Students perform an elaborate dance number, filling the stage with a flurry of colour and motion.
A young boy waits in the wings, eagerly anticipating his cue to join in. He wears a green leotard and yellow dishwashing gloves – a homemade costume crafted by his loving mother. He’s starring as a green tree frog in the school play, but one day he’ll be in Hollywood, acting alongside the likes of Reese Witherspoon and Nathan Fillion.
Leigh Parker was born to act. But growing up on the Sunshine Coast, it was hard to imagine he would ever make a career of it. “It’s just not a common thing, right?” he says, frowning.
After starring in several commercials, he landed a job with Brainstorm Productions: one of Australia’s leading educational theatre companies. At 19, he was making more money than his dad.
“All of a sudden, it was like, ‘Oh, this is an actual career path’,” Parker says. “That was the moment that it clicked.”
Parker worked with Brainstorm Productions for two years.
“As I was coming to the end of that second tour, I decided I just wanted to immerse myself in this,” he says.
“I just wanted to act morning, noon and night, every day.”
That drive led him to audition for a place at the National Institute of Dramatic Art. He was shortlisted, but not accepted.
“It was an interesting thing because I was, of course, disappointed, but I couldn’t shake this feeling of like, ‘So, what’s this making space for?’.” The answer came a few months later, when he was invited to visit Los Angeles as part of an acting masterclass.
He was 21 and stayed there for three months, during which time he applied for a permanent visa. “It was scary. When I moved there, I had no money. I spent all the money that I had getting my visa,” he says.
Culture shock was a problem, too, but he worked hard and, just 18 months later, he booked his first guest star role on the hit TV show Supernatural. In 2014, Parker starred opposite Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic in ABC’s Castle. That same year, he also featured in Wild, a film directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and starring Reese Witherspoon. He still recalls chatting with Witherspoon in between takes.
“We were just having a conversation and it was just lovely and real,” Parker says.
“Then Jean-Marc would call action, and nothing would change. It was like the lines were a continuation of the conversation that we were already having.”
For Parker, being around such talented actors was a gift. “They say, ‘Don’t meet your heroes’,” he says. “Like, why not? I think for the most part, they’re awesome people.”
For a while, the jobs kept coming, but – as is the way in the acting world – things eventually started to slow down. It was 2019 and Parker was nearing 30. He’d been living in America for almost 10 years, but he wanted to start a family, and he thought Australia was the best place to do that.
“The only thing left to experience [in America was] just more. My ego didn’t get to drink as deeply as it wanted to in terms of success and wealth and that. But your ego never gets enough, right? And I knew that.”
Finding himself at a crossroads, Parker decided to turn to his inner child for guidance. “He thought it was cool we just went to LA,” Parker says, laughing.
Soon after, he returned to Australia. But Australia no longer felt like home and he was, for the first time, without a purpose.
Keen to be around people who understood, Parker turned to teaching. Now, four years later, he makes a living as an acting coach and says, “I’ve had the deepest levels of fulfilment and joy doing this.”
He wants his students to give themselves permission to be who they are, and explore their love of acting in a safe and supportive environment.
“We’re weirdos, we’re actors, we’re creatives,” Parker tells them. “I want you to navigate that, and love it, and keep your inner child intact.”
Words: Charlie Shelley.