When Magda Szubanski took to the stage at the suburban Bondi Junction cinemas for the world premiere of the Australian film Goddess, we knew we were in for a bit of lip.
A lot of people would turn their nose up at a singer who thinks he can act.
“If you don't think the film is funny, it probably says more about you than it does about us. Hold that thought!” she bellowed briskly.
She also noted how she shares a hot scene with Irish singer Ronan Keating in his first screen role. “It goes by so fast but it is in the nude!”
Keating and Szubanski became buddies while making the film. “Magda's a stand-out, she makes the film for me,” the singer notes during his promotional chores. “There's lots of humour, there are some great characters and Magda is brilliant.”
“It's a big step for me and Mark took a massive risk putting me in this film,” Keating concedes. “A lot of people would turn their nose up at a singer who thinks he can act. 'Who does this guy think he is swanning in here', and so on. So all eyes are on me to cock it up, let's say. People would love that. But I am very proud of what we've created.”
According to Lamprell, Szubanski and Keating helped each other out on set. As the Kath & Kim star offered acting tips, the former boy band singer took Szubanski under his wing when (as her pushy ad agency boss, Cassandra Wolfe) she came to sing Goddess' show-stopping number, 'Do You Know Who I Am?' She also twirls her heavily sequined breasts to hilarious effect.
Lamprell, who worked at Kennedy Miller for 15 years, had co-written the screenplay for Babe: Pig in the City (his previous directing effort was 2000's My Mother Frank) and calls Szubanski a national treasure. He explains how they have remained friends since their days on Babe. Initially, he was worried about casting her alongside Keating and the film's star Laura Michelle Kelly, a veteran of West End musicals though a novice to movies.
“Magda doesn't suffer fools gladly,” notes Lamprell. “In a very round about way I was explaining to her how Laura and Ronan haven't done a lot of movie acting blah, blah, blah, and she stopped me mid-sentence. She said, 'I need to know are they nice people?' I said 'They are lovely people', and she said 'That's all I need to know!' She was so generous and good with them, and they of course, with her. Ronan essentially went to her singing sessions, really taught her how to do it and coached her through them all. She is a knockout in the number that she does.”
It's Kelly, though, who dominates the film, from the moment she announces herself as a latterday Julie Andrews twirling around on a Tasmanian hilltop. It comes as no surprise that she made her name in big stage productions of Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady.
In Goddess, adapted from Joanna's one woman show, Sink Songs, Kelly plays a neglected English mum called Elspeth Dickens who lives on a Tasmanian farm. Her Irish husband Jimmy is away saving whales (which according to Lamprell makes him a decent guy) and to cope with the domestic drudgery and the tireless job of looking after two-year-old twin boys, Elspeth takes to performing for the webcam Jimmy gave her to keep in touch. After she becomes an internet sensation, Szubanski's Sydney honcho recruits her to come and be the face of Goddess, a laptop pitched to the female market. When James returns to their home it's his turn to be domestic. Elspeth installs a webcam to keep an eye on him and the kids and that too goes viral.
Lamprell had auditioned actresses over three continents in his quest to cast Elspeth and incredibly Kelly, who visits Sydney every year, was right under his nose.
“The actresses had to do a drama scene, a comedy scene, they had to sing a song from the movie, and then they had to work with the choreographer," Lamprell explains referring to the inventive Kelley Abbey. "We had some serious dance numbers and we needed people who could really do it and do it quickly. So the amount of preparation was enormous just to do a screen test and Laura nailed it immediately.”
Raised on the Isle of Wight, Kelly had appeared in local productions, including The Sound of Music, before moving to London at age 17. She appeared in 13 musicals and frequently appeared on Broadway. She has lived and breathed her work and can understand the dilemma both Elspeth and Jimmy face in the film.
“I was doing theatre from the age of 11, so every single evening I was in theatre,” she recalls. “Acting in the theatre is such a different lifestyle. I didn't realise I was missing out on what Christmas feels like so to have a week off at Christmas was unreal. I had only experienced one or two days off and when I finally had one year off I suddenly realised how much the sunset meant and obviously I'd never got up before sunrise. I would sleep in till 11 every day because we wouldn't be in bed till one or two because of the adrenalin from doing stage work.
“So that's why filming was such a good idea. It's a much friendlier schedule. I had previously only played one smaller part as the barber's wife in Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd. I was playing the lead in Goddess but I think because of Mark it felt easy to do.”
How did Lamprell decide how much singing to put in the film?
“When you get to a point where it makes sense to resolve it with music, that's where you have the song. Goddess has more logic to having songs in it than normal musicals because there's a natural singing element within the story. You look at musicals and roughly there are 12 to 14 songs. What's most unusual here is they are original songs. It's not a jukebox movie like most musicals are these days. A huge amount of music production and development and redevelopment went into each song.”
Goddess is in cinemas March 14.