INTERVIEW: Actors Julia Croft and Chris Neels get ‘Skin Tight’

Skin Tight
Yum, apple!

Julia and Chris chat about Skin Tight, love, bruises, manhood, our Pakeha heritage, and TV commercials… [by James Wenley]

Skin Tight
Chris Neels and Julia Croft in 'Skin Tight'

Skin Tight, by Gary Henderson, is a New Zealand play done good.

Since its humble debut at BATS theatre in 1994, the play toured New Zealand, and the world, including productions in Australia, Great Britain, South Africa, Canada and the USA and won a Fringe First award in Edinburgh.

At its core are the enigmatic characters of Tom and Elizabeth, recalling old school 1940s/50s New Zealand, who open the play with a brutal and passionate physical fight. The first stage direction of the play is instructive ‘A number of gym mats form a single pad centre stage’. It is a play that asks a lot of its actors.   

Jed Brophy and Larissa Matheson originated the roles, now rising actors Chris Neels and Julia Croft have taken up the mantle in a new Auckland production at the Musgrove Studio directed by Melissa Fergusson. For both, Skin Tight is their favourite New Zealand play. Julia first read it in Drama School, and the character of Elizabeth was on a dream ‘one day I’d like to play that character’ list. Now she gets to.

I worked together with Chris and Julia on the team of Auckland Theatre Company’s Shrew’d – a quirky reworking of The Taming of the Shrew – in 2008. Along with myself, Chris was one of the three crew members who together managed to win ourselves increasing and unplanned stage time. Julia was a star, playing the sexy and sassy Shrew, holding her own in a boxing ring. At that stage, Chris was about to embark on three years of acting training at Unitec, Julia was about to return to do her final year at Toi Whakaari. Chris has admired Julia since Shrew’d, and remembers one particular backstage moment: “I remember walking into the theatre one day, and she had her head between her legs and she was blowing stuff out of her lips. And I thought ‘that’s a professional actor’. She was warming up while the rest of the actors were having a smoke or something like that, but Julia was in there stretching – that’s an actor.”

Chris has been out of drama school now for six months, and says he’s been doing okay. He appeared in Outfit’s The Sex Show and is currently appearing in KFC’s Double Down commercial. “There’s times where you struggle for rent and things like that, but largely I’ve done alright. I’ve been given some nice opportunities along the way.” Julia, he says, is “wise and experienced” in contrast. She describes her industry experience as involving “ebbs and flows”. “You have periods where it’s great, and inevitably you start thinking ‘I’m gaining momentum, this is great!’ then nothing. It’s one of those jobs, when you’re working, it’s the best job in the world, when you’re not it can be a challenge“. This year Julia featured in Red Leap’s Paper Sky during the Auckland Festival, and formed Thread Theatre with Veronica Brady, co-devising the show The Keepers, and can also be seen on our small screens in the Z petrol station campaign.

I imagine Skin Tight is a bit of a gift for an actor. What’s the attraction for you guys?

Julia: I really like physical theatre, so that side of it really appeals to me, how much the physicality is part of the storytelling. It’s a beautiful script and for me a good example about how ideas don’t need to be flashy or complex, that its actually sometimes the simplicity of an idea that is incredibly poetic. I’m a romantic so I get all mushy about the romantic bits; it restores your faith in love.

Chris: The thing for me is that I’m really excited about being able to play a man, like a classic kiwi man. You just don’t see it so much in recent writing at least, it’s an archetype that is dying to a degree. There was such a peak for it in the 80s, especially cinematically with Bruno Lawrence and those sort of guys, and then it petered away. This script, because it’s very much a timeless script both in writing and concept… to be able to play one of those characters, as I say a genuine kiwi man with genuine kiwi male thoughts, how he approaches things, it’s a gift.

Julia: I was speaking to my Dad recently about his grandfather’s farm, you know the kiwi farming thing, and to my generation and my life experience that doesn’t really exist. We are very urbanized now, that kind of number 8 wire kiwi bloke is an archetype that does exist, but it’s not the fashion cinematically or theatrically anymore.

Chris: You used to be able to look at the All Blacks and go “Bloke. Bloke. Bloke. Bloke.”, but now they are models, and fashion store owners, it’s a real societal shift which is interesting.

How are you approaching the very physical nature of the script?

Julia: With a few bruises… We’ve just thrown ourselves in the deep end to be honest, we don’t have a choreographer on this project, so it’s been up to us to launch ourselves at each other as it were.

Chris: We are both very fortunate to have worked with Red Leap, and we both feel like we have a similar language when approaching this type of stuff, so it’s made it very easy. With the brief work that we have done together there’s already a level of trust there, we didn’t have to break down any walls or do trust falls or anything like that. Julia jumped on me and it worked.

Julia: As an actress it’s a delight, I really like working physically. There’s something about getting sweaty in a rehearsal room that is so satisfying.

Chris: Bruises are the badges of achievement.

Julia: You get really proud of them.

Chris: We were working on pretty solid floors, so the bruises have been aplenty.  

I am looking forward to seeing the fights between you…

Chris: They’re brutal. I’ve always liked fights to be honest.

Can you speak to the themes of the play, and what they mean to you?

Chris: It was really interesting, last night we were working on the first physical fight, and we came up with the provocation of ‘what is this fight about? Why are we fighting about this?’. For me, it’s one of the strongest themes of the play, the whole idea of struggle and what the characters are unwilling to let go of. It’s consistent throughout their relationship and throughout the play, and coming to accept when it’s time to let go. It’s the idea of accepting loss, letting go, that to me is a really big part of the play.

Of course its heightened by these ideas of love, and romance, and tragedy, all these things great things that Gary ran into, but for me the overriding thing is about acceptance, accepting the present reality.

Julia: For me, the overriding theme is love. I like the romance and domesticity, it’s always really appealed to me in my own life – no-one really wants to have a sonnet written for them or twelve dozen red roses, but it’s really romantic when someone picks you a little flower and dances with you in the kitchen. This for me is what the play is about, it’s that thing of love being not only being how you feel about someone, but what you’ve shared, love being a succession of shared memories. I’m a romantic so I love all that stuff.

Do you have any theories about why Skin Tight has been such a success story? We don’t hear of many New Zealand plays going international. 

Skin Tight
Yum, apple!

Julia: I think for one thing it deals with very universal themes, it deals with things that everyone can identify with. The simplicity of it is incredibly moving, and I think it’s told in a very different way. It’s told free of cliché and it’s told in a way that visually interesting and surprising, and it’s just a really good story, and you can’t beat that.

Chris: And it’s sexy and it’s violent… people love sex and violence.

Julia: It’s very visceral. I think the first time I went to see it, I don’t think I’d ever seen actors deal with each other physically like that onstage before, that tactility is very appealing… it’s all through this play… they’re eating, they’re licking each other, they’re grabbing each other…  I felt completely drawn into that world. It affected me physically, this hits you in the gut and you feel it in your body, and I feel that’s a very satisfying sensation for an audience.

Chris: There’s also something really attractive, and I’m thinking more on an international level, about New Zealand, and about the people that inhabit these small places. And who they are, and there’s this beautiful pioneering spirit that the whole country was founded on that is still alive, it still exists in these small places. There’s rawness about that, there’s an excitement about that, and I think people really dig that.

Julia: Particularly Pakeha, for me it’s a real… not exclusively, because it can speak to everyone… but it’s a real Pakeha New Zealand story.  I can see my Grandparents in the story. The night I went to see the last production of Skin Tight I was speaking to a couple of girlfriends and everyone had the comment ‘it makes me think about my grandparents’. That thing about being able to see something of your own history, it’s really appealing.

Chris: This was a discussion I was having recently… being a middle class white urban New Zealander, I struggle to find plays that I consider to talk about my heritage. I’m not Maori, I don’t have thousands of years of relationships in this country, I have one hundred, almost two hundred at best… this play, for me, is probably as close to a heritage play that I’ve discovered . I think that a really nice feeling to have, you feel like a part of your own heritage.

Both of you are actors that like to devise and create work for yourselves. What sort of theatre are you interested in making? Julia, you’ve just finished doing ‘The Keepers’?

Julia: This work was born out of me and Veronica Brady’s relationship in being friends, and having a similar aesthetic and interest in the kind of work that we wanted to see onstage that we felt we weren’t seeing a lot of. We are really interested in physical theatre and visual theatre. We’re interested in making theatre that is not necessary linear or doesn’t follow a straight narrative, but is more experiential. We desperately hope to do The Keepers again early next year, rework it and take it on tour.

It’s been a really satisfying experience for me because you finish drama school and you have that thing of going ‘oh yeah, you just make work with people’, but actually finding those people who really inspire you and challenge you to want to make, hasn’t necessarily been as easy as I thought. So finding this group of women has been extraordinary in that we can all get in a room and make stuff that we think is cool, and we are all on the same page, and we put it in front of an audience and they think it is pretty cool too. We felt like we were taking a bit of risk with this work, because it’s not what I’ve seen a lot of since I’ve been in Auckland, there aren’t a lot of companies pursuing the type of language that we are interested in, but it was really inspiring and humbling actually how excited audiences got over the work, it confused some people, but for the most part I gather people like that… we are interested in the audiences making meaning and being a part of that contract, the story doesn’t start and finish with us, the story happens when you put it in front of an audience and people can bring their own experiences and feelings to it, and the story comes out of that meeting.

I really enjoy working with women, it’s great to have a group of strong women making theatre for other strong women, not exclusively because men liked it to, but I feel it’s been a women-centric company up to this point and I hope it continues like that. We’ll take over the world!

What about you Chris?

Chris: I’ve got a double bill at the Basement in August, one I’ve written and one I’m devising, which is frightening. Last year  the Basement put out a call for proposals and I thought… oh shit, next year I’m going to be an actor and if I’m not performing at the Basement I’m not an actor. That’s what real actors do, they go to the Basement! That’s been a really interesting experience because I’m working with two very separate mediums and having to approach them very differently. Once Skin Tight finishes I’m going to be up to my eye balls with that, which is exciting, we’ll see how it goes.

Julia: And me and Christ are talking about stuff for the future, this has been a really good working relationship that we hope to continue, ay?

I want to finish by mentioning that both of you are in high profile advertising campaigns at the moment…

Julia: Yes we are! Double Down and Z.

What responses have you been getting from people?

Julia: Pretty good! You get people coming up to you going  ‘I love your ad’, and I’m like, ‘really?’. Love isn’t a word I’d use… but okay! People seem to really like it. As an actor it’s really great to get gigs like that every now and then again, because we can afford to make a show like The Keepers, and can afford to make shows like Skin Tight, because you’ve got corporate New Zealand paying your rent for a while.

Chris: I don’t think the Double Down even needed an ad, by the time it came out there was so much publicity about it. I know the other two guys, the other two actors, so that’s been fun, people getting photos of the three of us and stuff like that.

Julia: No-one wants to get photos with the Z girl…

Chris: When they start offering competitive fuel prices then they’ll want photos with you… As Julia says it does give you the comfort zone where you’re not going ‘oh shit, I’m going to have to fit in the work that I want to do with surviving.

Julia: Both of us, this is what we do for a living, we don’t have day jobs or anything, so it’s necessary.

And you had a good time scooting around New Zealand?

Julia: I had a great time, it was a great shoot. I was pretending in my head that I was a Bond girl. You can’t really see it but when I take my helmet off I do a little hair flick… Really nice people, the industry is filled with really nice people, it’s a pleasure.

Skin Tight is presented by charlatan clinic and plays at the Musgrove Studio 22-26 June. Tickets from the Maidment Theatre Website.

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