When I founded Women Making Films about three years ago, I did have a utopic dream of being able to bring the voices of women from around the world, under a single web space. I say utopic because I didn’t believe that it would be possible, let alone welcomed. Somewhere in the process of pursuing this dream, I started noticing that this was not just possible, but it is being embraced and celebrated by women around the world. One of the best aspects of this dream pursuit is the access and opportunity I get to interact and learn from these fabulous filmmakers, who, if not for WMF, I would have never known of or had the chance to follow their work.
In that spirit, I wish to express my gratitude to Sally McLean for having taken the time to answer my questions so eloquently despite her whirlwind of a schedule. This interview gives us a dollop of the myriad things Sally stands by, her love for acting, the passion she has for Theatre, her wiring, her films and a heartfelt log of her formative years – of what made Sally the playwright, actor, singer, dancer, director, producer, voice artist, founder of Incognita Enterprises, and above all, a phenomenal woman. Read on…
I am a big believer that Art can change minds and therefore the world. I am endlessly fascinated by the human condition and what we do to cope with trauma. And yet I am also an eternal optimist and still choose to see the good in others and the world, which I hope I never lose.
Let’s start with your story. Could you tell us about your childhood, your growing and working years and education, to the extent that informs the work you do currently?
I grew up in Victoria, Australia in a seaside town called Seaford, before moving to another seaside town called Mornington in my teenage years. My parents divorced when I was 4, so I spent most of my formative years living with my mother and grandparents and younger brother in my grandparents’ house, which had also been my mother’s family home. All the family was quite musical and my mother and grandmother had always had an interest in the Arts. I learnt piano from the age of 5 and took singing lessons from the age of 15, but acting won my heart very early on and was always my main interest.
I went to an all-girls school from the age of 4, who had a big focus on academic pursuits and sport, but thankfully included music in the curriculum and some drama as an extracurricular activity.
When I was growing up there weren’t a lot of kids in the street we lived in, so most of my interaction with my peers was through school. Outside of school hours I spent a lot of time with adults, but my grandmother had a philosophy that children should be “seen and not heard”, so I spent a fair amount of time alone, making up stories, inventing characters and spending time in the huge garden my grandparents’ had around the house, lost in my imagination. This led to my inventing plays which I made my brother and cousins act for the family at family gatherings (which I’m sure drove them all mad!). Naturally, I always played the leading role and was director and writer, so I guess I started my creative career very early!
Once I got to high school, my grandparents had both passed away and my mother, brother and I moved out to Mornington, in a street full of kids, which was great. I spent my early teenage years being a kid – climbing trees, riding bikes, going tadpoling (catching tadpoles in the dams on local farms), hanging out at the beach – the usual Australian kids’ activities in a rural/seaside town. That was quite an idyllic time, thinking back.
I was lucky enough to have a diverse family and be surrounded by people of different backgrounds growing up. Our closest family friends growing up were Greek, another was Aboriginal, one of my uncles is Indian, I have a cousin with Down Syndrome and we have nearly every religious belief represented from Muslim to Catholic to Buddhism, and a few others besides, amongst my immediate and extended family, who all manage to get along despite their different religious affiliations.
I’m not particularly religious myself, despite being brought up Church of England, maybe because I realised through contact with all these different beliefs and philosophies that they are essentially talking about the same thing and quite possibly the same god, so why be affiliated with the one dogma? I also got thrown out of Sunday School aged seven, for asking too many difficult questions and calling Jesus a magician (which was the only explanation that seemed logical to me for how he did the loaves and fishes thing), so that might also have influenced my current stance on religious beliefs!
My grandmother also used to do a lot of charity work, not just working on committees, but also volunteering in the field and protesting – she was a huge activist. I guess all this influence and exposure to different people, beliefs and communities has made me somewhat of an activist myself, predominately through my work, particularly my writing. I am a big believer that Art can change minds and therefore the world. I am endlessly fascinated by the human condition and what we do to cope with trauma. And yet I am also an eternal optimist and still choose to see the good in others and the world, which I hope I never lose.
Your life as an actor – when did it begin – what lured you on to the stage?
When I was four years old, my grandparents’ let one of the big television dramas in Australia at the time film at their property for a day. I remember lying on the floor of our lounge room, which had floor to ceiling windows, peeking out under the curtains, watching the cast and crew film – all day (they filmed outside and we had to stay inside to not ruin the shots). I was absolutely transfixed, fascinated by all the activity (it was a crime drama and had actors in police uniforms, a stolen car in our large garden, an arrest and lots of other action going on). Afterward, I am told that I announced I was either going to be an actor or policeman (I don’t have a clear memory of that part, but I do remember thinking acting looked like a lot of fun!). So that was my first exposure to acting.
A friend of my grandmother was the American entertainer, Tommy Hanlon Jr., who used to be over at our house fairly regularly with his wife, Murphy. Tommy had established a career in the USA before being invited out to Australia, working with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, Dean Martin and all of those original “brat pack” guys of the 50’s and 60’s. He became a TV host in Australia and continued his comedy career, as well as eventually owning one of our large circuses, where he was also Ringmaster and a clown.
I was about seven when I was allowed to go backstage at the circus to see what it was like behind the scenes, which was fascinating to me. I remember sitting on the bench next to the mirror in the dressing room, watching Uncle Tommy transform into a clown. Tommy was always a very quiet, gentleman. I remember watching him put on the clown makeup and literally transform into this outgoing, funny, loud character before my eyes. It was at that moment that I decided I wanted to definitely be an actor – because I realised that job meant I could be whomever I wanted to be. I also took up clowning and vaudeville for a time in my career, which I know was a direct result of Tommy’s influence.
By the time I was nine, my mother had taken up the role of Director of a touring youth theatre company. I pestered her to be able to join, but you had to be ten years old and she was totally against nepotism, so I had to wait a year before I could be part of the troupe. Aged ten I finally got to join and was a member for seven years. We would rehearse every second weekend, putting on a variety show for charity a couple of times a year. All the members had to sing and do one other performance skill. I was studying dance, so I was initially in the dance troupe of the company. Later, I moved over to the drama troupe, and that was it – I knew acting was definitely for me.
We toured country Victoria, New South Wales and Western Australia, performed at large festivals and events, such as Adelaide Fringe and FEIP (Free Entertainment In the Park), the Melbourne Royal Show, the Moomba Parade, the Arts Centre Melbourne, the Sidney Myer Music Bowl and one of our biggest ones – our European tour which covered Switzerland, Holland and the UK. By that stage, I was 15 and decided that it was time to take acting seriously, so I got myself an acting agent and moved into doing local theatre and musicals. Around the same time, I also started working on screen – my first speaking role on television was a couple of years later on an iconic Australian TV drama, “The Flying Doctors”.
As an actor, how do you go about navigating through the roles that stereotype and objectify women – at least until you hadn’t started directing, yourself?
I have to say that there isn’t anything on my CV that I would consider stereotyping or objectifying women – I just play human beings who happen to be female (and a couple of times, male) in whatever circumstances they find themselves in as truthfully as I can. I have turned down roles in the past that I felt were showing women in an unhealthy light. An example would be a couple of roles that had gratuitous nudity for no good reason other than having a woman naked on screen for the titillation factor, that had nothing to do with the story. I said no outright to those. I’ve also turned down contracts with nudity clauses that producers weren’t prepared to negotiate. That said, I’ve done nudity on screen, but only if it made sense in the story. Some might say that my acting career suffered because of this attitude, but if I can’t justify a character’s actions, then I can’t play it truthfully and that means I can’t do my job properly.
I have played women that some might find a “stereotype” – characters that might be described in the script as “the bitch”, “the victim”, whatever, but my job as an actor is to ignore those labels, work out what makes that person tick, why they are the way they are and then play that truthfully. To dig down below the surface and not play the idea of them, but rather that particular individual with all their quirks and layers, which hopefully takes it out of stereotype and into being a tangible human being. But the reason stereotypes exist on film and on stage is because they exist in life, so all an actor can do is capture the humanity of the character and give the audience something to relate to, connect with. Our job is to “hold the mirror up” to society and show people themselves in all their glory and their shame – even if they don’t want to see it.
There is no standard beauty for women (nor should there be) and definitely no perfect body shape and I wish we would just get over this unhealthy obsession with the female form! It’s not good for our young women out there to have this impression that a woman is only valuable if she can fit into a size 0 outfit. The sooner we can drop this obsession, the better.
There is an unnecessary premium given to the body types of women, a certain type that is desirable, and the others, somehow, not so much. Would you like to comment on the obsession with this ‘perfect body?’
There is no perfect body! You just have to look at the photographic history of any women’s magazine to see that! The “perfect female form” that was popular in the 1960’s became unpopular in the 1980’s and what was popular in the 1980’s is unpopular now! It’s also different from country to country at any given time. There is no standard beauty for women (nor should there be) and definitely no perfect body shape and I wish we would just get over this unhealthy obsession with the female form! It’s not good for our young women out there to have this impression that a woman is only valuable if she can fit into a size 0 outfit. The sooner we can drop this obsession, the better. This goes for men’s body shapes as well – everyone is different and different people find different body shapes attractive, so you’ll never make everyone happy. Perfect doesn’t exist!! As long as you’re fit, healthy and happy in your own skin, then you have the “perfect body” for you – end of story!!
From acting, was there a defining moment you decided to pursue filmmaking?
I went to drama school in London, UK and part of our training there covered the idea of creating your own work as an actor after graduation. So we were actively encouraged to look at writing, directing and producing as well as acting to support our acting career. I’d been a published poet since the age of 15, so I naturally gravitated towards writing as my first creative role outside of acting. I, therefore, wrote my first film script straight out of drama school, which I also ended up producing and acting in. A year later, I had my first film “A Little Rain Must Fall”, which ran at 43 minutes and was launched at Ealing Studios, London.
Prior to drama school and writing and producing that film, I also worked for the BBC in London in production, so got to work with some amazing directors and producers who were doing extraordinary things on screen, which meant that I