The se­cret life of Deb

She's one of Aus­tralia’s most recog­nised and pop­u­lar ac­tors, but Deb­o­rah Mailman has bat­tled is­sues with anx­i­ety, in­se­cu­rity and body im­age, cred­it­ing fam­ily as the foun­da­tion she re­lies on, writes Michael Sheather.

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Profile - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY PETER BREW-BE­VAN STYLING MAT­TIE CRO­NAN

There aren’t many peo­ple who light up a room like Deb­o­rah Mailman. The indige­nous ac­tor, star of TV’s Off­spring, The Se­cret Life of Us and the movie hit The Sap­phires, has a smile that is pos­i­tively in­can­des­cent.

Yet that smile, as warm and gen­uine as it is, be­lies a deeper and very per­sonal tur­moil – a life­long strug­gle with anx­i­ety and in­se­cu­rity that has stalked her since she was a child. Act­ing, she says, is both up­lift­ing and de­flat­ing. When work abounds, you can be on a high. How­ever, the flip­side of that is re­jec­tion and in­se­cu­rity.

“There can be ab­so­lute lone­li­ness in this in­dus­try,” says the 45-year-old. “Peo­ple look at the fame or the money and don’t see the times when there are no jobs. I think there are many ac­tors and en­ter­tain­ers who, like me, suf­fer from the in­se­cu­rity of that.

“A lot of peo­ple have se­ri­ous health and well­be­ing is­sues cre­ated largely by the fact that you are get­ting knocked

back all the time. That can cre­ate a very neg­a­tive sense of self. We are in a very im­age-based in­dus­try. We are in front of the cam­era so it comes with body is­sues, insecurities, anx­i­ety – and that ap­plies to me. I don’t know many ac­tors who don’t have a buck­et­ful of insecurities. “I of­ten hear peo­ple say that be­ing an ac­tor must be great – and it is, it can be fan­tas­tic – but when it’s not fan­tas­tic, it can also be a re­ally hard place.”

To com­bat such feel­ings and guard her sense of bal­ance and well­be­ing, Deb – mother to Henry, 10, and Oliver, eight, her chil­dren with hus­band Matthew Coo­nan – re­lies on her fam­ily. They are an es­sen­tial part of her per­sonal strat­egy for deal­ing with the emo­tional trap­doors await­ing the un­wary in an ac­tor’s land­scape.

“Ev­ery­one has their own process for deal­ing with in­se­cu­rity and mak­ing sure they don’t be­come some kind of emo­tional ca­su­alty in this busi­ness,” say Deb. “For me that means lean­ing on my fam­ily. They are my rock and they al­ways have been. They are the place I al­ways come back to. They keep me grounded and cen­tred and real.”

Deb says that when­ever she faces ca­reer de­ci­sions – what part to take, where the work will take her, how long she will be away – the fam­ily’s needs take pri­or­ity. “They al­ways come first,” she says. “Ev­ery­thing re­volves around them. I look at all the pos­si­bil­i­ties in a role, but

I view it through the prism of what that means for the fam­ily. If it is on lo­ca­tion, then how long will it be be­fore I can see them? I am do­ing that process all the time. I’ve turned down work in the past where I have said, that’s too many days away from the kids. I did one year when I worked back to back and hardly ever saw Henry and Ol­lie and I swore I’d never do that again be­cause it just broke me.”

Her lat­est role, as de­ter­mined Su­per­in­ten­dent Anna Wa­ters, de­tec­tive in charge of the homi­cide squad, in the Nine Net­work crime drama Bite Club, is a per­fect case in point. Deb and her fam­ily live qui­etly on the NSW South Coast. Film­ing for Bite Club, about the on­go­ing hunt for a se­rial killer, hap­pened in and round Syd­ney’s Manly and north­ern beaches. To reach the set each day, Deb made the com­mit­ment to com­mute from home to Cen­tral most days, only stay­ing overnight if she was needed for early morn­ing or evening shoots.

The guilt trip

After a few weeks of mak­ing the hourand-a-half jour­ney each way daily, Ol­lie si­dled up to her one evening at home. “I said, ‘Are you all right, dar­ling?’” re­calls Deb. “He said, ‘I don’t think I can hang out with you any­more, Mum.’ I said, ‘Why?’ He goes – “Be­cause you keep leav­ing and I re­ally miss you.’ It just cut me. They are the things I have to man­age. The good thing was that, a lit­tle later, he came over and said, ‘You know, of course, I’m go­ing to hang out with you’.”

That was just the lat­est in a line of in­ci­dents. “It only hap­pened the other day and I still haven’t had time to process it be­cause it re­ally hurt ...they re­ally give you the guilt trip,” she says, dab­bing at an un­ex­pected tear.

That said, there is no another job that Deb would rather have. She ful­fils her emo­tional needs with her fam­ily and her cre­ative and pro­fes­sional needs by act­ing. More­over, in that way she truly has found a kind of bal­ance. “I don’t drive, so if I am work­ing in Syd­ney then I am al­ways on pub­lic trans­port,” she con­fesses. “I love it. I love the ‘quiet car­riage’ sim­ply be­cause it is so quiet. I put my ear­phones on for an hour and a half to two hours and it is just me, by my­self. Then, if I am lucky, I will catch the ferry over to Manly. That whole trip is just beau­ti­ful and med­i­ta­tive for me. I just sit there and watch the world go by. What­ever thoughts come in, and what­ever thoughts go out – it’s just me. It’s my time and there is noth­ing around me.

“I re­ally love that part. It com­pletes my sense of bal­ance. Even if I didn’t have the op­por­tu­nity with the way I work to do that, I would still seek it out. I’d still find it be­cause it’s so peace­ful.”

While her two boys form one pil­lar of her foun­da­tion, the other pil­lar is her hus­band, Matthew. “To have such a won­der­ful re­la­tion­ship with my hus­band, that’s re­ally im­por­tant in terms of that bal­ance, too,” she says.

“He’s al­ways there, run­ning his own busi­ness from home. We both have to jug­gle and man­age. I have to make sure he is look­ing after him­self and that he gets his me-time, too. Again, I have to look at that when I make the de­ci­sion to work. It’s not all about me.”

“I still haven’t had time to process it, be­cause it re­ally hurt.”

Matt, says Deb, works hard at his on­line cus­tomer ser­vice busi­ness and of­ten ends up be­ing a sin­gle fa­ther to their chil­dren. “I have to make sure that I am there for him, too, sup­port­ing him as much as he is sup­port­ing me” she says. “It’s al­ways a con­ver­sa­tion that we have to have. Can you do this? Is it go­ing to be too hard?”

Deb and Matt met 12 years ago and have been mar­ried for the past six. “I was ac­tu­ally liv­ing in Melbourne when I met Matt,” she says. “I was up in Syd­ney for a friend’s birth­day drinks. My hus­band is very tall and fair-haired. I saw him at the bar, talk­ing to a bar­man. Later I went up to the bar­man and said, ‘Who’s that guy? He’s gor­geous.’ A lit­tle later he went up to Mat­tie and told him what I’d said. We found each other towards the end of the night. He came over and said hello, and that was it. I just went, ‘My god, you are gor­geous’ and, thank­fully, he thought the same of me.”

Deb is straight­for­ward and plaintalk­ing, a re­sult of her up­bring­ing. She was born in Mt Isa, Queens­land, where her fa­ther was a cow­boy and rodeo rider. “I’m a coun­try girl born and bred,” she laughs. “We didn’t have much money, we were a one-in­come fam­ily. There was a lot more sim­plic­ity around things then.” Her fa­ther came from the Bid­jara peo­ple of cen­tral Queens­land while her mother is from the Ngati Porou peo­ple.

An ac­ci­den­tal vo­ca­tion

She still re­mem­bers the sights and the smells of grow­ing up around the rodeo. “Yep, the smell of horses,” she says. “All I have to do is think of it and I’m there, right back at the rodeo. Orig­i­nally that’s what I wanted to be, a cow­boy like my dad. For a while I wanted to be a Jil­la­roo and then a school teacher, be­cause I loved the idea of work­ing with kids. I fell into act­ing by ac­ci­dent, and just did the sub­ject at uni as a joke. I just fell in love with it.” And, de­spite her in­nate shyness, au­di­ences fell for her.

Mostly, Deb man­ages to push her insecurities aside, but ev­ery now and again they bub­ble up to the sur­face. “It’s a weird thing, and you find this with a lot of ac­tors – I was shy and I still am in many ways,” says Deb. “Some­times, I think ‘I’m not go­ing to be any good in this’ but I am go­ing to try. Half the time, I am in­side my head say­ing, ‘I don’t know if I am any good’ but I keep go­ing and hope that some­thing falls into place. Again, that feeds the anx­i­ety. It feeds a whole lot of stuff in­side and that gets ex­haust­ing.”

Neg­a­tive com­ments also leave their mark. “I’m too sen­si­tive,” she says. “I care too much. I take things to heart. If there is one neg­a­tive com­ment among ten pos­i­tive ones, it’s the neg­a­tive one that I’ll be car­ry­ing. But be­ing cre­ative and work­ing is some­thing that’s just a part of me. I love it and yet I some­times won­der why I chose this job when my big­gest in­se­cu­rity is be­ing in front of peo­ple. It’s re­ally strange.”

Deb walks the red car­pet with her “rock”, her ever-sup­port­ive hus­band, Matthew Coo­nan.

Deb with co-star Robert Mam­mone in Bite Club.

LEFT: Proud mum Deb ap­peared in the Novem­ber 2010 Weekly with sec­ond son Oliver, then just nine months old.

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