JACQUE­LINE MCKENZIE: the great­est gift her mother gave her

Jacque­line McKenzie was one of Aus­tralia’s most suc­cess­ful Hol­ly­wood ex­ports when she came home to help her dy­ing mum, Robin. But, she tells Jenny Brown, in a twist of fate, her mum gave her the great­est gifts of all.

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Contents - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY by ALAN A LANDS BERRY STYLING by RE­BECCA RAC

The other day Jacque­line McKenzie “came un­done”, picked up the phone and di­alled her mother, for­get­ting for an in­stant that her dear­est ally died two years ago. It was a sud­den, heart-wrench­ing re­minder that the ac­claimed stage and screen star had lost the lov­ing pres­ence who had grounded her gypsy ac­tor’s life.

“There’s that per­son you call first when some­thing good or bad hap­pens, and mine was al­ways

Mum,” she says, re­mem­ber­ing her mother Robin’s long and valiant strug­gle with en­dome­trial can­cer.

“She wasn’t my best friend, but she was w my best mum. We W called or texted or Skyped each other three th times a day, wher­ever w I was, when w any­thing hap­pened. ha If I’d fin­ished mak­ing a sweater…” s

See­ing my puz­zled ex­pres­sion, the Rom­per Stom­per vet­eran laugh­ingly ex­plains:“I love knit­ting. That was some­thing Mum was able to do when she was very sick, teach me to knit, which she hadn’t done for 40 years. I would call her from lo­ca­tion, hold­ing my bloody knit­ting up to the screen, and she would tell me how to get out of the mess I’d got my­self into.”

Any­one doubt­ing the im­por­tance of fam­ily – or the phone – in Jacque­line’s life should look no fur­ther than her funny, charm­ing ac­cep­tance speech at this year’s Lo­gie Awards. Writ­ten and recorded by the proud sin­gle mum’s “feisty” daugh­ter Roxy, aged nine, it was hi­lar­i­ously in­ter­rupted mid­stream by a text mes­sage from Jacque­line’s fa­ther, con­grat­u­lat­ing the Most Out­stand­ing Sup­port­ing Ac­tor in a Minis­eries on her win for the re­cent Rom­per Stom­per re­boot.

“We’re a very close-knit fam­ily. Small, but close,” she smiles, newly ar­rived on an­other long-haul flight from Los An­ge­les to Syd­ney with Roxy, too much lug­gage and a bro­ken bag in tow. “I live in Amer­ica and

I live in Aus­tralia, both places. It makes it a lit­tle bit tricky, but for me it has al­ways been about where the work is. I’m itin­er­ant and it’s quite an ad­ven­ture, that’s for sure.”

Sadly, how­ever, her adored mother’s ter­mi­nal ill­ness pro­vided the most press­ing of per­sonal rea­sons to base her­self mainly in Aus­tralia for the past decade.

“She was struck down with a re­cur­rence of can­cer,” says Jacque­line, 50, un­shed tears in her hazel eyes.

“It wasn’t a great one to get, and not at that stage. She was an amaz­ing crea­ture, an amaz­ing hu­man be­ing, so we packed our things and came home. Roxy was two and we all sort of got through it to­gether. We banded to­gether and went through that process – sev­eral rounds of chemo and ra­dio­ther­apy. Mum lasted a very long time, con­sid­er­ing the prog­no­sis – about four-and-a-half years, ac­tu­ally.”

That en­forced stay Down Un­der has seen Jacque­line star or guest in a slate of lo­cal pro­jects, rang­ing from Rake and Love Child to heavy­weight theatre and movies such as Be­neath Hill 60 and The Water Diviner, which re­united her with good mate and for­mer Rom­per Stom­per co-star Rus­sell Crowe for his first shot at di­rect­ing.

Most re­cent is ABC-TV’s taut spy thriller, Pine Gap, a new six-part se­ries set around the top se­cret US/Aus­tralian joint de­fence fa­cil­ity in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory. Co-star­ring with Steve Tous­saint, Tess Haubrich, Stephen Curry and Parker Sawyers, Jacque­line plays Aus­tralian boss lady, Kath Sin­clair, whose out­ward tough­ness is tem­pered by hid­den vul­ner­a­bil­ity and af­fec­tion for her pet cat.

“I re­ally, re­ally loved this piece and it was a good fit,” she says, ex­plain­ing how she and Roxy had been back in LA for only 15 days when she was called home to make Pine Gap. “I hadn’t heard any­thing about it for a long time, so I’d gone back to Amer­ica for pi­lot sea­son, think­ing I’d like the lead in a nice en­sem­ble-ish show for Net­flix,” she chuck­les. But her wish list had one flaw: “I sim­ply hadn’t put it in my head that the show should be in Amer­ica. The devil is in the de­tails, I guess!

“I’d just got Roxy into school over there when my agent rang about Pine Gap. It was one of those mag­i­cal calls you get ev­ery now and then. I had never been to Alice Springs, and it was just an ex­traor­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ence. I loved the en­sem­ble, and I love thrillers! I’m very much a gen­eral pub­lic per­son when I have time to watch movies or tele­vi­sion. I’m not gen­er­ally go­ing to choose some over­seas art­house film with sub­ti­tles. I want some­thing ac­ces­si­ble and com­mer­cial that’s not up it­self. That’s not very elo­quent, is it? But it’s true.”

This comes as a sur­prise from a NIDA (Na­tional In­sti­tute of Dra­matic Arts) grad­u­ate who in 1991 won her first theatre crit­ics’ award for her per­for­mances in clas­si­cal theatre, in­clud­ing plays by Hen­rik Ib­sen and Wil­liam Shake­speare. Wider au­di­ences woke up to Jacque­line’s shin­ing tal­ent through the gritty Aussie fea­ture film Rom­per Stom­per, re­leased in 1992, about a vi­o­lent gang of Mel­bourne neo-Nazi skin­heads. Naively, per­haps, she had no un­der­stand­ing of how the role would change her life. Born and bred on Syd­ney’s af­flu­ent North

Shore, ed­u­cated at pri­vate girls’ schools, Wenona and Pym­ble Ladies Col­lege – where she sang in Bri­gadoon with a young Hugh Jack­man – Jacque­line was un­pre­pared for the sen­sa­tion Rom­per Stom­per caused.

“I didn’t have a clue,” she re­calls, of be­ing cat­a­pulted to in­stant house­hold recog­ni­tion. “The idea of ac­tu­ally be­ing in a film … I can’t even say it was a dream be­cause I don’t think I had ever even dared to dream it. We were all fly­ing on the seat of our pants, re­ally. We ran on set and off set. That was in the days be­fore we went to the gym and got train­ers, so I hadn’t run since Year Nine hur­dles, and there I was sprint­ing down all these alleyways. I had ob­vi­ously read the script, but I hadn’t re­alised I would have to do that. Hon­estly, if you were re­ally aware what you would have to do on film sets, half the time you wouldn’t show up at all!”

In 1995, Jacque­line made Aus­tralian Film In­sti­tute his­tory by grab­bing two Best Ac­tress awards, for the film An­gel Baby and for her tele­vi­sion work in Hal­i­fax f.p. along­side Re­becca Gib­ney. Un­sur­pris­ingly, Hol­ly­wood came call­ing, around the time her four-year mar­riage to a for­mer high school sweet­heart, or­thopaedic sur­geon Bill Wal­ter, started to im­plode. “We led very dif­fer­ent lives,” she told The Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald. “It’s amaz­ing we lasted as long as we did.” A sec­ond sig­nif­i­cant re­la­tion­ship, with Bri­tish ac­tor/direc­tor, Si­mon McBur­ney, later fell vic­tim to the tyranny of dis­tance. “He lived in Eng­land and I was in Amer­ica. We worked as a cou­ple be­cause we spoke the same lan­guage. He is su­per brainy and knew how to have fun. I am still fond of him.”

Jacque­line, who com­bines chatty charm with per­sonal ret­i­cence and old-fash­ioned nice­ness, sel­dom dis­cusses the men in her past. Now sin­gle, she has never pub­licly re­vealed the iden­tity of Roxy’s fa­ther, but re­luc­tantly ad­mits: “It wasn’t a de­ci­sion [to be a solo mother]. It just is what it is.”

Later in our in­ter­view, she con­fesses: “I’m not par­tic­u­larly … I don’t reach out ter­ri­bly much. I’m not averse to meet­ing peo­ple but, you know, when peo­ple say you have to meet some­one…” She shud­ders slightly.

A few close friends and fam­ily (daugh­ter Roxy; bar­ris­ter/writer fa­ther John; lawyer, big sis­ter Jenny; nephew Ti­mothy, 20; and nieces Jes­sica, 23, and Ali, 21) are enough for Jacque­line, who is known af­fec­tion­ately as “Moo” by her in­ti­mates. Don’t ask – it’s a good but long story.

Trans­planted to LA, she felt home­sick and “very iso­lated” at first, de­spite be­ing cast in big-bud­get movies such as Deep Blue Sea (1999) and Divine Se­crets of the Ya-Ya Sis­ter­hood (2002). A vo­cal sup­porter of the #MeToo move­ment, she also suf­fered close en­coun­ters with sex­ual ha­rass­ment, bul­ly­ing, grop­ing and sug­ges­tive re­marks in those early days.

“You feel lucky to be there, and you are lucky to be there. You don’t want to lose your job and that’s some­thing that stops you be­ing able to have a voice. Look­ing back, it’s ter­ri­ble, and at times I’ve been scared for my safety, but some­how I man­aged to ex­tri­cate

“She was an amaz­ing hu­man be­ing, an amaz­ing crea­ture.”

my­self from sit­u­a­tions. It’s about power – who’s got it, who keeps it and who wields it – but I’m pleased to say there’s an aware­ness now, and hope­fully that will have a polic­ing ef­fect go­ing into the fu­ture.”

It was a strange new world that had such peo­ple in it. “It didn’t click with me that Hol­ly­wood is a sub­urb – it was an idea to me,” she says. “I landed with six bags – too many. You’re on your own, you’ve brought your gui­tar for some weird rea­son, you find your­self sit­ting in the wrong seat in the Hertz hire car. It was very strange and dis­com­bob­u­lat­ing.

“You get there and it’s a bit like [be­ing in] a hold­ing pat­tern, be­cause nearly ev­ery­thing ac­tu­ally shoots some­where else. You never know when you go to those au­di­tions.

They say, ‘Can you make it down to Bur­bank by 4pm?’ You agree and then two days later you’re on a plane to Van­cou­ver, hav­ing signed a seven-year con­tract to do a tele­vi­sion se­ries.” The gig in ques­tion was play­ing the fe­male lead, De­tec­tive Diana Sk­ouris, in prime-time sci-fi drama The 4400, ex­ec­u­tive pro­duced by Fran­cis Ford Cop­pola, which ran for four se­ries and made her in­ter­na­tion­ally fa­mous.

Mother­hood, and her mother’s ill­ness, di­verted that ca­reer tra­jec­tory. The home­com­ing, spend­ing those fi­nal years in Syd­ney with her mother, work­ing with Cate Blanchett and An­drew Up­ton at the Syd­ney Theatre Com­pany, proved a gen­uine bless­ing.

“I’m so lucky,” Jacque­line ad­mits, “to have had an enor­mously long and beau­ti­ful re­la­tion­ship with my mum, be­cause some peo­ple don’t. She was so funny. She had a wicked sense of hu­mour, and my daugh­ter has that too. I ac­tu­ally heard my mum’s laugh from her the other day!

“That in­flu­ence and love has just been ab­so­lutely ir­re­place­able. By the time we came back, my mum was go­ing through chemo and was so upset that she couldn’t teach Roxy how to fish or take her to the beach. But she taught her how to cook and just read to her for hours, so my daugh­ter is a vo­ra­cious reader.

“It’s funny how things turn out. I came home be­cause my mum was sick and I wanted to be around her and help, but ac­tu­ally, it’s the ab­so­lute op­po­site. She helped me out and gave me ev­ery­thing.” Her face is a map of dif­fer­ent emo­tions: sor­row, love, vul­ner­a­bil­ity, laugh­ter.

“So much has changed since I be­came a mother. It’s amaz­ing, it’s in ev­ery facet. It makes my act­ing so much bet­ter, be­cause my heart feels so much big­ger. When you’re look­ing af­ter an­other hu­man be­ing … act­ing is still very im­por­tant and I’m still very pas­sion­ate about it … but you let it go a lit­tle more, and that can be a good thing.

“My man­date now with work is that I ac­tu­ally want to have a re­ally great time with great peo­ple. That doesn’t mean it has to be arty or high­brow. I just want to get there and have a sense of ev­ery­one car­ing about the work, but more im­por­tantly, car­ing about each other. I don’t want to take home any angst to my fam­ily. You have to sur­round your­self with good peo­ple, kind peo­ple. Kind­ness is ev­ery­thing, al­ways.”

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