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Anna McGahan

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Hookers, drug dealers, cocaine, murder and the 1920s – the perfect recipe for a TV success, right?

Australia’s most-watched show of 2011 – “Underbelly Razor” is now out on DVD, and Hugh had a chat with one of the stars –  the lovely Anna McGahan, who plays notorious prostitute Nellie Cameron.

Firstly Anna, congratulations on the success of “Underbelly Razor”, it has been hugely popular here in Australia. What’s the reaction been like for people coming up to you?

Really positive which has been wonderful and a real testament to the producers, the narrative, the history of this city (Sydney), I’ve been so thrilled to be part of it and I’ve received such lovely feedback. We really hoped it would be successful to people and that they’d invest in this story, and I think it’s paid off.

Yeah I think it’s such a powerful story, it’s about a lifestyle that’s well and truly gone away in this day and age- so I think it’s one that’s a bit exciting to watch- do you think that’s true?

Totally, it’s a different flavour of Sydney. There are streets that are unrecognisable and those personalities that are clearly Australian that we strangely recognise, but it’s astounding to think these people existed.

And you look at the imagery and the way the show was filmed and you think- “I walk down that street in Surry Hills or Darlinghurst almost every day, and it’s almost completely unrecognisable”- and for me being a Sydney boy, born and raised, it was great to see that.

Oh totally, I mean we were at the Tradesman’s Arms [pub] last night and drinking there, and being there at this pub that these characters frequented, you know, it’s such a thrill!

So what was the challenge for you as an actor to get into that role of the era of the 1920s/30s Sydney?

I thought it would be more difficult than it was, to be honest. I mean I did a lot of research before we started filming, especially into Nellie and the time period and that area; you know I visited the area so I got a great sense of what it was like now and what it would have been like back then. But it’s not until you step on the set in these incredible costumes and you step onto what looks like 1920s Sydney, they recreated it so perfectly that it fooled you, and I felt like it was really slipping into that time period. Those mannerisms came very easily once the ball started rolling.

And of course your character is based on a real person – Nellie Cameron, the famous prostitute. What research did you do to get into that character?

First and foremost I read the novel “Razor” by Larry Writer, and he’s such an excellent writer that he gave such a great account of it. But I was also able to read Nellie’s criminal record, visit her grave, visit the places she lived and worked, find a lot of photos of her, you know – an account of her life. A lot of people have stories about Nellie and whether or not they’re true isn’t the question, but what’s interesting is how she was perceived, how people wanted to perceive her. It gives a lot away, so I was able to do a lot of reading and suss it out. But ultimately it wasn’t until you’re on set with other characters that you realise where she fit in all of that, and it was a real energy that by the end of the shoot, I felt once I was in costume, I’d really step into her energy and use it.

Did you enjoy her as a character to play?

Oh totally, it was so much fun and a real blessing.

Did you find there are any similarities between yourself and Nellie that you could draw upon?

Naturally, yes. I mean she’s so recognisable- she’s this young, rebellious girl who just wants instant gratification, instant entertainment. She reminds me of Generation Y, she just doesn’t want to be bored or tied down, but, you know she’s still trying to survive and figure out what her place is in this world- or in her situation this underworld. And I suppose I really understood her insecurities and vulnerabilities the most, and I think that was a good place to start with Nellie because every teenage girl is kind of working from that place. And through that the bravado, that sexuality and apparent lack of fear, I think could be played with.

That’s it, you forget that she is such a young girl who’s embraced this whole lifestyle and kind of been thrown into it as well.

Totally.

And you see she could be any other girl today just in that different kind of world.

Absolutely- she was a force to be reckoned with, she was a very dangerous girl. She was obsessed with violence, you know. She was attracted to very violent men, she always carried a gun and always carried a razor, you know she would beat up other women and sometimes men with her fists, she wasn’t to be taken lightly.

No she wasn’t a shrinking violet…

No absolutely – and she really made her mark on the world at the time. She’s a series of contradictions really- this private school upbringing and her perfect vowels and this untouchable class, yet this violent prostitute who was addicted to cocaine! I adore her for all those reasons.

Have you found it challenging to play Nellie?

Absolutely, but that’s why I played her. I wanted that challenge so badly and by the same token I found it very natural to play that role – I kind of understood her from the outset. A lot of people have asked me how I could relate to somebody like that but I guess you can’t judge your characters at all, and from the minute I heard about her, I kind of understood why. And I think that empathy has let us have quite a good relationship I think!

And I think the way that they’ve filmed it has made these characters who aren’t on the surface instantly likeable – you know, they kill people, they’re drug dealers, you know, all of that – but you’re instantly attracted to their realness and their realities as people as well.

Oh I’m so glad, we all wanted these people to be three-dimensional, and I think that’s the beauty of “Underbelly” as well. You have these criminals but you don’t really know who the bad guys are and who the good guys are and the lines blur constantly. There are rotten cops and hookers with hearts of gold- it’s just endless as I was saying before, these contradictions. And that’s what’s so fascinating about the franchise.

And you kind of have to step back sometimes and go, “wow, this actually happened, this is real”!

Totally. Totally- I don’t think you could write a story like that.

Now I know you must’ve been asked this 100 times already, but your character Nellie has to take her clothes off quite a bit as part of her work and there’s a lot of sex scenes. How did you find being thrown into the deep end of that- especially in your first major role that people are going to recognise you in?

Well, I was always determined to give it my all, particularly with a character like Nellie Cameron; it’s so important, and so important to do it correctly. And to try and do justice to this person that existed, who lived and had no shame in that regard. I mean, Anna McGahan would have been very, very nervous, but Nellie Cameron wasn’t and I really had to find that, and it was very liberating. And I was able to be behind the mask of the character, and in that 1920s hair and makeup and costuming, it’s incredible what you can find yourself giving yourself license to do. And we had an incredible crew and I worked with incredible actors, so for me it was just part of my craft, part of the job.

The “Underbelly” series has developed a reputation in the media for showing sex and nudity, but for me it didn’t come across as gratuitous- it always seemed like something that would’ve been natural to Nellie, something she would have done?

I’m so pleased you say that because I really agree with you. I was quite intent on it not being gratuitous. The producers and me had a very open dialogue in that regard, if I ever felt uncomfortable in any situation I spoke up, and I think nobody wanted it to be too much, it had to fit the narrative. And I found that it did.

So what was the atmosphere like on set, you’ve got Danielle Cormack and Chelsie Preston Crayford playing these tough women, what was it all like?

Oh it was briliant. I mean we had such a huge cast that we really didn’t know who was going to be on set, and what team- you’ve got team Kate [Leigh], and team Tillie [Devine] and then subplot of Nellie and her men, and then all of that business. There was a little bit of segregation on set where the divides were but we all got along. What I really noticed, whenever there was a brawl between gangsters and policemen – as you probably saw –

Yes.

Whenever there was a brawl to be shot that day, a huge group of guys- the testosterone on set, all these guys preparing- practising their punches, doing their push-ups and their sit-ups, it was the funniest thing. It was just ridiculous, and the girls would just laugh.

But it wasn’t just the guys, the girls are going at each other hell for leather too…

Oh totally. Well it’s true, but maybe I didn’t notice it as much because I was a part of it. But I think the girls were so focused on their choreography and getting all that right, almost like it was a dance. But the guys were really focused on getting their energy up and throwing a few punches, having a bit of a yell.

Letting it all out.

And even though there are these incredibly strong women, the men are so very masculine. And then you’ve got the brothels with the ladies selling this femininity. So it was a really interesting kind of mix of characters and energy on set at any given day.

You got to work with both Danielle and Chelsie because you flitted in between both of their crews. Which one of them was the most scary off camera?

Oh, I started off being intimidated by almost everyone. But by the end I just learned to love those girls. I think the casting was very, very well done. Everyone has certain elements of the character within them and it comes out quite blatantly when you’re on set, and it’s quite fascinating to look at. Ultimately the difference is everyone got along so well- and with Danielle and Chelsie, they’re so talented. They could produce these extreme characters that are NOTHING like them, but they have enough guts to bring truth to a script like that. And the same can be said for the boys. For Khan Chittenden, Jeremy Lindsay Taylor, Richard Brancatisano they had elements of characters within them, but the real beauty lies in their craft.

And it’s kind of like a who’s who of Australian actors on set  – who were you star-struck by?

Ooh, John Batchelor! [Laughs] It’s so funny. Every time I see him I tell him I’ve seen “Red Dog” again, and again. I think he’s great. And Felix Williamson, I think he’s brilliant. Jeremy Lindsay Taylor was also amazing- he taught me so much in the first few weeks, I was very sad to see his character die off!

And as Nellie, she had a lot of boyfriends, who was your favourite out of all the guys to work with?

Ohhhhh, I love them all for different reasons! People keep asking me who was the best kisser, which I’m not telling ANYONE, but I was so lucky in so many ways. All these girls are like “how dare you”, but it was great. You know, I learnt so much from Jeremy; Khan and I formed such a great friendship – Frank and Nellie had such a fascinating and difficult relationship but we are such good friends. Richard and I, we had dancing lessons together, we got to laugh a lot. I still see him all the time, we’re great friends. It was such a joy to work with all of them, I feel very, very lucky in that regard.

Underbelly Razor [Uncut] is available to buy in Australia on DVD from November 10.

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About Hugh Humphreys

Moviehole's Sydney based news editor and interviewer. Works for the Austereo network.
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