Thursday, 14 February 2013

Interview with Elena Carapetis

Elena Carapetis is an Adelaide-based actor and writer. She is a graduate of NIDA, best known for her role in Heartbreak High, where she played 'Jackie' Kassis in 25 episodes, as well as numerous other television series and theatre roles.

I first saw Elena in the 2009 Adelaide movie Offside. Although she only had a small part, I felt she was the best actor in the film. A few years later, when I was asked to retweet a line about One Eyed Girl, a new movie that was just starting filming in Adelaide, I discovered that Elena had a part in it. So I asked her for an interview.

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•  Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

I was born in Whyalla, spent part of my childhood in Port Pirie, and then my family moved to Adelaide.

•   What kind of a family did you grow up with?

A big family. BIG. Extended that is. It's just me and my brother in the immediate family. But dozens of cousins we hung out with regularly and still do. Which was quite magical. My dad is the descendent of Greek migrants who arrived here around a hundred years ago. Dad was born here. And my mum is from Cyprus. She came to Australia on her own as an eleven year old girl.

•  Where did you go to school?

A few different places, but I ended up at St Michael's in Henley. Had a wonderful teachersMr Sturt taught me English and Mrs Delgado was my drama teacher. They are both still there, bless them.

•   What was your first paying job?

Working in my family's restaurant when I was twelve. Child labour!!! 

No, not the Dancing Zorba's from My Big Fat Greek Wedding
Tell us a little about the last stage show you appeared in.

In 2012 I appeared in Truck Stop, a new Australian play by Lachlan Philpott. He is one of Australia's hottest writers at the moment. He writes from a youth perspective, without being patronising. He makes us face our fears and judgements about 'troubled teens'.
   I was involved throughout the development of this play, which is based on a true story about schoolgirls who would wag school at lunchtime to prostitute themselves at a local truck stop. The play explores the overt sexualisation of our young women and what makes girls come to decisions that ultimately undermine their self worth. It also looks at our obsession with slut shaming.
   I felt it was a very important piece of theatre and audiences responded to its immediacy and rawness. My role was to play all of the people in these girls' lives, twelve in all, including a counsellor, doctor, a couple of parents, a school girl and a Tongan boyfriend. It was a wonderful challenge.
   Truck Stop has been nominated for four Sydney Theatre Awards. Yay!

You are currently filming another movie, One Eyed Girl. What is that about?

It's about a guy who loses faith in everything he believes in. He is a psychologist and one of his patients commits suicide. He ends up residing in a religious cult. I play one of the only 'normal' people in the film, a psychologist colleague. Ultimately I think it's about the fact that people are looking for meaning, a connection, everywhere.

Elena ponders the right of men to self-pity, in Look Both Ways (2005).

Your play, Helen Back, was nominated for an award at Adelaide Writers’ Week. How did you come to write that particular story?

I am still writing Helen Back. It looks at the commodification of beauty and the pressure on women to remain beautiful and youthful.
    The play revolves around a central character called Helen, but in each act Helen is different. In act one she is Helen of Troy, in act two she is a 4 year old girl in a beauty pageant, and in act 3 she is a pop star.
    I started writing it in response to the rampant double standards we hold about women and their value in society. Look at the way media portrays them, look at how we obsess about weight, plastic surgery, 'slut' behaviour, what women wear. I mean, it's so ingrained in our society that most people aren't aware of how insidious it is. The 'male gaze' is still the 'normal' point of view. Also, as you get older as a woman, you literally disappear. You walk into a shop or down a street, and people stop noticing you are there. You sort of fade out of view because your lack of youth has made you invisible.

You’re currently writing another play. Tell us a little about that.

I have just finished writing The Good Son, my first play. It's about a guy who lives with his mum, who is addicted to poker machines. He really wants to leave, and be with the woman he loves, but he is trapped by his mother's need for him. It's lights up, real-time-naturalism, for an hour ten and then lights down. Nowhere to hide; no scene changes, no lighting shifts, just the story powering through. I set myself that very difficult task. I figured if I could get this kind of storytelling 'right' (whatever that is), I could then subvert it in my later work, and play more with form and style.
    The characters in this play are Greek-Australian, but it is not a 'migrant' play, as such. I like to think of it as an Australian play, pure and simple. The cultural landscape can be rather white here, so I am trying to portray our country as it really is, with every kind of Australian, not just the Anglo ones.

Who has had the most influence on you as a writer?

I love the work of Arthur Miller. I remember watching and reading his plays as I was growing up and feeling so incredibly moved by his characters. I had nothing in common with them really, but his ability to tap into their humanity, whoever they were, was breath-taking. I also love his use of language. He is an exquisite master. Exhibit A:
ABIGAIL: Now look you. All of you. We danced. And Tituba conjured Ruth Putnam's dead sisters. And that is all. And mark this. Let either of you breathe a word, or the edge of a word, about the other things, and I will come to you in the black of some terrible night and I will bring a pointy reckoning that will shudder you. And you know I can do it; I saw Indians smash my dear parents' heads on the pillow next to mine, and I have seen some reddish work done at night, and I can make you wish you had never seen the sun go down!

Elena admonishes Terry Rogers (O.S.), much to the amusement of Peter Michell, in Offside (2009).


What was the best advice you were given at the start of your career?

Observe people every day. Ordinary people on the bus, or walking down the street, their behaviour, their gestures, seek out their stories through what they do, what they wear, what kind of bag they carry. The devil is always in the detail. And if you can put it into your work, that will make all the difference. 

What are three things you wish someone had told you about acting when you were starting out

1. That acting is not about feeling, it is about doing. Too many people think acting is about emoting and use feelings as a starting point—as in, 'Oh, I think the character is angry here'. 
    Feelings are a by-product of a thought process. Get the want happening, have the thoughts, make it personal. Whatever you feel is irrelevant, if the audience doesn't believe you and feels nothing themselves. Purse your want passionately. Then you may find that feelings will emerge that are much more interesting, organic and creative. Feelings that actually come from your soul, not from your head. But ultimately what you are feeling should be none of your concern. 

2. When you are working it's the best job in the world, but when you are not, it can be the worst. So when you're not working, keep sane by keeping 'performance fit'. Read plays, practise work in front of a camera, do classes, keep your training going always. Otherwise your creativity can die.

3. Good acting looks easy. That's the paradox. The amount of work that goes into a brilliant performance is enormous. So work harder than you think you need to. Don't be lazy, nor complacent, nor ungrateful. Do the work. That's your job.

What one filmmaking advice book would you recommend to a young wannabe screenwriter in Adelaide

Save The Cat! by Blake Snyder, breaks down the fundamental elements of storytelling on film, and why certain films resonate with audience and why others don't. A good basic overview.


The Intent to Live: Achieving Your True Potential as an Actor by Larry Moss, covers everything you'll ever need to understand about the acting process.

Name ten of your all-time favourite movies

Magnolia (1999)
Tootsie (1982)
Withnail and I (1987)
The Three Amigos (2003)
Aliens (1986)
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
E.T. the Extra-Terrestial (1982)
Elf (2003)
Amadeus (1984)
Brazil (1985)

1 comment:

Kathy Smart said...

Elena Carapetis sounds passionate about acting and writing. I hope she achieves her dreams.