Actor Susan Prior is almost making a habit of playing junkies.
She was a junkie in the film Idiot Box and the Louis Nowra play The Jungle. Now Susan Prior is climbing into a junkie’s headspace for her role in Andrew Upton’s latest play, Riflemind.
Directed by Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, it tells the story of what happens over a weekend when the members of a once-famous rock band reunite to talk about a comeback tour.
Prior plays Lynn, the fanatically health-conscious companion of lead singer John (Hugo Weaving), who is working hard to put her vices behind her.
Lynn has hooked up with a jaded rocker, but Prior is at pains to point out that her character is not a musician.
"A lot of people have been asking me, ‘Are you playing a rock chick?’ And it’s no, I’m not playing the rock chick – I’m playing the hemp pant-wearing, cheesecloth person."
The questions might have come because Prior has done time in various Sydney bands over the years. She was a "human theremin" in the Lo-Tec Highbrows, and sang in a "quirky" little band, Celestial Panelvan.
At the Sydney Theatre Company’s harbourside headquarters, Prior says her character Lynn "is such a dichotomy of things, which is such a beautiful challenge to play.
"On the one hand, she comes across as a middle-class English yoga fanatic who loves organic foods and tries to stay quite calm and placate her partner.
"They’ve just spent four or five years alone, only in the company of whoever was in rehab or NA [Narcotics Anonymous], and her yoga teacher Alan visits nearly every day to do long yoga sessions to try to keep her in the present.
"On the other hand, she’s completely the opposite – you always feel like she’s going to completely obliterate herself. She’s this close" – Prior demonstrates with a thumb and forefinger – "every day to going out and spending a week drinking or taking drugs."
Prior has long been fascinated by junkies: "As a younger person, I was always intrigued as to what would make a person get into drugs and drink and try to take themselves out of themselves," she says, her startlingly blue eyes gazing out at the harbour.
"If I saw a junkie on the side of the street nodding off, I’d sit there and go, ‘Wow, what are you feeling?’"
Preparing to play Lynn, Prior launched herself into some heavy reading that included William S. Burroughs’s semi-autobiographical 1953 novel Junkie and Australian Luke Davies’s 1998 work Candy. Prior says she has "an addictive personality in some senses but it only went as far as loving chocolate and loving too much – falling in love too quickly, those sorts of traits". Other preparations have included yoga.
Hoffman has had his own ideas about preparing his cast. "The rehearsal process has been fantastic because we started off really slowly and gently, watching a few rock documentaries on Nirvana and Metallica.
"Philip likes to use personal stories to try to tap into those different worlds. So I listened to a lot of stories from people in the cast and started to understand what Burroughs was talking about … [when] he talks about taking junk as an attempt to feel normal."
As for having a Hollywood heavyweight as a director, Prior says: "The funny thing about meeting [Hoffman at the audition] was that I felt scared initially but I had done a lot of opening-up work to try and be as open and present as possible.
"He consistently brushes away affectation, which is so refreshing. He brushes away tricks. Your bag of tricks … gone! I love it."