Ray Meagher, actor, Priscilla Queen of the Desert
It’s an absolutely fantastic film, but I have to say in my opinion the stage show is much better than the movie – a much better night out. It’s amazing entertainment ...
If you grew up watching Australian television, there’s a good chance that the face of Ray Meagher is very familiar to you. This icon of the small screen has the pleasure of holding the Guinness World Record as the longest-serving actor in an Australian show, performing as Home & Away’s gruff but lovable bartender Alf Stewart for more than 30 years. Beyond his work as a resident of Summer Bay, Ray earned a name for himself as a star of stage as well as screen, earning acclaim as Bob the Mechanic in the original production of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. The musical adaptation of the beloved film has taken the world by storm, and Ray has performed the role many times since accepting the part in 2007. QPAC is currently hosting the production’s latest run until early November, and Ray has stepped back into the role while it’s in town. We caught Ray for a quick chat to talk about his storied career, and what makes Priscilla Queen of the Desert a must-see performance.
Thanks for chatting to me Ray! To start, I’d like to find out about how you first came to the world of acting. Growing up on a sheep and cattle station in Queensland, were you exposed to much in the way of dramatic performance?
No, not really – not at all. Early on I went to primary boarding school at Marist Brothers Eagle Heights, which is up at Mount Tamborine, and that was the first sort of look. I mean, it was a funny little school but it was great. Marist Brothers had a little farm up there so kids were encouraged care for an animal – a calf or a few chooks, or whatever it was. Boxing might have been compulsory, I think, so you had to fight in a very controlled environment with a very fit Marist brother. We were lined up and taught combinations of straight left, straight right, jump in, right cross, left hook – you’d learn these things in numbers and occasionally a kid would forget the sequence. As well as that, the first thing I ever did on stage was up there and it was playing the Wicked Witch in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. We also played rugby league up there at the time, so with a mixture of rugby, boxing, animal husbandry and the arts – it wasn’t bad for a little school up in the mountains.
So when would you say you caught the acting bug properly?
It was probably in the very early 70s. I played rugby in Brisbane for a long time, and there was a guy at the rugby club that I played for who did some amateur acting for the Brisbane Arts Theatre and Twelfth Night. He got a few guys to come along to a pantomime at the Twelfth Night – the first show in that current Bowen Hills building – and long story short I went along and had a bit in that. My bit was the rear end of the pantomime horse – a role in which I excelled, obviously. From under the canvas I’d hear people coming on and giving their all, and I used to subconsciously mark them out of ten. I didn’t know anything about it, but it didn’t stop me rating people’s performances. Somebody would come on and they did okay, but I’d think I could do as well as that, so the next time they had a show I auditioned and got a part. After that I did about five shows in a row at that theatre, that were all directed by a man called Bill Pepper, who went on to become one of the acting coaches at NIDA. I didn’t realise at the time that I was getting acting lessons from a very, very good teacher.
Was there a role that sold you on the idea of acting as a career?
Look, one of those plays was called The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht, and the guy playing Azdak – the lead character – was a NIDA graduate from the year before, a fellow called Mervin Drake. I saw him doing this role and he was terrific. I sort of thought, “You mean you can actually get paid for this?” The coin slowly dropped that you could do it for a living and that people didn’t just have a go while driving cabs, pulling beers or waiting tables. That being said, it’s an incredibly overcrowded industry and there are a lot very talented people who don’t get the opportunities that their abilities suggest they should.
Well, job security is clearly something that a lot of working actors strive for, and you’ve done very well for yourself having just notched 30 years on Home & Away. Did you envision yourself embodying a role so thoroughly that you’d stick with it for so long?
No, I didn’t. Initially I thought there might be three months work in Home & Away. For a start, I did the pilot between working on two miniseries – I was doing The True Story of Spit MacPhee with Sir John Mills who came out from the UK to do it. Then I had three weeks off before starting a series for the ABC called True Believers about the Ben Chifley-era of Australian politics. So the Home & Away opportunity came up and I thought, “Well, I’ve got three weeks – can’t hurt.” Most pilots crash and burn anyway and are never heard of again, so I did it, and then a little while later they said they were going to series and they wanted everyone to sign for two years. I didn’t agree with that – I thought it was a lifetime! Luckily I was doing a fair bit of stuff prior to that – things like Breaker Morant, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, and A Fortunate Life – a pile of either miniseries or movies that I had bits and pieces in, and I didn’t necessarily want to tie up two years. Eventually I talked with John Holmes who was the producer at the time and I agreed to do six months. (laughs) That six months flew and the thing didn’t crash and burn, it kept going fairly well. So I agreed to another six months, and then the next contract was three years and then they were in five-year allotments after that. I guess I got a little spoiled being able to work from home and not having to travel around the country for a job.
Has it been difficult to keep the role of Alf Stewart as creatively fulfilling and exciting for 30 years?
With soap opera, if you’re a long-term regular character you’re kidding if you think you’re going to be front-and-centre all of the time. We have a cast of somewhere between 20 and 23 actors, and obviously the bright burning stars are the young kids that come in who are, more often than not, are quite attractive and are incredibly talented. They’ll come in and do a three-year stint or a little bit more and then they can’t wait to stretch their wings and have a look at America. A few people have done it very successfully, like Chris Hemsworth and Isla Fisher.
You’re currently in town to perform in Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Do you recall your impressions of the film when you first saw it?
Yeah, I remember seeing it. Bill Hunter was a good friend of mine and he played the Bob role in the film. I remember thinking that here was another iconic Australian character that Hunter’s got – he did a very good job. The whole concept of three drag queens going from Sydney to Alice Springs on a bus was pretty amazing, and I don’t think we’d ever seen costumes like that before – particularly against the backdrop of the Australian outback. Then you weave that in with a few love stories along the way, like the middle drag queen having a son in Alice Springs and the love he has for the boy, I get a bit emotional when I talk about it, even. James, look, it’s an absolutely fantastic film, but I have to say in my opinion the stage show is much better than the movie – a much better night out. It’s amazing entertainment!
You first played Bob the Mechanic in 2007 for the original Sydney production of Priscilla, which you subsequently toured around the world with. Do you remember what first drew you to the role?
Yeah look, I remember exactly. Garry McQuinn, who was the original producer, phoned me and said Michael Caton – who played the character originally in Sydney – needed a few weeks out and could I come in and do it for a couple of weeks. I was pretty busy and I said to Garry I was flattered, but no thanks. He asked me if I had seen the show, to which I’d replied that I’d seen the movie. He said, “No, have you seen the stage show?” I said no, and he asked me to do him a favour before I made up my mind and go with him to see it. Anyway, I did that – we’d been sitting there only ten minutes and I thought, “My god, how long has this been going on? You gotta have a bit of this.” The other thing that happened in the first half of that show, Garry must have been in the first stages with the company who put it on in London, and he leaned over to me and asked if I’d be interested in doing the show in London. I said, “Mate, I haven’t stuffed it up for you in Sydney yet – let’s just see how we go!” (laughs) So, the rest is history. I ended up doing two stints in London – one was about six months long – and when I had just got back to Home & Away they phoned me and said they weren’t going to let the show peter out in the West End, they were going to have a controlled closing at the end of the third year and go out with a bang. They asked if I would come back and do the last four months, which I did!
What has been the biggest hurdle or challenge participating in a production like this?
(laughs) That’s very easy for me, James – I can’t sing or dance! I do have to! I mean, Bob’s not an all-singing, all-dancing mechanic – thank god. He does have a couple of verses of ‘A Fine Romance’ and the most challenging thing is getting through those verses each time without people throwing things. So far, we’ve managed it!
Finally, with a career as storied as yours its probably impossible to pick a highlight, but what is it about your career as a whole that you’re most proud of?
It is very difficult, but going back about there was a telemovie called Mail Order Bride for the ABC about another iconic Australian character who lived in the bush and wrote to a Phillipino girl and eventually got her out here. It was a movie that won Best Movie and I was able to win Best Performance by and Actor in a Lead Role, and that was before the AFI’s included anything to do with television. The awards were called the Penguin Awards – before that area of the business was included. It was a really good story, and that’s definitely a highlight. In terms of fun and both artistic and financial success, Breaker Morant was another one I was proud to be a part of. You couldn’t have this list without mentioning Home & Away – it opened up so many opportunities in different areas. On stage, it’s clear and cut and dry – Priscilla. There are quite a few, I start thinking about it and there’s a lot I’m proud of.