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Woman on Top

Clown College to Boarding-House Boinks

In 1970, counterculturalists Lilian and Ken Horler founded Sydney's legendary Nimrod Theatre. The now defunct venue was meant to serve as "a tiny revolutionary space to make Australian plays, without kowtowing to British imperialism," explains the Horlers' only child, Sacha, with whom Lilian was pregnant at the time. It's only fitting that 29-year-old Sacha Horler inhabits the lead female role in Praise, an exceptional new movie that spits in the face of today's rightist Australian establishment. Adapted from Andrew McGahan's Bukowskian 1992 novel set among the down-and-out in a seedy Brisbane boarding house, the film probes the underbelly of conservative Queensland's sunny, extroverted, no-problems-mate culture.

The leading man, Gordon (Peter Fenton), is a druggie, a drunk, and a heavily asthmatic chain-smoker with zero ambition and a tiny dick, while Horler's substance-abusing Cynthia is a vociferous, dominant rebel—tubby, with a bad bleach job, severe eczema, and "an enlarged clitoris from steroids"—who stops at nothing to get what she needs. For example, sex with lethargic Gordon on demand. (She's a top.)

"On a bad day, Cynthia is a wildly exuberant, dangerous woman with many addictions and in serious need of help," says the vivacious, hazel-eyed Horler. "But on a good day, she's the one you'd want to talk to at a strange soiree. John [Curran, the director] said she had to have this aggressive maleness, but she couldn't be repugnant. And I don't think she is. I have natural empathy for a woman falling in love with a guy with asthma and going, 'Can we have a relationship? I know I'm a bit of a monster.' "

As a teen, Horler studied at a Sydney clown school called Pippi Longstocking, and unconventional parts followed even when she attended the prestigious National Institute of Dramatic Art. "I'd end up being the loud, funny girl," she recalls. Horler could run the risk of being stereotyped as a ball-breaker. In the upcoming My Mother Frank, for example, she plays "a [Sydney] North Shore mother of two who wears a lot of white and is always bossing people around." But she's not worried. "What I find in these extraordinary characters is a kind of directness. I once had a whinge to a director friend about how I'd prefer to play the ingenue. He just looked at me strangely and asked, 'Really? What is wrong with typecasting when there is something wonderful to play?' You know what? I end up making something fun out of the parts I get."

 
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