In 1983, Claudia Karvan made her debut in the children’s film Molly, marking the beginning of an extraordinary career on the Australian screen that has seen her work with some of the finest local talent across a variety of genres. Her latest project is the dramatic comedy June Again, where she stars alongside another national treasure, Noni Hazelhurst. Karvan plays Ginny, the daughter of June Wilton (Hazelhurst), who finds herself experiencing a miracle when her mother experiences a brief period of lucidity after a five-year struggle with dementia.
When asked what drew her to the project, Karvan explains that when she first read writer/director JJ Winlove’s script, she knew it was something she had to do.
“I was just utterly swept away,” she says. “It’s one of those unusual stories where you’re sobbing at the end of it, but there’s a beauty to the emotion. You don’t feel bereft or overwhelmed by the bleakness of the situation. There’s something about it that’s just such beautiful story telling. So, I really wanted to be a part of telling the story.”
Set over a few days, the film depicts the tragedy of losing someone you love to their own mind, as well as the fraught relationships we can have with our family, especially when there’s deep hurt in the past. Karvan speaks thoughtfully about the challenges her character Ginny faces.
“She’s got an inner strength, but she hasn’t found her voice yet. She’s quite vague and sort of clueless and a bit underdeveloped. She’s quite meek around her mother. But she’s very kind and forgiving and she’s got this very complex journey to go on.”
It’s an unusual role for Karvan, who reflects that she is often portraying the matriarchal characters in her more recent projects. “I’m now 48 and I’m more commonly playing the mother,” she says. Ginny’s personality as a more submissive woman is also a departure from how Karvan is usually seen. “I’m sort of cast against type because I usually play roles where the character is pretty sure of themselves and assertive. I found it challenging to be playing the daughter of a force of nature. I even felt like my voice got thinner. It was physically diminished by playing out that dynamic, and I found that quite hard, being the child again.”
Those challenging dynamics between the characters are the heart of June Again, as Hazelhurst and Karvan are joined by Stephen Curry (The Castle) in the role of Devan, Ginny’s brother. As June reflects on the years of her children’s lives she’s missed, tension, secrets, and past mistakes are revealed. Karvan says that the parent/child relationship is her “favourite theme” in film, and there’s a palpable authenticity in way the three lead actors relate to one another on screen. Karvan credits this to JJ Winlove and his script.
“It was solid from the moment I first read it. We had a period of time where he, Noni, Stephen and I sat around a tiny kitchen table in an apartment somewhere and went through the script with a fine-tooth comb and talked through all the scenes. Usually at that point there might be some emotional logic issues, or some holes in the plot can appear, but it was just watertight. It was such a strong, clear vision from JJ.”
This is Winlove’s feature film debut, and while there is sadness in the story, the film never feels overwhelming or manipulative with its emotion, managing to find lightness and laughs throughout. Karvan says, “It just never went to an indulgent place. It always kept this buoyancy and heart.”
When considering what makes homegrown movies like this so special, Karvan describes the comfortable familiarity of a story we can see ourselves in. “When an audience connects with an Australian story, a lot of it is recognising locations, recognising accents, recognising people that you feel you know or have grown up with. You feel at home.”
Karvan’s own contribution to our film and television industry is extensive, from her leading roles on television dramas such as The Secret Life of Us and Love My Way, to her turns in romantic comedies such as Dating the Enemy and Paperback Hero.
Laughing, she recalls being recently recognised on the street by a twelve year old boy for her role in the 1990 comedy caper The Big Steal. “I was like, ‘Are you serious? That’s thirty years old that movie. How did you recognise my sixteen-year-old self? And you’re twelve! How did you find that vintage Australian film?’ And he just loves it. He’s seen it three times and showed it to his mum and his mum loved it. And I was like, oh wow, that really says something about the longevity of a good Australian film.”
When reflecting on her other early work, it’s 1987’s High Tide that Karvan recalls most fondly, describing it as her “origin story.” Directed by Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career), written by Laura Jones (Oscar and Lucinda) produced by Sandra Levy (McLeod’s Daughters) and starring Judy Davis (The Dressmaker), the film “set the compass point” for Karvan.
“Gillian Armstrong was such a unique voice, and to be working with such extraordinary women, and to have Judy Davis play my mum, it was an absolute one off. She was so smart, so available, so funny, so engaging and she set the bar incredibly high.”
Karvan would go on to write, produce and direct many of her projects throughout her career, and the effect of this formative experience is made clear, as she reflects coming “up against all these gender matters a good thirty-five years later, and yet I was set on my course by four really accomplished women. They put their fingerprint on me at the age of fourteen and it’ll always be there.”
As for what else she’d like to do next, Karvan does say she “wouldn’t mind galloping across a field on a horse” but otherwise, her focus is currently on making the second season of Bump, the Stan original television series she created, writes and stars in. “My head is completely in that world and I’m still finding that completely delicious. I love that team and I love that show.”
She has no desire to join her co-star from The Big Steal, Ben Mendelsohn, in the Marvel Universe though. “Those movies are rewarding as an audience member but those sorts of jobs are painstaking to shoot!”
Not that June Again didn’t have its challenges, filming in only twenty days. “There were a few hard days when we were out in the bush in over 40-degree heat day after day. That’s never much fun.” Once again, Karvan praises Winlove for how well the shoot went, despite the time constraints. “It didn’t feel pressured though. I think JJ’s vision was very clear and he kept the train on the track consistently.”
Featuring three icons of the Australian film and a beautifully romantic story, Karvan hopes audiences will be ready to go on the journey with the film. “Come and feel like life is to be cherished and our intimate relationships are there to be cherished. And to reflect on your own role in your own family and what are the complexities and what needs to be embraced. In short, cherish each other.”
June Again opens on May 6th
Interview by Sarah Westgarth