I was 14 when I got cast in the film High Tide, which starred Judy Davis as my mother. I was just a normal teenager who was, sadly, not watching a lot of Australian productions; I hadn’t seen My Brilliant Career, so I was completely ignorant to who Judy was and what sort of reputation she came with. I just took her at face value.
During the entire filming process, I was so enthralled by her I found it painful to be away from her. I just relished her company so much: her stories, her sense of humour. She would confide in me, and she’s really quite addictive to be around. All day on set was just utter pleasure for me, but it was work for her. I remember a moment when they called “Wrap!” and she yelled, “Woo hoo!” and went dancing across the paddock, skipping off set. I just looked at her, horrified, and thought, “How can she be so happy to leave?!” I couldn’t fathom it because I felt so miserable any time I had to part ways with her.
It’s funny, it’s almost like the relationship gets preserved; when I’m around Judy now, more than 30 years later, suddenly I’m that teenager again. I can’t present her a fully formed, mature woman because I just revert to that 14-year-old who’s totally in awe of her.
My HSC English teacher, Jan Murray, was pint-sized. She was a very huggable figure with a mouth that was always a little turned up at the corners. She was one of those really special teachers: she managed to infect us with a love of literature but in such a calm, subtle and wise way. I always wanted to impress her. After I finished my first film, I suddenly understood that English – a love of language and being able to appreciate writing and character – is something that’s integral to performance.
There was some sort of work dilemma that happened in our final year and she left the school but she’d organise classes at her house. On the weekend, our English class would get on the train and walk to her home. The walls were just crammed with books, and we’d sit on the floor with the sun streaming in. It was a very peaceful, quiet, book-loving environment. It was so special because, despite whatever happened, she didn’t abandon us, she kept giving us tutelage until we finished the HSC. I still think of her often. She was just consistent; I can’t remember her being anything but calm, interested and always sort of mildly amused.
One of my earliest memories of my mum is talcum-powdering her into her black Vivienne Westwood rubber punk suit. I can sort of understand why I became an actor, because she was very dramatic even though she had zero skills as a performer – she was once asked to be an extra and she fainted. Everything, particularly people’s behaviour, is all significant and curious to my mum. She’s quite analytical, sexy, fun, playful and extremely good company. You can never predict what she’s going to say or think about something; she’s totally irreverent. She’s quite brave with her opinions – she doesn’t mind being a bit subversive.
Now that I’m a mum, I can look back and see how she shaped the way I conceptualise that role; watching her, I learnt how crucial it is to retain a sense of yourself and not just fall into playing the role of the mother. Not only that, but she’s also shown me the importance of needing to keep a connection to nature, returning to the country and enjoying conversations with your children. I try to see the humour in everything, thanks to my mum.
Karvan’s latest film, June Again, is out now.