We grew up adoring Noni Hazlehurst in Play School. Now, the star of A Place To Call Home continues to light up our hearts and television screens.
The last time I was in Adelaide was… a few years ago. Flinders University gave me an honorary PhD. It’s lovely to be here. I went to uni here so Adelaide has always had a really soft spot in my heart. I grew up in Melbourne. My parents were 10-pound migrants from England. They were vaudeville performers who gave up the business because, you know, it wasn’t going to make them any money sensibly.
My earliest memory is… my mother. She was a performer and used to produce the Sunday school concerts. My first stage appearance was as Little Miss Muffet. And I was about three and I hadn’t actually seen the spider in the costume ’till the performance. I was genuinely petrified and ran off stage screaming. I think everyone thought, ‘Oh, isn’t she marvellous!’
The arts were always the route I’d go down. I’m a fourth-generation performer so I was sort of doomed. Luckily my parents didn’t push me into anything professional when I was young but they made sure that I had piano lessons, singing lessons, and gymnastics. I also did accents and comedy from a very early age because they realised that you’ve got to be able to do everything to even have a chance to succeed. Acting is so sporadic and spasmodic and luck is a big part of it.
I went to Flinders University because… in the seventies there were only two choices. I’m really glad I came here because it was a lovely time to be in Adelaide. Don Dunstan was the Premier. He was a great aficionado of the arts. The Festival Centre was built then and it was a really thriving artistic community. I think it still is in Adelaide and that’s why people from all over the world come here to be part of the festivals you have. There’s a genuine respect and admiration for the joy that the arts can bring to life.
I didn’t meet Don Dunstan but… he was very much a presence I was aware of and he was certainly known as someone who loved going to artistic events and was very much a supporter.
Flinders University life in the seventies was… lovely. I was one of the first people to live in the hall of residence there and it was the first co-ed hall of residence in Australia so it was terrific.
During orientation week… there was this queue from the medical centre around the corner – all these girls wanting the pill. The pill had only sort of come into Australia in the late sixties and a lot of parents didn’t want their daughters to be contemplating those sorts of things. We’re talking pre-AIDS. The Vietnam [War] marches were on and there was a lot of strength in the youth. We did make some changes. We had a terrific time.
As students… we had free education so had the luxury of being able to focus on other things as well because we weren’t desperately trying to pay for our tuition or get part-time work. That was a luxury that afforded us the chance to have political viewpoints and I think there’s been a period where students haven’t been as vocal. Now, the forces that are against social progress and social change are so loud, so combative, and so negative that students are realising that if they want their voices to be heard, they’re going to have to speak up.
I’ll never forget… when I was six months pregnant with my first child. My husband and I were in the Northern Territory – he was making a film there. We were canoeing down the Alligator River, turned a corner and there were two Aboriginal children in the middle of what seemed like nowhere, fishing. This kid said, ‘You’re Noni from Playschool!” I went, “Wow, okay.” And realised, naively I guess, that we don’t just do Playschool for white, middle class children.
You can’t make assumptions about the audience. That was always part of Play School’s philosophy: you don’t assume that kids have got two parents, or a mum and a dad. They might have two mums. They might not have a backyard. They might not have the latest toys.
Motherhood taught me that… you can’t really ever know what your child is going to be like. They are their own person and parenting is the most difficult job there is. Kids are way ahead of you most of the time. They used to try to make me go off like a frog in a sock. They used to completely goad me and I didn’t know. It gave me great respect for people who are successful parents, because there are no guaranteed returns on investment with kids. You just want your child to find a passion: something that will hopefully earn them a living, but something that they feel strongly about. You can’t dictate to children. You shouldn’t dictate to children.
A Place To Call Home fans are… amazing. The fans are just really incredible, they really are. We have become a family over five years. We have a world class crew: cinematography, art department, costume, makeup, and hair. We’re really lucky to have a series where money is spent. We’re so lucky that Foxtel have picked us up and we now are seen in 120 countries worldwide. Washington Post named us one of the must-see programs of this year. It’s been so well received, and I think [it’s] because of that standard. The quality of the show but also the themes which are basically bigotry, intolerance, and equality – it has resonated amazingly.
Where do I feel at home in the world? Gosh. Because of my work, you have to be a gypsy. My actual home is in the Gold Coast hinterland but I don’t get there very often. So, I guess I feel most at home on stage. When I’m communicating, connecting with people and finding that common humanity.
When I read Go The F*** To Sleep [a children’s book for adults] out loud… I think I bent a few people’s brains. It’s had over half a million views. When the publisher sent me the book (I think they wanted me to endorse it) I shrieked and laughed because my first child was two before he slept through the night. That’s what prompted the author to write it. I just said, “I want to record this as a Play School [style] story because I know it will resonate.” Again, it’s one of those issues that people don’t talk about and as a mother you feel so inadequate when you talk to other mothers who go ‘My baby sleeps through from half past six at night to six in the morning.’ You go, ‘Oh, I’m so hopeless.’
The future holds… so many things. I want to write and I’d love to direct again. I just want to keep telling stories that I think are worth telling, in whatever medium. I think there’s been a lot of activity towards women’s stories being told and receiving more attention. So hopefully one day we might have herstory as well as history.
I’m also doing…. my one-woman show Mother in Sydney in January, which is great. I’m just about to do a film with [film director] Bruce Beresford, so I’m incredibly lucky. I’m so grateful to be here. You know, a 64-year-old female actor working… it’s just brilliant.
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Video: Aaron Nassau