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.
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.