The 1990s saw a boom in multi-screen suburban cinemas – in 1985 there were just 167 screens in Australia’s suburbs; by 1995 there were 500 – and this was where my chronic movie-going was enabled. A Westfield shopping complex opened ten days shy of my tenth birthday, in nearby Tuggerah, and it changed the cultural landscape of the suburbs around my hometown. Housed within the complex was an eight-screen Greater Union multiplex. Movie attendance became a free babysitting opportunity while parents shopped. At the same time, Australians were also the biggest owners, per capita, of videocassette recorders in the world – another free babysitting service. I would spend my weekends cycling down to Top Video in Budgewoi to return home with a plastic bag of seven weekly rentals, the plastic bag tied precariously to the handles, the block-like cassette covers often knocking against the frame.
There might have been another reason that Hollywood had lodged in my head as a kid. When I was growing up my hometown harboured a longstanding rumour that the Texas-born actor Matthew McConaughey had gone to my high school. The likelihood of this being true felt slim at best. Gorokan High School, after all, is settled in a low- socioeconomic lakeside suburb of the central coast, a one-and-a-half-hour drive north of Sydney. It would have been an unlikely spot for an Australian celebrity to call their alma mater, let alone an American movie star of McConaughey’s stature.
The story, as I had heard it, was that McConaughey had been on a Rotary student exchange program – Rotary being one of the world’s largest community service organisations, having started in Chicago in 1905 – and was living with a host family out in the bush, and that he still sent letters and presents for birthdays to everyone in the family. There were, however, few ways to confirm all this detail back then. Even at the height of his mid-90s fame – when you could see his lithe, tanned face and slicked-back hair floating around video stores on VHS covers – it didn’t seem to hold much weight. After McConaughey’s fame took a dip when he failed to capitalise on the success of his breakout role in Joel Schumacher’s adaptation of a John Grisham courtroom potboiler, A Time to Kill (1996), the chance to confirm the story seemed long gone.
Then came what New Yorker critic Rachel Syme handily summarised as the McConaissance – a career renaissance for the actor. The McConaissance arguably took hold in 2011 with another legal thriller – The Lincoln Lawyer – and reached its peak in 2014, when McConaughey came out with the buzzy HBO limited series True Detective and won his Best Actor Oscar for the faux-prestige of the Dallas Buyers Club (2013). Rachel Syme figured that the McConaissance had an "unusually organic quality" to it, and perhaps that quality was what drove journalists to try and decode its origins. It certainly meant that there was enough intense and sustained interest for Australian journalists to go digging into his rumoured local connections and so there, at last, was that longed-for corroboration: McConaughey had indeed attended my shithole of a public high school (I use ‘shithole’ with the utmost affection – it’s a shithole, but it’s my shithole and it’s a proudly public shithole too). McConaughey had attended Gorokan High for about five months in Australia’s bicentennial year – 1988 – while living in glorious Warnervale (Warnies to the locals). I knew Warnies intimately, largely for its train station – it was my gateway to Sydney throughout young adulthood – and for the fact it was basically one large failed real estate tract. McConaughey looked the part, too, in photographic evidence of his stay uncovered by news sites. The proof shows an impossibly tanned McConaughey smiling into the camera, holding a can of Foster’s (the famous Australian beer that no Australian drinks), while a friend clutching a can of Tooheys Draught grins fawningly at the future movie star in drunken stupor.
In 2020, McConaughey released his memoir Greenlights, which went into surprising detail about his time in Australia. (McConaughey visited the Gorokan school library – a place where I bunkered for many afternoons discovering the usual under-undergraduate Americana – to borrow a copy of the poems of Lord Byron, which he took home and masturbated to.) His stay in Warnervale reads like a high-school remake of Wake in Fright, with McConaughey relentlessly antagonised by his ‘host father’, to the point he put his fist through his bedroom door and retracted it ‘bloody and pierced from shards of plywood’1. The most hyper-localised stretch of the book details the beginning of this fraught relationship, in which McConaughey describes the drive from Sydney airport, where the father of his host family progressively lied to him about where they were going. As the outskirts of the city faded behind them, he insisted that they lived in Sydney, then just outside of Sydney, then Gosford, then Toukley, before finally coming clean and admitting they lived in Warnervale as they turned up a dirt road and to their driveway.
As McConaughey was driven across the Harbour Bridge, one of the Sydney turn-offs he was forced to skip would have taken him to Longueville, the languid, leafy north shore Sydney harbourside suburb, only two suburbs back from Greenwich, where Peter Finch had spent his childhood. Longueville was a conservative stronghold and home to one of Australia’s acting giants. The young Kidman family felt like outsiders. Antony was active in supporting the Labor Party. Janelle was involved in the Women’s Electoral Lobby and there was a political dynamic to dinner table conversation. Their daughter Nicole Kidman would be roped into handing out how-to-vote cards on polling day – a ‘doomed duty’ as the novelist Thomas Keneally put it in an early profile of the actor published by the New York Times. To avoid detection from her peers, Kidman would don a baseball cap, and pull it down to cover her face.
Born in Hawai‘i in 1967 – just two years older than McConaughey – Nicole Kidman naturally rewires the internal logic of a history of Australian actors, for the simple fact that she had shared American citizenship by birth. It was as if the movements of her future career, gliding back and forth between the two countries, were predestined. Her parents – Antony and Janelle – had been living in Honolulu, where Antony was a graduate student at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. The young, mobile family were bound for Washington DC – for further study, and often found attending anti-war demonstrations – before returning home to settle in Sydney where they would raise their two children in upper- middle-class surrounds. They were an ambitious Sydney family. Kidman’s father, like Peter Finch’s, was an author with a scientific background – Antony was a psychologist and biochemist, and his books included the self-help titles How to Change Your Life: Tactics for Moving from Thought to Action and Staying Sane in the Fast Lane: A Guide. The Kidmans’ first daughter was something of a child prodigy, keenly pursuing her unusual childhood hobby, acting. Her sense of separation from mainstream Australian activities was evident from the start of her life. Due to her fair skin, she wasn’t allowed to sit on the beach during the midday sun, and was instead permitted to make a sandwich and retire to bed with a book of her choosing, a kind of Proust of the north shore.
Kidman credited her parents’ personal library for her interest in acting. In that childhood home, Kidman would become the characters within the pages she read. She moved on to plays next, and inhabited every role in Chekhov. She took her private enthusiasms public when she was drawn to weekend study in the city, signing up to acting classes at the Phillip Street Theatre, and later moving across to the Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP). In this version of Sydney, Peter Finch’s aspirations for a children’s theatre and an acting school had been realised. At ATYP Kidman performed in a revival of Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening – a popular play for youth theatre groups given its ample cast of teenage characters to fill. Wedekind’s erotically charged morality tale works as the Kidman urtext – stepping into Wedekind’s world at 14 was a powerful premonition of her later transition to starring in two adaptations of works by Arthur Schnitzler, a close contemporary of Wedekind, 15 years later: The Blue Room on the stage and Eyes Wide Shut in cinemas. Kidman has long thrived on outré European sensibilities – working from under the Brechtian layers piled upon her by the likes of Lars von Trier and Yorgos Lanthimos – and queer American camp. She would play a crazed woman who would urinate on Zac Efron’s character to take the bite out of a jellyfish sting for Lee Daniels’ pulpy, homoerotic The Paperboy (2012) and she recalled working on the Wedekind play with Daniels for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine:
… in that, I had to ask the boy to beat me, in the amazing scene where she finds a switch and tells him to hit her with it. Because she is sort of confused as to why she was feeling pleasure. And at 14 to be dealing with that subject matter was really extraordinary for me.
Sitting in the theatre, watching the 14-year-old onstage, was the New Zealand–born director Jane Campion, who hoped to cast Kidman in her final student film – A Girl’s Own Story – at the Australian Film Television School. It was not meant to be. There have been conflicting stories as to exactly why not – some suggest the headmistress at North Sydney High intervened, refusing to let Kidman take the time off to participate in case it distracted her from schoolwork. If the story is true, she needn’t have been concerned about Kidman’s schooling; she would drop out before her final year. Kidman herself later told the Hollywood Reporter that she was the one to pull out of Campion’s project, not wanting to wear a ‘shower cap on my hair and kiss a girl’. Upon learning of Kidman’s refusal of the offer, Campion sat down and wrote to the young actor on the back of a postcard, kindly suggesting, ‘I think you made the right decision and I hope one day we will work together. Be careful with what you do, because you have real potential’. Campion went a step further: ‘Protect your talent’. It was a potent message to pass on to a 14-year-old.
Campion was not alone in wanting to give Kidman advice. It seemed many had invested concerns for her career direction. Another director warned her off attending the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA). He told her: ‘Don’t go; they’ll destroy you’.2
NIDA was established in 1958 as a theatre school, but the Australian New Wave soon fished some of its leading stars from the alumni pool, including Mel Gibson and Judy Davis. It must have been difficult for Kidman to resist signing up. One of the central keys to understanding Kidman is acknowledging her persistent enthusiasm for study. At the height of her early global stardom, she would be found in the Lake District taking a Wordsworth-inspired poetry course. Even when she had made it to America, with a decade’s worth of film credits behind her in Australia, she was still signing up for acting classes. The fact that she fronted up to the Actors Studio in New York could be read as her attempt to legitimise – or, indeed, Americanise – her style, but it also serves to confirm her status as the forever student.
This is an extract from Sam Twyford Moore's Cast Mates: Australian Actors in Hollywood and at Home, which is on sale 1 July at the ACMI Shop.
Join us for the book launch on Friday 21 July.
Sam Twyford-Moore is a writer and cultural critic. His first book, The Rapids: Ways of Looking at Mania, was published by NewSouth Publishing and the University of Toronto Press in North America.
- Matthew McConaughey, Greenlights, Headline Publishing Group, 2020, p. 80.
- Tim Ewbank and Stafford Hildred, Nicole Kidman: The Biography, Headline Book Publishing, 2002, p. 49.