The barbecue has attained almost mythic status in Australian culture, both at home and away, niggling over the use of the word “shrimp” notwithstanding.
Last year, Matthew Salleh’s spirited documentary, Barbecue, took that local love and explored different iterations of the carnivorous gathering globally, finding common spirit in the act of sharing, from the coastal Australian town of Moonta to the remotest plains of Mongolia.
Beloved star of film and television Magda Szubanski epitomises the more unforgiving end of this quest for barbecue brilliance in writer/director Stephen Amis’s comedy The BBQ. Adopting her late mother’s Scottish brogue, she plays a hard-drinking butcher with exacting standards and a knife-wielding short fuse who is tasked with retraining barbecue salesman and backyard fanatic Dazza (Shane Jacobson) after an unplugged fridge sees him take out the neighbourhood with toxic prawns.
“The snappy and the brutal and the cheeky and the irreverent and the glint in the eye, it’s all so Scottish,” Szubanski says over lunch in Blondie Bar, adjoining the Melbourne Recital Centre.
“I’ve been told I could pass as a native?” she checks nervously. Hailing from Glasgow, I reassure her she’s one of only a handful of actors worldwide who nails it every time. And she sure has deployed the accent a fair bit over the years since Fast Forward’s Wee Mary McGregor. “It has served me well,” she agrees.
Between imitating her mum and her Polish father, Szubanski tells me she’s always had a knack for mimicry, flicking between accents at home. But she reveals that during her early days in sketch comedy, her mentors weren’t overly welcoming to accents other than Australian.
“It was all, ‘We are not a pale imitation of Monty Python,’ which for me was like, ‘But hang on, that is my heritage.' I mean, I’m pretty sure I could pretty much do all of the British accents.”
Maybe there’s a pitch in here for an SBS doco series, travelling the length and breadth of the UK? “I would f***ing love to do that. Like, where did this accent come from? Why are they so different from one county to the next?”
Much like Ben Elton’s Three Summers, in which she starred last year, The BBQ gently explores an Australia that looks a little less uniformly white than we often see on-screen. That was something that appealed to Szubanski. “It’s nowhere near as political as Three Summers, which was still a very commercial film, but it’s definitely representing what I see. If you go out to somewhere like Point Cook, that’s what barbecues are like. It really is a great ritual for different cultures and cuisines to meet in a non-secular way.”
Speaking of beliefs, Jacobson’s Dazza is convinced he’s a descendant of Captain Cook and that his wooden barrel barbie was brought over on the HMS Endeavour via a stopover in the Caribbean. The possibly apocryphal history anchors his devotion to weekly cook-ups, much to the frustration of wife Diane (Julia Zemiro), and it fires his belly when facing off in a local competition against sneering French chef Andre Mont Blanc (My Kitchen Rules’ Manu Fieldel), guided by the butcher.
Sporting a long red wig, Szubanski sweltered in a 45-degree summer shoot that saw her seeking solace among the carcasses in meat freezers with Jacobson. The pair would often tinker on their lines together, with the blessing of Amis. “We were very sympatico in thinking about how to arrive at the right colloquialism or the right sort of analogy that will resonate culturally, like Bradman’s bat.”
She also helped fill in the butcher’s backstory, and the quest for respect, helping to explain the spiky shell from which she gradually emerges. That stern face slipped, on occasion, as Jacobson elicited a fit of her infamous giggles.
“I’m getting better as I get older, unless I’m tired and my blood sugar drops, and then I just cannot control it, to my detriment and to the great cost of producers,” Szubanski says. “It gets to the point where it’s just not funny anymore, and that in itself becomes really hilarious to me. I feel like it’s some Zen moment. The funny that is beyond funny. There’s this clear space that exists that is just pure funny. And wrong. It’s the wrongness of that that make things funny, isn’t it?”
Szubanski suggests the amiably cute nature of The BBQ is a bit of a tonic in trying times. “We need something that’s not abrasive. There’s just a bit of humour that sort of expands awareness slightly without forcing you to think too hard. We’re probably all a bit weary.”
Bone tired is how she describes her current state after shooting two local movies, the book tour for her searing memoir, Reckoning, and becoming one of the most prominent faces of last year’s marriage equality campaign. “I feel like an almost 57-year-old woman who has just given birth to twins, or maybe who has twin toddlers, but I’m actually in one of the happiest places I’ve ever been,” she says. “As much as the marriage equality thing was gruelling, and my mum died right in the middle, which was just awful, I feel so proud of our community and to have been a part of history, contributing in any way I could.”
We’re all a bit proud of her, I offer, and that brings out the accent again. “We’re gonna get all emotional and Scottish and heid butt each other, aye?”
After the bruising battle, Szubanski says its time for healing. One of SBS’s hosts of the Mardi Gras parade coverage, she suggests the 40th anniversary is as good a place to start as any. “That’s one of the great things about Mardi Gras – loads of the people who go and watch it are straight. It’s a real mix, not unlike The BBQ, in that it is a spectacle that brings everyone together.”
The BBQ is in cinemas now. The 40th Annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras will air on Sunday 4 March at 8:30pm on SBS.