Neighbours casting directors tell behind the scenes stories of some of Australia’s biggest stars
Neighbours is often referred to as Australia’s greatest-ever acting school, with a dazzling array of stars getting their start on the beloved soap.
The show has produced screen legends from pop icon Kylie Minogue, to Oscar-winner Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce and Tinseltown’s golden girl Margot Robbie.
Now, Neighbours casting directors Thea McLeod and Jan Russ shed light onto Australia’s own star factory.
EXCLUSIVE: Legendary Neighbours casting directors have told the BEHIND THE SCENES stories of some of Australia’s biggest stars as the soap bids a sad farewell after 37-years on air. Pictured: Neighbours early cast in the 80s
Thea, from McLeod Casting, put Olympia Valance on the screen as Paige Smith from 2014 to 2018.
‘When I first auditioned Olympia, I remember she had a great presence about her. I loved her determination – she really gave it her all,’ Thea told Daily Mail Australia.
‘She had the drive and was perfect for the character, so naturally we all loved her.’
Neighbours last casting director Thea McLeod (pictured), who cast the show from 2011 to 2022, along with stories from legendary Jan Russ, shed light onto Australia’s greatest ever star-making show in an interview with Daily Mail Australia
Olympia is the sister of former Neighbours star and UK property WAG, Holly Valance.
However, Thea revealed having an older sibling who starred on Neighbours doesn’t always make it easier on the up-and-comer.
‘Having family connections can be advantageous as you can learn about the business through exposure. But it can also potentially make things harder, with the pressure of expectations,’ she said.
Bonnie Anderson, who went on to win Australia’s The Masked Singer, portrayed Bea Nilsson on the show, from 2018 to 2021. The star rose to public attention via her performance on Australia’s Got Talent in 2007, aged 12.
‘When I first auditioned Olympia, I remember she had a great presence about her. I loved her determination – she really gave it her all. She had the drive and was perfect for the character, so naturally we all loved her,’ Thea said of Olympia Valance (pictured)
‘I auditioned Bonnie from a young age. She was a natural performer with down to earth energy and amazing instincts,’ Thea said.
‘Bonnie’s musical career was an extra bonus for the creatives at Neighbours. They integrated music into Bea’s storylines; she even sang the theme song.’
Thea said the musical talent always proved an advantage to casting for Neighbours.
‘I auditioned Bonnie from a young age. She was a natural performer with down to earth energy and amazing instincts,’ Thea said. ‘Bonnie’s musical career was an extra bonus for the creatives at Neighbours. They integrated music into Bea’s storylines; she even sang the theme song’
‘It’s great when performers get an opportunity like this to tackle multiple passions at once. Neighbours was such a creative environment, it’s fantastic that they have the scope to do these things.’
‘Nevertheless, opportunities like this can be rare and sometimes you do have to choose one area to focus on. That being said, success stories like Kylie Minogue, Hugh Jackman and of course Bonnie Anderson show it’s possible to do both.’
Thea, who also cast Felix Mallard (Ben Kirk) said she was blown away by the young actor’s audition. Felix is now working on US Netflix show, Ginny & Georgia.
‘I remember when Felix Mallard came into my casting studio when he was 16-years-old. He had absolutely no experience, but his natural ability shone through,’ Thea said. Felix (pictured) is now working on US Netflix show, Ginny & Georgia
‘I remember when Felix Mallard came into my casting studio when he was 16-years-old. He had absolutely no experience, but his natural ability shone through. I workshopped the scene loads to get the best performance out of him,’ she said.
‘I think we did something like 10 takes! I loved him so much that I ran straight to the producer’s office to show them Felix’s auditions. I showed them his initial test and where I got him to the last take. They agreed he was amazing, so we cast him as a guest and he eventually went on to be a regular.’
Thea said one of her favourite moments from the show was Aaron and David’s same-sex wedding which saw her cast comedian Magda Szubanski as the celebrant.
Holly Valance (pictured) who is now married to UK property tycoon Nick Candy, got her start on the show. She played Felicity Scully from 1999 to 2002. She later released hit ‘Kiss, Kiss’
‘I can remember sitting in my office and seeing Margot walking towards me and going: ”Oh my goodness, who is this?”’ Jan said. Margot is seen here on the show
Jan Russ meanwhile was a casting director for the show from 1985 to 2009.
She told the story of Australia’s greatest exports to the Herald Sun in 2009, saying she didn’t realise Kylie would be as big as she later became.
‘[When I cast her] Kylie had only just finished school when she came in to audition and had recently done The Henderson Kids,’ Jan told the publication.
‘I did not know she would become as big as she has, of course, but when I looked at her I knew she had something. Sometimes you see people in real life and then you look at them on the monitor and you go: ”Oh my God, there is something extraordinary there”. It does not happen all the time, in fact very rarely it happened, but when it does, you know.’
Jan said of Kylie: ‘Sometimes you see people in real life and then you look at them on the monitor and you go: ”Oh my God, there is something extraordinary there”.’ Here on the show with Jason Donovan
Jan said she felt the same after Hollywood star Margot Robbie, who portrayed Donna Freedman on the show from 2008 to 2011, auditioned for her.
‘I can remember sitting in my office and seeing Margot walking towards me and going: ”Oh my goodness, who is this?”. Margot was not one of those who would go to the opening of an envelope. She was always very focused and always concentrating on her work,’ Jan said.
‘She was passionate about her work and passionate about her craft and she wanted to learn. She listened and she observed and took everything on board, which is what Kylie was like. They were both very intelligent young women. They have beauty and brains and it is a wonderful combination if you can get it.’
Neighbours greatest ever export, Kylie Minogue (pictured). Kylie went on to become a global megastar, packing stadiums across the UK, Europe and Asia. Here: Glastonbury, 2019
Russell Crowe got his start on Neighbours playing Kenny Larkin in 1987, with Jan spotting him at The Princess Theatre in Melbourne.
‘I went and saw the show and met him after for a drink and then asked him in to audition. I just knew I had to get him into the show because he was amazing, exceptional, but he could only do a short stint, about six weeks, because he had to go off with the theatre production when it moved states.’
‘I said to the producer: ”We have to create a role for him, he is exceptional”. And we did.’
All three Hemsworth brothers appeared on Neighbours. Chris portrayed Jamie Kane on the show in 2002. L-R: Liam, Chris and Luke in 2015
Chris, Liam and Luke Hemsworth also got a run on the show. Chris portrayed Jamie Kane on the show in 2002.
‘He played a footballer character. I wanted to keep him on and argued with the powers that be, saying we have to keep this guy on because he is going to be great. They did not have a storyline for him so they let him go and Home and Away very quickly picked him up.’
Liam portrayed Josh Taylor on the show from 2007 to 2008. Meanwhile, Luke Hemsworth was cast as Nathan Tyson between 2001 and 2002.
Oscar winner Russell Crowe got his start on Neighbours playing Kenny Larkin in 1987 with Jan spotting him at The Princess Theatre. He is pictured here in Thor: Love and Thunder
Jan went on to call Hollywood actor Guy Pearce a ‘dark horse’ actor, after she cast him as Mike Young from 1986 to 1989, admitting he was ‘very quiet’.
Both Thea and Jan clearly loved their time on the soap, with Thea telling Daily Mail Australia that English guest stars like Russell Brand, Amanda Holden and Denise Van Outen, would jump at the opportunity for a guest gig.
‘Many UK actors are familiar with Neighbours or have even grown-up watching the show, so getting them on board is always fun,’ she said.
Neighbours finale aired on Thursday after 37 years on Australian TV. The series ran from 1985 to 2022.
Neighbours legendary casting director, Jan Russ (pictured)