This interview originally appeared in TV Eye No. 3, October 1994.
Rowena Wallace needs no introduction. One
of Australia's best and most well known talents, she has had an extensive acting career, ranging
from her controversial debut in You Can't See Round Corners to perhaps her most
well-known role as 'Pat the Rat' in Sons And Daughters.
Where did your acting career begin?
You Can't See Round Corners was my first professional TV series. Prior to that I
was working at Channel 7 in Brisbane as a newsreader, host of a children's show, and booth
announcer. I worked on a Friday night variety show with George Wallace Jnr. - I was the
straight girl in the sketches, and I'd sing the songs and dance with the ballet and do all
of that. It was the best training I've ever had. It was Barry Creyton who got me the Corners
job - he was originally going to play the lead role, which later went to Ken Shorter. He
had seen me playing Calamity Jane in an amateur theatre production in Brisbane, and asked
me to come down to Sydney to work in his theatre restaurant with Noeline Brown. But my
mother said, "No, she's not going anywhere!". I was about 17 at the time. Barry
kept in touch and eventually talked ATN-7 into flying me down to Sydney to audition for
the role of Margie in Corners. I was the last actress to audition, and they gave it
to me. It was the old fresh face syndrome, and I was a bit like Margie - wet behind the
ears and wide eyed! I took to it like a duck to water - I just loved it.
There was quite a furore at the time over that scene in the park...
Just before we shot that scene I remember seeing Ken Shorter talking to the director on
the side, occasionally glancing at me. Because I was new I thought I must have been doing
something wrong, or perhaps I wasn't good enough and they were talking about improving my
performance. But what he was actually telling Ken to do was put his hand up my dress - I
had no idea, and that was why it was such a fantastic reaction. Ken and I ended up on the
front page of the Daily Mirror with the headline 'Shock scene in new TV series!'.
But it was a good little show.
Your next major series was The Rovers.
The two main characters in The Rovers, Rusty Collins and Bob Wild, we referred
to as Trusty Rusty and Hero Bob. I played Trusty Rusty, who seemed to have nowhere to
live. Hero Bob, played by Noel Trevarthen, had a berth on the boat, Ted Hepple as the
Captain had a berth, even the cockatoo had somewhere to live, but you never knew where
Trusty Rusty lived. When it came to the question of bunking down for the night Rusty just
sort of disappeared. I think the producers were trying to hide the fact that she lived on
the same boat as three males. We invented all sorts of places for her to go, but the
general consensus was she spent her nights in the crows nest!
That was a great series to work on, I had a lot of fun doing it. It was all based at
Brooklyn on the Hawkesbury River, and Noel had a little apartment because he was the star,
and they gave me a room at the back of the office because I wasn't a star, but it was easy
to have me there to keep an eye on me. I got fired once, because they thought my conduct
was unbecoming for their leading actress, so I said, "All right, I'll go." I told
Noel Trevarthen about it, and he marched into the office and said, "If she goes, I
go". And they thought, "Now, we don't have Trusty Rusty, we don't have Hero Bob,
all we've got is the Captain, a couple of animals and a young boy - we'd better rethink
this one." So I was reinstated and back in the crows nest again!
In common with other Australian series of the time, were you required to do all your
Oh yes, we did all our own stunts. There was a wonderful episode where Hero Bob and
Trusty Rusty have to defuse a sea mine which has become unmoored and is drifting. Hero Bob
goes out and he gets caught up in the chains, so Trusty Rusty has to dive off the rocks,
swim out to the mine, dive under and unhook Hero Bob. So they put me in a wet suit because
it was freezing cold, and then stuck my costume over the top, and I looked like some
inflated balloon. Then I jumped in and swam over to the mine and attempted to dive
underneath, but I couldn't - the wet suit was too buoyant, and I had no weight belt on, so
I bounced straight back up to the surface. This happened about three or four times until
eventually I grabbed onto something and held myself down. I stayed there for a few seconds
for the action shot and then bobbed up again, and we were waiting for 'cut' as that was
the end of that part of the sequence. The director, an Englishman, Max Varnel, had a
megaphone on the shore and he was calling out "cut, cut", and with his accent it
sounded like "shark, shark". Well, you have never seen anyone swim so quickly! I
mean, it was across the water literally, I didn't know I could do it. It was incredible,
and everyone was looking at me scrambling onto shore out of breath, thinking 'what is
wrong with this woman?!!'. We never had any minders around with spear-guns. On Barrier
Reef you'd have the guys diving off the boat, and then they'd cut to Ron and Val
Taylor underneath who did a wonderful job, absolutely amazing, but they used to do it at
feeding time at sunset, and you could see the sharks!
Did you go straight from The Rovers into
Yes, I went straight from one boat to another. The Rovers was filmed on the
'Derwent Hunter', a schooner, a beautiful boat but shocking in a swell. Then I went
straight onto the barquentine 'New Endeavour' in Barrier Reef. They were great days
because we had a wonderful ship's crew, and sometimes on a Sunday we'd take the boat out
and go over to Dunk or somewhere with a few of the actors and the ship's crew, and come
back at sunset singing sea shanties. We had real sea faring people on board. They were
great days, I miss that - we were adventurous, enthusiastic and we had fun.
You joined Barrier Reef halfway through the series - why did they change
their leading lady?
I took over from Elli Maclure as she left; Susannah Brett was the original girl before
Elli - I don't know why that happened. The crew was never the same each week running. The
first thing people would say in the morning is, "Who's gone today - who got
pushed?" A lot of people were fired on that show - we used to put up a flag with a
black spot on it - people were getting fired left, right and centre.
Peter Maxwell, who directed a lot of Barrier Reef episodes, and I had a game
going where we would change the name of the episode on the clapper board. We were filming
on Hayman Island, and we were all going a bit ga-ga or troppo - it all gets a bit silly -
and we thought we were very clever and very funny doing all this. Finally a memo came out,
I think it was from Joy Cavill or Lee Robbo (Robinson), the producers, saying they were
going to call a meeting and they needed to speak to me and Peter Maxwell urgently. I
thought 'oh no - I'm the next one!' Anyway, Joy Cavill comes up to me and says "We
are absolutely disgusted at what you have been doing; it's outrageous and unprofessional,
and we are going to punish you for it - you're not going to be in an episode!" So
they made me sit on the beach and have a wonderful time; my hand was slapped and my
punishment was not to have my face on television! I thought it was hysterical - absolutely
Barrier Reef was acclaimed at the time for being the first series in the
world to use colour underwater filming on location.
Some of the underwater photography in that was absolutely extraordinary - we always
said that Val and Ron and the rest of the divers were the best actors; the stuff they did
was superb, it really was. I can't remember much about the mini-submarine, but I remember
the jet boats, and I remember having to drive one once straight at the 'New Endeavour',
which terrified everybody. I managed that all right, but I very nearly got crushed between
a motor launch and the 'Derwent Hunter' once in The Rovers during a swell - it was
very dangerous, it was really close.
I met my now ex-husband George Assang on Barrier Reef. George was a Thursday
Islander and part of the ship's crew in the show, and we used to call him the token
'boong'. Ihab Nafa, who played a scientist, was an Arab who loved garlic, and he couldn't
swim. George used to keep him afloat in the water, and was always telling stories about
how he was almost passing out from Ihab Nafa's garlic breath.
Two episodes were written around a cyclone which hit the area at the time.
Yes - a cyclone hit Hayman, a big cyclone which flattened the island, it really was a
shocker. We weren't there at the time, we were in Townsville, so what the producers
decided to do was quickly write an episode about it. So we were all off to Hayman to film
this episode, and the island was wasted, littered and virtually razed to the ground. There
were a few buildings half standing, so they got all these old launches and things that
they could find to put us all up on. Anyway, everybody went quite crazy and Joe James got
to the point where he refused to stay on board this motor boat or whatever it was any
longer, demanded accommodation on the island, said he doesn't care what it is, he wants
accommodation on the island. So they took him onto the island and George went over one
night to see him and found him sitting up in bed with half the roof missing on this room,
with a torch learning his lines!
It was terribly difficult - we'd be filming down aft or
up front, and somebody would be writing a script up the other end and passing it down on
little pieces of paper, and then we'd film it. It was great fun, I loved every minute of
it. Peter Maxwell would be screaming out to Mike Kitchenside, the captain, to 'keep the
bloody boat still', and of course you can't keep a huge barquentine still. We used to have
a spy on the boat and by the time we got back to shore the production office knew exactly
what had gone on all day. It was great, it was wonderful, it was such an adventure.
They're gone, those days.
You did quite a lot of guest spots for Crawfords, and of course played Constable
Jane Bell in the last series of Division 4.
When you did Divvy 4 and Homicide and stuff like that in the early days
you supplied your own wardrobe, and if you were living in Sydney they'd ring you up and
give you your flight details, details of all the wardrobe you were to bring down because
of the kind of character you were playing, then they'd give you directions - get a bus to
the city terminal, then a number 12 tram that would take you down to wherever, and you'd
be staying at the so and so place, and next morning you're on location out at the
boondocks somewhere, so you'd get on a number 42 tram to take you to Balwyn, then get
another tram to somewhere else, etc. And because you had your wardrobe with you in a
suitcase, you'd get off this tram and finally arrive at this location - you didn't know
whether it was the right place or not, you didn't know where the heck you were - and there
was no-one there so you'd sit on your suitcase like a schoolgirl running away from home
thinking, "I do hope somebody turns up soon, I do hope this is the right place!".
And then there weren't any caravans or anything, you'd have to change in the back of one
of the crew members cars. I was one of the first agitators, a troublemaker, saying they
should supply taxis for us. I went to see them in the middle of an episode demanding this,
and they said no and I said, "All right, I'm going home". So then they gave us
some taxi dockets.
Apart from some financial constraints, I found the Crawfords people great - they were
fabulous. Crawfords was the most encouraging organisation, they were fantastic, a great
stable. They were very old-fashioned, but they loved what they were doing and they were so
encouraging, not only to actors but also to crew members who wanted to move up the ladder.
Just about every writer you've ever heard of was with Crawfords at some stage. We all
learned at Crawfords, and I think Crawfords learned from us as well, we were all finding
our way. As time went on of course things had to change and one had to be treated
differently, but they came to the party. They were a mainstay for so many of us, a place
where we could practice our craft. Crawfords was a family, and we all loved it. All actors
have very fond memories of Crawfords. I think it would be wonderful to commemorate the
30th anniversary of Homicide, and therefore Crawfords, with a special. I think
you'd get a lot of support from everyone in the industry. It would rate through the roof,
everybody remembers their shows, people would love it. Those Homicide and Division
4 episodes had some wonderful scripts and superb performances; they've done some
extraordinary stuff which, unfortunately, we no longer see.
You played the lead role in 'Night Of The Shark', the
McCloud episode filmed
in Australia. Did you ever consider taking your career overseas?
I never thought McCloud would open any doors in Hollywood - in fact, I thought I
was dreadful in that. When I auditioned I was unbelievably nervous, but when we started
chatting they said you've got the role - they just wanted the rapport, they didn't want me
to act. And I was determined to act, and the director was desperately trying to get me to
loosen up, and I couldn't do it - I was a bit in awe and impressed by everything, and
nervous, and I couldn't get the hang of it. But they were all very nice people, they
couldn't be kinder, they did all the right things, and I was useless! So even if I had
hoped it might open doors for me they would have been slammed very firmly shut after that!
It was difficult because our Australian style is like 'we are now going to act', whereas
the American thing is really loose - loose when you go into a scene, and you don't
necessarily stop at the end of a scene, things go on, whereas in Australia once you got to
the end of a sentence and that was the end of a scene you just stood there waiting for
'cut'. But these people didn't, Dennis Weaver and J.D. Cannon, they keep going. When I did
an episode of Mission: Impossible up on the Gold Coast, then I got the hang of it,
and had lots of fun playing this stupid Russian commandant, because I knew
then, I understood.
The problem for actors in Australia is we never get all the practice we need, you do a
job and then you sit around for months, and everyone says you must go back to acting class
again, or this class or that but no, it's not what you need, what you need is to work.
Most actors go for months without doing anything, and what we want to do most is work;
it's not about money, it's not about awards, we just want to work - we love it!