Caroline O’Connor has performed on Broadway and London’s West End, danced at the Tony Awards and played Nini Legs in the Air in the Baz Luhrmann film Moulin Rouge. The performer, who was born in England and grew up in Sydney, has been awarded for her roles in Chicago, West Side Story and Man of La Mancha. She is back in Australia playing two roles in Dream Lover, the musical on the life of Bobby Darin, alongside David Campbell as the American crooner. O’Connor, 53, chatted to me about what’s on her bucket list and shares her advice for anyone aiming to be an entertainer.
Tell me about your roles as Polly and Mary Douvan in Dream Lover.
I will be playing Bobby Darin’s grandmother. And then also the mother of his first wife. So there will be two totally different characters, which is going to be amazing fun for me.
Is it difficult to transition into two different roles?
I don’t think so. I did Bombshells: I played six different women from the ages of 15 to 53. My whole career has been based on playing characters anyway. I don’t think I’ve ever done a role where I’ve played someone like myself. I’ve never used my own accent … I’ve just always created a character, who talks a certain way or a certain speed or a certain accent.
How did you prepare for these roles?
Well, the best thing is that these people were real and that always makes it easier. When you play a fictional character, you have to just come up with stuff yourself and then believe in it. [When the people were real] it’s just discovering if she dressed well, if she didn’t, if she came from a poor family, what the fashion was like at the time, if she was a happy person, if she was a very sad person. So I get to do all that research, read the autobiographies and really try and find out about these women and bring them back to life.
What attracted you to the roles of these two women?
I think the fact that I’d get to be challenged, as an actor, to do two diverse women. I adore musicals. I think that they’re sometimes underrated as far as the demands of a musical are concerned … It’s [much harder] to go from dialogue to a song and song to dialogue than it is just to do dialogue.
You are a singer, a dancer and an actress. Which of those genres do you prefer the most?
I’ll always be mad for dance because that’s how it began for me. But I have to say, the older I get, the more I realise that whenever I’ve worked … I have to inhabit that person and become her. If I’m going to be Fanny Brice, a comedian, then I have be inhabit that physicality of her being a comedian and also vocally use the accent, use the personality of the person.
How did you start in dance and musical theatre?
My parents came from Ireland [so] they sent me off to Irish dancing classes. That’s how it started. And then, by the time I was 15, I went to Dublin, I got third in the world for Irish dancing … I auditioned for Oklahoma when I was about 20 and I got into the show [and] I thought, ‘This is where I’m meant to be.’ I feel so fortunate because a lot of young people, that doesn’t happen to them, where they find the job that they love.
You’ve been called the queen of musical theatre. What has been your biggest achievement to date?
After Dream Lover, I’m going back to Broadway to do my third Broadway show. It is going to be Anastasia, which is based on the animated film Anastasia.
You have worked on Broadway and the West End. What has been your most challenging role?
I did Funny Girl about 17 years ago and when they rang up and said, ‘Do you want to do it again?’ I thought, ‘Oh gosh, that’s hard.’
Why is Funny Girl so hard?
It’s a really big role. I sing 11 numbers and she is off-stage just for literally maybe 30 seconds at a time.
What was it like to part of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge?
Doing Moulin Rouge was a really big deal because I had never done a film before that.
What did you learn from your time on set?
Camera angles, how you get a person worked up and ready for the scene. It was fabulous. It was one of the best learning experiences I’ve had.
What was it like working with Baz Luhrmann?
He is incredible and the most amazingly supportive and inspiring person when you’re on the set with him. He is just so excited about it all. It’s wonderful. You can see how much he adores what he does.
Were you excited to hear that Moulin Rouge is heading to the stage?
So excited to hear about it because, to be perfectly honest, since we made the film, I always thought it would be the perfect vehicle as a stage musical – it has all the ingredients to make a brilliant stage musical, so it’s incredibly exciting. I just wish I was 20 years younger so I could be in it again!
Will you be part of the production?
I should probably think not, unfortunately – unless I get a comedy cameo somehow! I would be happy to give any advice or any help if anybody would like to have any, but I will definitely be in the audience.
Is there a role or a character that’s on your bucket list?
I really want to do more plays, but I should have to just wait and see if that’s going to happen. I would love, love, love to do shows like Hello Dolly and Mame – classic shows. I’d love to do a play called The Lion in Winter and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. They’re two I’d love to do. [And] I think I’d like to [teach] master classes or something.
What would be your best piece of advice to someone starting out in the industry?
People will take criticism or direction personally, rather than professionally. They can’t help it, their ego gets hurt. But I think that’s one thing I try and say to students is when you get a ‘no’ or you get corrected, you’ve got to realise that it’s about the work, it’s not about you personally … The other would be to not plan anything – you can’t. You never know what they’re going to produce or what’s going to come up next, you’ve just got to go with the flow, expect the unexpected and be prepared for whatever might come up.
WE WENT TO Fourth Village Providore, Mosman
WE ATE Vanilla and Chocolate Cannolis and Raspberry Ricotta Cake
WE DRANK English Breakfast Tea and a Flat White.
CAROLINE WORE a Carla Zampatti jacket and silk blouse from Marcs
Photography by Daniel Munoz
Dream Lover opens on September 22 at the Sydney Lyric theatre; from $69.90.