20 July, 2024
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Mum’s the word for Celeste Barber’s former drama teacher turned co-star


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A couple of decades back, Adelaide actor and drama teacher Genevieve Mooy had the larger-than-life Celeste Barber in her acting class. Barber ­­was funny and charismatic, entertained everyone non-stop, and was clearly going to be a star.

At the end of the course at Nepean in Sydney, Mooy – one of the kindest people you could meet – had a quiet word with her and offered some advice she thought might help.

“I said, ‘You’re exhausting the other people in the room. You need to make room for them; you need to focus more on what you’re trying to do’,” Mooy says.

Fast forward to Wellmania, the new Netflix series starring Barber as food critic and party girl Liv Healy, whose dream job on a US television food show is derailed by a sudden health crisis, leading her to become obsessed with getting well. Barber, who is also an executive producer on the series, naturally wanted Mooy to play her mum, Lorraine.

“I love that!” Mooy told InReview on the eve of the launch. “I was trying to rein her in back then, and that’s what the character has to do, against enormous odds. So I play it pretty straight – I’m trying to be her mother with all that she gets into.”

The job came out of nowhere last year and took Mooy to Sydney, her old town, where, after graduating from NIDA, she had parts in the definitively Australian movie The Dish, with Sam Neill, and a regular role on the satirical series Frontline. There was a lot to catch up on and Mooy loved the challenge, even filming on location during almost constant Sydney rain, with strict COVID protocols in place.

“You were terrified of getting it and infecting the whole cast,” says Mooy. “I got it on the last day of shooting – we were in a huge hall with a brass band with hundreds of people.”

Genevieve Mooy with Celeste Barber and Lachlan Buchanan in Wellmania. Photo: Netflix

The set was demanding but fun. Mooy says Barber – who first found fame parodying celebrities and models in photos on Instagram ­– really is an extraordinary Australian talent.

“She is a whirlwind; incredibly flexible and agile, very funny, and her work ethic is phenomenal.”

The Wellmania writing team was headed by author and journalist Benjamin Law, working with writers including Brigid Delaney, who was here recently for Adelaide Writers’ Week and wrote the book Wellmania, an entertaining first-hand exploration of wellness culture that inspired the Netflix series.

Mooy says the writing in the television show is exceptionally sharp and the series has a lot of drama and emotion.

“It was a very interesting part to play because there is a lot of crying, a lot of drama, as well as comedy. She [Liv Healy] has got this thing she is trying to do and she’s also got a secret that she is trying to deal with, and there is tragedy in the family. So there is this other side.”

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Mooy is a rare example of an actor who has been in steady work over three decades. She and husband Steve moved to Adelaide 12 years ago and, if anything, it boosted her recognition and career in film, TV and on stage.

“Adelaide really helped me with work,” she says. “I got into teaching, and when you’re in teaching, you’re connected to the craft, the artform, and that got me some lovely work with State Theatre Company.”

She also picks up regular roles in film and TV, including on the series Rosehaven, which filmed in Tasmania, and on productions based in South Australia. In the SA shoot for the South African feature film Escape from Pretoria (2020), starring Daniel Radcliffe, she played the mother of one of three political prisoners who manage to escape. In Never Too Late – which had a roll call of stars including Jacki Weaver, Roy Billing, Shane Jacobson and the late UK actor Dennis Waterman – she played the cook in the nursing home from which the patients break out.

Mooy says it can be tough walking onto a set like Never Too Late to play a smaller role when everything else is in place.

Finding ‘the tone’

“You have to find the tone, the entry point, and it took me a day and a night to work out how to inveigle myself into the role. They never have rehearsal. You just have to be across it; you’ve got to do a lot of work.”

Never Too Late was also tough because the director, Mark Lamprell, was dealing with overseas film stars, including US actor James Cromwell (Babe, Succession), who were highly experienced and confident about asking for what they wanted. Meanwhile, Waterman (Minder) flirted with her madly.

“He was actually a fantastic support and he was having fun, flirting,” she says. “He was outrageous, from another era.”

Genevieve Mooy as Coral Browne.

One of Mooy’s biggest acting accomplishments was her mastery of the one-woman show Coral Browne: This F ***ing Lady, written by Adelaide playwright and actor Maureen Sherlock and performed at the Adelaide Fringe, followed by a season in Melbourne. For a start, Mooy looks uncannily like Browne, a tough-as-nails actress from Footscray who was successful on the London stage and later as a movie star in Hollywood, where she married actor Vincent Price. Interest in the play has been strong and Sherlock has been in talks with a Melbourne producer about turning her script into a film.

Mooy says the challenge for This F***ing Lady was about being confident and match-fit enough to be on stage alone with no one else to rely on.

“You can’t allow yourself to doubt, that is the main spine work,” she says. “You have to build your scaffolding to allow yourself to be able to fly. The play was very much about vocal rhythm, getting that articulation and just allowing it to flow, but that took a lot of preparation.”

Early this year, Mooy was back in Sydney at the Seymour Centre in the play Camp, directed by Kate Gaul, about the lesbian activists who put so much on the line fighting moral persecution during the gay liberation movement in Sydney in the 1970s and 1980s. She is also returning to teaching, which is part of being versatile in an unpredictable industry. After stints at MAPS Film School and Flinders University, she is this year teaching screen work through TAFE.

With Wellmania airing from March 29 – and the possibility of a second series, depending on its reception – Mooy can afford to take pleasure in another high point in a long and continuing career.

“It’s about being seen as a still-working artist and actor, still viable and still hitting the mark,” she says. “And being visible on screen. So that was great, it was a real fillip. And my agent was thrilled!”

Wellmania is on Netflix from March 29.

This article first appeared in InDaily and is republished here with permission.

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