Across her 34-year career, actor Claudia Karvan has become one of the most familiar faces on Australian screens, winning numerous awards and becoming nothing less than a national film and television icon. With only fleeting encounters with large-scale Hollywood productions – most notably as Sola Naberrie (the older sister of Natalie Portman’s Padmé Amidala) in Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (George Lucas, 2005) – Karvan has in recent years in particular opted for television roles, most recognisable today for her appearances in series including The Secret Life of Us (2001- 2006), Love My Way (2004 – 2007), Spirited (2010 – 2011), Newton’s Law (2017) , Jack Irish (2016 – 2017), and the 2012 Puberty Blues reboot, receiving additional producer and creator credits for both Spirited and Love My Way. Upon her 2007 induction to the Australian Film Walk of Fame in Sydney, Karvan’s place as a major player across almost four decades of Australian screen culture was carved in stone.
During this period, it was arguably Karvan’s work with a range of Australia’s finest women directors – including Gillian Armstrong, Laurie McInnes, Nadia Tass, Emma-Kate Croghan and Megan Simpson Huberman – that Karvan flexed her performance muscle most memorably. Armstrong’s High Tide (1987), Nadia Tass’s The Big Steal (1990) and McInnes Broken Highway (1993) are all included in the 2017 “Pioneering Women” programme at the Melbourne International Film Festival, and aside from showcasing the directorial prowess of the women behind the scenes, they also collectively between them provide a clear picture of Karvan’s range as an actor during this period, and her skill at applying those talents to strikingly diverse contexts.
Karvan had a tiny role in Hadyn Keenan’s Going Down (appearing in a bit part enigmatically called “disgruntled child”), but it was in the lead role as Maxie Ireland in Ned Lander’s kids film Molly (1983) that Karvan – then only eight years old – scored her first lead role. It was, in professional terms, love at first sight: said Karvan in 1996, “I don’t know what kind of union laws they had then because I remember getting up at 6 o’clock in the morning and coming home at about 1 in the morning and just loving it”.1 She came to acting almost by accident when she accompanied a friend to an audition: the friend lost out, and Karvan got the job. By one account, she got the gig when her later co-star in Emma-Kate Croghan’s Strange Planet (1999) Alice Garner – daughter of revered Australian writer Helen Garner – couldn’t do it.2 Strange Planet therefore became a reunion of sorts as she also worked with Naomi Watts: Karvan and Watts’s mothers were best friends so they had known each other for years, but it was only on the Strange Planet set that they developed their own friendship.3
Karvan’s close proximity to burgeoning fellow talent at such a young age no doubt was related to her father, who ran Arthur’s on Victoria Street in Sydney’s inner city Potts Point when she was a child, described by one newspaper in 1986 as “Sydney’s coolest restaurant/bar”.4 Karvan was 14 years old when she landed the role of Ally in Armstrong’s High Tide, playing across from the even-then already formidable talent of Judy Davis. Karvan auditioned for the role amongst a number of other hopefuls,5 but both Armstrong and heavyweight Australian producer Sandra Levy saw her as a “natural”,6 Armstrong already knew Karvan’s parents, too, who were involved in the selling of the director’s earlier film The Singer and the Dancer (1976) at the Cannes Film Festival. 7
As Ally, Karvan plays the estranged daughter of Davis’s Lilli, who finds herself unexpectedly stuck in a cold, run-down coastal town in New South Wales after having been fired as a back-up singer for Frankie J. Holden’s Elvis Presley impersonator Lester as they drift through town. Having left the child with her mother-in law Bet (Jan Adele) when widowed at a young age, the older woman raised the girl as Lilli wandered without direction. Although not immediately identifying Ally as her own daughter, the two forge a strong bond which raises tensions between Lilli (Ally’s biological mother) and Bet (the woman who had raised Ally for 13 years). The youngest of the three central roles by a long way, Karvan no doubt had a steep learning curve but spoke highly of the experience. Of Armstrong, she said “she is lovely to work with. She let me be myself and if I did something wrong, she told me very carefully and gently. And if I didn’t feel comfortable with certain lines, she helped me handle them”.8 Of Davis, she noted that “Judy taught me to do things instinctively”, while the film’s star reciprocated the fondness, noting “Claudia is such a lovely girl, it is easy to look at her and imagine Lilli’s emotions toward her”. 9
In the High Tide press kit, then-adolescent Karvan stated that her ambitions “when she grows up” were to go to Sydney’s National Institute of the Dramatic Arts (NIDA)10 to study acting or direction, but her performance in High Tide launched the real beginnings of an extremely productive, busy career. After doing two television productions, Karvan would next appear in Nadia Tass’s 1990 teen rom-com The Big Steal alongside Ben Mendelsohn in a starring role that began his professional rise, initially in Australia and then internationally. While distinctly Australian in tone, humour and iconography, The Big Steal feels like a charming antipodean answer John Hughes’s films like Sixteen Candles (1984), Pretty in Pink (1986), and Some Kind of Wonderful (1987). Following the sweet but unfashionable Mendelsohn as 18-year-old Danny Clark, his mission to score the perfect car – a Jaguar XJ6 – in order to woo the perfect girl (Karvan’s Joanna) is thwarted by a devious car salesman (Steve Bisley). At 17, Karvan in The Big Steal is an entirely different creature to High Tide’s Ally: while still a controlled, sharp performance, Karvan was very much here playing someone wiser and more confident. Said Karvan at the time. “Joanna Johnson is very strong and independent, quite mature for her age…she is intelligent”. And yet for herself, as presented in the press kit for The Big Steal at least, Karvan – despite her clear aptitude in front of the camera – still demonstrates the kind of insecurities typical of many 17-year-old girls, regardless of occupation. Of director Tass, Karvan said at the time that
she had Ben and I working together during rehearsal doing special exercises to break down reserve. I had met Ben before – but I didn’t know him well. And I have a boyfriend. When I first started the film and I thought about him watching me with Ben I thought – ‘oh no!’ But then I put it out of my mind because otherwise my performance would have been self-conscious.11
By 1993’s Broken Highway, however – barely at the age of 21 – Karvan had already established herself as an actor capable of both diverse and demanding roles. In a film bewilderingly lost to the canon, director McInnes was consciously inspired by film noir,12 a reference that makes itself felt as much in Karvan’s Catherine as it does McInnes’s fraught, beautiful world, brought to life in glorious high-contrast black-and-white photography by cinematographer Steve Mason. Catherine is suffocating in a dead-end life in the fictional Queensland ghost town of Honeyfields, trapped by the passive yet determined affections of Bill Hunter’s Wilson until a young sailor Angel (Aden Young) wanders into town, offering her a way out. In Broken Highway, her hair cut short, Karvan’s screen presence looms large over the film: not a femme fatale as such, but her performance embodies the perfect balance of fragility and strength reminiscent of predecessors like Ida Lupino, Ava Gardener and Mary Astor.
In competition for the Palme d’Or in 1993 (and losing out to Jane Campion’s The Piano), Broken Highway should have made Karvan an international superstar, but the film fell flat, no doubt due to its almost aggressive nihilism at a time when bad vibes simply weren’t in vogue. But in an interview at the time, Karvan was vehement in her rejection of that level of fame anyhow: “I don’t want to be famous or huge or idolised or anything. Maybe it would be nice for a day, then it would be repulsive – alienating”13. Karvan continued to work, and has barely stopped ever since, but by 1996 she became by her own account less fussy about the roles she would accept. “If you get 20 scripts and you are really going to be highly selective, it might be one every 20, one every 30…But if you really want to work you might, instead of going for a 100% winner, go ‘this will extend me as an actor or this person will be a good person to work with”, she told Stuart Diwell upon the release of Megan Simpson Huberman’s 1996 gender swap comedy with Guy Pearce, Dating the Enemy.
For some time all I was really into was how important or significant a project was…I may not have considered something like this [Dating the Enemy] but I think I have matured in myself. After all this is a wonderful industry, a really wonderful industry, but we need to make things people want to see. I don’t see why we can’t embrace all kinds of cinema in this country.14
As Karvan told Kate Meilke around the same time, “I think I’ve gotten a little less serious or something, less intense about it”.15
Karvan is a stalwart, and over the decades the accolades have barely ever stopped: according to IMDb.com at least, she was nominated for five Astra Awards and won three, two AACTA Awards and won two, 17 AFI Awards and won four, and ten Logies and won three (all Silver Logies, the second highest possible achievement at Australia’s annual television awards). Her progressive shift towards television perhaps is evidence precisely of this desire she voiced in 1996 to “make things people want to see”, television’s ease of access allowing her a reach that her arthouse collaborations with filmmakers like Laurie McInnes and Paul Cox at least certainly would not have achieved. Yet watching Karvan grow up on screen in High Tide, The Big Steal and Broken Highway reveals the diversity and performative nuance of an actor now so familiar as to feel almost a part of Australia’s screen cultural furniture. Karvan could – and can – do light, and she can do dark. On screen, we saw her young, and it is there that we have the privilege of continuing to watch her grow older.
The research for this article was undertaken as part of an Australian Film Institute Research Centre Fellowship.
- Kate Meilke, “Karvan Copy”, Herald Sun, 14 Setember 1996, p. 3 ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Alice Jones, “Claudia Finds Herself at Home”, Sunday Telegraph, 12 Septemper 1999, p. 88. ↩
- Rosalind Reines, “Claudia Lands Plum Film Role”, The Daily Mirror, 16 December 1986 (np). ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- High Tide press kit. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- NIDA’s alumni are many and impressive, including (but not limited to) Mel Gibson, Cat Blanchett, Tom Burlinson, Toni Collette, Essie Davis, Judy Davis, Baz Luhrmann, Jennifer Kent, Greg McLean, Miranda Otto, Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving and Sam Worthington ↩
- The Big Steal press kit. ↩
- Andrew Urban, “Riders of the Post New Wave”, The Bulletin, 25 May 1993, pp. 85-6. ↩
- Vicky Roach, p. 26 ↩
- Stuart Diwell, “I, Claudia”, The Sunday Tasmanian, 22 September 1996, pp 27, 30. ↩
- Kate Meilke, p. 3. ↩