Noni Hazlehurst on what Australia really thinks about old people

The much-loved Australian actor talks about her new SBS project tackling stigma around ageing.
Noni Hazlehurst

Noni Hazlehurst is one of the most recognisable and loved faces on Australian screens. Whether you grew up with her twinkling blue eyes on Play School (‘which window shall we look through today?’) or watched her most recent performance in the heartwarming feature film June Again (where she plays a mother with dementia reconnecting with adult children played by Claudia Karvan and Stephen Curry), Hazlehurst projects a unique blend of toughness, kindness and humour.

Growing old in front of an audience is notoriously difficult, but at nearly 68 years of age, Hazlehurst faces it full on in her latest gig as presenter of one of three segments of SBS and Joined Up Films’ factual series What Does Australia Really Think About… In her episode, the topic is Old People, where the research suggests that bias against old age is even more deeply held than sexism or racism.

Despite her recognisability and extensive experience, Hazlehurst says she has noticed a difference in the roles she’s being offered now. Quoted in the press materials, she says:

‘When you’re in your sort of 20s and 30s, and even early 40s, you get a full character description and it’s more likely to be a leading character. But now that I’m in my 60s, I get offered roles anything up to sort of 80-year-olds, and they tend to just be a very brief character description of mum, typical mum, typical grandma.’

Read: Ageism in the screen industry: the dirty laundry in the diversity basket

Speaking on the phone to Screenhub from her home in the Gold Coast hinterland, where she’s lived for more than twenty years, Hazlehurst says she agreed to do the SBS project because it was telling a worthwhile story.

‘I really liked the diverse and interesting approach the producers had. My whole point of being involved in the arts is about connecting people, and being able to walk a mile in other people’s shoes, and reducing our judgement of each other that divides us.’

Using university surveys and social research, together with hidden camera experiments, the show explores stigma and prejudice around not only old age, but disability (hosted by five-time Paralympian Kurt Fearnley), and obesity (hosted by performer and Australian Idol winner Casey Donovan). The series shows how opinions can be tested, challenged or hardened, and as Hazlehurst repeatedly says, the series underlines the fact that every single person deserves to be treated with kindness, respect and support.

Screenhub: What was the thing that was most shocking or surprising to you about the attitudes towards old people revealed?

Noni Hazlehurst: I wasn’t particularly shocked or surprised by any of it because I’m nearly 68 and I’ve witnessed and experienced some of the attitudes that are shown. The only thing that did surprise me was in the coffee shop scenario [where an actor was repeatedly told they were too old to apply for a barista job], where hardly anyone older spoke up. It made me wonder if older people are frightened to stick up for themselves because [in our culture] we are so angry with each other at the moment. If anyone expresses an opinion different to ours we are all outraged.

It was interesting to see that younger people were more likely to speak up and seemed more aware of the discrimination and rights of the older people.

Yes, that was heartening to me, and that also happened in the scenario with the much older bride and younger groom. Most of the younger people we spoke to were incredibly supportive. That’s more likely to be so when you’re face to face than online. But in general younger people were not repulsed or angry about seeing an older woman and much younger man getting married. They seemed quite permissive about it which was encouraging, because on an everyday basis movies are released with a 58-year-old leading man and a 30-year-old romantic interest and nobody bats an eyelid.

I find that in my industry, once women turn 50 they tend to form their own production company. Look at Geena Davis who’s done so much for women in Hollywood over the age of 50, and has demonstrated that older women’s stories can be box office successes, so there have been many years of reluctance to elevate any women over the age of 40 for any starring role. That went on for way too long.

Have you ever been reluctant to admit your age? Has that been an issue for you?

Never, I’ve always been completely honest about my age, which is interesting because a couple of my peers are now young enough to be my daughters. I’ve never had any work done, which is incredibly obvious. I haven’t had any work done because I’d be scared of it going wrong, but also, you get to a point where you can only play people who have had work done, because it’s so obvious.

I haven’t had any work done because I’d be scared of it going wrong, but also, you get to a point where you can only play people who have had work done, because it’s so obvious.

Noni Hazlehurst

I find the amazement at the fact that Frances McDormand [in Nomadland] for example, would dare to appear on screen without makeup. I mean, why is that weird? We’ve become so used to airbrushing and adorning and falsifying images that we’ve got to express horror and outrage that a woman would dare to be unadorned in public?

You’ve been in the Australian screen industry for many decades now. Have you noticed any change or improvement in the way older women are being written for or presented on screen?

A little… a little. But I think what’s changed a lot is the prism through which we look at older things. If you look at the casual sexism and misogyny in a lot of films from even 10, 15, 20 years ago, right back to the beginning of cinema, where women were overwhelmingly notoriously the adjuncts to the man and considered weaker and inferior, those perceptions are changing. Also, now you’ve got a lot of really strong women in producing and directing roles, and in a writing capacity, who are finally getting a seat at the table.

But in my industry, like any other, we can only really be reflective of the society at large. And the numbers of women who do, after all, form a majority of the population (I say tiredly) are not being included in the seats of power in any business. We see this casual misogyny from our elected leaders on almost a daily basis, this lack of awareness of the basic requirements – like [Former NY Governor accused of sexual harassment] Andrew Cuomo, saying he didn’t realise the boundaries had been redrawn to such an extent. ‘Nobody’s ever complained before.’ Have you not been reading or listening to anybody?! That’s the delusion of power. The illusion of equality and justice they claim.

One of the most disturbing segments of the program was about older women and homelessness, with women over 50 being the fastest-growing cohort of homeless. We see this economic disempowerment of older women especially if they’ve been carers and done unpaid work over their lifetimes.

What was revealing in that segment was that it wasn’t until the end of it that the women involved felt able to open up and be real, and then the stories just came out. I think that’s a reflection of the problem that we all have in that we feel we have to pretend to be coping and to be fine. And in reality, I don’t know anyone who’s not struggling some level, Covid or no Covid. Life is a struggle! Whether it’s emotional, financial or all of the above. It just brought home to me that everyone is deserving of respect and everyone has a story to tell.  We need to be able to show our vulnerability. Look at Greta Thunberg, she’s showing the vulnerability of her whole generation, and look at the flak she has to face.

In our society have a lot of shame about admitting financial vulnerability but it’s only by being open about money that we can challenge the status quo.

That’s right. There’s rightly a pretty high level of outrage about the fact that the Jobkeeper recipients are being chased for $32 million, and they’re people on the poverty line who got a little bit of relief. But nobody’s chasing the boy’s clubs, the big corporations which just took the money. And in my profession, there’s been no help at all. 660,000 workers in the arts industry, who contribute $111 billion a year to GDP. NOTHING. And these are the people who have entertained everybody during lockdown!

..in my profession, there’s been no help at all. 660,000 workers in the arts industry, who contribute $111 billion a year to GDP. NOTHING. And these are the people who have entertained everybody during lockdown!

Noni Hazlehurst

How has the way you work changed as you’ve gotten older?

I think I’m enjoying it more because I’m less concerned about how I look, and about the actual character. I just want to portray a believable person, a believable human being you can empathise with, or make you reflect on your values if they’re not a likable one.

I’ve always been pretty picky, but I’m even more picky now, because the career isn’t the be all and end all. If I can’t find stories that I don’t think are worth telling, I’d rather not do it. I don’t want to be part of things that just perpetuate myths about women or lies about society. There’s enough lack of reality at the moment.

Is there a role that you’d kill for at this age?

No, not really. I read everything that comes to me but no specific role I need to play.

A lot of people struggle with memory issues as they get older. Do you have advice for performers around staying sharp?

I don’t struggle to remember lines, but my personal thing is to keep learning. I still do masterclasses, I still practise, and try different things and just keeping your mind active is the main thing for all people getting older, whether they’re performers or not.

I think lockdowns have made people more empathetic towards all people who live alone. Sometimes the only social contact a person gets in a day is from the person behind the checkout, and what if that’s a negative interaction? How will that affect them? Perhaps being locked down has brought home to younger people that it’s not a bad thing to just talk to your neighbours or older people.

Do you think other cultures do better than us around including old people?

Of course they do. We know they do. The natural order of human beings is to nurture the young and the old, that’s the way it should be. But with our capitalist-driven rates of acquisition of wealth and fame and money and status, that doesn’t happen. Old people don’t figure in that. That’s why we had the Royal Commission into Aged Care. What happens when a whole generation of the population is shut away and profit is everything?

What else are you working on?

I’ve got another series of Every Family Has a Secret. That’s in production at the moment. Another tricky one with Covid. I’ve just had a play written for me which we’re workshopping right now. And I’m writing a book which is very slow and difficult. I’m also developing another film project with the people who made June Again.

Do you envisage yourself working long into the future? Is that something you want?

I’m an actor in Australia. I can’t afford to retire! But I love my work, and if I find work that interests me, as an actor or presenter or director or producer, then that’s what I want to do.

What are some changes you’d like to see ?

Well I’d like to see the people who need it be allowed to have a living wage while this [pandemic] is going on. I also feel really blessed to be part of this doco, and I think it should be compulsory for high school students, just as a point of discussion. It might help alleviate some of this lumping of older people into the basket of irrelevance. Everyone deserves kindness and respect.

What Does Australia Really Think About… Episode 2: Old People premieres 8:30pm Wednesday, 25 August on SBS and SBS On Demand. Join the conversation on social #AusThinks

Rochelle Siemienowicz is a journalist for Screenhub. She is a writer, film critic and cultural commentator with a PhD in Australian cinema. She was the co-host of Australia's longest-running film podcast 'Hell is for Hyphenates' and has written a memoir, Fallen, published by Affirm Press. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram