Australian Biography

Diane Cilento - full interview transcript

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You're obviously somebody with a very great range of different sorts of talents. You've painted, you've written successfully, you're a very successful actor, you could have had a career as a director. You've run a school, you're running a theatre.

Oh, stop it.

You've done a lot of different things, and I actually ... and a lot of people, you know, see that as a great advantage to be so talented, but it also brings problems of choice, doesn't it? Do you ever sort of think about the road not travelled? Do you ever think, you know, could I have done this, or should I have done that?

Yes. I think I don't do it ... I really don't do it in the way that I seriously feel bitter and twisted about it, because I don't. I think I would have loved, in a way, to have been able to be a film director and create sort of, you know, terrific mood pieces and things like that, or different things. But then when I think about when I have been the director of documentaries, the amount of work, and bored, and fiddling around and I think, oh, God, I'll have another lifetime. That's for some other time because it's so enclosing and forceful in its grip. I suppose, I know that I wouldn't like to be on the stage any more, in some city doing a sort of ... I won't sort of mention any names, but a sort of dame acting role. And I'm not talking about pantomimes. But after a while if you're a sort of actress that keeps on keeping on, you generally get to be called Dame something. I don't ... I know I wouldn't like that.

Why not?

No. Because it's such a position of where nothing could change. Once you're a dame you're a dame. That's it. You've got into a niche. I don't say that you can't play different parts and it's all very lovely, but what parts can you play finally? You're always the dame playing that part. And anyway, I sort of, as I said: acting doesn't hold any of that sort of excitement for me any more. Then, let's see, what else did you say? Well I would like to do lots of paintings and things, but I can't do them until I become completely besotted by something. It doesn't work for me unless I think about it all the time. I can't do a picture unless I'm thinking about it a lot, and I couldn't just do hundreds. I'm not as facile as that. And then writing, I am interested in writing. Yes, I am interested in writing as I ... I think when I mal rit vonduer and get it together. I think writing today ... If I wrote a novel today though, I know that after a while I'd sort of start fizzling out on the characters, unless they were really multifaceted. Because who do you write about today that is not a sort of celebre or an intellectual. I don't know. People are sort of very linear in this day and age. They're not Falstaffian enough for me. Although there are some that are. I can't think what else you said. Teaching. I don't know. That might come again when I'm a bit ancient. People can come and I'll be sort of there.

Or maybe now, for something completely different.

Now, for something completely different! I could go into skydiving or ... I don't know, no. I ... we ... I mean Tony and I did run a restaurant called the Nautilus, so we've done that one. And I do have a restaurant here. But I got bored with going out onto the verandah there and opening the menu and knowing what was going to be there. I think really I suppose from talking to you I realise that I'm a real rat bag really. And I suppose any ... No, I would really like to be extremely good at being a writer or a painter. It's such a wonderful thing. Painters are the luckiest of all. I mean they can go anywhere and sit down and they don't have to have a crew, as films do. They don't have to have the stage. It's the piece of canvas or piece of paper, or even a bit of bark. And no one tells them when they have to finish it or start it. Okay, maybe people wouldn't buy it, but at the same time they could have it around and looked at. And I mean, maybe not. Maybe they'd hate it and throw it away, but it is a ... it is a wonderfully autonomous profession, painting. Enviable.

You had this astonishing amount of early success. And in the midst of it you were overtaken by despair. Could you tell us more fully about that time, and about where that despair came from.

You know, there's a game called Consequences, which starts out where you fill in little things about what the world says. You say, someone met someone at somewhere. He said to her, she said to him. The consequence was, and the world said. I think I suffered from what the world said. I kept, I suppose, feeling this huge discrepancy between what everyone expected me to be like, and what I was really feeling underneath. I think this happens a tremendous amount. We have a huge amount of words written about what people want to read about celebrities. They've got to be squeezed into these little sort of scenarios which are acceptable to the public, however salacious or prurient they are, that's what the public wants to read about them, so that's what they do read about them. But there's a huge discrepancy between what you ... that's there, written about you. I mean even my mum, you know, when she rang me up and said, 'Oh dear, what am I reading about you in the paper'. I said, 'Mum, that's not true, you know'. I mean, for instance, when I was on that film Hombre, they had a picture of me between Sean and Paul Newman saying, 'And which one will she have tonight?' you know. And my mother said... and I said, 'But Mum, that, none of that, I mean that's just rubbish'. And she said, 'No dear, I read it in the paper'. Because people ... As soon as things are printed, people believe it. And so you get a bit muddled, because everyone takes for granted all sorts of things about you that aren't ... that you know aren't true. And I think also you get into a terrific muddle about what you're doing in the middle of all this, and where you're going and what, you know. I did anyway. I lost, sort of lost my cool. I became a bit ... I became panicked about what I [was], who I was with and what I was doing and what was happening to me.

So at that time, at that specific time, when you resorted to something that seemed in so many ways out of character, what in fact were the forces on you that were confusing you, specifically? What all came together to push you into the corner?

Well, I was trying to rehearse this thing. I was trying to...

The musical?

Yes, I was trying to sort of ... as they changed directors and I'd have to start again. I mean anyone knows that if they begin to rehearse something and they've got something under their belt and then someone says, 'No, no. You can't do any of that, sorry. You've got to start again', it's pretty frightening, because you don't know what you're doing. Then, I was sort of having a problem with my mother-in-law and husband and affairs, and everybody wanted to sort of jump on me somehow, and I didn't quite know how to handle any of it. I sort of think, probably, I also probably was getting ill then, and was losing my energy, you see. And that's always been a huge thing with me. I don't think if you're diseased or sick you can have very much energy. And I sort of couldn't understand why I was feeling a bit tired all the time, and I don't know, there was a huge amount of things that came together. And I think I was just really sort of bellowing for help in one way.

So you think that it was more asking, 'Please, please rescue me from this situation', or that you were actually depressed, like some people.

Well I think I was pretty depressed too. What's ... you know, it's a Shakespearean thing, when all occasions do conspire. So many things came together that were sort of ... I mean, when I was in the theatre the safety curtain hit me on the head one night, which isn't very nice, you know. You get a bit concussed by things like that. It was all sort of strange. As I say there are coincidental things on the bad side too, that come together, that can set you on your spinning off. And off you go. And I suppose what happens is that the combination of all those things puts you into state where you really can't see any way out. You feel as though you're like blind: What can I do, I can't go on living in ... I can't go on living. You say first, I can't go on living in this. And what can I do to get out of it. And after a while there just seems to be only one way. I think lots of kids come to it. And I had had all that very quickly, that success. I really didn't have a teenage life where I went to parties or anything. And because I was sort of working from very - quite early on. And I then went ... [I] got into this thing of being wanted by all the managements and all the people. And I mean I just, obviously ... I think many people can't handle those situations at all. They go into it, [and] their head goes into a sort of a whirl and they can't think.

How did you get over it? What actually happened? I mean how, you know, how did it happen and how were you found, and how did you get over it?

I can't go into all that stuff. I mean I, I don't know. It was all a sort of dream in a way. But it wasn't, it was a bit of a nightmare. Well I went away. I went ... I went off to Sicily. And it was spring and I looked at all the trees and I went for swims in the sea, and I got back to nature I suppose. That was a way out. I smelt blossoms and I wasn't running to the theatre and changing my clothes and putting wigs on and off. I was lying in the sun, looking at funny Italian people. And German tourists running in and out of the water. So really, I think that's probably the best way to get rid of all that shit in your head.

Did anybody help you get over it? Was Sean on the scene at the time?

Oh no, no, no. He wasn't.

Did you have any help?

No, I just ... I think really I sort of got pregnant then. That was probably a move to ...

A life affirming move.

[laughs] I think probably, you know, it forces you into sitting still for a moment or two. I think everybody also ... There is a thing in all female beings, unless they're very different, where you know that you've got to stop being a daughter and start having a position where you're a mum rather than a sibling or ... It sort of changes. Roles change.

How old were you when you had first baby?

I can't remember. Not very old. Too young really. I can remember anyway, as she was so tiny, I had to take lessons in ... My mother was worried I was going to drop her down the sink or something. Any way she did give me lessons in bathing, or a big lady did. And she was so big, this lady, that she could hold my baby in one hand. Because she was only five pounds or something. It wasn't a huge child. But it grew. I mean, she grew. Anyway I think that, all that part of my life I ... was a long time ago, but it is ... I mean you do, if you put yourself back into it, you can remember that your head was filled with fluff or butterflies, or you couldn't really think straight. At least I couldn't at that time.

How important is it to you, your Australianness? How Australian do you feel yourself to be? You've spent a lot of time away. What does it mean to you to be Australian?

Well, I'm very glad I'm Australian, having been round the world a lot and had a look at everywhere else. And I do like coming from this part of Australia, which is very ... somehow does ... it's got a sort of something that chimes with my personality. And I like it that we are not a hugely populated country, and that we have such diversity, and such empty spaces. And I really think that the space is what makes Australians Australians. I think the actual feeling of space. And I think we're a very arrogant race. But then of course, we were bound to be, coming from what we do. And I think I reflect that in part. And I think that we're also got enormous chips on both shoulders most of the time about our, our cultural ... although I think Australians are, as I've seen, there are some extraordinary talented people here. I mean, more freely talented, and I used that word quite ... than nearly anywhere I've seen. We're not very discipline, compared with say Japanese talent and other talent in places. But I think the Australianness is not able to be taken out of the person, even if they're ... if they live in England for ... or America, or anywhere. There's still something nitty down there that's very ... Nearly everyone I've ever met, who was born in Australia, has an Australianness that you can't scrub off, or get away from. And I don't particularly want to get away from mine.

Could you find words to describe what it is? What the essence of that is for you, that you can't scrub off.

Well, I think it's an innate vulgarity. Yes. I mean Australians are wonderfully able to use vulgar terminology. They just are like that. They can do it and they have a sort of ability to see [the] cryptic side of things and not ... They don't take bullshit much. I've never ... although they can be very rubbishy themselves about it. I think also there is a side of us that's frightfully Victorian and ghastly, sort of, underneath - a sort of rigid Victorianism sort of. There's a sort of prurient side of Australians too, that can be quite funny.

You yourself have said that you have a great deal of difficulty, which you feel is innate, with authority. Has that changed as you've got older, or is it still with you? How do you deal with authority now? And what kind authority do you come in contact with?

Oh I come in contact with the council all the time, and I'm getting better at the police - with speeding and stuff like that. But I still have a bit of ... When I first came to do the theatre I had tremendous problems with the council, because they just really didn't know what I was doing. And I'm sure they were incredibly threatened by what was happening, and they just didn't image it. I mean, one council member asked me what we were going to do here at night. And I said, 'Well it's a theatre, you know'. He said, 'I don't know, I've never been to one', and you are in sort of a territory which you don't know quite ... I had a lot of trouble with the building inspectors. But I don't have that quite so much now - quite so much, hopefully. And I've sort of taken on things, like I'm a member of the Regional Arts Development Fund board. And so I'm sort of stepping into those sort of roles, which I don't think I can do very well. But I do stir it up a bit. That's my role anyway really: stirring things a bit. [INTERRUPTION]

Diane, you've had the most extraordinarily varied life. There's hardly an adventure to be had in this world that you haven't had. Have you found it fulfilling and what's ahead for you?

What do I know, how do I know? But I ... Well I don't think that you ever finish your adventure until you get carried off. At least that's what I hope for. But I think, you know, there's an array of doors that you can go through and the ones that open to you, I think you ... those are the ones you should take, while they [are open] because they'll close up some time. But I think, really, what's ahead for me is that I am trying to establish this theatre, which will create another type of entertainment, a sort of eco whole experience: very evoking, or evocative thing, in the middle of the rain forest, which is a total fantasy in a way, but that's what we want really, all of us. And then I hope to delegate and make my own appointments. But I think up until then I'm still trying to follow through with the laser to give it a bit more of what it can do, because it's such a theatrical, such a rivetting and extraordinary discipline, and I'm very fascinated by images in light. They seem to me ... and that's why I started this thing of darkness and light ... because they seem to me to be where we're going. I think the laser as a concept in that it's used for everything: for printing, for surgery, for ... using it for entertainment is also, I think, part of its job. To show us really what light's about, so that we can look at images in light and be overpowered by them. So I'm trying to do my next thing, in the near future, to include dancing, and a myth, music, flying: in fact, a sort of multi techno and talent - physical talent, somehow. A spectacle of that sort. Whether it'll come off, I don't know. Again, it's skittering along on a razor's edge. The first thing you have to do is make a CD of music and sound, and then you choreograph the laser to that, and then you put the actors in, so ... or the actors and dancers in, and I do have a very good person doing the choreography for that, who's coming on my next ... the next production of Heavy Metal Hamlet that's supposed to be coming here in the middle - in the beginning of July. So really, that's what I'm occupied with at the moment and I can't really look beyond that, except to a holiday, somewhere nice, with my old man, you know. That's the way it goes.

Since you've put your energy into the theatre you haven't been keeping up the sort of teaching side of what was here. What happens now though if someone does want to come and live with you and learn from you?

Well that's ... you see I think that's important, that that will show me that people are ready to do that. You see, when I started this, although I did bring people with me, and they wanted to come from that lecture tour, I haven't done much since then. But to get people in, is what I'm saying. But if people come to me I never say no. They come and stay. Whatever capacity they want to come in. Say a student who wants to learn laser, a person who wants to teach yoga, a person who wants to teach, I never turn down too, because they can teach here, if they want to. I think it's a very important thing that you try to gauge what people are doing. The people ... People's way of thinking does go in waves, and I think there was a time, certainly in the seventies when this was begun, when people really would take six, eight, ten months off, to take a look at what they were doing: stand back and try and look at their life. I don't think we're in that stage now. I think we are in a much more escalated time where we say, 'What? I can't get away even for the weekend'. I mean okay, but you know. And especially as we're out of range of cellular phones. So they feel cut off from the big old world out there that's steaming on, even though we've got Internet and all that stuff. Somehow it's just a bit too far away for comfort and just a bit too frightening: the jungle and the thing and the bats that fly around and the little widgies that get into your bed in the night and take a nibble. And it's all just a little bit too savage. So, I don't think everyone thinks like that though, but when a whole group of people comes to me and says, 'I've got to be here. Do be here and let's work together', then I will. Until then, I'm not doing it.

Everything you've done has required enormous amounts of energy. Where do you feel your energy comes from?

Well that's actually ... If I were to give an end product of what the school I went to did, it was to teach you how to accumulate and conserve energy. Because energy: we waste an incredible amount of energy. We don't use much of our brains, we misuse energy just extraordinarily. And I don't think it's bad to have a bit of a flit about with your energy, and use it up and go raging, drinking or smoking, or whatever it is, one ... but you always have a time when you've got to make up for that. I mean we've forgotten how really to manage our bodies, or else we've become incredible body managers, and we can't do anything else but think what we're going to shove in our chops and what we're going to do for energy building exercises, or take walkings. I think we've become ... we're all out of kilter. We've just go to allow it to be and learn the basics of breathing and meditation and different things, which are energy accumulators. Well, they're not energy accumulators so much as they don't use energy that we waste, so we've got it here ready to use.

Why did you call this place Karnak?

It's never just one reason. I can't really explain why, I just knew that was its name. It's not just that it was the city of light in Thebes, where people went to learn. I think there were 250 professions taught in the Karnak environs. It wasn't just that. There are other reasons, which I'd rather not divulge. But it was the right name for here. It's a strong name. And I like names that sort of are almost the same backwards as they are forwards. Karnak. It's how it is. People always ask me that, but it was ancient Thebes and it did ... I have got a picture over there of it on the wall. It has ... It did have these wonderful great pillars. It was all about light, and light is enlightenment. The light is probably the active elements of energy.

[end of interview]