Susan Prior: The Joy of Learning

November 3, 2018
The Book Week actress is one of the best things about the new Australian comedy. Here she talks us through her own schooling experience, her entrée to acting and what she hopes for in the future.

The character you play in Book Week – is it someone you may have based it on because she strikes me as very specific? Either way, can you talk about how you nailed the character for your performance?

I spent a research day at a school hanging out with the teachers, soaking up their routine. So much structure, so little time. It’s relentless. Besides teaching, they’re nurturers, listeners, role models, and they do it with a balance of droll humour, discipline, and the ’Scary eyes’ that Mr Cutler in Book Week talks about. I asked the students what makes a bad teacher – the answers were immediate, detailed, and brutal, as they character assassinated their least favourite teachers – plural – much to the attending teacher’s consternation. ‘Ok, let’s change the subject’. All those teenage hormones, bubbling under the surface. Low funding, hot classrooms, shifting dynamics, emotions.  Intense, and really draining, but somehow the teachers seem to rise above it all, and still have tons of respect for the students. They seemed to care, a lot. Real life heroes. But then I was only there for a day.

Susan Prior in middle, next to her teacher

I thought of my own experience at school. I was lucky to have a really inspiring teacher in Infant school, she instilled in me the joy of learning, and the belief that girls could do anything. In high school, I saw a number of teachers lose it because they couldn’t control the class, and that was even before Smartphones arrived, and the stress of administration overload. So, Ms Lee Issen isn’t a specific person, she’s a concoction. I did all my preliminary work; looked at the circumstances, brought the stakes up, tried to visualise myself as a Head Teacher, who loves her work, and who’s in a secret relationship, with the least disciplined teacher in the school. And then, on set I was in the moment with whoever was in front of me, and let it flow.

I hope a lot of teachers come to see the film. I think they would have a good laugh, a cringe, (…a weep?), maybe recognise some aspects of themselves and their colleagues in the characters, and then have a good cathartic debrief afterwards. My Infant teacher came, and she loved it, and so did her husband, they’re retired Principals now.

What do you think she sees in Mr Cutler, and what do you think he sees in her? I ask that because in another film made today, he would be a villain, whereas here he is a protagonist.

I think their relationship feels truthful – Egotistical Writer Gets Saved By Pragmatic Teacher…Almost. Opposites attract? The Yin and Yang? I think she sees his potential, the person he might be if he got his act together, if he just landed that book deal, and he’s so close to making that happen. She’s seduced by his love of language, his creativity, his passion. Her life is structured and disciplined, and he makes her feel alive, it’s dangerous, it’s exciting. She sees his painful struggle with school life and wants to help him escape. It makes her feel good to feel needed. Almost powerful. It’s ‘romantic’…in a way… The snatched moments of passion in the book repository, almost Mills and Boon. Almost.

So, basically, she’s deluded.

She wants it to work so much, she overlooks all his flaws. She hopes that once he gets success he’ll settle down. But it’s tough, her biological clock is ticking, she needs reassurance and he won’t give it. So, she makes a stand, and she finds herself.

You should probably ask Alan Dukes who plays Mr Cutler what he thinks – but I think he sees in Lee a soft place to land, an anchor, his champion but also his disciplinarian, and someone to laugh with. Her pragmatism wakes him up, shakes him out of his navel gazing. It’s a realistic scenario, one that offers great tension, and drama, and playing it straight with high stakes, makes it funny.

What was your personal high school experience like?

I went to a high school that specialised in music, where I played the cello, and sang. It was a beautiful school, I loved English, drama, photography, wood work and metal work (girls can do anything). But if I’m being honest, I probably got more out of the extra curriculum. I spent hours training myself to sprint at a local track and field oval, played tennis/netball/baseball/hockey, dabbling in synchronised swimming even (really really weird). My highest point at school was winning a trophy for getting the most points at the Sport’s Day, and discovering that when I spoke other people’s words, I found a confidence I lacked in real-life.

I was introduced to dance through a friend whose mother was Arriette Taylor at the Australian Dance Theatre’s youth group Mummy’s Little Darlings, and that led to performing at the Adelaide Festival with them. So, from that point it was pretty much arts all the way. Carclew youth group, all forms of dance, and the Drama teachers at school encouraged me to continue. Confident in performance, not so much in life. A bit of a loner. I had some really intense one on one friendships, I was friends with lots of different groups of kids at school from all backgrounds, and loved swinging between them all. Still do. Filmmaking is a bit like that. I probably would’ve enjoyed school a lot more if they had Humanities and Social Science as a subject. I think I’ve learned more about life since I finished High School, and from the people I’ve met along the way, than at a conventional school. Was buzzed to be chosen for the Student Representative Committee, though, the badge was nice.

Book Week is filled with local actors, many of whom have been around for a while, known and respected within the local industry but hardly ‘stars’, which many associate with ‘showbiz’. Was it a pleasure working on this film because of that, and what’s your philosophy around fame and the acting profession, now that you’ve been doing it for a while? Also, you do theatre, TV, film, web series – is that just a reflection of your passion for acting, and which is the most satisfying for you personally?

The way Heath presented Book Week when we first met, you could see that he was going to push himself to the enth degree to make it happen. His energy and enthusiasm was infectious. The role of Ms Issen interested me because she such had a great journey to go on, it was a comedy, and it was promoting literacy. At that point, three years ago, Heath didn’t really know who was going to be involved, or even if the film would be made, so it was kind of a punt. He brought together a really strong cast and crew, and as it happened, they were all gorgeous people as well.

I’ve been lucky in my career to have worked with actors from all walks of life, the ‘stars’/ trained and untrained/the kids just starting out/and actors from other eras. To be honest, I want to work with people who are passionate, who want to push the boundaries, to find a truth, but also are up to speed with production quality. That intensity, that desire to learn, to stay fresh, to create amazing resonant pieces whether it’s film, theatre, dance or TV – drama or comedy. Storytelling. There’s always something to learn, that unchartered territory when you rehearse a new work is so bumpy and exhilarating, but then when you work on beautifully crafted classics it can take you to a new dimension, and it’s this incredible ride.

Susan with Book Week writer/director Heath Davis

I still want to go overseas, and try new things, learn new accents, and at the same time to go out into the middle of nowhere and look up into the sky at night, feel the earth under my feet, and conjure up the spirits – whether that’s in the city or the country. Every now and then you meet the most incredible people in this industry, and have the most surprising times – filming out in the Flinders Ranges with the cast and crew of The Rover silently watching the sun come up as we are recording atmosphere; standing in the wings of the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in NY last year, waiting to go on to perform The Present, knowing that Phillip Seymour Hoffman once stood there was an insane feeling, etc, etc.

You never know when something special is going to happen in this industry, that’s the risk you take every time you decide on your next job. The bottom line – we are doing it for the audience, and what we choose to do has the potential to change people’s lives – whether it’s making them laugh until they cry, or to feel comforted because someone understands what they’re going through, or shining a light, teaching a new way of seeing the world. There’s power in that.

Book Week is in cinemas now. Click here to find out where.

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