Claudia & Justine PHOTOGRAPHER : STEVEN CHEE STYLIST : MELISSA BOYLE HAIR : RICHARD KAVANAGH MAKE-UP : SAMANTHA POWELL clothing credits: Claudia Life With Bird top Lover skirt Karen Walker necklaces Karen Walker bangle Elke ring Sergio Rossi shoes from Miss Louise Justine Camilla & Marc top Bassike pant CC Skye Bangles from thedarkhorse.com.au Gucci shoes Sofa by Matt Blatt Photo: Steven Chee
Remember that melancholy line in Stand by Me? "I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?" Well, I am here to tell you that they do.
When I arrive to meet Claudia Karvan and Justine Clarke, both 41, they are locked in an embrace so fierce that I feel like a trespasser on some unguarded moment. Karvan's head is buried somewhere in Clarke's still damp hair and they are both talking a mile a minute. This looks emotional. Maybe I should just leave?
We are at a pub in Darlinghurst to talk about their roles in the new ABC drama The Time of Our Lives, made by the team who brought us the popular The Secret Life of Us. We settle upstairs on chesterfields and for a moment I feel like a boorish guest at a party, breaking into a private conversation with small talk. But I needn't worry. Karvan is expansive, hilarious, gregarious and lively – a natural storyteller – while Clarke is the quieter of the two, her responses thoughtful and considered. She's the bass note under Karvan's loquaciousness.
The pair have known each other since they were eight, doing cartwheels in the same gymnastics class, and their friendship has weathered their respective careers, marriages, travel and children. Claudia, married to set builder Jeremy Sparks, is stepmother to Holiday, 19, and mother to Audrey, 11, and Albee, 7. Justine, hitched to actor Jack Finsterer, is mother to Josef, 11, Nina, 10, and Max, 3.
They both had parents who were "night people", in Clarke's words. Karvan's mother and stepfather ran Arthur's nightclub in Kings Cross, while Clarke's mother, Beverley, was a Tivoli dancer and her father, Len, booked entertainment at Redfern RSL.
"When we were 19, 20, we started being independent friends," Karvan says. "We had a best friend in common, then we got close when we moved to Melbourne." The pair even flat-shared in Bondi for two years in their early 20s.
They have steadily built two of the more successful careers in the Australian entertainment industry. Karvan has worked as a producer and writer, serves on the board of Screen Australia, and was a judge in the inaugural Stella Prize for literature. Clarke has acted in film, television and theatre, is a popular Play School presenter and tours on the jazz circuit. "Our understanding of each other came because we grew up working in the same industry. I always felt akin to Claudia and we shared lots of friends," Clarke says. Yet despite almost 30 years as actors, they have shared surprisingly little screen time. Until now.
In The Time of Our Lives they play very different women. Clarke's character, Bernadette, is a stepmother and mother of twin daughters, and married to Luce, played by Shane Jacobson. Theirs is a relaxed household with a harmonious marriage. In contrast, Karvan plays uptight helicopter parent Caroline, whose marriage to Matt (William McInnes) is on the rocks. "I call Caroline a First World problem," says Karvan. "She's a perfectionist. I wanted to know why she behaves the way she behaves, because of lot of women behave like that.
"The thesis behind Secret Life of Us was your friends are your family. And with this ... your family is your family. You've also got to have drama – it can't just be mushy and saccharine. You are drawn into the warmth, but there are also problems and tensions."
Talking to Clarke and Karvan is a bit like someone taped a conversation between you and one of your oldest friends. Between stories there would be laughter, cutting in on each other, digression, speaking in shorthand, heavy use of nicknames, letting any stranger who might be with you know that your friend – the one sitting with you – is the most talented, exceptional person ever. And the friend denying it, ("No, you're great!") getting embarrassed and pulling her jumper over her face. And then more shrieking.
Here is the secret life of them.
Claudia Karvan: Jussie [Justine] and I have known each other almost all our lives. We went to the same gymnastics classes when we were eight. We didn't know really each other but Jussie was the golden girl, who could do all the backbends, in the perfect leotard. I was there [at gymnastics] and I would have been with my brothers in skanky, ill-fitting gear, totally inflexible, couldn't do the splits, couldn't do any of that. Then we met again.
Justine Clarke: It was High Tide [a film Karvan did with Judy Davis in 1987].
Claudia: We had, like, 10 auditions. It was between Jussie and I. And we lived down the road from each other in Paddington. We could check in on each other. You can't take those decisions personally, about roles. Right after I got High Tide you got the role I went for, Princess Kate.
Justine: After that we never really went up for many of the same roles.
YOUNG AND FAMOUS
Claudia: Jussie was extremely famous on Home and Away [as a teenager] – having to hide behind lightposts and stuff. Dead on three o'clock was a danger time, when all the school kids came out. She wouldn't be able to leave the house.
Justine: I'd been working for what I thought was a really long time, but it was stuff that went under the radar. But then overnight fame – Home and Away was such a big, highly promoted show – so successful, so quickly ...
Claudia: And a very different time from now. It was the eeeeeighties ... you were glamorous and you were wealthy and flying to England and doing musicals ...
Justine: Oh god ...
Claudia: You were driving around in a white Golf! Drinking Island Cooler! You were the female George Clooney!
Justine: George Clooney's girlfriend, thank you.
Claudia: Early 20s, I don't know ... I don't think I could repeat them. It's the most lost you ever feel. I'd just done Dating the Enemy at that time. Seven weeks out of a 52-week year and you are classified as a successful actor.
Justine: You've still got to fill 45 weeks!
Claudia: I'd just sit around in the kitchen doing the crossword until 10am, most days.
Justine: At least you did the crossword. You've always been very disciplined. I always think, when I think of that time, that I was a dreamer and you were a doer.
Claudia: Except you were in drama school. If there is one thing I remember about that time it's that you tutored me, remember? I was doing Dating the Enemy. [They are both cracking up.] Jussie knows comedy – she is so comedic and brilliant – and she can move. I'm so unco. She was doing feldenkrais [a movement course] and drama school, so I got a bit of a drama school vicariously. And with feldenkrais she gave me the tapes.
Justine: We flatted together for two years in a pretty cosy but unrenovated older-style Bondi flat. We didn't entertain there much, it was more of a sanctuary. We drank lots of tea.
Claudia: We had Justine's piano and her guitars, so a bit of music got played.
Justine: It was all Claudia's furniture, as she was the grown-up. Even though she's younger than me by six months, she's always felt like my older sister – so together and responsible from such a young age. I remember when we both lived in Paddington going around to her house and she'd be sitting at her desk doing her homework! Such a foreign concept for me.
Claudia: We went scuba diving together. Remember we went for that night dive?
Justine: Claudia has always been a lot braver than me. I remember when we were in our 20s, Claudia got her motorbike licence and said, "You've got to get yours, it will be great, we'll go riding through the city." And I was like [in a scared voice], "Okay." I was freaking out. Then on the night dive I freaked out. It was at Manly, it was choppy, it was cold and scary. I was breathing shallowly.
Claudia: But since I've had kids, I haven't taken as many risks. I haven't been diving, haven't been surfing. You remove all risk from your life.
Claudia: Jussie sent me a letter in the post, which seems so antiquated now.
Justine: I probably wrote to you more than to anyone. I've kept a few letters from you.
Claudia: I remember this one letter when I was in Melbourne, I must have been shooting Secret Life of Us. This is, like, 13 years ago, and you wrote me a letter and said: "You always told me that I had tell you when I was going to try to have kids. So I am telling you that I am planning on having a kid by the end of the year." And absolutely that was the main impetus for me to go [Claudia clicks her fingers], "Shit, I've got to get pregnant!" Of course I happened to be in love, and have a job and all that stuff. But seriously, Jussie triggered me having Audrey, for sure. And [our babies were born] like a month apart.
Justine: That's hilarious.
Claudia: Well, you want to hold some hands when you jump off the cliff.
Justine: Yeah, you do.
Claudia: It was the last intimate moment we had – that letter! [Shrieks of laughter.] We never saw each other because the kids took over. We had two dates in 10 years. One was when we went to the park with the kids, and we were like "arghjuvh hngfiuijdh" [Karvan mimes frantically chasing children] and yelling across the park and so frazzled and the kids were screaming. We should have just called each other! And then the other time we went for a weekend in the bush - with our kids, without our partners, again same thing. We were just wrangling kids the whole weekend and never got the chance to sit down and have a chat. So, Time of Our Lives – we just sit around and have a long chat, no one interrupting us except the director!
Claudia: I've done very little theatre. I've only done four or five productions in my life. Do you know what would be fun?
Justine: If we did a play together!
Claudia: You would have to teach me. She's a virtuoso on stage. You should see her. Yeah, we could do a play. Then we could go and have a drink after work every night.
Justine: Yeah, every night. Theatre is like having another family. They become more your own family than your own family – all your energy goes into those four or five hours. I used to do a play a year but it's harder with three kids.
Claudia: Have you ever seen Jussie on stage? She's brilliant. Give us the New Yorker review quote! It was a good quote, too – c'mon, c'mon, you know it. [Clarke is squealing, hiding her face in a jumper, before finally admitting that The New Yorker described her performance as "superlative".]
Claudia: It was doing Ibsen [Hedda Gabler].
Justine: I'd like to retire to the theatre.
Claudia: That's the best thing about our careers: we'll be working when we're 90 if we're still alive. We'll be playing the grandmother.
Justine: I do think, though, that one of the privileges of sticking at it – at our age – is that you get to work with your friends, and so it's not as formal. You've got a shorthand to the way you speak to each other, you can experiment and do stuff in a scene that you may not do otherwise out of politeness. Nothing is off limits.
Claudia: There was one scene where I had to break down and it was so lovely sobbing into Jussie's arms. I trust Jussie so much – you can go to deeper places.
Did you see the first episode last night? What did you think?