all these other actors and everyone’s thinking, “Oh fuck, I hope it’s not me.” Suddenly the tension is there already without having to create it.
It’s a brilliant scene, it’s a beautifully-written scene. It was wonderful, that’s why I think I love playing roles like that, because she was out of it on drugs and alcohol and it gives you such freedom.
How do you perform something like that and keep it real?
There’s an immense freedom in it because you’ve got no social barriers. It’s like, I love taking my makeup off onstage. Which she does in some of those scenes. There’s just actually nothing there and I think that’s when you’re the most open. But I can’t really answer that, ‘how you do it’. I do know that you have to stay in the moment and not have anything prepared. Know your lines really really well. It’s fantastic, fantastic because she could do anything. She could turn and be really nice, or turn and… but that was the freedom of the drugs I think.
Do you surprise yourself?
No, because I was just in there doing it. I’ll tell you when I was surprised, on opening night and the whole audience stood up. We had no idea that people were enjoying it that much, and had gone on that ride. That was the most extraordinary moment in the theatre because I was standing there in this little brown petticoat and no makeup and the audience just stood up. That was surprising.
I think I’ve got a fast inner rhythm, that I can change quite quickly, that’s quite good for an actor to have. I don’t like people who are fucking up either. I don’t like to be too set. I don’t like it when people say, “Oh, my character would never do that.” I don’t think you know what we’re going to do. The drugs for Violet did get you the opportunity. We had a woman, a nurse come in, and she said they’re very erratic in their behaviour.
I don’t like to be too set. I don’t like it when people say, “Oh, my character would never do that.” I don’t think you know what we’re going to do.
How do you prepare for a role? How do you research it? Or do you? Do you collect images? Do you read books?
It depends what it is. If I’m playing a real person, like I played Vita Sackville-West in Vita and Virginia which we toured all around, I did a lot of reading about her life. But then you have to chuck that all away and do your own version of it. I read the play a lot. I’ll learn it very very well. And if things aren’t falling into place I’ll do my actions and an overall objective.
Do you listen to music?
Sometimes. Sometimes directors say find a piece of music. I find these things quite useful. And sometimes I do the things of what sort of car would I be? What sort of colour would I be? The Laban technique. I find that very useful.
To help detail if something’s too flat.
It helps you be more specific. There are many ways to ask for something, aren’t there?
Have you read any of those articles in The Guardian that talk about the arts not having enough, particularly in theatre, not having enough people from a working class background? Not being able to afford to train.
I haven’t given it any thought. I suppose that’s what it’s like these days because you all have to pay for your education.
The Actors Programme, for example, you can’t get a student loan for.
Absolutely. It’s a problem, I can see that. But sometimes people go through without drama school. Drama school’s not necessarily for everybody, is it? But when I went to drama school we were paid six dollars a week. That was our little grant. We were paid to go! And my mother used to post me $20 because she wrote me every week so I used to live on that.
How would you compare the industry today as opposed to when you first started?
It’s very exciting in Auckland I think. I think both the main theatres in Auckland are exciting, both Silo and ATC. When I go and see things at The Basement I think, “Wow, these people have put this show on and they’ve had hardly any time and they’ve got about five nights to make some money.” I love some of the stuff that’s happening here. Wellington unfortunately is struggling at the moment.
Downstage Theatre is gone.
I know, a lot of people are coming up here. It’s very different. I’m glad I’m not young doing it actually because there’s (well maybe I’m aware of it because I’m on Shortland Street) but there are a lot very beautiful young people, who are very aware of their appearance and what they eat and what gym they go to. So it has changed quite a lot. We had wonderful opportunities to be a part of theatre companies when we left drama school. There was not that big thing of going to LA, that’s very different, sitting in LA waiting for things. I mean I went to Australia for about 6 years in 1980 and worked a lot there. But it was either Australia or England, it wasn’t that American thing. How do you find it?
It’s really hard. And particularly because I don’t really want to change my appearance too much. I don’t go to a gym. I’m gay. And sometimes I don’t feel that safe to shout it out… in an audition, in terms of going for a straight role, I just keep quiet. I don’t think it matters, but I wonder if it impacts on how someone sees you.
I think that too. I’ve often thought that. I’d be mad if I didn’t think I’d have been turned down by people saying, “Oh no, she’s a lesbian she can’t do that role.” Of course that must’ve happened. But I haven’t been told that.
Well you want to protect that and protect your partner.
Well, I think everybody knows I’m gay, but I haven’t particularly been a political lesbian like some of my friends have with their work.
It’s tricky because I think when you’re an actor you want to remain quite neutral as well, so you can shape shift into these different things.
Absolutely. I’ve never particularly done interviews about being gay or not being gay. I’m sure it’s come up when people have been casting and they’re going, “No, no, don’t chose Jen, she’s too butch.”
I don’t think that at all!
No, well I’d be silly to think that they hadn’t. Anyway it hasn’t stopped me doing the things I wanted to do that I’m aware of.
Do you say actor or actress? Do you care?
I use to say actress and then I went, “No, no I’m an actor!” Now I don’t care. Sometimes I write actor sometimes I write actress.
What do you think you would be doing if you weren’t an actor? What did you want to be when you were little? Do you remember?
Really boring things, like a dental nurse assistant. Not the dental nurse but the one that would hand the things over, a policewoman and a phys-ed teacher because I loved athletics. Oh and a radio announcer. When I was in 6th form I did actually get a job to train as a radio NZBC technician which was a way in, but then I was too shy to leave home so I went back to high school. What about you?
That would be fun!
The first time I realised acting could be something quite powerful was when my mother took me to see What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and I remember asking my mum, “How did they teach that boy to learn his lines?” And she said, “He’s an actor”.
I don’t think I ever had that moment. I used to do everything at school, I was an all-rounder. I used to play all the sports.
Do you play any instruments?
I play the piano badly now.
How do you cope with performance nerves? Do you still get them?
Do they ever go away?
No. I still get them sometimes on Shortland Street and it makes me really cross.
How do you personally control it?
I try and think of those moments when you’re standing at the door waiting to go on, on an opening night. My most obvious one that I tell myself in my head is look at the other person and tell the story. It’s only when you come out and become aware of yourself you get nervous. But if I can actually start talking to you and go, “I’ll just look at Josephine and tell the story,” that’s a big thing for me. Tell the story Jen, It’s not about you actually. You’re here to tell a story.
I always go into the theatre and warm up. I always, every night, especially on an opening night, I always warm up on the stage and I always bond with that space. When I’m nervous on an opening night I go into the theatre and I eyeball every seat and I go, “You, you, you, you,” so I eyeball everybody. I walk amongst the seats so it doesn’t feel like such a strange place.
So it doesn’t feel so separated. Like us and them.
That really helps. I pick a chair and I go, “You and I are going to have fun tonight.” I think acting is all about focus. That’s all I think about, it’s very blinkered so during the tech week it’s all very focused right through until the opening.
What’s been your worst stage experience? Have you ever corpsed?
All the time! Especially if I’m with an actor who’s a very corpsey one. Terrible corpsing! Wetting my pants onstage and corpsing and having to look upstage!
You wet your pants?
Oh yes, terrible. Just laughing so much I had to sit down. Kate Louise Elliot is terrible, she made me corpse every night. She’s very funny. Especially in comedies where you haven’t got much to hold onto. If you’re working with someone who’s really intrinsically funny, they’ll make me laugh. Those aren’t terrible experiences, as long as the audience knows what’s happening.
Do you ever blank?
Yes. A lot lately. I don’t know if that’s to do with age.
The worst experience probably with the blanking thing was when I was doing The Vagina Monologues at The Court Theatre. We were doing some monologue where I was showing off. I had to do the orgasm. There’s one monologue where she does all the different orgasms, then she does double flips and I was being as stupid as I could be and showing off and I totally lost my place because the audience were laughing so much. And I’m laughing away thinking this is so fabulous I’m being so funny, and I totally blanked. I remember looking over to Bronwyn Bradley and she’s got the most twinkly naughty face and she just sat there and smiled at me and laughed.
Oh god yes, and she’s like, “What’re you gonna do, Ludlam?” I jumped a whole lot and managed to finish the monologue but I gave myself a big fright, and I never showed off again for a long time. And every day I remember walking the dog in the park in Christchurch going over the whole show because I was so frightened of it happening again. That’s what’s scary because there’s no one who can help you. No other actor that can jump in.
I feel like if it’s a monologue you can find your own way back, you can cover off what information is necessary that has been missed, but if you’re with someone it can be quite tricky if you skip.
Especially if your best bit is missed out and you want to go back. Although in a monologue it’s scary if you have no idea where you need to go to. One of the most scariest things was when I replaced Elizabeth Hawthorne in The Plough in the Stars at Theatre Corporate. She wasn’t able to go on and I went on in 24 hours and I learnt the whole script. I knew there was one chunk I didn’t know very well and I thought, “Well I just can’t do that bit.” I remember standing outside the door waiting to go in and thinking I was going to vomit. I got through though.
I always wondered what it would be like if scientists could measure temperature and the heart rate of actors while they’re in the wings, just before they go on.
Apparently it’s worst than a car accident or the same as a car accident, and is that good for you or bad for you do you think?
There’s something very addictive about it. When you get off you want more. It’s like a drug.
And it’s wonderful once you’re on, I love it when you’re nervous, especially in something like a Noel Coward when you’ve got to be so precise and this is all going [Jen shakes her hands], but I love it if you’ve got a moment where you can yell, you can feel your whole body relaxing inside and you’re thinking, “Okay, we can go now.”
Was there any character that you found hard to let go?
I really loved Violet in August: Osage County, it was like being on a rollercoaster, it was fantastic. Every night was wonderful, I loved it. When the Rain Stops Falling was very special as well. It was another one that just locked into place, with a group of people. Sometimes you just have a group of actors and you go, “This is working, this is wonderful.”
What advice would you give to someone just out of drama school? Or just starting?
I would advise them to do as much as possible and just keep working. Go everywhere. If somebody offers you 12 months at The Court just go there and keep working. Keep working. Do everything, even if you think, “I hate this,” just keep working. Hard though, isn’t it, because you’re probably going to keep working and not earn any money. And somebody’s not employing you.
In 2005 you got the New Zealand Order of Merit for Services to Theatre.
That was a surprise. I don’t know if I agree with being recognised for doing what you love doing, but my parents were very pleased.
Did you get a medal?
Yes, I got a big medal, it’s somewhere. Sometimes I put it at the end of letters if I want something but it does seem a bit strange.
Yes, I got a big medal, it’s somewhere. Sometimes I put it at the end of letters if I want something but it does seem a bit strange.
What’s your favourite play? Read or seen?
You should give me these questions in advance so I can think about it.
It’s much nicer to have a conversation.
Oh alright. One that springs to mind that I really love doing is A Midsummer Nights Dream. My most favourite play is When the Rain Stops Falling. I loved it. I found it terribly moving, that play.
I’ll never forget that open monologue with the fish.
Stephen Lovett. He’s fantastic. I liked the structure of that play. I liked that it wasn’t totally naturalistic and was a very broad canvas. I think initially when Andrew Bovell wrote it he worked with an artist, a painter or sculptor, and when it was first done it was very sculptural, the set. I don’t think Silo could afford to do that but I liked what Silo came up with, which was done with the screens and the wonderful lighting.
And that big table.
The table. But you see that’s the thing – I loved the last scene where you’re handing down props to everyone and it was sort of like handing down the generations of the things.
You all sat at the table and ate soup, and I think one by one, was that the opening? You all came on…
We got some soup. Yes, it wasn’t totally naturalistic and yet it felt very comfortable. Sitting around that table as a family and eating. I loved all that because it was very stylised as well. I loved the beginning with the umbrellas. That would have to be my favourite, at the moment, speaking to you.
What role have you always wanted to play?
I would have liked to have had a go at Lady Macbeth but that’s probably too late now. I always wanted to play Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which I did play. I’d love to do some more Chekov, and that’s probably because I’m doing Shortland Street I keep thinking of all the lovely bits of theatre I’d like to do.
It’s interesting because you talk for a love of both classical and more contemporary theatre.
I love going to see Beckett. I loved doing Happy Days. It was a huge journey. Physically huge and mentally huge to remember all the lines. I think I get more attracted to things that aren’t totally naturalistic. To watch as well.
What do you love about theatre?
The main thing I love about it is being in the dressing room probably with the other actors. I love being part of that family. I’m more aware now as I’m older how lucky I am that I have been able to do that. It’s a very strong community, when you’re going through a difficult time people always look after you. I love the fact that we laugh a lot and that we’re able to play.
What do you love about watching it?
I love watching older actors and I love seeing their process. What I like most of all and what works for me is when I can see the play between the two actors. That someone’s actually impinging on the other actor. That’s what I love watching. You can tell with The Book of Everything that those actors really loved working together. They really gelled. That happened with When the Rain Stops Falling and August: Osage County. It doesn’t always happen. You don’t know when you get a group of people together. These days we don’t have those companies like we used to.
Well these days we don’t even-
Have a job!
These days we don’t have those big casts.
We can’t afford to.
These days a big cast is six actors maybe?
It’s so wonderful when you suddenly see a lot of people onstage, isn’t it? It’s exciting. We’re doing pocket theatre all the time, aren’t we? I enjoy seeing a lot of people onstage. Quite often we’re just seeing a lot of two-handers and that.
It’s very very difficult to get funding. People say, “Put on a show!” but how many times do we work and not get paid? We’re probably getting paid less that what we got paid. I think a lot of young actors are doing it for nothing. [Shortland Street] is the first job I’ve had where I get holiday pay EVER. It’s pretty extraordinary, isn’t it?
I think the exciting thing about no funding, well it’s not exciting, but it makes you wonder what will come out of it. People are forced to get really creative or think really differently.
It’s changing a lot. Places in Europe, older actors that have proved themselves and been in companies and that are kept on a retainer. They really respect their artists.
Would you approach a TV role and a theatre role differently, as an actor?
Probably similar. You don’t get as much information when you’re doing TV. I’d certainly do the same amount of work on them. I think if you’ve got a certain truth inside you, you’re focused and your intentions are right it doesn’t matter. It is wonderful when you can just be on film or TV. I approach them in the same way.
What is it that makes you sit up in the theatre and actively engage with an actor? I don’t know what it is that makes you go, “I have to watch that person.” You get intrigued, don’t you? You get intrigued by the inner life.
It’s like someone’s so removed from themselves, but they’re incredibly focused, yet you can tell they’re enjoying themselves, there’s a balance.
That’s what I was talking about before, I think acting is about is focus, before you go onstage and onstage and that joy that you have in play. That’s when it’s exciting watching it too. Someone like Rima Te Wiata, she’s extraordinary to watch!
Will you be acting forever?
I will try and stay acting as long as I am physically able. I would love to be able to still be acting in my 80s.
You’re not in it for the fame, are you?
No. It wasn’t such a big thing when I was younger. I was just a jobbing actor. I think now people seem to be in it for the fame. I don’t like the fame. Doing Shortland Street is a bit hard. I don’t like people knowing who I am.
Do you get recognised a lot?
No, not a lot. They tend to leave me alone. I don’t want to be famous. I’d like to get a lot more work. I just want to keep working. It must be terrible being famous I would think.
Portrait by Alex Scott, a New Zealand based artist. She requested that Jennifer send a photo from the '80s or earlier, as these images have a softness that lends themselves well to oils.