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 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.”