In a world of superheroes, it’s tough to be an average citizen stuck at home caring for your superbaby, especially when your mind reading husband is still harboring resentment over the fact that you slept with his partner. All that aside, Janice Parkman does her best to keep her chin up and roll with the punches.
Playing Mrs. Parkman on the hit show Heroes is Lisa Lackey, an Australian actor who has been trying to balance her profession with raising a family of her own. We recently talked to Lackey about working on Heroes, accidentally serenading David Lynch and how being Australian is nothing like what you’ve seen on TV.
How did you get into acting? When did you decide it’s what you wanted to do for a living?
I actually don’t even remember when I got into acting. I was doing it when I was very, very young. The story goes that somebody came up to my mother and said, “Would you like to get your daughter into modeling and TV?” or something. I must have been about six or maybe even younger. That’s the story, I don’t know if it’s true, but that’s what my mother’s told me.
I started doing that kind of stuff. I was modeling underwear at six. I didn’t do very much; nothing that interfered with school or anything like that. I did some commercials and did some print and I was always the lead in the school plays. I just loved it. I absolutely loved it. I was terribly uncoordinated at sports. I was just terrible. I was scared of the ball. So you put me on a stage, ask me to sing a couple of songs, I was happy as Larry.
So that was kind of it. Then we moved away and I didn’t get to do anything for a long time because we lived in the country on a farm. So I was very determined after I left home at 17 and went off to the city to try to do theatre because that’s essentially what I was doing and what I loved. I didn’t really want to be famous or anything like that. This was the late 80s, so I was still just completely mesmerized by the big productions I had seen on stage.
I had to support myself. So, by day, I was doing regular work. By night, I was doing kind of dodgy theatre dinner restaurants and stuff. And then I ended up falling back into whatever I could to pay the bills and then ended up on a TV show in Australia by the time I was in my early 20s. And that launched me off into where I am now. It was a big show in Australia called Home and Away, that I believe is still running. That’s kind of where all of your Australians have come from. We’ve all at some point done a couple years, or a week on these two big shows that ended up very huge in the U.K. and were a little bit of a phenomenon.
Heath Ledger, Simon Baker, Julian McMahon, Melissa George, Isla Fisher, Guy Pearce and Naomi Watts have all worked on Home and Away. What is it about the show? Is it just the biggest show in Australia or is there a law that says you have to work on the show if you want to be a proper actor?
(Laughs.) Well, no, not a proper actor because the shows are for families. They’re essentially primetime shows that are for families to watch. That’s what they were geared to. And that hadn’t really been done in Australia before. The one I did was set around a beach community. So when it was sold to the U.K., that just went crazy because all of these people in the U.K. got a chance to see teenagers going to school and going through the trials and tribulations by the beach. And that was the idea that everyone had of Australia, so it just created this huge following.
And then there was Neighbors, which was the rival show, if you will, on the other network at the same time. That was all set around the suburbs in Melbourne and that created the same buzz. It was like the first time people got to see young kids going to school and everything that was happening around them. It had been done obviously millions of times here before and obviously in the U.K. you had EastEnders and all of these kinds of shows that were just about people in their neighborhood and what they got up to.
So I think that it was kind of the first time it had been done in Australia and it just ended up being hugely popular. Like I said, I think both of them are still going.
That’s quite a run.
Yeah. I mean, it’s half an hour primetime television and it’s that kind of thing where people sit down and watch it while they’re having their dinner and it’s for the whole family. Everybody loves it.
What made you decide to move to the United States to pursue a career? Was it acting that drew you here?
Oh yes, I was obsessed with acting. Absolutely. This was when American television was starting to come out to Australia and set up studios out there. This is way before the days of Star Wars and Fox Studios, this was a studio up in Queensland and they were doing shows like Flipper and they were doing a lot of TV movies, a lot of series that they could say it was Florida because it was the same and just so beautiful up there.
So I ended up on a show called Flipper, which was the remake of the very famous series. They did two different series of that and I was on the first one and I ended up just going in to do a guest spot, which is normally what happens – I go in to do one thing and I end up hanging around.
So I was shooting up there and I became friendly with the crew and the cast, who happened to be little Jessica Alba at the time, which is sort of funny. She was just this adorable little girl. And I became friendly with people like Brian Wimmer and Colleen Flynn and was sort of hinting at the idea of, “What do you guys get paid to do this kind of thing?” When I realized what it was, I couldn’t believe it because what we got paid in Australia – and we thought we were doing really well – was astronomically different.
I was just like, “Wait a minute, something’s wrong with this picture.” Cause I was playing an American. I had really studied my American accent. I watched a lot of Melrose Place or Beverly Hills or whatever was on at the time and I was one of the only ones to come out and be able to go straight into doing this American television because that’s kind of what the work was in Australia at the time, other than a couple of Australian movies that they were making. I tried to perfect this and thought, “This was crazy. I could be in America trying to do this.”
And everyone was like, “No, you can’t.”
At the time, the only people who had gone over were people like Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman. It was all still a very new and kind of scary thing. And it was like you have to be able to get a visa and you have to get an agent. Those guys had kind of gone over there off the back of movies and I hadn’t.
I was trying to go out there on the back of TV, which no one had seen over here. Home and Away and Neighbors are not on here, which actually ended up being a blessing in disguise because it was a way you could kind of start again. I know if you ask Melissa [George] or any of those people, they’d say, “Oh yeah, it’s a really good thing” because that was what we did and now this is who we are now.
And so, that’s what happened to me. I just packed up and I had a couple of episodes of Flipper and came over here and just literally did what I could. I think Simon Baker had come before me because I was living in his house at the time and he came over with his family and was the same, was just like, “Let’s just see what happens.” And this is back in ’95, before Sept. 11, before it became really hard to get a visa. It was still hard to get a green card here, but we all had the same lawyer, I think. It was like this guy must have just opened the door and said, “Yep, in you all come.” It was the beginning of that love affair that everyone seems to have with the Brits and the Australians. I think that’s kind of still hung around a little bit, which is really nice for us, you know.
You mentioned accents. Why is it that all of you Australian actors seem to be able to pick up the American accent really well, but then you see Americans try to do Australian accents and it becomes like a Crocodile Dundee kind of thing?
Well, unfortunately I think that due to Crocodile Dundee and a lot of other movies that have made trillions of dollars is that Americans seem to have an idea of Australia that is very different to what we have of the rest of the world, if that makes sense. I think that they often don’t really know how to do the Australian accent purely because they don’t know anything about Australia, whereas Australia is a lot more familiar with America due to economics and all that kind of stuff. So I think that’s probably the reason.
But I also think that our Australian accent is derived obviously from a British, if you will, or a European accent, so I think possibly we just have a different dialect in the first place, which makes it easier for us to literally get our mouth around some of the sounds we have to find. And I think also the lack of education, no fault of anybody’s, but just because even if people have gone to Australia, they still don’t really know.
People say to me all the time, “G’day mate.” It’s like, never in my entire life have I ever said, “G’day mate,” because no one does unless you go maybe into the middle of Australia where people live on cattle stations and there’s a lot of kangaroos and aboriginals. I grew up in the city for a good majority of time. I did live on a farm, but I still didn’t say “G’day mate.” I think that’s something that has been manufactured purely to sell the Australian product.
So Crocodile Dundee and the Outback Steakhouse commercials are not a good representation of Australia?
Oh, well it’s hilarious. And I’m probably going to get sued for saying this, but I went to an Outback Steakhouse when I came here, thinking, “Oh, you know, this might make me feel really at home.” It’s nothing – it’s not even remotely anything like anything. I went there with my kid once and I had to send the food back because I was just like, “This is not what I was expecting.”
And, he said, “Oh, well you know, it’s nothing to do with Australia really.”
But, you’ve called it the Outback Steakhouse and you’ve got this guy doing this really bad Australian accent in your ads. It’s like what?
I said, “I feel tricked.” I was disappointed because, at the end of the day, it was just this marketing tool that has nothing to do with – none of the food on the menu we eat. And that’s what it is. And I think that started much more from Crocodile Dundee than something like Mad Max.
But then again, we’re just as much to blame because it sold so much, it made so much money. But what a lot of people didn’t realize was that Paul Hogan is a comedian. It was a complete piss-take of what everyone else thought Australia was. So the joke was kind of on everyone else, but it ended up backfiring on us.
I remember doing a job and they cast me and I was going to be American. And they said, “We’d really love you to be Australian. This will be great. We’ll write the role for you.” And it was just really flattering. Then, I did a few episodes and they kept saying to me, “Can you be more Australian?”
I was like, “Well, no. I actually can’t because this is it.” And what they wanted, because it was a comedy, they wanted me to do all of the “G’day” and all the “blimey” that has been made up and has been completely created by this image. So I was a little disappointed by that and I vowed never ever to play an Australian again.
I remember when I auditioned for Heroes and I had the room full of men sitting there saying, “We’d really love to see this just for fun with an Australian accent.”
I just looked at Tim Kring and said, “No.”
And they all started laughing and they’re like, “No?”
I said, “Yeah, no. Sorry. Not doing it.” And I told them the story. And they were laughing hysterically. They thought it was so funny. So I said, “So I’m a little scared.”
And they said, “Come on, just for fun.”
So I did it just for fun.
They were like, “Oh no, that’s bad.”
I said, “Yeah.” It’s like my own accent was bad because it sounds so weird, you know? It just doesn’t sound right.
You worked with David Lynch on Mulholland Drive and Tim Burton on Planet of the Apes. Both are fascinating, iconic and unique directors. What was it like working with them?
Unfortunately, the disappointing news is with Tim Burton it was the very beginning of the film where there was a party scene and they needed a bunch of actors who could improvise and just kind of make it up as they went along. And the casting director – I think a lot of casting directors do that with actors that they really like – if you don’t get the role as one of the monkeys, it’s like, “Okay, we’ve got to find something for her to do in this because we like her” kind of thing. So she called up and said, “Would you be interested in just doing kind of an improvised scene in the beginning with Tim Burton for the day.”
You know, I had just gotten here. I was like, “Yeah, that would be great.” Because when all you want to be is an actor, it doesn’t matter. It’s not even about the money; it’s not even about anything. It’s like, “I’ll do that for free.” Not that I did, of course. It’s just the opportunity to work with these seminal kind of people that is so wonderful.
So it was just literally that. At the end of the day when you see the film, it probably ends up being like five minutes or something like that, but for me it was a day to work with him and just have him kind of treat you like you’re creative just as much as everybody else was. That was a really nice thing. Yeah, a really interesting guy and it was just fun.
The David Lynch thing was a lot more because it was originally a TV pilot that was made for ABC and Disney. So we kind of went through the motions, but he’s a very – I don’t know if he casts all his movies this way, but he’s very unique in the way he finds the people that he likes. It was a very different process from what I’d ever experienced in terms of auditioning.
He kind of picks you off of photographs and he likes your vibe or look and then he decides where he’s going to put you, which is interesting. And then he puts you on tape and you just talk about what you had for breakfast kind of thing and then he still just hasn’t decided where he’s going to put you. Except for obviously Naomi Watts’ role and stuff like that, I’m sure obviously that would have been a lot more in-depth. But his supporting characters, that’s sort of how he did it.
And coincidentally, there ended up being four Australians in the cast and we were all completely unrelated. So that was interesting as well. And we’re all relative – I mean Naomi had been here for a long time really treading the boards, pilot after pilot, really trying to make it. But Melissa and I and Marcus Graham, we’d just arrived.
So here we were all part of this thing. We didn’t really know what we were doing. And then at the very last minute, you get the script, confidential, and I got mine and it said, “Could you please learn these two songs?”
So I was like, “Oh god, this is so David Lynch. This is fantastic.” But I still didn’t know what I was doing. It ended up, obviously, I played an actress who was auditioning in to be in some sort of movie musical or something and then Melissa George was playing the girl and she did a similar thing.
And so, it was amazing because the character was required to lip synch these quite famous songs, which is really hard. So I was on the set practicing. I was in my costume and really going for it because everyone was just setting up. Then he was announced that he was coming, so it’s like 10 minutes and David Lynch will be on set.
I was like, “Okay,” and I kept going and kept going and I had my back to the entrance and I was just going for it, just a capella with these people that they’d given me to support me and then I realized that everything was silent and quiet, and I turned around and he was just standing there watching me sing, like properly sing and I was really going for it.
I was like, “Oh my god.” And there he was in all his glory, just the most sophisticated, debonair, amazing man and I was just like, “Oh, hi.”
And he said, “I didn’t realize that you could sing.” That was the first thing he said to me. He said, “If I had known, we would have recorded this beforehand.”
I was like, “That’s the first thing he says to me?” “Yeah, well, I don’t know. What do you want me to say?” So, that was it. That was my experience with him and it was absolutely wonderful. Then, of course, it just went away. The pilot wasn’t picked up. I think there was some political problems between him and the studio and what have you. Then about a month later we all received a letter saying, “Do you give permission for this to be turned into a film if this should happen?” Yeah, of course.
Then it became this cult, wonderful film that was just wonderful and you couldn’t have asked for anything better to happen to it because he ended up being able to do with it what he wanted to do with it and not compromise, which I think is so inspiring in itself.
And it made Naomi Watts who she is today. That’s inspiring too because I’ve sort of followed her career from then and, I mean, I knew her in Australia and it’s just great. It’s just such a Cinderella story. It just makes you believe that you’ve got to keep trying and it really has nothing to do with anything other than just waiting for your time, waiting for that moment if you are still into it and interested; that it’s all about that role that someone gives you the chance to do and believes in you.
Of course, you now play Janice Parkman on Heroes. You were on the show in season one, then you went away for a little while, before returning last season. How did you end up on the show in the first place and did you know all along you would be returning or was that a surprise?
Well, Heroes came along for me at a time that was just absolutely fantastic for me because I had kind of lost that same feeling I had when I first came over here. I had started to find different interests and the acting had kind of taken somewhat of a backseat for me. I had a couple of other offers around that time. I had actually started on a show and then decided to take, it was just a couple of episodes of Heroes, because I thought it was such a cool show and such a great concept.
As it always happens with me, I ended up being written in a lot more. And then, I think probably halfway through the first season, I found out I was pregnant and so I was like, “Okay, gotta go. I’m going off to do this now,” which was no accident. It was kind of always my plan at that point in my life to do that. And I’d met my husband, who wasn’t my husband at the time, but I’d met that guy. So, I was kind of like, “All right, guys.” You know, I was just assuming because I was a reoccurring character that I probably wouldn’t reoccur anymore because I was pregnant.
So I told Greg Grunberg, “I’m pregnant and I’m going to call Tim Kring and let him know and say thanks for the experience and good luck with everything.” Completely long story short, but basically what happened is they, on the same day, completely coincidentally, had decided that my character should be pregnant. They obviously had these ideas that I didn’t know about involving a superbaby in the future, that would be the ultimate way to go with Greg Grunberg’s character because he was really the only one that would be able to do that because he’s kind of the everyman. His powers are very different to what the other powers were.
Hayden Panettiere is hardly going to have a kid. And Ali Larter’s character already had a kid and she was a bit confused, so I don’t think she’d be having another kid. So it was brilliant because I was able to have my pregnancy and enjoy my pregnancy on the show and be pregnant at the same time. So I didn’t have to hide it, I didn’t have to worry about getting fat; I didn’t have to worry about any of that because I was essentially a character actor anyway. I didn’t have to look sexy all the time or anything like the other girls had to.
And so, season two, it’s weird because no one ever said goodbye to me. You know, we finished the year of season one and they were like, “Okay, see you guys later.” And we’re like, “Okay.” Because as a reoccurring, you never know what is going to happen to you. You only know by the script. Or you only know if they call up and say, “Are you available for these dates?”
So I went off and then came back for the second season and hadn’t heard from them and was like, “All right.” I’d had an affair on the show and so we broke up. I was still pregnant, hadn’t had the kid, but we’d broken up because I’d had the affair, so we assumed the baby was the product of the affair and I sort of forgot all about it and went off and had my baby in real life. I got to have the first couple of months at least completely, exclusively with him. To be honest, I kind of didn’t really want to lug him around. I didn’t want to have to get a nanny. I just wanted to completely just be with him.
Then I got a call saying, “Okay, you are in a scene.”
I was like, “Oh,” and I walked back on. “Hi, welcome back.” And it was just so like I’d never left. And that was kind of a dream sequence in the middle of season two where the question came up – is it his baby? So that was the first time they started to ask that question. I’m like, “Wait a minute, something’s going on here.”
So by season three, I’d gone off and kind of done a couple of other things here and there with my kid. Then by season three, it was like, “Oh yeah, you’re getting back together with your family because it turns out the baby has a power, so it had to have been his.” So I was literally finding out the storyline as I was working, as I’d turn up on set and read the script.
Then, it became very clear by the end of season three, the way we left it was we’re going to try to make a go of this. So we wrote up our contracts and did all that kind of stuff, but I’m really lucky in that my son’s two now and I think there’s a pro and a con to being a series regular. Obviously, the pro is the money. And the con is the fact that you sign on to a show for seven years or their options.
And I’ve done that before and I had no life. So I know what that feels like and I think that if you’re very ambitious and you want to be that famous movie star or that famous TV star and that’s your goal, then that’s fantastic because you can make an amazing living. I think because I’d experienced that so young, now my priorities are very, very different because I’m no longer a single girl that can travel all around the world and do TV shows and movies because I want to be in one spot.
The last couple of years, I’ve said no to so many auditions because of the economy and because of the nature of the union and what’s happened with the strikes and the pending strikes and so much stuff isn’t even shooting here anymore. So once you take out the stuff that’s not shooting here, you take out the stuff like horror and comedy, which I have no interest in, there’s not a lot of work left.
Heroes came at such an amazing time for me because it showed me that I was still able to be an actress, which I love, and really not compromise at all. So I’m very grateful to Heroes and I’m very grateful to still be around in the capacity that I’m around because I get the best of both worlds, if you know what I mean. My son doesn’t even know I’ve gone to work half the time because I don’t really go that often and yet I get to maintain everything else that is a priority to me, if you know what I mean.
So are you a series regular now? How much will we see your character next season?
I’m not a series regular. I’m still reoccurring, so I can still come and go as I please, which is great. And yeah, I don’t know because they don’t know. The series regulars don’t even know. Literally, nobody knows until the writers know and they’re changing stuff the day of. So all I know is what we’ve shot already and where it looks like it’s going to go and we’re very much back together. So I have no idea what’s going to happen. That’s what’s exciting about Heroes is that we’re a family now, we have a kid who has powers and we’re trying to make a go of it. So who knows what’s going to happen?
But I do know that it’s a very different feeling this season because everybody knows that the ratings kind of fell a little. I think that what happened to Heroes is it became this phenomenon very early on, but it also sort of became this phenomenon interactively and it was very Internet-based. I think it’s like the biggest show in the world that’s downloaded. It’s something ridiculous like one of the biggest.
So while all of these ratings from people watching it on a Monday night kind of fell, I don’t think what people were taking into consideration was this was the show that people didn’t sit down on Monday nights and watch, they downloaded it or they got all the DVDs. That was huge in itself that that lead the way in that kind of interactive capacity.
And I think that a lot of people became a little confused by season two and season three because they kind of felt that it was not going in the same direction as season one was. And I think what’s going to happen now is you’re going to see season four kind of go back to where season one was in that we’re going to be a lot more connected to the characters again. I think that’s what people kind of wanted. I think that’s what people loved about season one is that you were getting an insight into somebody’s life who had these powers who were really reluctant Heroes.
Then, all of the sudden season two and season three was all about just how many powers they had and how powerful they were. It was kind of like the sky is the limit here. There was no journey to go on because there was nothing they couldn’t do. So there was no conflict, really. You know what I mean?
There has to be a point where you have a conflict and you can’t do it. If you can and your powers are limitless, then it’s kind of like well, we need to go back to what it feels like to have these powers. And I think that’s where they are going to go. It’s going to be much more about relationships and what it means to these people.
Do you like the fact that your character doesn’t have any powers, which sets her apart, or is there a part of you that wishes that your character got to have an ability?
Well no, I really like the fact that I don’t have a power because I think it does set me apart and what I’d really like to see happen, and I must mention this to the writers, is that I really want to see her more involved in what’s going on with Matt Parkman.
Right now, at the end of season three, we saw him do something that I think he’s going to regret for the rest of his life in terms of what he did with Sylar and Nathan Petrelli and he finds it very hard to communicate any of that to his wife yet again. So, while they’re back together and while they’re trying to make it work, there’s still all of these secrets that he has from her. Personally, just from being in a marriage, I don’t think that’s going to work. I think you can’t have any secrets.
So I’d really like to see her say, “Enough is enough. You need to let me help you.” And I’d like to see her get involved with these people. And that I think is going to be a great way for the audience to get to know her because right now all they know about her is that she went off and had an affair on her husband. And I think that’s really unfair because there was never enough time to kind of look at that and it’s like, I think, unfortunately, no disrespect meant at all but, I think for men, as soon as a woman goes and does that, it’s like, “I can’t even look at you because how could you do that?”
I think if a man does it, it’s the same, but it’s almost somewhat forgivable because women tend to forgive. That’s sort of our nature. I’d really like a chance for my character to redeem herself in terms of you didn’t hear my side of the story. I’ve got a husband who never is home and I’m getting no attention and I’m feeling like the marriage is falling apart and I suddenly get attention from someone.
Now, albeit, it shouldn’t have been his partner, but it’s like the thing about these two people is they love each other completely. They’ve been together for a very long time and their love for each other has brought them back. And the fact that they have a child. So I want to see her get involved and go out and try to help him. I think she’s a lawyer or something, so I’m sure there’s something that she’s got to be able to do. She’s clever and she’s a strong woman and I think that you’ve got Hayden and you’ve got Ali and you’ve got people who come in and out of the show, but I think they could do with a strong brunette. That’s kind of my vibe about the whole thing, quite frankly.
What does the future hold for you?
Probably another baby. (Laughs.) I’m the reluctant actor at these moments in time. I’m really loving my family and the idea of adding to my family. Like I said, if I can just stay with Heroes long enough for it to be interesting and then continue in that way or do another show in that vein, I would be perfectly happy. Because like I said, there’s just not a lot of interesting stuff out there and I think that Heroes is still one of the most interesting shows on primetime TV and it’s really great to be a part of that. So I’m like perfectly content right now to be doing what I’m doing, I have to say.
Interviewed by Joel Murphy. Season four of Heroes begins on Monday, September 21.
You can listen to audio highlights of our interview with Lisa Lackey by clicking on the play button below or by subscribing to our Hobo Radio podcast: