Vile: An interview with Madeleine Ryan

Monday, 14 July, 2014

When I was just a kid watching The Lion King and eating play-doh, Madeleine Ryan was studying John Travolta’s moves in Saturday Night Fever and choreographing performances with her film-critic father. At the age of eight, she had already decided that she was destined for acting. Since then, Madeleine has graduated with diplomas from both the University of Melbourne and 16th Street Actor’s Studio, all the while offering her talents to short films, music videos, the Sydney Morning Herald opinion section, and most recently, Melbourne playwright Didem Caia’s Vile at La Mama.

Needless to say, her resume is intimidating. But when I met with Madeleine before rehearsals one early morning, my nerves were immediately settled. She wore a comfortable cardigan, laughed a lot and pushed her hair around as we talked. She told me this was her first interview and I told her it was mine. We mutually agreed that it was a milestone.

How did you prepare for your role as Melanie Ryder in Vile?

To me, I have to look inwards before I go out and talk to someone who has suffered the kind of traumatic violence that Melanie has, or else I just try to copy. How would that affect me, Madeleine Ryan, as distinct from Melanie Ryder? From there, the experiences of people who’ve been through it will colour mine rather than dictate what I do. It’s nice to find one small detail that’s really beautiful, like, if they had some sort of thing they do with their hands, and weaving it into the character – creativity and truth mixed together in a theatrical smoothie!

Do you have a favourite medium of performance – film or theatre or writing?

Theatre is such an immediate, intimate, raw experience I don’t think I could ever get over. That will always be special. But I’ve also really enjoyed the filming experiences that I’ve had. I did a short film with Katie Found (who also attended Melbourne Uni) and it was shot in this abandoned brick factory in Brunswick. It was a gruesome tale about this woman who was held captive by a man, and because I was being her in that space with just a camera and a couple of people, it was easier to just be in the environment. Whereas in theatre, you have to believe something is there when it physically isn’t and there is more you have to work through to not feel like you’re being watched.

Has the audience ever distracted you from your performance?

Audience reaction is fascinating, because inevitably people will laugh at the most painful moments for your character. It happened to me at Melbourne Uni when I was doing this play called The Blue Room (directed by Sara Catchpole), and my character was a very lost soul in London, and I just remember being in the depth of her vulnerability when people were absolutely losing it, they thought it was so funny. I had to act like it was part of her psyche that she was hearing these people laugh.

What has been your favourite or most challenging role to date?

I feel like every character I’ve got has come at the perfect time and has given me something that I really needed, so they’ve all had a really valuable function. This voiceover for the short film that I did with Katie recently was the most challenging. It was a rambling stream of consciousness that Katie wrote for this exhausted, delirious character who was losing her mind as she tries to make sense of this traumatic experience. Getting that voiceover right was probably the most challenging thing I’ve ever done because it was about doing justice to the physical and emotional exhaustion of being held captive. Getting that through the voice alone without making it sound too performative was really hard.

Do you like watching yourself in films?

I never look like what I expect! I think no one knows what they actually look like. I did life modelling and so I would be sitting in a room and having 20 people drawing me, and in the breaks I would look at their pictures. Not only would each picture look different but it would often look like the artist more than it would look like me. And they didn’t even realise! It’s really interesting, because we do see a version of our faces so often in the mirror that subconsciously we continuously create it. So between all those experiences, I have no idea what I look like.

If you could have one actress’s career, who would it be and why?

I suffer from this really terrible disease where I can only think of men when I’m asked questions like this. Heath Ledger is always first in my mind because he had such an extraordinary range of characters he got to play and watching him always takes me to another place. He could always find this really truthful, vulnerable yet extraordinarily strong place that I really aspire to have. But let me at least give one woman. I have a big thing for women who’ve been in Tarantino films – Uma Thurman! I’d love to play Beatrix, her Kill Bill role, it’s my dream.

What do you think about the assumption or expectation that in order to be a successful actor, you need to achieve a certain level of fame?

I think it’s a choice that each actor makes, consciously or unconsciously. I guess there is a certain way that success looks to certain actors, and that includes walking down the red carpet in Hollywood or being on the cover of magazines. I’m not interested in that. To me, it’s the characters. That to me would be success, having a chance to embody different creatures.

When I was studying at 16th Street, I was given the job of creating a character who was in an S&M relationship, and so I ended up going to this place called Fetish House in Oakleigh and talking to the women working there. If I wasn’t an actor, I wouldn’t know about that! People are endlessly fascinating. I’m never going to get tired of that.

Your opinion piece on Lara Bingle in SMH spoke a lot about the media’s representation of women. What do you think about female roles in film and theatre?

I’m drawn to female characters that are as multi-dimensional to me as possible, which often equates to how many mental illnesses they have or how many traumas they’ve suffered. In a tutorial last semester I read that, in a patriarchal society, you can’t actually write a truthful female character because there is always going to be some degree of submission to this male idea of what a woman is. So when we say “strong female character”, what does that look like? Is it just a male’s idea of strength? It’s interesting how women are written.

Do you have any advice for other students thinking of pursuing acting as a career?

I guess it’s just not taking no for an answer. It’s really hard preparing for an audition, getting attached to the character, and then not getting it. But just really value the process. I was auditioning for this play about Scandinavian Creation Myths, and I did a lot of research for the part and didn’t get it. But then I thought, now I know about Scandinavian Creation Myths which I didn’t know a week ago. So you can always come away with something even if it’s not a credit.

I also auditioned for the Melbourne University Shakespeare Company’s production of Othello, directed by Sara Catchpole. I ended up working with her at La Mama, so that first audition led me to work with her beyond Uni. That was just from the Union House email. It was great training, and it gave me confidence.