The Fame Reporter featuring Ellen Goddard
Elise McCann is an incredibly smart, gifted Australian actress, singer, dancer and all-round incredible artist within her craft.
Elise is well known for her role as Ali in Mamma Mia and her current role as Miss Honey in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda and she won the Helpmann Award for Best Female Actor in a Supporting Role in a Musical in 2016 for her portrayal.
She graduated NIDA in Sydney and made her professional debut in the Australian revival cast of Fiddler On The Roof (TML). Other notable works includes Camelot (The Production Company), My Fair Lady (Opera Australia), Little Women (Kookaburra), Breast Wishes The Musical (Neil Gooding Productions), the lead role of June in Musical of Musicals (Triptych Theatre), Ali in the Australian Tour of the ABBA juke-box hit Mamma Mia! (Littlestar), South Pacific (Opera Australia/GFO), Doctor Zhivago (GFO), Falsettos (Cordelia, Darlinghurst Theatre Company) and Into the Woods (Florinda, Victorian Opera).
Elise recently appeared in the critically acclaimed miniseries as Peter Allen’s sister, Lynne in Peter Allen: Not The Boy Next Door. The talent doesn’t stop with performing, she is well known for her groundbreaking role as Lucille Ball in the popular one woman show Everybody Loves Lucy (Luckiest Productions), that she also co-wrote with Richard Carroll. It ran sold out seasons in June/July 2014 after which it embarked on a 6 week national Australian Tour in February/March 2015. Elise was nominated for Best Cabaret Production in the 2015 Sydney Theatre Awards for her performance in Everybody Loves Lucy.
Elise’s current show Matilda the musical in which she embody’s the gentle, kind teacher of Matilda, Miss Honey is a genius show with heart and a great message to stick up for what you believe is right. Buy tickets to Adelaide and Perth shows here.
We talked to Elise about her performing career in the theatre and entertainment world including what she loved about attending NIDA and why playing Miss Honey taught her so many lessons and her adventure to where she is now, check out the interview below.
Welcome to The Fame Reporter Elise, What was it that sparked your interest in acting initially?
As far back as I can remember I was performing, when I was little I would write stories, and songs and I would and I was in a band with my friends and I put on little concerts. I made up characters and it was just something I always kind of did. My parents put me into a local drama class when I was in primary school so I would have other kids to do that with. I started dancing and I wasn’t allowed to start singing lessons until High School.
My parents wanted my voice to settle and it wasn’t until year 7 when until I begged them to let do voice lessons. My sister did ballet as a kid so I did ballet. But I didn’t like it so I started jazz and tap and was a part of the local drama school. I was very much academically and sport focused. I played every sport I did debating, problem solving, I did the school musicals as well. I never got an agent as a kid I never did anything professional I just did it for fun.
How was your experience attending NIDA? How did that experience affect your current career progression?
Attending NIDA was probably one of the best things I did. Everyone has a different experience, some people love it and it’s really wonderful for their growth and their career and other people hate it. It doesn’t suit everyone but for me it was incredible I went straight out of High School and I was already in that mind frame of being used to taking direction from someone and working really hard.
It gave me a really nice identity for myself as I think sometimes we finish high school and we’re like, ‘who are we?, what do I do?’ the last 13 years spent at school and we don’t know who we are anymore. Also I worked with incredible teachers who really inspired and made me feel like I could do anything. I got an agent as a result of attending and started to go for jobs as I had never auditioned for a professional job prior to that. I had performed in musicals for an amateur musical society and so I’d auditioned for that and school musicals only.
What 5 performers dead or alive would you love to have a dinner party with and why?
Lucille Ball, she was incredibly brave, bold and hilarious. Marilyn Monroe, Lin-Manuel Miranda, he is so intelligent and he is really creating something new in our world, which is just fantastic. Marlon Brando, Charlie Chaplin and of course Meryl Streep, I could hear wonderful stories from these stars.
Who are your acting and music icons?
It’s funny I don’t have them as much anymore, I used to as a kid, I’d love the sound of a show and I listened to cast recordings continuously. I would become so excited by it and consumed by it listening to everything that person had ever done. It’s such a small world now I have been so lucky to work with such incredible people who know those people. I have met some people who were on that list for me or worked with someone who knows them or worked with them. It made me realise we’re just people and everyone is doing their best. I respect and admire so many actors and musical theatre performers.
I don’t necessarily have someone I try and emulate or in terms of being my idol because I’m trying to find my own way doing things. I’m constantly inspired by and excited by other actors from, straight theatre to comedians, music theatre and singers. Audra McDonald, I would put her on the list. Cynthia Erivo as well, hello she is incredible. However, acting will always be the first thing I love. I do love singing and I could consider myself a singer but I think the reason I like to sing is because it’s about telling a story. Sharing and communicating emotions are my focus when I’m singing, dancing, whatever it is I’m doing, it’s about telling the story.
How did you react when you were cast in Mamma Mia as Ali?
I was ecstatic I actually remember it. I heard that people had been put on hold and I thought I was on the reserve list. My friend, Hayden Tee (Javert in Les Miserables), knew the director of Mamma Mia, Darren Yap, he said no don’t think like that, have faith you did a great job. When I got the phone call I was so excited because I had seen Mamma Mia when I was studying at NIDA I was an usher in Sydney.
So I had watched the show maybe 107 times and I knew it word for word and loved it, it was one of the reasons I wanted to audition for it. It was a role I really knew I could do and one of my first roles all on my own. When I did Fiddler on the Roof I played Fruma – Sarah but when I first started out I played a different character, that was a smaller part. But I moved up to Fruma – Sarah, however I didn’t get originally cast in it so it was really special feeling.
What is your favourite role you have ever performed?
I feel so lucky I’ve played some great roles, my two favourite is Miss Honey to be honest, she is such a joy of a role. It is challenging and exhausting emotionally, mentally and physically. She is such a beautiful person to play because she has so much heart and so authentic and filled with love and care.
But she is flawed she has been beaten down and batted. She suffers to find her strength and not be the victim. There’s so many different adaptations to give her a full background there’s the book, movie and there’s this script. This musical is so perfectly created. The book of the show, lyrics, music, choreography, direction, the way the set is, design, every element of it is fantastic.
It’s one of those rare occasions where it all comes together and it’s symbiotic and unified. I don’t know a single person who has seen the show whether they are 3 years old or 55 that hasn’t loved it! I’m so lucky I get to play someone who is so instrumental in the piece and get a lot of responses from at stage door. Kids that I meet just love Miss Honey and it’s just so wonderful and a great reminder to put others first and be gentle, full of grace and stand up for what’s right.
Do you have a role in any musical theatre or straight theatre piece that you are dying to embody and play?
There are many roles I would love to play but I would really like to originate a role. I would love to play a lead role or create a role, in film, TV, musical or a play that is new. We don’t get the opportunity in Australia often, we do more in TV and film obviously but less so in musicals and even less again in plays. I would love to originate a role in a musical and a film definitely.
You were brilliant in Peter Allen – Not the boy next door in which you played Lynne, How was it telling that great Australian story and what do you like about film/TV acting compared to theatre?
I had the best time filming that show. My character Lynne had some similarities to Miss Honey in the sense that I didn’t drive all of the scenes, I’m not the person doing all of the speaking. The same thing happens in Matilda, Miss Honey is there all of the time she is the one who goes every other place. She goes to the library, Wormwood’s house, office, playground and her house. Miss Honey is one of the only characters that goes to all of the places possible to go to. But she doesn’t carry all of the scenes she is there because things happen to her and enable other things to be revealed.
Lynne is the same she is there to support Peter and support their Mum and to be a medium through which to explore his family and to explore how important they were. Also to bring it back to that real grounded normal side of him, it wasn’t the showman Peter.
It was a really wonderful part to play as I was there a lot but wasn’t the focus of every scene. I got to observe and watch the people around me. Most of my scenes were with Rebecca Gibney and Joel Jackson, who are two extraordinary actors and I’m so lucky to be able to work and learn from them. Shawn Seet, our director was incredible, it was a wonderful experience.
In terms of how it’s different, it’s not an actor’s medium perse. You go in and you do a scene and you do it a couple of times and they shoot it and then you move on to something else. But you shoot everything out of order and also something might not even end up even making it in.
We shot this scene where Peter is calling my character, Lynne from New York, she’s in Australia and she is bawling her eyes out, devastated because her boyfriend has broken up with her. I was really nervous about shooting the scene as I had to cry all throughout the scene. I was really nervous it was just Bec, Joel and I and it went beautifully and I had a great time shooting it. But it actually didn’t make it into the final cut as did a bunch of other scenes that we did for everyone.
The problem is when you are making essentially two movies, you kind of gauge time by the number of pages in the script, but when you’re using music everything takes longer and they didn’t have time.
It’s a really different medium because in a stage play or musical you work from the beginning to the very end. What’s interesting is, those scenes are still part of your process, they still inform your character. Even when they get cut it doesn’t matter because having read that part, having journeyed that part with your character that will translate to something else of where your character is in another scene later on that does make it through.
Matilda is such a powerful and legendary piece of art and how was it working with the genius Tim Minchin?
We were lucky we got to work with everyone. Tim is a rockstar and a incredible genius. He is so supportive of everyone and really down-to-earth, relaxed, playful and a lovely energy to have around. Dennis Kelly (book writer) came out to Australia so we got to meet him, we didn’t do a lot of work with Dennis but we got to meet and chat to him he is actually quite quiet, but hilarious and dry-witted, a lovely supportive man. Nik Ashton who is our Associate Director and Laurie Perkins is the Associate Musical Supervisor were the two main people from the Royal Shakespeare Company who led our rehearsals.
We worked with them as well as Australian’s Associate Musical Supervisor, Stephen Amos, Australian Resident Director Tanya Goldberg, Resident Director, Jacinta John and Musical Director, Peter Rutherford and all of those people. Also the whole choreographic team as well Peter Darling came out at one point with his assistant, Ellen Kane. A few from the West End cast and Australians Tom Hodgson and Brendan Yeates. It was the most incredible massive team of people you have ever met. If you ever needed anything someone was available, people were willing and ready to help you in any way necessary.
Matilda the Musical Australia
Congratulations on the Helpmann award win for this great role, what has playing Miss Honey taught you?
Oh gosh so much! Patience, to believe in myself a little bit more and to live presently. I think it’s so easy in today’s society, everything is immediate and when we get something we say ‘oh what’s next’. Doing this role has been a dream come true and I remember talking to Hayden Tee about this when he was offered Javert on Broadway. I remember saying to him, ‘what do you do when everything you have wished for comes true.’ He said ‘exactly’ you have to remember to enjoy it and to live it and that’s been something really wonderful doing Matilda.
You do the exact same thing, say the same words in the same place wearing the same clothes every single day. You have to be mindful to be present in that moment and enjoy every second because otherwise you take it for granted and you will blink and it will be gone. It’s been a huge part of my life so it’s been a great lesson in being mindfully grateful for the time and experiences you get to have.
If you were a real teacher for a day what do you think you would you be known for?
Probably talking too much because I talk a lot. People would say ‘slow down I don’t understand what your saying.’ I have taught before and I had a lot of fun with my students and I think they get worked up in my energy. I tend to have a hectic, high – intensity energy which is contrary to my character that I’m playing right now. So I would be the teacher that talks a lot and has a lot of energy to share.
I have taught singing, acting and masterclasses before. I often teach at NIDA, VCA, APA in Sydney and different drama schools across the country. I’ve also taught singing lessons privately. I mainly get asked to do masterclasses and courses and things like that.
James Morgan Photography
How is the show different to others you have performed and what is it like working with all the different Matilda’s every show?
That’s the biggest difference to be honest. You are in many ways doing the same thing but there are always some elements that are changing. That’s sometimes difficult because when you are tired you have to be switched on you can’t really stop because things around you are constantly altered. That makes it tough, exhausting and makes the show tiring in a way that other shows wouldn’t be. But it makes it better because it gives you a medium in which you can stay fresh and present. It’s definitely a challenge and it makes it incredibly tiring but it’s such a joy.
What’s incredible is, I have now seen 12 young women be astounding in this big role and come into their own. It’s breathtaking and I feel so privileged to have gotten had that chance. Also seeing how they deal with having to learn a role like this, performing in front of crowds, growing in their confidence and in their sense of self to feel them finding new things in the character, it’s really wonderful.
In terms of creating the cabaret, Everybody Loves Lucy, what was that experience like and why did you make it?
Well I created that show at a time when I wanted to do something exciting and inspiring to me. I wanted to feel stimulated, try something different and do something challenging. Lisa Campbell came up with the idea with me. We came up with the idea and it just kind of snowballed from there and the more I looked into Lucille Ball, the more she blew me away. She was so brave and a pioneer, not just as an actor or a comedian but because she was one of the first women (in a time period where women had to always look beautiful) to not always make herself look beautiful. It’s okay for a woman to be funny, it’s okay for women to play funny characters and it’s okay to be ugly, which never happened in the 1950’s.
At the same time for a woman to be the protagonist and outsmart people. Also on a business level she ran the company that created I Love Lucy and she did that with her husband because she always put her family first. In many ways she was actually trying to combine everything, have a career, be a successful businesswoman and facilitate having a family as well. Which is something women still struggle with achieving today. She was ground-breaking, so awesome and fun to play, very challenging but really wonderful.
What is a future dream of yours?
I want to have a beautiful house with my partner and have a wonderful family. I want to do some more work in America, both in musicals and film. I want to do some more travelling and continue to be excited and stimulated and joyous about my life.
Lastly who or what inspires you?
A lot of things inspire me, a lot of different people. Something that really constantly inspires me is when I see friends and family of mine that are really achieving. I don’t mean achieving in a earning a lot of money or necessarily getting a specific job. I mean achieving by setting specific goals and achieving those goals. They are actively deciding what kind of life they want to live and living that life.
People say I want a boyfriend who is like this or I want a girlfriend like this, but then they continue to date people who aren’t actually treating them that way. People say I want to have a job that is like x,y and z or that involves my passion and then they don’t actually go about doing anything tangible to help them achieve it.
There is a joke someone once told me about this person who would constantly wish or pray to the Gods and say ‘help me win the lottery’ and then finally they said ‘why don’t you ever help me win the lottery’.The response came back and said you’ve got to buy a bloody ticket! We can say we want something, but we also have to be active in trying to achieve what you want.
One thing that really inspires me is when I see the people around me actively deciding what kind of life they want for themselves and what kind of life they want around them and going about achieving that. Basically personal growth. People choosing to grow and choosing to challenge themselves, choosing to be active participants in their life. That’s something that I find really inspiring.
Thank-you Elise for joining us at The Fame Reporter we wish you all the best and Chookas for your final show of Matilda in Brisbane in February 2017!
Lucy Maunder will be playing the role of Miss Honey in Adelaide and Perth buy tickets to those shows here.