My mother Mary is from a strict Catholic Maltese background. When she became pregnant with me, she was pressured to marry my father, Chris. His heritage was strict Orthodox Greek, and so during my childhood, there was a lot of church.
Their relationship was volatile, and when I was six months old they separated. My maternal grandmother Angela told my grandfather, Lou, that my mother, my older brother Manuel and myself would be coming to live with them in Surry Hills. Lou had no say in it. It was quite astounding as he was a wharfie and a formidable man.
In a way, I had two mothers. Whereas my mother was very strict, my grandmother was much softer. When I was being bullied at school for being effeminate, my grandmother suggested that maybe I shouldn’t go. My mother said that wasn’t an option, as attendance was the law.
From the time I was a baby I was obsessed with Angela. My mother told me that once when they were downstairs talking, she’d discovered me climbing out of my cot to come to see Angela. There was something about my grandmother: her personality, her spirit. Her love for me was unconditional.
Angela’s family came from Naxxar, one of the poorest villages in Malta. Her parents couldn’t afford clothes, and so she wore a potato sack.
She was eight when her mother died giving birth. Along with her older brother, she walked all the way to the city morgue. She saw her mother and the dead baby lying there. Her brother told her not to cry. All she could recall of her mother was that she was tall.
These experiences made Angela incredibly strong. She was fiercely protective of her family and supported all her children and grandchildren, no matter what.
As a child, I needed to be with my grandmother all the time. I’d go with her to bingo and to the Surry Hills post office, where she cleaned. She made me a hard worker and taught me about cleaning. Cleaning is in the Maltese genes. We need to clean things. I can’t leave the house unless it is tidy.
I lived with Angela until I was 20. It was traumatic for her when I left but I didn’t go far: about four blocks. But I was there a lot. When she stopped working, she had problems with her legs. She refused to use a stick, and so I’d take her walking.
Angela died in 2007 of lung cancer. She was 89. I pass her house many times a day. Sometimes, I think I can see her at the bus stop. My love letter to her was Angela’s Kitchen, the solo play I co-wrote and performed nationally. It won two Helpmann Awards in 2012.
In primary school, I was fixated with a beautiful Portuguese girl called Sandra. I physically fought a boy over her – I think I had a crush on the boy as well. I had obsessions with women teachers, and nuns, but never men. I didn’t like men as a child. I thought they were scary, horrible and boring.
When I was incredibly young, I thought I was female, but I accepted in my early teens that I wasn’t and made do with who I am.
I have never gone out with a girl on a date, but in my 20s I had an experience with a lesbian. It was fine – great, actually – but I felt strange and very confused, as by my teens I had worked out I was gay.
I was 14 when I bought Janis Joplin’s Greatest Hits. A man my mother was dating had told me that Janis was a wild woman, that she drank from a bottle onstage and never wore a bra. My obsession began with her appearance: her clothing and her face. She kind of looked like a man. She was amazing.
I wagged high school to watch a documentary about her at a rock’n’roll film festival in the city. I went three days in a row. On screen she was unhinged, like a fury. Janis got me through a tough period in my early teens.
I used to make tiny clay figurines. Many were of my female idols: Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday and Chrissy Amphlett. It was a kind of meditation. I’ve been too busy to make them in the last few years. I miss doing it.
Judy Davis is one of my favourite Australian actresses. I met her when I auditioned for a production she was directing for the Sydney Theatre Company. Seeing her in Miss Julie at the Nimrod Downstairs in 1983 made me want to be an actor, and to perform on the stage. Her immersion in her work is breathtaking. She goes to this extreme, to this other place.
I’m currently playing the Emcee in Cabaret. Kate Fitzpatrick plays Fräulein Schneider. Kate is an amazing woman, and I adore her. She is open and incredibly entertaining, not to mention humble and dedicated to what she does. She’s a great colleague.
I feel fortunate to have had strong women in my life. They have been both influential and an inspiration. They’ve made me feel the world’s not such a bad place.
Paul Capsis stars in Cabaret at the Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne, April 27-May 20; cometothecabaret.com.au.