(Christmess crackers: Darren Gilshenen (l) and Steve Le Marquand (r) flanking Hannah Joy)
“I’VE NEVER ACTED IN ANYTHING before. I was very green.”
Hannah Joy, singer, songwriter, guitarist, frontwoman, and most recognisable face of Sydney’s Middle Kids, is fresh out of an unlikely finishing school.
Filming has wrapped on writer/director Heath Davis’ latest feature, Christmess, and the movie’s least experienced cast member is taking stock. Not just of the experience but of the whole concept of acting, including the pretty basic question of why.
Now, there are some attractions for filmmaker with someone who is “very green”, beginning with malleability and modest cost in exchange for presence and nascent talent. But someone who already has a reputation in one field, and is developing quickly there with two albums, a batch of EPs and several world tours, what is the appeal in being a complete fish out of water for someone else?
“The timing of it was really interesting. Heath approached me last year, really in the middle of Covid, and I really had no previous notion that I could act, should act, wanted to act,” says Joy, shortly before leaving for the UK where she and bandmates Tim Fitz and Harry Day are to record the third Middle Kids album. “So when he put it to me it was kind of, ‘oh yeah’, but I didn’t think much more of it. But then I guess because we just weren’t touring at all I kinda saw it as a window to give something else to go.
“Then I also thought from the outset this would be a good growth experience, kinda like putting myself in a position where I didn’t know what I was doing, because I didn’t, and I was excited to see the fruit that came from that.”
Sure, she needed to fill some time: we can sympathise. After all, who among us when lockdowns hit didn’t contemplate a film shoot, training for the Olympics, writing a novel, or making that death metal album we’d put off to have kids? Had to be better than watching more daytime television.
And Davis, whose first feature, Broke, was about a busted rugby league player, which he followed with the more comedic Book Week and the thriller Locusts, is a genuine, independently funded, locally-sourced, locally-based filmmaker, not an idle dreamer.
But what was really driving Joy to do this? Some standard childhood dreams of being an actor finally realised?
“It was really the story. One of my main interests is story, telling stories, because truthfully for me I don’t think I did want to act as a kid. I was quite shy, I really felt awkward in my body – I kind of am awkward in my body – but you just make it work when it’s your music,” she says. “But truthfully, when he asked I thought this would never happen; this is a fanciful idea. But when he sent me the script I was quite compelled by the narrative and the character he was asking me to audition for.”
The character she plays is called Joy, a recovering addict and aspiring musician with attitude, a supporting role against Broke’s star, Steve Le Marquand, as a once-famous actor whose own issues with addiction have brought him down to a last job as a shopping centre Santa, his daughter, played by Nicole Pastor, and Darren Gilshenan as his sponsor.
Davis described his movie, which was filmed in Sydney’s southwest suburbs, to The Sydney Morning Herald’s Garry Maddox as a comedy, but even more a “real Christmas movie … about the stresses, the anxieties, the tears and the laughs”.
(Art replicating life: Hannah Joy in Christmess)
“Once I read [the script] I was like, I’m just gonna keep saying yes until either I feel that I need to say no, or he says no,” says Joy. “But I’m just so into stories that are about the human struggle, most of my songs are about that, and I felt Heath captured that in a way that resonated with me. And I felt in my character a lot of parallels between her and myself. That was the thing that drew me in, and kept me in, because it was challenging and I just kept thinking this is a good story to be part of and I want to help tell the story. Truly, all the way through that was the thing that kept me in the game.”
The name may transfer, the guitar-playing too, but there was a bit more resonance for her than that.
“I would describe [her character] as a dippy sweetie. She’s quite soft I think, but with these hard edges, because she’s been quite wounded by life and developed a way of dealing with that. She is quite erratic, but I think a big thing for her is her music and she really finds a lot of peace and slows down when she is engaging with music. For me, music has had such a healing presence in my life and some of the struggles that I have dealt with, it was so real to me so it was a wonderful thing to be able to take that naturally into my role.”
There was another bit of life experience that helped Joy on set: being very familiar with waiting. Waiting for her scene, waiting for technicians to reset, waiting for others. All for that rush of those “little bite-size bits of candy that rolls around in your mouth”, as she calls those moments when the camera was rolling and everything else was shut away.
“There’s a lot of waiting, as you say, and particularly because we are a touring band the amount of waiting and dead time is insane. It’s 90 per cent of the time, with 10 per cent of it the gold and the rush and intensity,” Joy says. “I did feel it was very similar on set, but it didn’t rattle me; I loved it. To be able to pull energy out of nowhere is quite a familiar thing when you’re at your sixth show of the week on tour and you’re so fucking tired but you just reach in and get it. I was grateful for that prior experience.”
Filming had some other benefits. While theoretically on brief hiatus from the band, and often exhausted from the day shooting, this songwriter found herself inspired during the three week shoot to write each night when she returned to her room, the creativity “feeding back in” to Middle Kids songs and some for Christmess.
I wonder whether there were other crossovers. Joy mentioned earlier being uncomfortable with her body, still, does that disappear when she is performing on stage? And if it does, could she replicate that separation or distancing when filming?
“I think, yes. Something that is so wonderful about doing your craft is it can actually end up being a great distraction from yourself. It gets your eyes off yourself,” she says. “When I’m performing I’ll have these moments where I’m like ‘oh my God, what am I doing, get me outta here’, but most of the time the music takes my attention away and I can get into that zone. I found with acting that there was so much going on that it was almost an antidote to self-consciousness because it’s really not about you in that moment; it’s about the scene and the connection, the relationship between me and the space and the other person or other people.
“That’s pretty wonderful and I found that if I was really present, and I’m looking and I’m listening – like if I’m across from Steve who’s been a main actor in a movie and I’m looking and I’m listening to him – I’m not even thinking about myself anymore. It’s this beautiful release of not noticing myself because I’m present and open to what’s going on around me.”
For some of us, hearing our voices on tape or seeing ourselves on screen can be so confronting we just can’t face it. There are some actors who refuse to watch the finished product of their work. How did Joy feel watching herself? Did she see the daily rushes for example?
“I actually have not seen a single thing, and that’s been quite intentional,” she says. “I remember when I first started recording as a singer, I couldn’t hear myself: it was way too confronting and I was way too critical. This almost took me back to that place because at one point I saw like one still from the scene, right early on, and I was like ‘I cannot look at that, I don’t even want to know’. I wanted to do the scene and get outta here.
“It was partly because I was feeling insecure, but also partly I didn’t want to be critical of myself and be in a position where I would become self-conscious. I think that that would give me a bit of a wobble or something. I think a more experienced actor, with more confidence, could watch themselves and think ‘I could change this’, but I don’t know what I’m doing so I don’t want to see that.”
She may not be able to avoid it though: she’s discussing with Davis his suggestion that she score the film.
“I feel very excited about that but it means I’m going to have to watch it over and over again and I’m thinking about whether I can do that,” Joy says.
No problem: she scores all the film that she is not in, then get someone else to do her scenes. Easy!
“Yeah, exactly,” she laughs. “Or I leave it silent.”
Read more about Hannah Joy and Middle Kids.