By Lori Beedsler
As I look out to the glorious Manhattan skyline, watching the clouds and the sun play their own personal tug of war, I am sitting patiently in a semi-quiet midtown café, waiting to meet up with Tania Fisher. It’s been years since we last saw one other in person. We first met in an Italian restaurant in Melbourne, Australia, where, as a lowly British immigrant, I studied journalism and worked part-time as a waitress. I recognized Fisher from popular TV shows (which made it to England) and TV commercials, daring to strike up conversation with her. It turned out I needn’t have been so cautious. She was courteous and generous with her time, despite my interrupting her meal with friends.
For those who don’t know Fisher, she’s been a familiar face on Australian TV for the past couple of decades. Yet she struggled to make it. Her grandparents and parents immigrated to Australia from Italy after World War II, at a time when Australia was inviting Europeans to help their nation grow. First generation Australian-born, she grew up in humble surroundings in the small town of Adelaide, in South Australia. In her bilingual household, she grew accustomed to the immigrant mindset: “work hard, make money.” Creativity and time for writing poetry, and putting on plays, was not encouraged. Nevertheless, the sparkle of footlights and the words of Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde found their way into her heart.
She’s certainly not loud or brash, but heads turn as she casually pulls off her sunglasses and waves a hand over her hair to control some stray strands. “You’re early!” she exclaims, giving away her Aussie accent. I explain that I am neurotically early for everything, and she leans over to give me a warm hug.
Fisher blames her Australian upbringing for her frankness and her Italian heritage for her passion and hand gesturing during conversations. She also is not cagey about sharing her difficult upbringing: the violence, abuse, and a general crushing of childhood dreams. Perhaps her openness comes from the fact that she has been working on a play and a book to cathartically expel some of the hurts. Or, as she puts it, to “articulate the damage unbalanced family dynamics can have on a child, so that clarity can lead to knowledge, which in turn can lead to healing.”
She tells me she’s been “acting professionally for nearly thirty years.” Then she winks and flashes a smile, whispering through her voluptuous lips, “which I know is impossible, given I’m only twenty-five.” Yet, she has found time to work around the globe, having starred in Alan Bennett’s Kafka’s Dick at The Garrick Theatre in London. As a film producer, Fisher has been to the Cannes Film Festival and acted in New York in theater and film. She sits before me taking in the room and looking as impressed as I am by the view. “My, ain’t she grand?” Tania exclaims.
Her admiration for Jerry Lewis then comes up early in our conversation, as he always does.
How did you get into acting?
I knew that would be one of your questions! I’ve thought about this. I’m not sure I have a definitive answer, so I’ll just give it to you as best as I think I can remember it or recognize it. I know that, for me, it really was natural. Thank God for television. I know many actors will romantically tell you they were taken to the theater every week or to the movies, but I didn’t come from that type of family, socioeconomically speaking. But we had TV, and I can’t explain it, but I was drawn to watching the old black-and-white movies. We had a black-and-white TV, so it wasn’t a problem. I found them intriguing and engaging, and then I would see the credits and see some of the same names over and over again. I was only seven or eight years old, but I noticed I kept seeing Edith Head for costumes, or David O. Selznick as producer, and so on. And I just started taking notice, and learned who the actors were and what other things they had done.
I guess this kind of obsession or attraction to these old movies, from such a young age, is perhaps what inspired me to teach myself to speak with an American accent. I thought the movies were America. I would impress my older brother’s friends by doing different accents and they laughed. So, you know, as an eight-year-old kid you’re getting positive attention, so I kept it up and just learned more accents.
Then, in primary school–I was like seven or eight, I guess–I used to make my classmates join me in plays I had put together. I convinced the teacher to let me take up class time to perform them. These were little five-minute plays that I would just make up, but I ended up doing one every couple of weeks. Just one of those things, I guess. Something inside you that tells you, “This is what you have to do.”
We better get this out of the way now, because I know it’s going to come up. You love Jerry Lewis. Can you tell me how he’s influenced you or your career?
Yes, I love him! I have since I was about eight years old. I was a bit of a clown at school, and one time I remember they were playing some classical instrumental music, and I started doing actions and mouthing nonsensical words to kind of match the feeling of the music. Then, many months later I saw the Jerry Lewis film, The Errand Boy, where he sits at the table in the boardroom and basically does the same thing to a Count Basie number. I freaked out! I couldn’t believe there was this guy who had the same idea as me, or vice versa I guess. I just related to him so much.
Then as I grew older, I saw all of his films several times and learned more about him. Australia never knew about all his work with muscular dystrophy, the whole “Jerry’s Kids” thing, and the telethons. We never got them. We got Sunday afternoon matinee shows in the ‘80s on TV, which were the Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis movies. Years later, we discovered they were on a TV show together; years after that, we learned that they started out playing Vegas. So, Australia got it all in reverse.
Anyway, I just realized how professional and talented and skilled he really was. For that funny, well-timed gag or expression–that you sit on your couch and laugh at for three seconds–he’d been working for hours every day for a week getting it just right. It was always about the work and always about what he could give to the audience. Professionalism. Some people found him hard, you’ve probably heard about his occasional “chewing out blasts”–but you’ve got to understand, he was so professional, and working at such a high level that when he was faced with incompetence, he just couldn’t tolerate it. He did the work. He brought everything to the table. And when someone you’ve hired does something unprofessional–I’m with him–they deserve to be chewed out.
He would never let a crew down. He knew how long it took to get that lighting just right, and rig those cables, and the dozens of other people it took to get the set ready. He respected the whole process and loved knowing about all of it and how it was done. He invented Video Assist. No film shoot for anything is ever without it. I mean how innovative is that? He was looking through the camera as a director and came up with this idea and made it.
I’ve always strived to be as professional as him—and, to me, a big part of that is being courteous and respectful of every person on set. On any set, I make sure that by the end of the shoot I have memorized everyone’s name, and I talk to each person during the shoot. That’s something Jerry Lewis always strived for. He always came prepared, had done the work, and was ready.
Speaking of knowing about the other facets of filmmaking, you also have experience in producing, casting, writing and directing, as well as being a voiceover artist, since you were fifteen. Can you tell me how this all came about?
Sure. The casting experience came about through a feature film I was coproducing, and, given my experience, the executive producer asked me to cast it. I’d been to enough auditions to know what to do! So, from my end, I was looking at the actors to see how prepared and professional they were, apart from their talent. I was looking more at their attitudes and asking myself, “Can I work with this person for eight hours on a set?”
The producing came about through working with independent filmmakers. That’s just all about money and passion. That side of it is believing in the project and then working your ass off to get it up and running.
Directing actors is something I even did in high school, for school plays. I had the opportunity to direct a show that some of the younger students were putting on. From that early age–I was maybe fourteen or fifteen–I realized it was a good thing for an actor to do: to see that other side of it–to learn how to speak to actors, and know how to handle personalities and egos. Also to respect their individual creative processes.
What was the other one? Oh voice overs! Yes. Started out when I was 15. You know that’s one of those things that really was fate just making it happen. I was doing school-enforced work experience. You have to remember, I grew up in a small town in a country with no respect for the arts. So, the only work experience available was helping out in a nursing home, which I did do one year. I also helped out in a public relations office. While I was there, I was clearly more interested in the commercials they were putting together, so they let me spend time with the guy who was editing them. And it was great, because while I was sitting there, I learned all about editing–the old style, you know, with the tapes on a roll, and the splicer. Anyway, he thought I had a nice voice, and he needed a young person to do a voiceover for the Australian Dental Association commercial he was putting together. That was it. It was so funny; when I told my parents about it, my dad accompanied me to the recording studio. He was being protective, you know, worried that it might have been the whole “casting couch” scenario. But, while we were there, he was impressed. He sat outside the booth on a luxurious couch and watched me do my thing. For an Italian immigrant, who has never had anything to do with the arts, this was such a unique and interesting experience for him. It was a whole other world. I did a few more voiceover jobs after that, but again, small town, so not that many opportunities!
When I think about it now though, only because you’ve just asked me, I used to make up different voices for all my stuffed animals, or the sock puppets I used to make–people don’t know this but I’m an excellent puppeteer!
They will now.
Thanks, but I’m not sure how much work there is out there for sock puppeteers.
Any other skills I should know about?
Mmm. I can juggle three balls, does that count?
Nope. I’m afraid not. What about your writing, can we talk about that?
You’re a published poet, screenwriter of feature films, author of children’s stories, and had various industry-related articles published across the globe. Currently, you are a theater reviewer for Stage Buddy. What got you into writing?
Another one of those natural things that came to me as a child. I found language and comprehension very easy and always excelled in this area at school. I used to write what I thought were amazingly thoughtful and insightful sentences on pieces of paper and have them scattered on my desk in my bedroom. Also I grew up in an Italian family. My family immigrated from Italy and spoke Italian among themselves, with some broken English. So words like “libro” connected for me–“libro” meaning book, and therefore, the English word “library” made sense. This kind of knowledge was all self-taught, just from simply listening and observing.
But in addition to this, I was also a real listener and observer. I loved listening to and watching the grown-ups talk. Playing with the other kids was boring. I loved sitting quietly off to a corner and watching them. I would sit there, unnoticed, studying everything about them: their mannerisms, the reactions of those not talking, the references they made. A lot of that is probably my natural intuitive acting study, but also it really helped me with my writing. Not just scenarios and characters, but some of those references. For example, they might reference Shakespeare, or not just him, maybe Romeo and Juliet, and then I’d go off to my school library and find out about more about him and the plays (days before the Internet, remember).
What got me into writing? Maybe just the way to get ideas, thoughts, and expressions out. I guess that’s why anyone writes. I think it started with stories. You read stories, you hear references, then get inspired to write your own. I think that’s how it happened. I know I liked poetry because it was so free-form, and it was saying something without really saying something–but you were really saying something! Like a beautiful painting, or a piece of music, you could create a rhythm and a pace and an ambience to that moment of expression. With no real rules. That’s what I liked about it. It wasn’t straight-out fact; it was more an expression of thoughts or ponderings.
Writing for Stage Buddy and being a theater reviewer is a wonderful way to be much more disciplined in your writing. I mean that in a good way. You would know what I mean here. As a journalist, you’d know. Get the opening hook, give the right information, a little flare here, a running theme, and a conclusion. It’s good to have those different experiences of writing disciplines with different boundaries. I really enjoy it. I also, of course, love seeing all the theater New York has to offer!
You’ve been an actor, screenwriter, film producer, theater reviewer, but is there any one direction you wished panned out more than the other?
The short answer is just that they’re all part of my skill set as a person, and it’s important to make sure you explore all the possibilities of what you can do in your life, with what you’re given.
Acting was always my first love, since I was a small child, and I’ve certainly always had a natural affinity for it. At fourteen, I got a standing ovation, when I went to take my bow at the end of a performance. That’s big. Australians are not demonstrative like that at all. Not like Americans! And the Brits are worse, as you know. But when I performed with the Garrick Theater and went to the bar thinking no one would know me, there were people pushing through the crowd to get to me, to tell me how much they loved what I did.
But all those other skills have somehow culminated into something that has actually helped me with my acting, from how to get the best look for the camera, to understanding script writing. I can recognize a good script and take and give good direction. I can recognize good direction and understand how editing can make or break a scene, and I know about producing and casting.
The long answer is that you don’t know what the future holds. You might be an amazing actor, and believe me, the industry is full of them, really. But what you can’t guarantee is the type of work that is available to you at any given time. You might have a personal plan of being a great action hero, or a great comedic actor, or a stupendous dramatic actor, seeing yourself in heart-wrenching, Oscar-worthy roles. But what might happen is that you may never have that type of role coming your way. You may get a few TV commercials, you may get a regular role on a TV show, you may keep getting guest spots on TV shows–you just don’t know for sure, and that’s the point. You need to be prepared for that level of disappointment and not allow it to turn into a disappointment; just accept that what you think you should be doing may not pan out. Your focus should be on the work.
Watch any TV show or movie, then see that actor in a supporting role who is pretty good and you might have seen him in something else before. Then Google him, look up his IMDb. You soon discover this person has like a hundred acting credits to his name. And you see he’s been constantly working for thirty years. This is my point. That actor may be just as good as, or even better than, the famous actors on the magazine covers and in the tabloids. It really does come down to opportunity, fate, your particular look, and the availability of types of roles–all of that stuff. When you’re choosing to say you’re becoming an actor, you have to accept that there can be no definite plan about the type of acting career you’ll have. You might end up in theater, you might end up doing only TV, you might get a great movie part, you might do voice work–it’s never a clear path. You have to know that if you want to be an actor that you must want the acting work, not fame, not specific roles, not a specific type of career; you have to absolutely just want to act and love the acting process.
Someone like my friend Roger Hendricks Simon comes to mind. I’m sure he’d agree with me on this. He’s the founder and teacher of The Simon Studio here in New York City. I’ve written a few articles about this guy. He’s like an elder of the industry, from the old school, you know. He’s been acting for a lifetime. But he’s also been an amazing director, worked with the famous old-time actors in England and here, and he teaches, but he also works just about around the clock as an actor. He is still so sought after. He loves it. He loves acting, he loves teaching, and he loves directing, and this guy’s still doing it all. A lot of really famous actors credit him with their success. That’s a great example of where a career path can go.
So, further to that, I guess to circle back to my initial answer: you need to be open to accessing all of your skills. Some of those skills that you have may not even be relatable to the movie or theater industry. That’s OK. It’s part of who you are, and you should always honor that. That’s what will make you happy and content in your life in the end.
Think about this: Some superbly talented child actors, work in their teens, maybe early twenties, and then finally decide it’s not their bag, and they become used car salesmen–and they are incredibly happy. They didn’t fail; they had a spin and enjoyed it, and now they just want to do something else. And that goes the other way in life, too. Look at Seinfeld’s “Morty,” the guy who played Jerry Seinfeld’s dad, Barney Martin. He was an NYPD Detective for twenty years–but he also had this amazing acting career working alongside the likes of Tony Randall and Liza Minnelli.
So, I think your question about wishing if one thing panned out more than the other just comes down to acceptance of how life happens, and what you can bring to the table to make your life interesting and valuable. You want to be able to say that there are no regrets on a “road not taken,” or that you had “unfinished business to explore.” I’m still exploring untapped resources within myself. We’re not one-dimensional creatures. I think that’s especially important for people, particularly in this industry. Spend time contemplating and meditating on them. Otherwise, you put this crazy, very specific pressure on yourself that will only leave you disappointed and disillusioned.
Do you have any advice for those starting out in the industry?
Yes, for sure! Apart from talent, skill and all the other qualities a successful actor needs, they need to have tenacity. Look at Peter Falk, great guy, I adored him. He had eye cancer as a kid, had a glass eye all his life. Of course, he got knocked back a lot, producers actually said to him, “Why should I hire you when I can get an actor with two eyes for the same price?” But that didn’t break him. And what’s more, he was so good, such a talent. Eventually, he did something that got him noticed. You should see the introduction to a short movie, Price of Tomatoes, he gets from Dick Powell on Dick’s TV Series, in the early ‘60s. You can see how impressed Dick is with him. And then you see the movie and the praise is so justified. He’s a great example of what talent and opportunity can do, but also tenacity.
Peter Falk ends up doing great feature films, working with Bette Davis, Spencer Tracy, Natalie Wood. He was this forceful team with John Cassavetes, Ben Gazarra, and Gena Rowlands; they did several amazing projects together, and actually each of them was either a guest star or directed episodes of Columbo later on. The other one that comes to mind is Agnes Moorehead. Most people immediately think about her as the mother-in-law from Bewitched. But again, she was a great actress who did spectacular work back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and she was part of a group with Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten. They did a whole bunch of projects together before going their separate ways. Another one is Jim Backus. I keep seeing him all the time when I’m watching old films; you’ve probably seen him as the dad in Rebel Without a Cause, but most people may only know him as the millionaire guy from Gilligan’s Island or the voice of Mr. Magoo. Look at his amazing and varied career. I could go on, but these are just some examples of where an “acting career” can take you, which is so often where you didn’t plan or hope to go.
But I also just believe if you’re that good, and you have access to opportunities, then you should never give up on something you really want, on something you really know to be your truth, on what you were put on this planet to do. I believe that kind of thing always reveals itself. And in turn, there are so many actors out there who are not good, and really should stop and do something else. In fact, it’s no revelation that there are even high-level celebrity actors who are continually getting big money but actually can’t act and probably shouldn’t. But you know, how did that happen for them? Fate? Opportunity? Just the right look and a need for the ethnicity gap that they fill? Possibly. Then there are a lot of actors, who are really good, who just don’t get the work. What can you say about that? Is there any definitive reason? So maybe they go off to play the parent on some Nickelodeon kid’s show, where they get no recognition, but they’re the most talented actor there. Or, they get occasional guest spots, or they go into producing, or writing, or whatever.
Maybe what I’ve been saying isn’t anything conclusive, but maybe that’s the point I’m trying to make: There’s no surefire, clear path to success, and you should clearly define what success is for you if you’re going to get into the acting industry. It has to be about respect for the art, back to doing what you are naturally talented at, and deciding what gives you the most pleasure. Having said all of that, it is important to not just think of being a great actor, but to also learn and experience other aspects of the industry, which we’ve talked about–that, incidentally, may very likely make you a better actor anyway. The stuff we talked about earlier: casting, producing, writing, directing. Look at all the actors in TV shows. How many of them end up producing and directing in their own shows? How many great actors started out writing their own material? How many great actors also become authors or painters or singers?
I would advise those starting out to really try to work out as early as possible if acting is absolutely what you must do. Notice I said, “must” and not “want”–there’s a difference.
Also, only listen to the right people. By that I mean only those whose opinions you really respect, those who actually know what they’re talking about. You may think it’s fun and magical being in a play, and it is, but if the compliments you’re getting are just from well-meaning friends and family, who are just there to support you, they’re probably not the right motivators. It’s when you’re working on the professional stage and getting good compliments from working industry people–then you know you’ve got something. Otherwise, you’re just another kid having a fun time doing a play.
Then, if you’re still up for the acting life, apart from studying at respectable schools and reading everything and watching everything, sign up for extra work immediately. I can’t stress this enough. And especially for those who work and study or have kids and a life and maybe have no time or money for classes and so on. Do extra work when you can. It’s the best way to start, and it’s the best way to get free training. In fact, they’re paying you for that training! Just understand why you’re there and respect the process. Doing extra work gives you that opportunity. There is a lot of waiting around as an actor, but even more so when you’re an extra. This is the time to learn. I always tell actors starting out: instead of making inane chitchat with the other extras, who want to tell you how great they are and what fabulous project is on the horizon that’s going to make them a star, turn your chair away from them, or better yet, try and get as close to the set as you’re allowed to and just watch. You’ll see how the pros do it, you’ll see how the camera has to be set up, you’ll see how the lights affect the scene, you’ll hear how the director works with the actor and observe the change the actor made–that’s the best acting training in the world (your hours of observation). It’s also a perfect opportunity to see if you’re made for this work, because a lot of new extras end up getting very tired and bored as the day goes on. It’s those who keep finding the energy to repeat the shot over and over again, with the same kind of gusto, who are the ones who have what it takes.
And it annoys the bageezus out of me when I see these wanna-be actors just sitting around complaining about their struggle, when they’re not doing this. They simply expect to finish an acting course, get an agent, and become a full time working actor. I’m from a country that had so little opportunities in this area, and from an upbringing that did all it could to quell my natural creativity. Yet, somehow I still managed some kind of mediocre recognition in the industry and, more importantly, had some amazing experiences. You’re in America, you’re American. Remember, I was the kid doing the American accent for laughs, wishing I was American. There are films and TV shows being shot in this city every five minutes, so why aren’t these newcomers doing extra work? I’m from a country that is lucky to make one feature film a year, and then it has to have a lead role taken by an American or a Brit, so that they can obtain financial backing from the American or British film companies. Other feature films are funded predominantly from independent sources. Then, when they’re a success they make a big fuss and say, “Wow, great Aussie film.” But yeah, thanks for no support while getting this film made in the first place! There is such little funding by the Australian Film Corporation and such little support, in general, in the Australian culture, when it comes to the arts. So this drives me nuts–I had to struggle against so many odds in Australia, and you’re sitting here and not taking advantage of all these great opportunities that are right at your feet.
For young actors, or those just starting out, really question why you’re trying to make it as an actor. If it’s for fame and awards and attending schmancy parties, well, that’s not good decision-making. This has been said before, but those people are doing it for the wrong reasons. Even more than that, it’s disrespectful. It’s disrespectful to the art, to the industry, to me, and to every other actor they might work with. How dare you do a job specifically to gain ulterior benefits from it. Your head should be in the frame you’re in and the work you’re doing now. If it’s an amateur play, an independent short film, or even playing an extra on a major feature film, whatever, you should be there for the work, for the experience, to learn as much as possible, and to enjoy as much as possible!
If you’re not willing to do the work–really willing to do it, and really love doing it, then acting probably isn’t your thing.
(c) 2018 by Lori Beedsler. All rights reserved.
Edited by Bob Shuman.
Photos: Tania Fisher, courtesy of the the actress; Alan Bennett, the Spectator; Edith Head, the Culture Concept Circle; Liza Minnelli, photo by Dan MacMedan/WireImage; Peter Falk, Decades; Roger Hendricks Simon, The Simon Studio