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EXCLUSIVE: Why Justine Clarke is flying high

Incisive actor, Play School veteran, cabaret singer and now documentary TV host. Justine Clarke talks to Juliet Rieden about her child-star beginnings, finding her father, the seismic shift of approaching 50 and why family will always come first.

By Juliet Rieden
Justine Clarke has been on our TV screens and in our theatres in an impressive array of roles for four decades. It would be age-inappropriate to call her a national treasure – she's not yet 50 – but it's tempting.
Justine can switch from Ibsen on the New York stage opposite Cate Blanchett, to searing Aussie TV dramas – think Tangle, The Time of Our Lives, Hungry Ghosts – to Humpty Dumpty's sidekick on Play School, not to mention a musical career that takes in sing-alongs for cheering kids as well as cruisy jazz standards in cabaret clubs.
And hold on … just when you thought there was nothing Justine hadn't mastered, her latest outing is factual TV presenter.
Sporting an enviable wardrobe of outfits representing every decade – mostly fabulous air-hostess uniforms – Justine heads up the three-part SBS documentary Australia Come Fly With Me.
As it turns out the series unintentionally evokes a hanky-wringing aura of nostalgia and poignancy, for as Justine declares: "Since we started filming there's a whole new world order."
2020 marks a century of civil aviation in Australia and also potentially the year the industry faces devastation thanks to COVID-19 travel restrictions.
No doubt when the show was first mooted it was intended to be a celebration of an industry reaching for the stars, but with the Flying Kangaroo, Qantas, pretty much grounded, Australia Come Fly With Me is a reminder of what we used to enjoy – the wonder of travel.
"I feel like plane travel is not going to happen for some time and I'm not sure it will ever really be the same again," posits Justine, who had a ball filming the show.
"The good thing is it's more about the history of Australia. The flying is the backdrop to our social history. I loved learning about Australia through the lens of civil aviation and I've done a lot of travelling myself since I was really little, as a child actor, a lot of unaccompanied minor domestic air travel for work."
"I've always felt very comfortable on planes," she adds, which is just as well because among other escapades in the show she takes to the skies alfresco in a vintage Tiger Moth – which she says was "an incredible opportunity".
Justine recalls her only international travel as a child was on a family holiday to Fiji. "We'd dress up in our best clothes when we flew. Mum would wear all white and we'd go to a lot of trouble with our travelling clothes," she laughs.
"I remember how other-worldly air hostesses were. There was so much more glamour to flying than there is now."
Singing and performing got under Justine's skin at an early age. (Photo: Alana Landsberry)
Landing a job as an air hostess was highly sought after. "Back then your only options as a woman were nurse and teacher, so the women that the airlines attracted were smart, amazing women."
"They ended up fighting for equal opportunities," notes Justine who, in the series, tracks down the feisty women from the '70s and '80s who fought for equal pay and conditions, including the right to work past the age of 35!
"They were fabulous. Mum and Dad were working class so I didn't know those educated women. It was so exciting seeing what they achieved," she says.
Justine was raised in Sydney's eastern suburbs when "Bondi Junction was just a windy little town that you did your shopping in". Her mother, Beverley, was a dancer and choreographer.
"She danced up until she was in her mid-30s. She was at the Tivoli, the APIA Club and Chequers nightclub and all those '60s clubs that were full of live music. They'd have the house band and then the ballet."
"Mum would choreograph the ballet and make the costumes. She'd pack the car with all the costumes and the girls and drive around to each of the clubs to do the show."
With a car full of sequins and the smell of greasepaint it's no wonder performing got under Justine's skin. She and elder sister Vanessa would go with their mum to the acrobatic dance studios run by Hungarian-born Tibor Rudas above Sydney's Tivoli theatre.
"Mum worked for Rudas. It was a vaudevillian troupe and they had all kinds of acts. They had a studio connected to the company and we went there as kids and we'd dance and do acrobatics too."
Justine performs with some fans at Carols in The Domain in 2015. (Getty.)
Justine loved acting while Vanessa was more of a dancer. "We did a lot of modelling for catalogues too. We did everything," she says. It all sounds very Judy Garland and Justine admits it was "a little bit", especially when you add in the singing.
"That was just me and I got it from my dad [Len]. He was a beautiful singer. He managed the Redfern RSL and would sing in the clubs and I think that's what Mum fell in love with, his singing voice and his sense of humour."
Her parents separated when Justine was eight months old, so Beverley was essentially a single mother with Len a distant figure in the background of Justine's childhood.
"We moved to Melbourne for a few years because that's where Mum's side of the family was from and then we moved back to Sydney. I think they tried to get back together a few times and they never fought."
"They were never mean to each other. They just didn't work, being together. They stayed friends. They were very respectful of each other."
We are sitting in Justine's family home with youngest son Max upstairs and rescue dog Benny curled up in a patch of sun by the door to the backyard. Before we started chatting, seizing the opportunity to multi-task, Justine hastily gathered her family's freshly-dried clothes from the outdoor line into a laundry basket which is now by her side.
As she talks, she folds. But when the topic of her father comes up Justine pauses, deep in thought.
"Dad was 47 and Mum was 37 when I was born. They were older and Mum's very independent and I think it was the era when men weren't involved so much in the day-to-day family life. They went to golf and to work and Mum realised that she was raising us on her own anyway. So, they separated and we left."
WATCH BELOW: Justine's YouTube channel is filled with fun videos that gets kids up and moving. Interview continues after video.
When they were back in Sydney, Justine says she and Vanessa would see their dad once a week or perhaps it was once a month.
"He was always the same. He was Lennie. We'd have dinner with him at Pinocchio's at the Cross, which was near where he worked … I do have a couple of very strong images of Mum and Dad as a couple with me as a little girl."
"One is in the water with them and holding both of their hands. Another is of them walking ahead of me and they were holding hands. But that's it."
In her 20s Justine felt a need to connect with her father. "I went looking for him. I wanted to know who he was and I wanted to know 'why wouldn't you have stayed?'. It just didn't make sense to me, but I understand it now."
When I ask if Justine liked what she found, her eyes twinkle. "Oh yes I did. He had a lot of friends and he made a lot of people happy. He had a really good sense of humour and you had a laugh when you were with Dad."
That sense of celebrating life was something both parents shared and passed on to Justine. Her mum is "hilarious and back then was a real clown," she says laughing. "Mum was very loving and very caring and very open-minded, and that's something she definitely instilled in me."
For the last five years of his life Lennie came to live with Justine and her family. He died 11 weeks after youngest Max was born. It was a special time for everyone and when I ask if this late reunion with her father made her feel she had missed out in her childhood, again she pauses.
"Yes, I think I did. I didn't miss him because I didn't know what I was missing. I didn't ever think, 'oh I wish I had a father', because I didn't know what it was to have one who was present and interested."
"But now when I watch my husband, Jack, with our daughter, Nina, I think she's so lucky. I can see the benefits of it. I can see now what I had to teach myself or learn through life experience, that you can see Jack's teaching her now. That would have been so good for me as a child."
Justine's childhood was mostly about acting. "I did performances in the lounge room for Mum, and when Dad was around, my sister and I would do skits, a comedic take on the latest commercial. We thought we were pretty funny," she chuckles.
At the age of seven Justine landed her first professional job. "It was for Mike Willesee's new TV show at six o'clock and I had a lisp. They got me to say 'Willesee's at six' which was cute and funny."
"Then I got my lisp corrected and I did a Humphrey B. Bear biscuits' commercial where I got to do a cartwheel and eat a biscuit. As a really little girl I remember thinking it was pretty fun. Although in primary school they thought I was up myself… but I didn't care."
"I remember thinking, that's a craft that I know nothing about. I think I know, but I actually don't," says Justine pursuing acting post-Home and Away. (Photo: Alana Landsberry.)
In 1985 Justine earned her big break with a role in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. A run of three or four TV series followed and then Home and Away. Justine was in the show's original cast playing bad girl Roo Stewart and it was then that she tasted the downside of her new celebrity.
"Roo was a troubled teen. Her mother had died of cancer and she was living with her father but she wasn't really being properly acknowledged for what she was going through so she was lashing out."
"She was a bully. People started calling me 'bitch' in the street and giving me the finger shouting: 'How dare you do that to Bobby!' Bobby [played by Nicolle Dickson] was a very popular character so any time you were mean to Bobby, it was seen as dreadful." Justine is laughing about it now but at the time she struggled.
"I found that really hard. I'd been working a lot and I was used to the idea of having a bit of notoriety within my school group, but not that level of recognition. Whatever your character was doing at that point on screen was how you were received with the public."
After 18 months she chose not to renew her contract and instead signed up for drama school. It was a bold move for someone who in many ways had already learned her trade, but was probably the smartest career move she could make.
"By the time I left Home and Away I'd been acting for 10 years. I felt already a bit burnt out by it because I was relying on childish instincts. It was just coming from somewhere, not conscious. It wasn't growing with me," she explains.
"I did this funny little play with these wonderful actors and two of them were British and they'd trained in LAMDA [the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art].
Just watching the way they worked, how they moved in the rehearsal space, I remember thinking, that's a craft that I know nothing about. I think I know, but I actually don't. It was an outdoor theatre and we really had to project and I knew I didn't have any power in my voice."
Justine with her husband, actor Jack Finsterer. (Getty.)
The training gave Justine confidence. "It was the key to saying, I choose this. It's not just something I've fallen into. I needed to make that decision for myself."
Theatre became her soul food for the next five years and Justine admits if she could only choose one discipline it would be the stage. "That exchange between audience and actor is really special and I really miss it with the theatres closed down. It's the one thing I can't wait to go back to, just to sit in the audience. Not even to be on stage."
It was also where she met actor Jack Finsterer. They were rehearsing for a production of Cyrano de Bergerac and immediately clicked. "I'd dated a lot of guys and I wanted someone who was kind, and he was really kind. I think we both had figured out what we didn't want in relationships."
When Jack proposed it was accidental, says Justine with a giggle. "We were at the Melbourne Theatre Company and the lights were just about to go down at the beginning of act two.
It was a Shakespeare. I can't remember which one, I want to say The Tempest. Anyway, he was kind of posing the question, asking me if I was really serious about this relationship, and then he said, 'would you marry me?' I was like, yeah."
"And he said 'you really want to marry me?' And then the lights went down. That's why I can't remember what the play was. I remember sitting there thinking 'oh my God, what just happened?'. It was really lovely."
As an acting couple they treat their profession as a family business. "We have always thought that together we've had one really good career. We've tried to let each other have our moments when we needed them and pull back if the other one was thriving and likewise, if you felt you wanted a break, then the other one would pick up."
And as soon as they had their three children, Joe, now 19, Nina, 17, and Max, 11, despite her passion for her acting, Justine says family always came first. "I think the decisions I've made about my career are not based on what's right for me; they've been based on what's right for everybody."
One job that has totally fitted with family life is Play School and it's also a role Justine longed for. "I'd always wanted to be on Play School. I'd watched it as a kid and from a young age I recognised how skilful those actors were."
"They were so great at drawing you in and making you feel like you were their friend and everything was going to be okay. I watched it for much longer than I probably should have. I think I was 10 or 11 when I stopped. When I finally got an audition, it felt like this was going to work out. And it did."
Justine was a natural and the series inspired her spin-off music videos and shows for children. Her own children loved watching Mum in Play School but, "They don't like watching me in character. I think it's too confronting and they're just not interested in watching my work. Thank goodness!"
Next year Justine faces the big 5-0 and as she finishes folding the last item of washing, she ponders on the landmark age.
"I don't think it's a drama but it's definitely got a weight to it. I can feel that in this late part of my 40s, there's physiological, seismic shifts in the way I see the world, in my body, and everything really."
"I think the last time I felt this much change was probably just before I got married. I was 28 and things were moving without me feeling like I was doing it myself. This feels like another big turn." There's no party planned yet but if there were it's unlikely to be a big bash. "The best dinner parties we have are just with our family."
Australia Come Fly With Me airs on SBS at 8.30pm from October 14.
Read more great Aussie interviews in the November issue of The Australian Women's Weekly, on sale now.

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