Sigrid: ‘Judy championed Peter Allen to be his own man’

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Her body of work includes some of our finest achievements: Seachange, The Man from Snowy River, All the Rivers Run, Prisoner, and Homicide, but it’s been quite some time since Sigrid Thornton has been seen in a principal role on our small television.

Now she is back in Seven’s miniseries Peter Allen: Not The Boy Next Door. While her more recent work has been in theatre and film, she is happy to be returning to the small screen.

“I like the pace and the momentum of television very much. But I like all the forms, really,” she says.

“I’ve been doing it for the vast bulk of my years, but I love my work, it’s always changing, because people are always changing. I’m always changing.

“I’m really glad to be a part of this and particularly glad to have been able to have played Judy.”

Thornton is a long-time fan of Judy Garland so she leapt at the chance to play the role of the Hollywood star who became mentor and mother-in-law to Peter Allen.

“I auditioned for it because it was outside what people had seen me do and outside the body of work that is out there,” she continues.

“So I’m very fortunate to have been offered it and to play it. I had a ball. She’s fascinating, complex, a chameleon and as bold as brass. They’re the best kinds of roles to play.”

While she was familiar with The Wizard of Oz and Garland’s music, the Peter Allen-years are less documented. Researching their association relied on loose documentation and photographs.

“Even in her biography there wasn’t a great deal about that period of her life with Peter, or their relationship. But one can surmise a great deal and the dynamic of their relationship, just by what happened to them,” she says.

“I’d seen other films too but when you find out more about her you fall even more in love with her. That’s what happened to me.

“In the case of Peter Allen it’s Judy’s life as seen through the prism of Peter’s life. So we can’t show the entirety of her life, so I worked with what I was given in the beautiful script by Justin Monjo. He did allow me to experiment as an actor with quite a number of shades of Judy’s character. Multitudinous shades.”

Indeed it is a role that offers many colours of the rainbow. Thornton joins a growing list of Aussie actresses who have played Garland on camera and on stage including Judy Davis, Chrissy Amphlett and Caroline O’Connor.

“She was highly intelligent, a raconteur, a very sensitive person, and one of most extraordinarily talented people I loving memory. So it’s a big character to play and you can’t do it all –certainly not in the context of this 4 hours that are centred around another character,” she insists.

“I tried to make her as identifiable as possible in the context of this particular story.”

While Thornton portrays Garland both in and out of the spotlight, vocals are supplied by Melanie Parry. But she prefers not to detail much about the magic of recreating the musical moments.

“I don’t like to stretch the audience’s imagination too much, because you have to suspend disbelief. But I had a beautiful voice to work with. We couldn’t really use Judy’s voice because it wasn’t constructed around existing recordings,” she explains.

“So I was lip-syncing another voice and I was very conscious of trying to get that right and doing justice to the way it was performed.”

While she never saw either Garland or Peter Allen live, Thornton still has vivid memories of watching Allen’s captivating performance in his I Go To Rio clip.

“I was a Countdown addict like everybody else at that time. I remember rushing home on a Sunday night and Peter’s clip would always be playing. That clip really sticks in the memory, doesn’t it? There was such a vivacious energy about the man and the way in which he sold a song,” she recalls.

“I think that’s one of the things Judy saw in him, actually. He was a really good storyteller.

“She was a terrific champion of him selling himself as a performer, rather than selling other people’s songs. She really encouraged him to be his own man and to work on his songwriting skills.

“I think he regarded her as a serious mentor and he became an authentic performer.

“He managed to rise above his circumstances and that’s the story that’s really being told. It’s a hero’s journey of this young boy who could have crumbled under the pressure but didn’t.”

Next year Thornton will also appear in ABC’s drama The Code on ABC. With her previous industry roles including being on the Board of Film Victoria, I can’t resist asking about her views on the current state of production. Is it healthy? Is Drama faring better or worse than other points in her career?

“Television is in a very good place,” she observes. “I think it’s healthy and thriving, and we’re seeing a more mature industry than we ever have before. That’s of course what one would have hoped for, but not necessarily what one would have foreseen 10 years ago. Even 15 years ago it looked like television was in decline in Australia.

“But we’ve seen a tremendous upsurge of productions of all sorts. There’s now a genuine diversity of productions and we’re nurturing some terrific writers. So we’re in a pretty good place. We are still a relatively small population so we do have to look at that. But I think it’s important for us to be ever-diligent about continuing to tell our own stories.

“Even though we are an English-speaking producer of television….we need to keep reminding ourselves that we are quite different to other countries in all sorts of fundamental ways.

“But those differences are endlessly fascinating.”

Peter Allen: Not The Boy Next Door airs 8:40pm Sunday 13 and continues September 20 on Seven.

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