Anthony LaPaglia and Rebecca Gibney seem relaxed and happy sitting on the couch together talking about their roles in P.J. Hogan’s latest film Mental, in which they play a Gold Coast husband and wife, Barry and Shirley Moochmore, parents of five rambunctious teenage daughters. Well, LaPaglia and Gibney seem as relaxed and happy as you can be, in a high rise hotel room with different journalists coming in precisely every eight minutes to ask you roughly the same questions.
Still, the roles they play in the film are interesting departures for both of them. LaPaglia is an Emmy and AFI Award-winning actor more used to playing heroes and strong men in TV shows like Without a Trace, and films such as Balibo, Lantana and Looking for Alibrandi. In contrast, he’s more of a cowardly lion in Mental, playing a philandering local politician who’s a clueless father (echoes of Bill Hunter’s monstrous turn in Muriel’s Wedding), completely unable to cope with his brood when their mother, played by Gibney, has a nervous breakdown.
Gibney is known and loved for her AFI and Logie award-winning performances on television in shows like Come in Spinner, Halifax F.P, Packed to the Rafters and Stingers, where she’s played a string of predominantly likable but strong women. Having appeared in a few small film roles, Mental is by far her most significant big screen role to date. She’s quite transformed in it, having famously gained weight to play the frumpy and downtrodden mother and wife, who escapes her miserable existence by pretending she’s living in The Sound of Music and going on manic shopping sprees.
Both LaPaglia and Gibney agree that the film is a refreshing departure in numerous ways, especially from any idea of what’s ‘normal’.
“I don’t believe it’s a film about mental illness,” says Gibney. “It’s about dysfunction – it’s about a family in dysfunction. And it’s about the fact that we’re all a little bit mental! And that’s normal, and we can live with it and laugh at ourselves. It’s a liberating film.”
LaPaglia chimes in with that gravelly voice that always commands attention. “I guarantee that if you show me any person and I look at them hard enough and long enough, I will find some form of behaviour that if I single it out, looks mental. Once you accept that, it’s actually quite liberating. It’s like when you turn 90 and you can say whatever you want because suddenly you’re liberated from being polite. ‘I hate you. I always hated you!’”
Gibney is open about the fact that she fought for the role in Mental, and had to convince the director that she was right for it. “I did go all out to get it in the audition process,” she says. “I’ve said it before and P.J. knows it, that when I read the script I just knew the character. It’s one of those classic moments where I said ‘this is my mum’ – and other people that I know. Obviously my mum is not Shirley Moochmore, but she’s raised four daughters and two sons, and we have a slightly dysfunctional family, and she’s the ultimate people-pleaser. So I knew that I could bring something to the table. So I went out and got the fat-suit and put the muumuu on, and sang my guts out when I auditioned. I told P.J. that I’d do anything – put the weight on, do anything. Thankfully he gave me the gig!”
“That’s great – you do have to fight for the roles you love!” answers LaPaglia, encouragingly. Which begs the question, did he have to audition or fight for his part in Mental?
“No, I didn’t audition, but I wasn’t handed it on a plate either. I sat down with P.J. and had a very long discussion about it. At the end of that discussion, had we not seen the same thing on the page, I don’t think he would have hired me, but based on the discussion that we had, I think he felt that I understood the character, and could do it justice. I think he had a specific vision in his head about the character and I don’t think he would have compromised that for a minute by hiring someone who couldn’t commit or give the performance he wanted.”
One of the aspects of the role which appealed to LaPaglia was not just the chance to sing a rather atrocious version of ‘Eidelweiss’, but to depict something of the struggles of fatherhood.
“I love the scene in the film where I finally admit that I’m just like my father,” he says. Looking over at Gibney, he says to her: “We’re both parents now and how many times, as your kid gets older, do you find they ask perfectly logical questions but they’re difficult to answer? And you say ‘Because I said so!’ And suddenly you’re like your own father. I promised myself I would not be like my father with my kids, and suddenly I find myself saying the same crap he did, and now you realise why. Because you don’t have time to explain everything!”
Asked how they think viewers will respond to Mental, Gibney and LaPaglia are aware there will be criticisms from some sectors, but agree that what they most love about the film is the fact that it’s the product of one single authorial voice and vision. “It may not appeal to everyone and there will be scenes that some people might find confronting or uncomfortable,” says Gibney, “and I’m sure P.J. got asked to remove some scenes to make it a bit more palatable for some people, or to make it easier for an American audience, and he would have said ‘no, I’m not going to. I wrote it this way, and that’s how it’s going to be.’ He’s a very passionate man and knew exactly what he wanted right from the outset. It’s his script, his baby, and he’s been working on it for over ten years, so everyone that came on board knew exactly what they were going into, and the fact that he was going to stretch all of us and challenge all of us. And he did.”
LaPaglia agrees. “On a lot of films that you work on these days, there’s always outside pressures to change your film once it’s been done – based on audience screenings, studio notes, what will ‘play’ overseas, and blah, blah, blah. And P.J. – and for this I have a huge amount of respect – has just said, I don’t care. This is the movie I want to make and I’m not changing any of it. If it works, it works, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t, but it’s MY film. And I couldn’t agree more. It’s rare that you find people who won’t fold under pressure. The pressure is enormous! But with Mental, you can tell it’s the vision of one person, unlike so many movies now, which have no direction. They float because there’s the voice of 15 people in there, and so the films lack that definitive quality. And to me, the difference between a really good film and mere entertainment is that somebody has had a really strong vision of what they want to do, and they’ve followed through on it. I would rather watch that film – whether it works or not. If it’s a success, that’s great. But if it’s a failure, it’s a grand failure, an honest failure. It’s not a compromised failure that everyone runs away from, saying ‘oh that’s his fault, no it’s his fault’. I want a film where someone’s going to stick up their hand and say this is mine, and no matter what happens, it’s mine.”
Mental is screening in national release and is one of the Feature Films in Competition for the 2nd AACTA Awards.