Australia’s Barry Humphries is no stranger to donning a dress and wig for the sake of his art. He has been taking his Edna Everage show on the road for decades and is currently touring her across the US.
In good spirits, having recently flown in to New York where he had been busy promoting Nicholas Nickleby, the new film adaptation of the Dickens classic, this 68-year old cerebral master of wit said “how refreshing it is to be talking to an Australian, after 3 days of talking to nothing but Americans.”
In the upcoming Nickleby, Humphries is hilarious as, Mrs. Crummles, wife of Nathan Lane’s Vincent Crummles, an itinerant theatrical troupe that meets up with Nicholas and the tragic Smike, who had just escaped from the sadistic clutches of Wackford Squeers, in the film’s comic middle section. The actor says that he never expected to be cast in a Dickens adaptation, but director Douglas McGrath “and I have known each other for years, and in fact at one point we were going to do an Edna movie together and still might. Then out of the blue he called me to say that he’d written this adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby, which I thought was incredibly good. Then he offered me a role in it which I thoroughly enjoyed.”
Humphries had no difficulty settling into the comic role of Mrs Crummles, arguing that he is “a character actor so I should be able to play anything”, he says, in response to being asked about being cast as a woman for the first time since Edna. “I mean if he’d asked me to have played a chair I probably would have done that too. After all, actors should be able to play anything.” He relished playing opposite Nathan Lane, recalling “that it was just an awful lot of fun to do, and our scenes appear in the right part of this otherwise sad tale.” Humphries found it easy to relate to his character, because that whole section of the film reminded him of his youth, growing up in Melbourne.
“I remember there were touring little companies like that , generally English, who were very seedy and more or less at the end of the road”, Humphries recalls. “There were these magic shows and vaudevillian shows, which were always comprised of a husband, wife and daughter. If it was a magic act, the daughter got sawed in half, that kind of thing. I remember seeing these things with my parents during the school holidays, and the audience would laugh at them. It really was so Dickensian.” Humphries also recalls having known, in his youth, “women that were larger than life. They were local theatrical celebrities, known ONLY in Melbourne and they ran the show, very much like Mrs Crummles.” Though Humphries is better known as his feminine alter ego Edna Everage, he doesn’t think there is much of her in this character. “I really approached the character as a totally professional acting job.”
These days, the still gregarious Humphries, who has homes in London, Switzerland and Sydney continues to be embraced as Melbourne housewife Edna Everage. A virtual staple of Australian culture since Humphries first created the character in the late fifties, audiences worldwide continually flock to see Edna tear apart the Establishment. Yet for such a parochially Australian character, Americans adore her. Humphries is at a loss why that it is. “It’s a mystery”, he says with typical flamboyance. “It’s obviously good fortune for me, but I think she provides them with a funny little humorous vitamin that they don’t get anywhere else”, Humphries explains, describing Edna “as a complicated joke”, one that began “as a satire on Australian suburban life in the fifties. “It began as this private whinge against the oppressive niceness of Melbourne in the fifties.” From such a humble beginning, Humphries took that idea further, and never realising how contemporary Edna would become, the actor used the character as “a comment on celebrity itself and these people whom we CALL celebrities but in fact are grindingly ordinary. We all know that Edna is a housewife from Melbourne who THINKS she’s Barbra Streisand. American audiences respond to her because she’s so politically incorrect and says things they dare not say.”
Edna has even crossed over from the theatrical world of Humphries’ politically incorrect stage to, of all things, TV’s Ally McBeal, on which the actor was a series regular playing a character and billed as Edna Everage. “One night when I was doing the show in Los Angeles, my dresser told me that David E. Kelley, creator of Ally McBeal, was in the audience. So that night, Edna said she was suing Barry Humphries for embezzlement and was going to brief a lovely, skinny little lawyer called Ally McBeal.” It appears that Kelley enjoyed the show and persuaded Humphries to join the cast in what would emerge as its final season. Humphries loved the experience “of working with that fine group of players” and it gave him a taste, he adds, “of working with other actors after the comparative solitariness of my job.” Yet Edna continues to work hard. Humphries is touring in select parts of the US, “ending up in San Francisco, the city where it all began here in the States, so I’m bringing it full circle. As it says in the ad, ‘the Rhinestone Boomerang Comes Home’.”
Dame Edna aside, Humphries is also one of the key voices in the new Disney/Pixar animated feature Finding Nemo, opening next Summer. “I play a vegetarian shark”, laughs Humphries. “I’m actually a very carnivorous shark trying to give it up, on a 12-step vegan diet. It was a great experience and I’m looking forward to seeing the finished product.”
Humphries says that he is encouraged that he wasn’t cut out of Nicholas Nickleby and clearly, for the youthful 68-year old, life is no drag.