“I won’t do another doormat”
Frayed's Kerry Armstrong wants roles for women over 60 to be complex, strong & inspirational.
Actor Kerry Armstrong gave her agent a directive. No more doormat roles.
“I want the women that I see …my mum, my friends, I want to put them on the screen now. They are wild and unimaginably strong. They are leading us into places of great warmth, dignity, curiosity, humour,” she reveals.
“I’ve said to my agent, ‘I won’t do another doormat, I won’t do another dummy.’
“I want to start to do roles that are challenging, but I want to start to see women who are actually making the world a much more interesting and worthwhile place. I want girls in our lives to stop worrying about their eyebrows, and start wondering about their souls and their hearts and their minds. I deeply and utterly want to stay in Australia and work here and not be tempted again to go overseas.
“I’m looking at my counterparts over there and the roles that they’re doing are fascinating. Whereas here we’re still just a little bit clunky. It’s fine in your 40s and 50s but it seems to me that late 50s, 60s, 70s, grandma, wife, friend, is just one thing we do.”
Armstrong is currently appearing in Season 2 of ABC Comedy Frayed, written by and starring Sarah Kendall.
The ’80s-set comedy set in Newcastle (and London) sees Armstrong resume her role as family matriarch Jean, a complex, formidable woman trying to stay sober, who is mother to prodigal daughter Sammy (Kendall) and man child son Jim (Ben Mingay). It’s a role that inspired her as soon as she read the script.
“She’s one of the most wonderful characters I’ve ever been lucky enough to play. I have to dig deep every time, mainly because everybody else is so funny that every time Jean walks onto the set it’s like Schroeder in Peanuts -the character who walks around with a dark cloud over their head!” she tells TV Tonight.
“I’m so used to being the funny one of course, in Razzle Dazzle, or in SeaChange. I love humour. That’s probably one of my greatest strengths.”
“So many of our roles for women over 60s have been mums, grandmas”
She adds, “We’re starting to grow up and catch up to Europe, to Britain and to the States. So many of our roles for women over 60s have been mums, grandmas, next door neighbours, wives. To see a standalone character who is independent, incredibly intelligent, extraordinarily strong, authentic to her core, doesn’t wear a scrap of makeup, always worn the same clothes… hasn’t changed in any way for years and years is a wonderful thing.
“To have something that you know you could push against, it has to be as strong as a tree. Jean will not bend. She will not falter, and so hopefully you can see that in the second series.”
With Season 1 ending on an unexpected death, Season 2 shifts to a crime comedy with an ambitious cop (Hamish Michael) determined to uncover the killer. Meanwhile Sammy and her two teens, Lenny (Frazer Hadfield) and Tess (Maggie Ireland-Jones) head back to the UK to attempt to win back Sammy’s mansion from her previous lawyer (Robert Webb).
The cast also features Doris Younane, Matt Passmore, George Houvardas and Diane Morgan (Motherland, After Life).
Chameleon Armstrong recalls meeting Diane Morgan for the table reading.
“I had just come off SeaChange. So I had this very blonde hair, was tanned and I think I just had a pair of shorts and a T shirt, my hair in a ponytail. Diane said to me, ‘Who are you playing?’ I said ‘Jean’ and she said ‘That’s not right.’ But what she meant was I didn’t look anything like she would imagine,” she recalls.
“You went from this sunny, blonde-hair-in-a-pony with a big grin, to this incredibly gnarled-looking woman”
“She actually said to me afterwards,’Oh Kerry, all my friends just love what you do. I just couldn’t believe that you went from this sunny, blonde-hair-in-a-pony with a big grin, to this incredibly gnarled-looking woman.”
It would surprise less Aussies given Armstrong’s body of work extends back to the early 1970s, first on Australia’s last black-and-white drama, Marion and followed by work on The Sullivans, Prisoner, Skyways, All Together Now, Come In Spinner, Police Rescue, MDA, Bed of Roses, The Wrong Girl, Neighbours and film roles on Amy, Lantana, Oyster Farmer and Pawno.
Famously in the 1980s she also landed roles on Dynasty (pictured above) and Murder She Wrote. before returning to Australia.
“I was mostly trained in the States and by people with huge passion. I was very lucky to be next to Stanley Tucci, Pacino, Tim Robbins, Helen Hunt. We were encouraged to speak up,” she explains.
“I guess when I got back to Australia, I was still speaking up and at times I was probably a bit outspoken. Now I think voices have equal weight and there’s a respect amongst people.
“Actors are actually just as smart as you… for years sometimes it felt like you were a Lego piece, just being moved around the board by somebody. And that’s a misinterpretation. That’s not a director so much as as a kind of chess player.”
“You’ll see the times that I’ve needed to pay school fees or a mortgage”
Yet there have also been surprising detours, including appearances on reality television. Armstrong makes no apologies, confirming they were driven by financial demands.
“Dotted through my life, you’ll see the times that I’ve needed to pay school fees or a mortgage. You’ll see me dancing or eating spiders or whatever the hell I have to do,” she insists.
“I’m incredibly proud of those moments because they are the opposite of who Kerry is. I can’t bear the whole celebrity thing. That tag doesn’t fit me at all. But I really like that I will get down and get my hands dirty or my reputation sullied because my children are far, far more important.”
Her start in performing also began at a young age. Raised in Spain, she performed at the age of just 10 in a play of The Little Prince. It was such a pivotal moment, she even remembers a line of dialogue she can still recite.
“It’s only with the heart that one can see rightly. What’s essential is invisible to the eye,” she quips.
“I remember saying that out loud on stage, and had almost an epiphany.
‘The little girl’s a conduit”
“There was a talent scout there who told my parents, ‘The little girl’s a conduit.’ So I think you’re either a conduit or not.
“At the moment I’ve had such a big life and such an extraordinary life that I believe at this time in my life I’m here to, in some ways, hopefully tell stories that will be enlightening, illuminating, entertaining.
“I had Katharine Hepburn and Greer Garson and Julia Blake and all these incredible women in my life ahead of me. And I thought, ‘When I grow up, I want to be like them.'”
Frayed returns 9pm Wednesday on ABC.