“IT’S IN MY BONES”
Twenty years ago, actor Kat Stewart took a risk and quit her “sensible” job. Now she wouldn’t have it any other way, and would love to grow old “disgracefully together” with her Offspring alter ego.
Kat Stewart wanted a conventional life. But she had unconventional urges. Until they passed, she would try to be a regular person. “Sensible things”, she tells Stellar, were what she did in the hope she would eventually “grow out of” the urge to act.
She was 24, a university graduate who had thrived on psychology subjects, and working as a publicist for Penguin Books. After hours, she would feed her acting habit at the National Theatre in St Kilda.
She hadn’t known any actors while growing up in East Gippsland, Victoria. Acting was no career, she believed, but a hobby she had indulged since primary school. Its pursuit was something to hide – at least from her employers.
Then she landed a part: Harper Pitt, the valium-popping wife in Angels In America. The show dates clashed with her real job, which demanded her
attendance at the Adelaide Writers’ Festival. Since she couldn’t be at both, Stewart had to make a choice. She opted to resign from Penguin. “That was the key moment when I actually owned up to work that I had this passion,” she says. “They probably thought I was mad.”
Two decades later, the dilemma seems silly. Stewart is acclaimed and coveted. Strangers still shout “Roberta” at her in the street, in deference to her velour-clad breakout role as a gangster moll in Underbelly. She shone at the Logies in April, performing a live skit alongside Peter Helliar in a much-talked-about parody of Jacket-gate. And later this month, she returns as Billie Proudman in the seventh series of Offspring.
All this, and Stewart still assumes every role will be her last. Acting is “mad”, she says; the schedules are wild, the prospects insecure. Yet it is a career Stewart has come to embrace. There really was no choice. Being a “regular person”, as she had hoped, would never do when acting was “in my bones”.
Her relatively low profile makes sense when you meet the 44-year-old in person. She smiles a lot and chats without self-applause. She oozes a softness that defies the characters she gravitates to. Stewart may be immaculately groomed, but she is also without pretension. She is an actor, she points out, not a performer who gets about in a cape.
She seems more interested in her craft than its trappings. She seeks gripping stories and fascinating characters. She misses the stage and frets about being away from it, lest she weaken those muscles. She grabs all the good roles she can.
Take Billie Proudman. Stewart, alongside Asher Keddie, leads what she calls a “sweet spot” for Australian comedy-drama. Speaking of Billie like a real person, she tells Stellar she’d love to grow old “disgracefully together”.
Stewart is comfortable with Offspring’s 14-hour work days. When a season wraps, a couple of months at home in inner south-east Melbourne might follow. Or perhaps some weekends on Phillip Island at her father’s farm, or catch-ups with a tight circle of friends when mothering duties permit.
Stewart and her husband, actor David Whiteley, juggle the parenting of Archie, five, and Gigi, 15 months. Sometimes their schedules gel. Sometimes they don’t. “There’s a lot of muddling,” she explains. “I think if we had standard corporate jobs it would be very different. There’s no great secret, it’s really just luck and flukes. And sometimes it’s chaos when we’re both working at once.”
There might be a stint onstage, a kind of “gladiator sport” that tests like no other form of acting. “In theatre you only get one run at it; it has to be in your body and you have to be able to reach everybody at the back of the room,” she says. “It’s so alive because you’re aware of the audience and how they’re receiving it.”
LIKE MOST VIEWERS, Stewart thought Offspring was doomed after its fifth season in 2014, when government tax rebates expired. Onscreen, the plots were tied up. Between the actors, farewells were made.
Stewart did not hesitate at the offer of more when it came around last year. She likens Billie to “the badly behaved friend who won’t go home”. Stewart has always cared for her character, even during season four, when Billie cheated on her husband, lost a business, let down her sister Nina (played by Keddie) and became a “real mess”.
“She’s more audacious than she was before,” Stewart says of Billie’s story arc in the upcoming season. “She’s really gutsy and brave. I love playing her.”
The off-camera relationship between Stewart and Keddie – a Gold Logie winner – has always commanded attention. Stewart says Keddie’s presence was one of the main reasons she joined the cast. They have “shorthand” as people and as characters, and it has evolved. Both actors describe the other with sisterly familiarity. It’s an easy dynamic, Stewart says, because each year they know each other even better than the year before.
Stewart scoffs at magazine claims of on-set tension from last year; the pair, she states, do not “hate each other’s guts”. If they did, she argues, the show couldn’t be made. For the record, Stewart laughs, they did not brawl in the street.
No, they do not mix together outside of the show – but they spend long hours on the set. Besides, both have young families. Last year, Stewart returned to work when Gigi was just five weeks old.
It had been a difficult time: Stewart discovered she was pregnant a week after she was told her mother Kitty was dying of cancer. At the time, Whiteley’s mother had already received a terminal cancer diagnosis. Stewart prefers not to dwell, at least in public, on that period, instead she focuses on the good that came of it.
“The great thing is that Gigi has DNA from both those fabulous women who we love still,” Stewart says. “So if anything, Gigi’s arrival has been this incredibly wonderful thing that has helped put everything in perspective.”
Keddie had son Valentino, who was 12 months older, on set last season and jokes were cracked about “the creche” at Offspring. Keddie and Stewart have separate routines at work. The time they relish lies in the many hours that they rehearse and film, when they blend their differing approaches to their roles.
Keddie, too, describes a “mutual admiration society”. Put simply, Stewart studies hard to be spontaneous while Keddie, in keeping with her character, allows herself to react in the moment. This dynamic is built on years of trust.
“I couldn’t get arrested in my 20s. I had too much time to navel gaze instead of trusting myself”
“It’s always a challenge of tone and style, and it requires rigorous work,” Keddie says. “We both love rigorous work.”
“Working with her is easy,” Stewart says in turn of Keddie. “It’s also really stimulating because we attack it in different ways, but somehow it works. She’s outrageously talented.”
Another co-star, Gyton Grantley, worked with Stewart in 2008 on Underbelly, where she sauntered like an alley cat in tracky dacks to play gangland wife Roberta Williams. Grantley recalls Stewart as a sweetheart who turned up each day armed with a Prada handbag and Gucci sunglasses. Then the cameras rolled – and she turned into “a monster”.
“She’s fearless,” he says. “She is a beautiful woman, but she’s not afraid to be ugly. Or vulnerable. To show her fear or just the ugly side of herself and her anger. She’s able to tap into emotion from a true place inside her, which immediately resonates. The audience can’t avoid being moved or affected.”
Before Underbelly, Stewart was used to being overlooked. If her acting start was belated by choice, her rise toward public recognition was slow. For years she had kicked around, blinking on the entertainment radar but not flashing. As she puts it, “I couldn’t get arrested in my 20s. When you’re younger and you’ve got a lot of time to navel gaze, you spend a lot of time doing that instead of trusting yourself. That was really instructive; it taught me a lot about letting go and flying by the seat of your pants.”
It also taught her to quell expectations. Now she dares not think too far ahead. Stewart may do a movie. Or she might turn up in Hollywood – well, maybe one day. “You just don’t know where you’re going to be,” she says conspiratorially as her eyes widen. “There are easier lives to lead, but this is the one I love.”
Comedy is harder than it looks, she says, and great comic actors, such as Robin Williams and Tom Hanks, tend to excel in serious roles. So does Stewart, as both Grantley and Helliar tell Stellar.
“Very few actors can combine comedy and drama so effortlessly, often within the same scene,” Helliar says. “Her comic timing is perfect. The Logies sketch was originally going to have us both wearing white. But Kat suggested doing it in fuchsia, as that was what she was wearing on the night. It undoubtedly made it 100 per cent funnier.”
Keddie says Stewart possesses an “inimitable uniqueness”, and that “I don’t quite know how she does what she does. That’s the kind of performance you want to watch, that you’re compelled by.”
Stewart describes acting as a kind of intellectual exercise in behavioural studies: “It’s an opportunity to look at the world through someone else’s eyes.” It’s the more unsympathetic characters, she says, who tend to be more interesting.
She speaks of Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad. More recently, Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange starred as arch rivals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Feud. “I really am interested in people and why they do the things they do,” Stewart says. “I think it’s impossible to hate someone’s story that you know.”
Stewart is open to bigger things overseas, she says. Then again, she might just play Billie Proudman forever. “I don’t think I should be allowed to,” she says. “But I could.” Offspring season seven premieres 8.30pm, Wednesday June 28, on Network Ten.
KAT WEARS Bally knit, 1800 781 851; Balenciaga top (worn underneath), davidjones. com.au; COS pants, (02) 9231 3944; Salvatore Ferragamo earrings (worn throughout), ferragamo.com
KAT WEARS Ellery dress, ellery.com; Veronika Maine top, veronikamaine.com.au; Ryder knit (worn underneath), ryderlabel. com; Manning Cartell pants, manningcartell.com.au; Pierre Winter Fine Jewels bracelet, Saint Laurent shoes, cosmopolitanshoes.com.au
KAT WEARS Ellery jacket, ellery. com; Albus Lumen top, albuslumen.com; Acne Studios skirt, acnestudios. com; Christian Louboutin boots, (02) 8355 5282; her own wedding ring
HAIR Janice Wu MAKE-UP Karen Burton
ON A ROLL (clockwise from top left) Kat Stewart and her husband David Whiteley; with Peter Helliar during their Jacket-gate sketch at this year’s Logies; in 2008’s Underbelly with Gyton Grantley; alongside Asher Keddie in Offspring.