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They asked her to write for the film, but Susan Prior boldly suggested she take a role in A Cold Summer as well; hardly surprising for someone who was a born performer, as Andrew L. Urban discovers.

As a child, Susan Prior loved the imaginary worlds in which she could perform, whether it was Abba songs in the privacy of her room (“very big performances, though!”) or acting the Princess to her younger sister’s servant. These imaginary worlds could be found in the bush, the backyard or inside the house. 

By age 13 she was making people cry with her poetry reading, and by 14 she was performing at the Adelaide Festival. At 17 she left her Adelaide home “to make my own way” and ended up at NIDA.

“But it’s a funny thing,” she says over a coffee in Sydney’s Kings Cross, “nobody in my family was an actor, and one of the reasons I became an actor was insecurity in real life – and security on stage.” She first got an inkling of this while at a children’s improvisation class with Martin Christmas in the Adelaide Hills. “And I was always passionate about dancing…”

"from performing"

When at one stage her mum, an academic, told her she was ‘melodramatic’, Prior liked the sound of that word, and looked it up in the dictionary. “Yeah, that sounds quite fun…” But being “skinny and white” she didn’t fit in “with all the Italians I went to school with. And I still have an affinity with Italy … but I always felt a little bit inferior.”

The discovery that she felt more secure and confident came from performing. Theatre gave her a buzz, and after graduating from NIDA she went on to play with all the major theatre companies, taking versatility to the limits, with roles such as the Fool / Cordelia in King lear for the Sydney Theatre Company, and the Devil in Soldiers Tale with the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

Film was different. “I always thought that film was for movie stars and I didn’t feel like a movie star. For a while I didn’t understand film, I wasn’t tuned into it. Someone had said ‘don’t move too much, let it all come from the eyes’ and I wasn’t quite sure what that meant. I did some films (Idiot Box, Heaven’s Burning) but I was very nervous. It took a long time to get that fear out of my system – and that was through doing various things and experimenting with how big or small you can go. And how in actual fact, as long as you’re truthful, it doesn’t matter if you physicalise things.”

But things have changed, and Prior is “very passionate about film now.” 

Largely thanks to A Cold Summer; director Paul Middleditch rang Prior and invited her to have a chat about “something very exciting” at the Tropicana café in Sydney’s Darlinghurst, the original home of Tropfest and a popular meeting place for filmmakers. Teo Gilbert and Olivia Pigeot were also there, two actors who were already involved with the project. Middleditch wanted Prior to write for them. She had written some material for him previously, and she was also writing for If Magazine. 

But as the conversation heated up and it was clear they were “all in the same headspace,” she boldly suggested that she also take a role in the film. “We were all very excited – and apprehensive.” 

"to capture the momentum"

He offered Prior “food and water, somewhere to sleep if you need it and a fax machine, taxi fares …I just want you to focus on this. He wanted to capture the momentum.”

The end result is a film based on inputs from all of them. Having had her handbag snatched near Sydney’s Harbour Bridge, a hysterical and angry Tia (Olivia Pigeot) runs into Bobby (Teo Gebert), who has just run a random breath test unit. The chance meeting leads to frantic casual sex and the start of a destructive relationship. Bobby lives in a car, having left his wife, and Tia tells him straight out that she’s married. When Tia runs into childhood friend Phaedra (Susan Prior), they renew their friendship but Phaedra’s vulnerable life, in the wake of her boyfriend’s heroin overdose, is shaken by Tia’s crash-and-burn lifestyle. Phaedra is dragged into this world of denial and denials, but it is her strength and natural compassion that gradually infect the other two as they confront the demons chasing them.

Middleditch and the three actors lived together for a number of months confiding in each other to create the very personal screenplay. “I wanted to create a work that was a direct response to the emotional state I was in at the time,” he says. “I wanted to construct three truthful portraits of people dealing with death in their lives in radically different ways and to create an environment in which they could expose their real lives before the camera.”

The dynamics of the process fed directly into the film, providing it with both drama and energy - and filling it with truth. “As Paul likes to say, it’s a snapshot of a period in our lives, but not necessarily ours alone; the characters are a conglomerate of several people.”

Now, Susan Prior is well tuned into film, and is actively looking “for inspiring work.” In film.

A Cold Summer releases in cinemas on February 26, 2004.

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