Quiz question: What do such stars as Chris Hemsworth, Isla Fisher, Guy Pearce and Naomi Watts all have in common — besides being Australian?
They're all actors who got their big breaks in two long-running soap operas that are still popular Down Under called "Home and Away" and "Neighbours."
"Home and Away" just entered its 30th year on television, but despite its endless run, most Americans have never heard of the Australian early evening soap, just as most are oblivious to its rival, "Neighbours," three years its senior.
However, American audiences would definitely recognize the names and faces who got their breaks on these shows: Hemsworth ("Thor"); Luke Bracey ("Hacksaw Ridge"); Julian McMahon ("Nip/Tuck"), Fisher ("The Great Gatsby") and Isabel Lucas ("Emerald City") were in hundreds of "Home and Away" episodes apiece, while Heath Ledger, Watts and Pearce all had brief stays. Pearce also spent four years on "Neighbours," which also produced Liam Hemsworth, Margot Robbie, Jesse Spencer and four episodes with a young Russell Crowe.
"The shows have been a nursery for wonderful talent," says original "Neighbours" star Alan Dale, who has since become a familiar face on such U.S. series as "24," "Ugly Betty," "Lost" and "Entourage."
Alumni say they were a proving ground that trained them in both the craft of acting and the necessary work ethic, providing the tools they'd need to flourish in Hollywood.
"It was a great opportunity," says McMahon, who was 21 when he started on "Home and Away." "I was learning how to act, literally learning on my feet."
American soaps have similarly been a breeding ground for top talent: Morgan Freeman, Tommy Lee Jones, Alec Baldwin, Julianne Moore, Susan Sarandon, Melissa Leo, Marissa Tomei and Kevin Kline all put in time on soaps and all have since been nominated for Oscars.
"Home and Away" was initially born to correct a mistake. Australia's Seven Network had launched "Neighbours" in 1985 but quickly canceled it, says Dale. When it was given new life and became a huge hit on Network 10, Seven Network sought its own evening soap to combat it. "Neighbours" focused on a cul-de-sac in a fictional suburb of Melbourne, while "Home and Away" targeted younger audiences by focusing largely on the stories of the foster kids taken in by a family in a Sydney suburb. (The shows both broadened their focus to include other characters in their communities.)
Despite the Dodgers-Giants type of rivalry between the networks, Dale, who appeared in more than 1,000 episodes of "Neighbours," says there was no strain between the shows' casts. "Back then there was so little work available, so we were just pleased that other actors were getting a job."
Although the shows never made a dent in America, they became huge hits elsewhere, especially in the United Kingdom, where, McMahon says, "Home and Away" was originally broadcast during the day but people began skipping school and work so they had to televise it multiple times daily to prevent truancy. Stars were rarely stopped in Australia, but it was "like Beatlemania" when he was in England.
"That was fun and exciting, but no one teaches you how to handle that," McMahon recalls.
The relentless grind of daytime soaps taught the actors some vital skills. "Its about getting your lines right and not falling over the furniture," Dale says. The lessons were all the more pressing on "Home and Away" because much of its cast was so young.
Christopher Egan, who has appeared in the American series "Dominion" and "Kings," was just 14 when he got his break on "Home and Away." "I was a huge fan of the show and had the hots for this girl and ended up being her brother," he says. "The show is its own acting school, even if it is very mark-oriented — you say the line, pick up your drink and walk to the mark. It really instills a work ethic; you have to show up on time and be prepared to work."
Jordan Rodrigues, who is now on "The Fosters," made his television debut at 15 on "Home and Away." He credits the adult actors for teaching him "about staying in the moment and being loose on the set. And when you are working at a fast pace you have to be able to adapt to any situation."
Their roles led to more jobs in Australia, but McMahon says that when he first came to America in the early 1990s, he struck out. "Now actors just jump on a plane and go to America and it's less of a big deal, but back then not many went overseas unless they had a great film under their belt like Russell Crowe with "Romper Stomper," McMahon says.
Over the years, casting directors and producers have opened their minds about Australian actors, he adds. "Now people say, 'Oh you're Australian; we'll give you a part,' but back then you had to hide that you were from another country. I went on auditions once and my Australian accent kept coming in on one word, and an executive pulled me out to warn me about that. If they found out you were from Australia, they'd just say, 'You can go now.'"
Dale, who came a few years later, jokes that the mad rush of Australians followed his arrival here. He pointed out that Australians grow up watching so many American series and movies that it is fairly easy to pass as American. "Even the garbage collector there can do a passable American accent."
Egan, who arrived 14 years ago, says there are more acting opportunities at home now but that it has also become much easier to find work in the States. "You may not put your soap on your reel here, but the attitude has changed a lot, and these shows are considered more respectable," he says.
Rodrigues agrees, saying that although "Home and Away" is not going to land him a job, "casting directors know about it now, and so even if it's not a defining thing it is definitely a good reference point."
What helps, Dale says, is the knowledge that these actors come in with a strong work ethic. "When I come in for auditions I'm often pretty well off book even if I have only 12 hours to get ready, but a lot of American actors just turn up and read," he says. The soaps also didn't allow for diva behavior. "We would never lock ourselves in our trailer because we didn't have a trailer; we were standing on the side of the road."
Egan and Rodrigues both say they keep in regular touch with their "Home and Away" brethren, as well as "Neighbours" actors. "There's an unspoken bond because we all went through the same experience," Rodrigues says.
However, McMahon adds that they don't just sit around rehashing the good old days of long hours for low pay. "I got to know Chris Hemsworth quite well when he came over, and Luke Bracey too, but our conversation is more tethered around sports than around the show."