Fiona Press and Kelton Pell in ‘The Heights’ (Photo credit: Ashleigh Nicolau).
Something remarkable happened to Fiona Press when she played Hazel Murphy in the first and second seasons of the ABC serial The Heights.
For the first time in the actress’ 37-year career after graduating from NIDA, Press felt she wasn’t just a “survivor,” despite more than 50 screen credits and dozens of plays.
“Hazel is the role of my life. Until she turned up, I don’t think I realised I had a career,” she tells IF. “As a female of my type in the Australian industry, to survive is actually a career. I’m a jobbing actor.”
Matchbox Pictures’ Warren Clarke, the showrunner who co-created The Heights with Que Minh Luu, tells IF: “The choice to cast Fiona really came from how grounded her audition was. We knew this character would be a foundation stone for the series and we needed someone who had that gravity.
“Fiona brings an undeniable presence to the screen and I really think that comes from her incredible commitment to character. She examined and deeply considered every nuanced detail of Hazel and as a result we not only have a heart-achingly truthful, multi-faceted, wonderfully rendered character, but also a total fan favourite.”
Fans of the serial know Hazel as the hub of the community, mother of Ryan (Mitchell Bourke) and Shannon (Briallen Clarke).
Avoiding spoilers, Press hints that in the second series, which premieres on March 12, her character faces more challenges and indeed trauma as her relationship with Uncle Max (Kelton Pell) is further explored.
“Kelton is as much of a technical perfectionist as anyone I’ve worked with,” she observes. “That comes from a depth of experience and a faultless intuition.”
Enjoying a purple patch in her career, she clocked up nine screen appearances in the past 18 months including guest roles in Doctor Doctor, Upright, The Other Guy season 2, Diary of an Uber Driver and Secret City 2: Under the Eagle.
Fiona with Michael-Anthony Taylor on the set of ‘The Other Guy’ season 2 (Photo credit: Joel Pratley).
Fiona auditioned for NIDA when she was just 15 after the institution’s general manager Elizabeth Butcher spoke at her school’s careers day. That was no slam dunk: She was regarded as too young at her first attempt and succeeded after three further auditions over five years.
Pre-NIDA, she served an apprenticeship at the Q Theatre, working in the box office, as wardrobe mistress, teaching kids and understudying Judy Davis, who was a permanent member of the company, when she went to Cannes for the premiere of My Brilliant Career.
Often she was cast as figures of authority: judges or magistrates in Home and Away, Crownies and Rake, a police psychologist in Underbelly: Badness and a school principal in At Home With Julia.
She plays Dr Kourdair, the mother of Kate Jenkinson’s Tara in season four of Easy Tiger’s Doctor Doctor.
In Unjoo Moon’s Helen Reddy biopic I Am Woman, which opens in May, she plays Molly Yard, who was a significant figure in the American feminist movement in the latter half of the 20th Century.
Her big scene involved a recreation of an enormous pro-choice rally that happened on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
“Most of the roles I’ve played don’t bring me recognition, and I’m proud to say that,” she says. “People look at me and think I’m familiar but really can’t work out why.
“The latest queries have been: ‘Are you my neighbour or are you someone famous? Do you sing in a choir? Are you on television?”
While she’s not sure what she’ll do next, she says: “I really hope it’s series 3 of The Heights. I would be very happy to have Hazel take me to other parts of myself and life in the way she already has.”