IT'S a good thing Genevieve Lemon has the night off on March 28. She and her fellow cast and crew of North by Northwest are having every Monday off during the play's four-week run at the Sydney Lyric Theatre, but March 28 is special. It's Oscars night, and Power of the Dog - in which Enmore resident Lemon plays Mrs Lewis, the housekeeper - is up for 12 Academy Awards, the most nominated film of the year.
"My girlfriends have already organised it; someone is going to record it that day live, then we are going to go to her place for dinner and watch it when everyone has finished work," Lemon says.
"Hopefully I'll get there not having seen who won anything; I'll turn my phone off for the day. And I am so proud of Jane."
Jane is Jane Campion, who already has an Oscar in the pool room, for best original screenplay for 1994's The Piano. Lemon was the star of the acclaimed director's first feature film, Sweetie, back in 1988 (for which Lemon won an AFI best actress nomination, losing to Meryl Streep as Lindy Chamberlain) and has been in many of Campion's productions since - The Piano, Holy Smoke, the TV series Top of the Lake and most lately Power of the Dog.
Things have often fallen into place for me. I consider myself to be a very, very lucky actor.
Set in rural Montana in the 1920s and shot in New Zealand, Power of the Dog is a Western psychological drama starring Hollywood heavyweights Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst and Jessie Plemons, as well as Australian Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Lemon is beyond delighted at its Oscar nods.
"I am not surprised, you always hope for the best; Jane is certainly someone who attracts the notice of the huge festivals and the huge award festivals, so we were all just delighted it was nominated so many times," Lemon says.
"We are very dear friends; we were at each other's weddings and all that sort of caper, and I sing at her birthday celebrations or whenever she asks me; I often have to do a song on set at the beginning of the day. She is a big fan of music.
"I think Jane looks at me and remembers her first feature. I don't know what she'd say, I don't know if she'd say I was a little lucky charm.
"I'm not in every project, and as far as I am concerned I have got to play all sorts of different characters with her - a Scottish spinster in The Piano, the attention-grabbing Sweetie; an extraordinarily wealthy woman in Top of the Lake; and I got to travel to India to shoot my very small role in Holy Smoke, which was the first time I got to work with Kate Winslet.
"I have been very lucky because of Jane. Very, very lucky."
It's been raining for days. A cover shoot for Inner West Review in Enmore Park, in Sydney's inner west, is off the cards, and Lemon suggests we instead meet across the road at her local café, Petty Cash, where it's clear she is an adored regular.
"Of course! We love Genevieve!" comes the response when we ask if we might photograph her there, amid the linoleum tables and rainbow flags, and vintage teaspoon collections hanging on the wall.
She arrives in a colourful Frida Kahlo shirt that hits the spot against the café's luminous green tiles, pulls out a mirror and applies some lipstick, camera-ready in a moment. She is warm and chatty, talking about the flat-out charisma and charm of David Campbell, who's playing the lead character of Roger O. Thornhill, suave New York advertising executive, in North by Northwest.
It's quickly evident that Lemon has deep wells of generosity towards her colleagues, and to journalists she's just met. Billy Elliot director Stephen Daldry, who cast her as dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson in both the Australian and West End productions of the smash hit musical, described her as "the most wonderful actress and her spirit could fill Sydney Harbour".
Their characters share a wicked sense of humour, they really make each other laugh.
Lemon has lived in the inner west for nine years, moving here with her musician husband Colin Wilson when their daughter, Darcey Wilson, was accepted at the Newtown High School of Performing Arts. The family had been back in Sydney for a year following a two-year expat stint in London while Lemon performed in Billy Elliot the Musical.
"What's not to like about the inner west?" says Lemon, who's stayed put in Enmore since her daughter graduated high school and followed her mum into acting, performing most recently in a Sydney Theatre Company play. "It's a realistic place to live, and to have a family - I moved to Bondi in the early 1990s, and at that stage there were so many actors there and it felt like I was moving into a little community, but by the time we left 14 years later it was all backpackers and rich people."
Lemon is in rehearsals for North by Northwest, the stage adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1959 spy thriller, which is now in full swing at the Lyric Theatre. Lemon plays Campbell's mother, Mrs Thornhill, and she reports that they are having a hoot. "[Campbell] is very funny, very charming, and playing his mum is almost like Laurel and Hardy, it is such fun," she says. "Their characters share a wicked sense of humour, they really make each other laugh."
The play is directed by Simon Phillips, who Lemon was working with this time almost 16 years ago when rehearsals began for the Australian premiere season of Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical, with Lemon in the role of bawdy Broken Hill pub owner Shirley.
The sixtysomething is a mainstay of Sydney theatre - she has performed countless roles with the Belvoir, Sydney Theatre Company, Griffin and Ensemble, and after two years where live performance ground to a devastating halt due to COVID-19, it's like a homecoming to be treading the boards again.
"I can't complain about the two years personally - I have done three feature films and three TV series which is more screen work than I have ever had and I mean that absolutely sincerely," she says. "I've worked with Benedict Cumberbatch, Jamie Dornan in The Tourist, Toni Collette in Pieces of Her, Kirsten Dunst - all these high-profile wonderful bits of TV and cinema but to be finally back on stage and sitting in a rehearsal room, you can finally just breathe and think, this is home. It's almost like coming home."
Lemon lived the first 18 years of her life on Wimbledon Avenue, Narrabeen, in northern Sydney, going to the movies with her grandmother and being thwarted in her early show biz ambitions by her dad, who was not a fan of child actors. He was in the industry himself, a director and producer of award-winning television commercials.
"He was one of those funny old dads. At his funeral people were coming up and saying, 'he never stopped talking about you', but he never said anything to me.
"Mum was the opposite, she was completely supportive, loved coming to an opening night and to all my things."
Lemon's chance to take off came in the city's inner west, at the now defunct Leichhardt amateur theatre company the Rocks Players which performed in a church hall on Marion Street and where, while she was still in Year 12, she was cast as Celia in As You Like it.
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"We did two productions of that same play, one year after the other, and it was a beautiful production and many of the people I met in the Rocks Players are still friends of mine today. It was great training - I did try for NIDA and wasn't accepted, so by the time I finished my university degree and had done so many plays with the Rocks Players and then I turned professional, there was never a chance for me to go to drama school and I've been working ever since. Touch wood."
Her five years with the Rocks Players ended in 1982, when she was cast in the first Australian production of Steaming, a British import that inspired an avalanche of publicity because its female cast took their kit off on stage.
"It was quite titillating at the time, and it drew people to the theatre, but it wouldn't have gone on for a year had it not had the back-up of a beautiful script, a lot of big laughs and the beautiful pathos of my character in particular, who was what you would call a developmentally delayed woman who lived with her elderly mother," Lemon recalls.
"That production set me up very well, we ended up doing a 12-month tour of Australia, and then two years later we did it again. It was a fantastic entrée into the business, and it got me into Prisoner."
As well as Prisoner, over the years Lemon has had TV roles in Home and Away and Neighbours, and in classic Australian films such as Soft Fruit, Suburban Mayhem and The Dressmaker, where she worked with Kate Winslet - "a great girl, what you see is what you get with her" - for the second time.
"I have just been very, very lucky the whole way along, things have often fallen into place for me. I consider myself to be a very, very lucky actor."
Keep an eye out for the upcoming George Clooney and Julia Roberts rom-com, Ticket to Paradise, filmed in Queensland last year during COVID lockdowns. Despite "the smallest role I have ever had in a film", Lemon got to spend four weeks on Hamilton Island, doing "literally nothing" except swimming, walking and exploring every day.
"Now that is Hollywood money, and Hollywood scheduling, and a real Hollywood set for you, which I have never been on before. I had my own two-storey, two-bedroom apartment but because it was the middle of COVID I couldn't ring all my friends and say, 'come up, come up.'
"I have a tiny, tiny role in it, but it was all with Julia and George - I play just 'woman on a plane', and I hope it is as funny as we found it when we were shooting it."
As for the megastars, "George Clooney is extremely chatty and extremely funny and exactly how you want him to be. And Julia Roberts, I am not kidding, when she smiles at you, it is like a truck, you could fall over with the energy of her smile, it is absolutely extraordinary."
Right now, Lemon can't wait to look out across a live audience again, albeit one with masks on: "If you enjoy watching a black and white movie on a Sunday afternoon, you will love North by Northwest; it has all the elements of just a great sprawling Alfred Hitchcock spectacular," she says.
"I think people will be delighted."
Favourite film? I am always tempted to say Tootsie, It is just a brilliant, gorgeous, funny film. Dustin Hoffman, Bill Murray, Teri Garr, are all so excruciatingly funny in it.
What are you watching on TV? I just started watching Dopesick, the Michael Keaton series about the OxyContin family.
What are you reading? Hunger, by Roxane Gay. I am on to my third book by Elizabeth Strout - I get into these jags, where once I have read one book by an author I have to pick up their other work.
Inner west Sydney favourites? Petty Cash is our go-to cafe. It's not just great coffee and food, it's a gorgeous place to sit with a magazine or a newspaper or the crossword. The staff have always been adorable. Two Chaps is another one, and Little Turtle on Stanmore Road. The Smelly Goat [at Enmore's Queens Hotel] is where we go for big celebrations, we love it. We have a dog called Cat Ballou, named after a Jane Fonda film from my childhood, and we go to Haberfield dog park which has some of the best coffee in Sydney, at Café Bones. Friends and I like a bit of Gender Bender Bingo at the Cooper's Hotel in Newtown with Verushka Darling. It's certainly a lot of fun.
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