There’s an old saying that goes “Every overnight success is years in the making”. But that does not apply to actress Christie Whelan.
Her stellar rise to star alongside Geoffrey Rush in The Drowsy Chaperone and that most arch of comedies, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, has followed a different kind of path … one that sidestepped performing-arts school altogether and that she and her “basketball-obsessed family” didn’t even perceive as a career until she was several years into it, pulling major roles in productions of Grease, Sugar (the stage version of Some Like it Hot) and Anything Goes.
The 29-year-old Whelan is not out of “nowhere” exactly, as the daily papers have reported, though for some actors it’s a place far less desirable than nowhere: she’s from musical theatre. And before that, she trod the boards in the even more unpopular world of amateur theatre, honing her singing, dancing and tapping skills.
Literally speaking, her success has taken some years to build, from early days dressing up as Barbie in shopping malls for promotional work to her big break in 2005 in Grease – The Arena Spectacular, playing Patti Simcox. But over that time she’s barely allowed herself to believe “it could ever be a real job”.
Since Grease, it’s been onwards and upwards with speed and, ultimately, with Rush. No matter how the critics or the media couch it, the message is clear. Christie Whelan’s career is just getting dressed, and at the time the interview is to commence, so is she.
When she appears, it is as a towering beauty, suddenly owning the room with her 180cm height, her voluminous blonde hair and her half smile. This point should be cemented early in the piece, as it was for me in the interview: Christie Whelan is the brand of beautiful whose mark is quick. One does not grow into it over time, or uncover it through conversation. It is a star-powered spear thrown from a height.
“Hi, I’m Christie and I don’t have a belt,” she says with a little pout, her hands on her hips. Her cream dress is short and flows down to long legs, but needs tucking around the waist for the photo shoot. In a moment of madness, I do what no man should ever do – I volunteer to go to Sportsgirl, across the road from the studio, to get one for her.
When I return, 15 minutes later, Whelan peeks in the bag. I try not to hold my breath. She looks up: “What the far …?” she says, her face contorted. She holds it just long enough and then melts. “I’m just kidding; it’s beautiful, thank you.” She takes it out, secures it high up her waist, lifting the dress another inch or two, and walks out into the glare of the studio lights.
Touché, Christie Whelan.
Geoffrey Rush, Australian of the Year 2012 and “Triple Crown of Acting” winner – he has a Tony, an Emmy and an Academy Award in his Camberwell trophy cabinet – is said to have been “gobsmacked” by her talent. “She has an innate comic timing that can’t be learnt,” he said of her in an interview.
I have certainly felt its cruel sting today.
After working with her in the musical The Drowsy Chaperone, Rush and Melbourne Theatre Company director Simon Phillips plotted to cast her in the role of Gwendolen in Earnest. Their support and belief in her has proved a professional and personal turning point.
“It has helped me enormously. Until people like Geoffrey and Simon Phillips and Dean Bryant (who directed her in Britney Spears: The Cabaret) said to me, ‘You’ve got something’ I wouldn’t believe it. It’s the sort of confidence you just can’t generate yourself. ‘Self praise is no recommendation’, is what my mum always says.”
“I learnt a lot from observing Geoffrey (Rush) up close. He taught me about work ethic.”
Asked if performing is in her family’s blood, Whelan, who finished school at St Helena Secondary College in Eltham North in 1998, retorts: “Oh god no! My mum works in recruitment, my dad’s an accountant and my brother and sister are into sport.” Whelan was also a gifted basketballer, representing Victoria before she traded one set of boards for another.
“If I was being honest, I’m leaps ahead in my career as a performer than I would ever have expected to be. I’m untrained. I have learnt only by watching and doing.”
An example? “There was an audition for The Producers 10 years ago and I’d had a callback. Mel Brooks was there, and I wore jeans and runners. Jeans and runners! Every other girl was in a leotard and heels. That was why I sometimes felt like a fake early on. People work their whole teenage lives, then adult lives to make a career happen, and there I was, getting roles. But all it took was someone to have faith in me for me to turn the corner.”
Faith is one thing, and acting beside an Oscar winner on the stage is another. Adding another level of fear, as if she needed one, Earnest was also Whelan’s first ever non-musical role. The foundations of her standard performance repertoire, such as her all-singing, all-dancing physical style of comedy, were well and truly inhibited by her costume of wig, corset, hat and gloves. Her memories of rehearsing for it are slightly pained. You can see the discomfort as she relives being “just so far out of my comfort zone”.
“I was nervous like never before,” she says. “I called Dean (Bryant) and he said, ‘Good! Use those nerves!’ Why was I nervous? I’d never done a play! It’s probably just a stigma that’s attached to musical theatre, but there’s a fear that people don’t consider us actors.
“Maybe I took that in,” she says, becoming reflective. For an actress specialising in comedy, she rarely hides behind humour as a shield. Whelan makes a virtue of the notion that true bravery is in showing vulnerability as she tells about the steepest learning curve of her career so far.
“Maybe I was thinking I’m the imposter here. It was a very hard, challenging experience, but it was scary at a time when I needed to feel that way. I learnt a lot from observing Geoffrey up close. He taught me about work ethic. He gives every show an incredible amount of himself. He could give 50 per cent and the crowd would still love him, because he’s Geoffrey Rush, but he wouldn’t even know how to do that.”
The dreaded tension Whelan felt leading up to the first performance never quite left her over the course of the show, despite the rave reviews she received personally; specific mention was made yet again of her timing and pitch-perfect delivery of Wilde’s highly wrought prose.
Does she feel she did well? “I’m not sure,” Whelan says falteringly, revealing a self-critical streak that she rationalises after a moment’s thought. “I think successful people generally feel a lot of fear of failure. They fear that their career’s going to end. It makes them lift, and they can also bring that pain into their performance.”
You’re pretty hard on yourself aren’t you, I say, almost moved to remind her of the great stuff people have been saying about her since. “You have to be, and I was especially hard on myself in that show. But I am a perfectionist and I can get pretty down on myself. I spoke to Rohan about it,” Whelan says of her husband, fellow actor Rohan Browne.
Browne has also graced the cover of The Weekly Review for his roles in West Side Story and Doris. In his interview he described how he “fell in love pretty much straight away” with Whelan. She says she hopes she can say “as many nice things about him” and then describes the benefits of having a partner in the industry.
“You really understand what the other person’s going through. I remember one day going to rehearsals for Earnest and pulling over the car and needing a minute and calling him so he could talk me down. I think he believes I’m capable of anything. If I was an actress going out with an accountant and I called him saying, ‘I’m nervous, I’m shitting myself’, they’d be like, ‘Just crunch the numbers, honey!’ But Rohan gets it and he supports me.”
Bearing more than a passing likeness to American actress January Jones – best known as Betty Draper from cult TV series Mad Men – Whelan is similarly skilled at revealing depth behind a pretty, apparently vacant façade. This came to the fore in Britney: The Cabaret. While it stands out on her resumé as defiantly “popular” culture, and thus less meaningful or substantial than the classic musicals on either side, including The King and I and Chicago, it was among her most feted performances.
“It might look uncultured or whatever, but in reality Britney was one of the toughest performances yet and probably the best story I’ve ever told,” Whelan says. And the critics all rose from their seats to agree.
The Age called it “magnificent”, The Australian “hilariously funny and surprisingly poignant”. “The story behind it is so much like Marilyn Monroe. It’s a relevant, interesting sad story and it’s one of the things I’m most proud of.” But back to January Jones, Whelan is flattered and gushes openly about Jones’ “mesmerising” talent as an actor.
“Oh god, she’s incredible. She has these tantrums like a child, and she’s smoking a cigarette. She’s just so in it,” Whelan says, imitating her taut physical mannerisms. “You never see any acting. For someone so beautiful to hide all the acting that she’s doing … it’s really hard to do. She was going out with Ashton Kutcher when she was younger and he said to her, ‘You’ll never make it’. Now she’s a single mum, she’s strong and beautiful and in demand because she can act her arse off. Sometimes I want to fight against the tall, ditzy blonde roles, which is what a lot of people say is my only thing, but on the other hand, you’ve got to work with what you’re given. January Jones shows how it’s done.”
There is, however, another blonde actress who occupies an even higher place in Whelan’s esteem, and that is American comedian and star/writer of breakthrough comedy Bridesmaids, Kristen Wiig.
Wiig’s career is riding high after the unexpected smash, with major roles in the can for release in 2013. Asked to list her five favourite female comics, Whelan says, “Kristen Wiig, Kristen Wiig, Kristen Wiig, Kristen Wiig and Kristen Wiig. If I could meet one celebrity it would be her,” she says. “She brings me so much joy. Bridesmaids was ridiculously perfect. I think Marilyn Monroe was also really funny. She had comedy in her bones and yet she was fighting that. She wanted to be a serious actress and to avoid the ditzy blonde thing too.”
Whatever Whelan is avoiding, or aiming to achieve in her career, she should rest assured that she’s well and truly on track. Her body of work, which also includes appearances in TV shows such as Offspring, shows great natural ability and her level of engagement when you’re in a room with her, whether that’s one-on-one or on the stage, is beguiling.
She’s a giving person, and sadly today, that includes the belt, which she hands back to me in the Sportsgirl bag.
“Thank you so much,” she says again. I insist I’d like her to have it. “I already have far too many at home. But I felt good in it, I felt good today and when people see the pictures I think they will be able to see it too.”
On stage \ Christie Whelan stars as Ulla in The Producers, from July 8-15.