On the eve of stepping back on stage in fishnets and heels for The Rocky Horror Show, Craig McLachlan (aka the ABC’s Dr Blake) channels both the doctors in his life with Coral Drouyn.
It’s over 30 years since the curly haired larrikin Henry Ramsay/Craig McLachlan burst onto our screens in Neighbours. It was meant to be a six-week gig, but show business has turned into a lifetime career. Why? “It’s called acting Darlings,” Craig tells his many admirers. But the answer isn’t that simple. It never is when charisma is involved.
Craig’s rise to fame is much more complex and it’s based on drive, belief, natural talent and the marvellous ability to re-invent himself when needed. He’s been a TV star on two continents and made his mark on the Musical Theatre stage internationally and nationally, with roles like Danny in Grease, Billy Flynn in Chicago, and, of course, Dr Frank’n’Furter.
One constant remains, however, the idea of the curly headed larrikin – an archetype that Australians over many generations have treasured. How much of that is Craig McLachlan, and how much is “Acting, Darlings”?
Craig is open and generous in talking about his multifaceted personality.
“Look, I’m a genuinely happy person. I love life, I love my friends, I’m a pleaser to a certain extent; a peacemaker. I also want people to feel good when they’re around me. I like to have a good time. I can get quite high on life. I’m an extrovert. That’s why I love doing Rocky so much,” Craig tells me, in a voice that suggests he’s used to reeling off the attributes which the media always attributes to him. There’s a pause, and he continues more introspectively.
“At the same time, I’m very organised when it comes to my work. That surprises some people who don’t know me, and it’s one of the reasons I wanted to play Doctor Blake (ABC TV), even though I wasn’t the obvious choice for the role. He’s very straight, very meticulous, and that’s also part of me. And (and I even surprise myself with this one), I’m a neatness freak. I want everything to be in its place - is that OCD? I do know that friends say I’d make a great wife. It’s pretty normal to find me vacuuming the house or doing the washing - but never in fishnets and heels.” He chuckles at the thought. “I’m part larrikin, that’s true, but that’s not all I am; it’s not even the majority of what I am.”
There had to be a moment when the ‘Shirley Temple on Steroids’ persona was born. So, let’s go back to the beginning, please Craig.
“Well,” he says, “there’s more than a little of the Rocky Horror story in there. I’m a self invented rather than a self-made man. When I was a kid growing up on the Central Coast, I certainly wasn’t going to turn any heads. I was scrawny, with this unruly mop of curly hair, and I had very few friends. I remember once being in the schoolyard at break, and one of my classmates laughed and said to everyone…. ‘look at Macca’s shadow. He looks like a dunny brush’. Charming! I was just a stick with hair.”
He laughs, but there’s a sense of vulnerability in his voice and I can’t help asking if he was hurt by the remark.
“I’m not sure if hurt is the right word,” he says carefully, “but it made me realise that I needed - I wanted - to have friends and to fit in, and that meant, in a way, playing a role they could all relate to.”
Was that why he took up surfing?
“Absolutely,” he says. “I didn’t even like surfing in those days, though I love it now. But if you were a kid living by the beach and you DIDN’T surf, you were considered a weirdo.”
But if surfing was originally about finding a way to fit in, how did Macca the adolescent lose himself?
“Both my parents worked,” he continues, “and I would spend time on my own - probably when I should have been doing homework. My two obsessions were music and television. I just couldn’t get enough of them. I had a great memory and I would role-play and mimic whole scenes from TV shows of the seventies. I’m told I still have a knack for impersonations. And then sometimes I would write little scenes for myself, and play all the characters. I was always very interested in the scripts, and why the characters were doing what they did.”
That trait has stayed with him. He is renowned for knowing every word of a script and questioning, with a genuine lack of ego, the rationale of each action.
But back to the beginning. Did the music start at the same time?
“Ah, that’s another story,” Craig muses. “The whole family loved music and we had a portable record player as you did back then (the late sixties, early seventies). I used to literally wear out 45s playing them over and over, singing along to them. So, when I was seven my Mum sent me to music lessons and I loved them. But there was a danger of that isolating me even more. I was seen by schoolmates as an arty-farty type and because, by some standards of the day, I was a bit of a pretty boy, I got the usual bullying and accusations of being gay, a ‘poofter’, which went hand in hand with the ‘weirdo’ tag. It’s just so wrong to stick labels on kids while they’re still finding out who they are.”
Once again there’s that vulnerable tone.
“Then something happened when I hit high school. I became pretty good on the guitar, and girls just loved it. I’d have been crazy not to use that as one of my strengths,” Craig says.
I confront him with the fact that he’s known as a tremendous flirt and he laughs.
“I love flirting; I guess I flirt with everyone, male or female. Pathetic - sometimes I’m like a puppy dog and I want everyone to like me, so I’m silly and clown-like and affectionate and whatever a twenty-year-old’s idea of sexy is, and somehow it worked. Plus, I genuinely admire women and love their company. Hey, I’m a bloke after all.”
I tell him it’s rumoured that he flirted his way into Neighbours with the male producers and he laughs.
“It’s absolutely true and I had all this energy. I was like the Duracell Battery Bunny. I must have been exhausting to be around. I can remember playing guitar with Tommy Emmanuel on a TV Special and when I solo’d I just went for broke. I threw everything in, hoping to impress. The result was awful, a horrible cacophony. And Tommy was restrained, and classy, and made every note work. In the early days I definitely tried way too hard. The idea that ‘less is more’ was an alien concept to me. That’s why Dr Blake has been such a learning curve.”
But surely the The Rocky Horror Show is made for the extrovert part of Craig?
“Yes, it is, and when I was a kid I thought all I had to do was put on heels, sing a few songs and camp it up on stage and that was enough. I had no idea that Richard O’Brien was trying to say things about judgement and perceptions and what was ‘normal’,” he says. “Then, a couple of years ago - more than twenty years on from first doing the show, I got the chance to re-explore the role. Everything gets clearer, the older you get, but I’m still not sure I would have truly ‘got’ the show if it hadn’t been for a girl at the stage door after the show one night. She was elated, but also tearful, and she told me that the show was cathartic to her - that she felt she wasn’t alone. That ‘weird’ didn’t have to be a bad thing and life could still be joyful if you didn’t fit in. And it all clicked.”
Knowing now how carefully Craig explores and dissects a script and a character, I ask if there isn’t a danger in revisiting a role that he’s already ‘done to death’.
“I know there are things still to discover,” he explains. “I don’t plan to turn this into a stand-up comedy routine, but I want to push the boundaries further, explore the connection with the audience more. It’s still going to be visceral rather than intellectual. That’s just who I am. But I really believe I can open the role up further and still make sure everyone has a great time. I guess, at heart, I’m still that kid who wants to please everyone.”
Article originally published in the November / Decemmber 2017 edition of Stage Whispers.
Images: Craig with the 2014 cast of Rocky Horror (Photographer Jeff Busby), as Docrot Blake, and Billy Flynn in Chicago.
The Rocky Horror show begins its tour at Adelaide's Festival Theatre on December 28, 2017.