Craig McLachlan’s looking forward to his last turn in lippy
IT SEEMS Craig McLachlan was always destined to play transvestite Dr Frank N Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, with the cult classic’s creator Richard O’Brien anointing him the perfect successor back in the ‘80s.
Meeting the legend for the first time after a last minute call up for a performance – and it was literally last minute with Richard asking him to play Eddie the Rocker in a charity show the morning of the planned midnight matinee – Craig was thrown in the deep end but, of course, rose to the occasion.
“I’m thinking (it’s) the following year and I said “yes, count me in, great cause – when is it?’ (Richard) said ‘tonight, darling, if you could be at the theatre at 11pm …’, I’m like ‘holy s..t’,” Craig recalls. “Afterwards Richard said to me ‘darling, it’s inevitable, you’re a cheeky thing. You’re destined to play Frank N Furter’ and I’m like ‘yeah, right … and then (Richard) added ‘I tell you darling, once Frank’s in you, you’ll never get rid of him’ and again I’m thinking ‘sure, you have to say that …’. But there I was two years later and here I am a quarter of a century later … *sings* I’m just a sweet transvestite.”
And Frank’s well and truly lodged himself, so to speak, in the cheeky star, with Craig admitting he didn’t have to think long and hard about donning the fishnets and lippy for a fourth time.
“Do one-legged ducks swim in circles? Does Santa Claus have a beard?. In fact, I don’t even recall my mouth engaging … I heard ‘yes’, I heard ‘of course’, I heard ‘I’m in’ … ,” the charismatic actor says, adding the cast could have continued touring the 40th anniversary show for the past few years such is the demand, but of course Craig had commitments to the other doctor in his life.
“(This time) was just one of those great lining up of the planets. And do you know what? For me I do love the show and while my derriere is still reasonable shapely and perky, I’d love to do it one more time,” Craig tells Watch, adding it’s as much as show for him looking down at the audience with passionate fans often dressed up, not to the nines, but as Franks, Magentas, Columbias and the like. “Certainly, it really is the most fun you can have in public without getting arrested.”
Craig’s always been a favourite with audiences – whether on stage or TV. In 1990, he won the Gold Logie for his role as loveable larrikin Henry Ramsay on Neighbours. After more than 800 episodes on Ten’s soapie, he switched to Seven’s Home and Away to play schoolteacher Grant Mitchell. Not to forget his music career, with Check 1-2 and Mona (Craig says it’s funny how everyone now admits Mona is their guilty pleasure – but he knows we all loved it in the ‘90s, he knows we all bought it.) topping the charts in Australia and the UK.
He’s won a whole swag of new fans with his meatier dramatic role as Dr Lucien Blake in Dr Blake Mysteries. And it is this role of great substance that is somewhat problematic ahead of his return to Frank.
“I’ve just come off another round of filming Dr Blake, and typically I put on a few pounds playing the good doctor,” Craig confesses. “I like him to have a bit of a paunch. He’s a big drinker our Lucien and so when he leans back on his hips and thrusts his tummy forward, I like there to be a bit of real tummy there. I like to physically feel a bit of weight.
“And also you’ve got around-the-clock catering, you’re filming in Ballarat, it’s cold so you have an extra bikkie with a coffee and an extra bikkie with the bikkie and the bikkie.”
But Craig promises there won’t be any modifications to the renowned, and relatively skimpy, Frank costume.
“I’ll be a lean, mean fishnetted machine,” he laughs. “When we kicked off the initial tour of Rocky a few years ago, I finished filming on a Friday at the end of the first week of December and I was in (rehearsals) on the Monday. I basically had four weeks to go from 99 kilos to 79.
“I’m already hitting the gym and I’m training like a mother.”
Currently telling us in television ads – “I would like if I may to take you on a journey”, Craig absolutely does just that in our interview. One moment regaling Watch with tales of his own fan boy moment in the US when he stole the number of Paul Stanley from the Kiss singer’s agent. The pair have since become firm friends. The next he’s strumming his guitar, serenading me, swapping seamlessly from Lucien Blake’s refined and modulated 1950s tone to the campy and over-the-top Frank.
So it really is as simple as donning the fishnets and lippy for Craig to become Frank. He breaks into a Rocky monologue to illustrate the point.
“Worryingly it’s all still there,” he laughs, as he pauses, briefly. “Going into rehearsal a couple of years ago, some 48 hours after I think the last lines I delivered to Alice (Belinda McClory) in the morgue (as Dr Blake) was ‘Yes, Alice. Multiple contusions and abrasions, cause of death seems to be a single blow delivered to the base of the cranium. Dare I say, a blow delivered with sufficient force to sever the spinal cord.’
“Forty-eight hours later … what was interesting was I walked into rehearsals that day and I’d been shooting in Ballarat and I hadn’t received a new Rocky Horror script.
“And, incredibly … I don’t know if it speaks to me, (on-screen wife) Nadine Garner will tell you that I’m a cyborg when it comes to memory … but I sat down and basically just launched (word perfect) into it. The director just looked at me and said ‘you’re a freak’ and I said ‘alarmingly I may well be’.”
His childhood guitar teacher probably felt the same. Craig learnt guitar from the tender age of seven and his teacher would start each lesson revising the chords and going through various scales. In the last five minutes, Craig could choose a song he’d like to learn.
“I have a brother who’s almost nine years my senior – I’d come in wanting to do Jumpin Jack Flash and all that stuff which he thought was hysterical. A seven year old wanting to learn a Rolling Stones song,” Craig says, playing a few riffs from the iconic song.
“Can you imagine the look on my guitar teacher’s face the day I walk in with the cover of what was the cast recording of Rocky Horror Show? It was a double gatefold cover with Reg Livermore in knickers and fishnets.
“The song I wanted to learn was Science Fiction, Double Feature but just looking at the album cover was a bridge too far for him.
“He said, ‘That’s really interesting, Craig. I tell you what. Here’s a song by John Denver’ … Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy.’
“I remember being gutted. No disrespect to the late, great John Denver but I just thought how hokey. I wanted to learn ‘touch-a touch-a, I want to be dirty.”
Fortunately the young Craig had absolutely no idea what the suggestive lyrics meant. It was, rather, the chord structure and pattern that awoke the musician in him. “Songs like Sweet Transvestite – there was something about the structure, the chord patterns, the melodies,” Craig says. “When I was in my early teens and I was seeing another guitar teacher at this point, I suddenly realised a lot of the chord progressions are the sorts of chord progressions Buddy Holly would have thrown together if he hadn’t died so tragically. Of course, I discovered years down the track that Richard O’Brien was a huge Buddy Holly fan.”
While Rocky Horror definitely captured Craig musically, even he admits the film and the concept – sweethearts Brad and Janet, stuck with a flat tyre during a storm, discover the eerie mansion of tranvestite scientist Dr. Frank N Furter and a host of wild characters – is crazy.
“I caught half the film late at night on television not that long ago,” Craig laughs. “And I’m a guy who’s done how many performances of the Rocky Horror show now? But still I’m watching the film version and I’m thinking ‘this is nuts, it’s just nuts, nuts, It’s absurd, it’s great nuts, it’s fabulous nuts, but it’s nuts.’
“Listen in 2017, there’s nothing terribly shocking about seeing a cast in fishnets, but if you think back to the late ’60s- early ’70s, people were just getting their head around the fact people were in the nude in the musical Hair.
“And then suddenly you had a space alien transvestite, I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at one of those first performances in London.”
Experiencing huge success on both the stage and small screen, and with the news Channel 7 has performed a miracle bypass on Dr Blake Mysteries, reviving it after ABC inexplicably axed the high-rating show, you’d wonder which medium Craig prefers. Unsurprisingly, he loves it all.
“I do love working still after all these years – whether it’s that red light on the camera and I’m in whatever that zone is or again that extraordinary feeling of stepping out on to stage as Frank,” the all-round talent says.
“It’s certainly hard to beat a show like Rocky Horror and that’s why I was so quick to say I’d do one last lap in lippy. Just the extraordinary connection with the audience, there’s just nothing like it.
“But it just just blows my mind in this day and age that we’ve done six years of Blake , that is just extraordinary. I get a huge kick out of performing any way.”
At this stage of his career though, whatever Craig takes on has to be fun.
“Very early on I said to (Blake creator) George Adams ‘at this point in my life, I’m only interested in a happy set’,” Craig reveals. “There is this notion of some actors, some perfomers who think you’ve got to be miserable to be any good. What a nonsense. If you walk on to set as an absolute misery guts, you lose the crew in an instant. I’ve never subscibed to that BS.”
And Craig certainly practises what he preaches. Guest actors on Blake have proclaimed it the happiest place on earth – outside of Disneyland of course.
“What you see on screen is the result of just people who are loving being together every day,” Craig says. “Although it’s very dramatic murder mystery solving stuff, it’s fun, fun, fun and it’s the same with Rocky Horror but it all comes down to a happy, happy company.
“This is a long way of saying what do I get a bigger kick out of … I enjoy it all. I really do.
“And certainly as I get older, and I say that in hushed tones, I just, and it’s a cliche to say it, but it’s got to be fun and if it’s not, then I’m not really interested.”
We know how much fun Rocky Horror is, so can we really believe this is Craig’s one last lap in lippy? Fingers crossed that just as he’ll never be able to get rid of Frank, we won’t lose his Frank either.
The Rocky Horror Show, Adelaide Festival Theatre, December 28-
January 13. Tickets through Bass
Article written by Lisa Woolford, Watch Editor, The Advertiser