Julius Robertson is charming, witty, and a TV star. He’s also the inspiration for his mother Kathy Lette’s brazen new novel. In a poignant interview, mother and son tell Juliet Rieden how revealing to The Australian Women’s Weekly five years ago that Juli
the inspiring success of Kathy Lette’s autistic son
Julius Robertson and Kathy Lette make the most astonishing and engaging double act. Kathy, 58, with her quick-fire puns and irrepressibly youthful joie de vivre, and Julius, 26, with his cutting dry wit, founded in searing truths, and extraordinary chutzpah. “A lot of my friends simply adore him. They say he’s the most interesting person at parties because he’s so funny,” says Kathy, staring lovingly at 1.83m Julius, who’s polishing off the plate of bacon and eggs his mum has just whipped up for brunch in their Sydney apartment.
There’s no question that Jules is a chip off the old block – both Kathy’s and his dad Geoffrey Robertson’s (a Queen’s Counsel and human rights barrister) – but part of the charm of this unique mother-son relationship is its honesty; there’s no artifice at all here, there can’t be. Julius, who has Asperger’s, a developmental disorder on the autism spectrum, doesn’t know how to lie – though he does love to tease, I soon discover – and Kathy has learned that the only way to live with her son’s condition is head on, however confronting that may be.
Five years ago, Kathy “outed” her son to The Australian Women’s Weekly, revealing his Asperger’s for the first time in a public arena. For 21 years, through hundreds of media interviews, Kathy had avoided discussing her family; her children were strictly out of bounds. Then she wrote a novel in which the hero had autism and was clearly based on Jules. It was as if she was willing herself to talk. “I was so nervous and torn about coming out about Jules’ autism. I didn’t want to invade my son’s privacy, but only good things came from it,” says a relieved Kathy. “It taught me a great lesson that it’s always better to shine a light into a dark corner… and in all honesty, Jules and I have to thank The Australian Women’s
Weekly for his career.”
Kathy is referring to his burgeoning career as an actor. With his Asperger’s out and proud, a great weight seemed to have been lifted from son and mother, and Jules found the confidence to pursue his dream. At home in London, he started acting classes, joining a group called Access All Areas, which specialises in acting for people with disabilities.
“Jules’ first big obsession was Shakespeare. He used to do monologues from Hamlet when he was six. I don’t think he really understood it, but he loves the words and would memorise them,” says Kathy.
“I think Hamlet had Asperger’s,” Jules interrupts. “I can see that,” says Kathy,>>
laughing. “The obsessiveness, the lack of ability to read emotional situations; he doesn’t even spot that his girlfriend is suicidal, for goodness sake!” Jules is nodding. He’s not embarrassed to discuss his condition and is painfully aware of its often frustrating shortcomings.
“You know, it’s tricky living with autism. It’s quite hard,” Jules tells me later. “I have OCD [obsessive compulsive disorder, a condition which involves compulsive and repetitious behaviour, such as turning a light switch on and off, or excessive hand washing]. I have luck theories, so many luck theories,” he says, sighing.
“That’s things like wearing a special shirt to bring luck,” explains Kathy.
“And I suffer from terrible anxiety,” Jules says. “I always need people to assure me that everyone’s going to be okay. I get so worried and I can’t reassure myself.”
Currently, Jules is inconsolable on the issue of Donald Trump’s presidency, for which he feels personally responsible. He says he should have realised and warned people. “I have depression because of this, because none of us could do anything, which hurts a lot,” says Jules, who expresses what he’s feeling when he’s feeling it.
“Trump has been a cocktail of anxiety for him,” explains Kathy. “He thinks if he’d willed Hillary [Clinton] more good luck and put more on his Facebook, he could have changed things. I said, ‘Jules, you don’t have any American followers and you don’t vote there.’ And he said, ‘I know that logically, but my luck theories override it.’”
It’s likely that Jules’ compulsive conditions are a bonus in the acting arena, where memorising lines and repetition is key. Certainly it hasn’t held Jules back. Having won a string of awards on stage, he landed a breakthrough role when the BBC cast him in their hit hospital drama Holby City. It’s the first time a TV drama has cast an actor with autism to play an autistic character and “has done more to take the stigma out of the condition than a million dry documentaries,” says Kathy. “My boy has put the artistic into autistic and I could not be more proud of him.” She grins.
Julius, who plays hospital porter Jason, is now watched by six million Brits every week. He’s recognised in the street and frequently asked for autographs and selfies. Not bad for the lad who was bullied at school and came home regularly with a sign on his back saying, “Kick me, I’m a retard.”
“If you’d told me five years ago his life was going to take such a positive turn, I’d have laughed in your face,” says Kathy. “I was busy building down my hopes. Less than 15 per cent of autistic people are in the workforce, which is a much lower inclusion rate than other disabilities, despite their often high IQs. I presumed Jules’ only future would be living in a bedsit on benefits.”
Jules, however, had no such misgivings. “I decided I wanted to be an actor a few years ago. I really could see it in myself and when I saw my favourite actors in movies, I thought, ‘Wow, I could do this.’”
Kathy was fiercely supportive, but also quietly fearful. Jules feels very deeply and says what he thinks without a filter. Such searing honesty can be hilariously funny, but it can also get Jules into sticky situations. How would he cope acting, which is, after all, about pretending?
“I kept thinking how could someone autistic be an actor because you have to learn to emote and you have to be so nuanced,” Kathy says. “But then I thought to myself, actually autistic people are acting all the time, trying to act normal, to be neurotypical. And I remember, Jules, you used to come into a room sometimes and if we got off to a bad start, you’d say, ‘Let’s do it again,’ and you’d leave the room and come back in. It was like take two, just like it is in acting.”
“I remember that. I haven’t done that for ages,” Jules says, with a wistful air of maturity. Despite his anxiety about so many aspects of his life, he is completely confident about his acting skills and forged ahead without any help from his high-profile parents.
“I was amazed, honestly,” says Kathy. “I would watch him on stage and think, ‘You’re really good.’ But I presumed I was just wearing my devoted-mum goggles, totally blinded by love. The part in Holby had nothing to do with me. His agent sent him to the audition and he did it all by himself.”
“I auditioned and I was so flawless and so smooth that they decided that it was my shot,” says Jules, with a wicked grin. “I was nervous at the beginning of Holby because I was walking into something new and I wasn’t sure how to approach it. But once the early episodes wrapped up, I started to feel really comfortable and by the beginning of last year, I was totally relaxed. The cast are great. We’ve got brilliant actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company like Jemma Redgrave and Catherine Russell.”
“Jemma Redgrave just sent me this beautiful email saying that they love working with Jules because he’s so enthusiastic and it reminds them how lucky they are to work in this industry and not to take it for granted,” says Kathy. “Stories about autistic kids are often so sad and soul-destroying. But Jules proves that you can turn your negatives into a positive. My advice to other struggling parents is to find out what your autistic kid is good at and feed their obsessions.”
Jules is clearly having a ball. In between shoots, he runs lines with
other members of the cast and by all accounts is one of the most popular actors in the troupe. “There are these gorgeous make-up ladies there and I’ve got good taste in women, you know. I haven’t dated any of them yet, but I’m working on it.”
The world of dating and finding his partner in life is a real sticking point for Jules and a source of worry for his mum, who explores the subject in depth in her new novel, Best Laid Plans, a sequel to The Boy Who Fell to Earth, which deals with the taboo subject of autism and sex. “Once more I’m nervous about invading my son’s privacy, but sex for the ‘differently abled’ is an important issue. And nobody ever speaks about it,” says Kathy. The novel opens with Lucy, a middle-class teacher and mum, trying to solicit a prostitute for her autistic son.
“Best Laid Plans is a work of fiction, so it’s not Jules’ story, but I did use a few things from his life,” says Kathy. “For example, when he was desperate to lose his virginity before his 21st birthday, I did actually consider hiring a prostitute. Of course, as a feminist, I couldn’t and didn’t resort to this desperate measure, but the thought definitely crossed my mind.
“Thankfully, Jules got a girlfriend just before his 21st birthday and, well, nature took its course! But around that time, I did read a newspaper story of a father who was arrested for kerb-crawling to pick up a prostitute for his disabled 19-year-old son and it was then that the idea for my novel kick-started into creativity.”
Jules has had four girlfriends to date and is desperate to find his soul mate, whom he hopes to meet at work. “I wish I had a girlfriend. Even this great line of work hasn’t got me one yet,” he says, with an enchanting half-smile.
I ask him what his pick-up line is. “I like to say, ‘I didn’t know they could afford to hire supermodels here at the BBC!’” Jules answers, quick as a flash.
“He’s having a bit of a drought right now,” says Kathy. “But when he’s in love, he’s just so far above cloud nine, air traffic controllers keep radioing in his position because he feels everything so intensely. He worships her. It’s amazing to watch.”
Jules says he’d love to marry one day and settle down. “I wish that women were more accepting of me. Something scares them about dating me.” He lives partly at the family home in North London and partly in a nearby flat of his own, where he spends three or four nights a week.
Kathy confesses that, while she loves to see him being independent, she lives on eggshells most of the time.
“Every time he goes out of the door, I’m worried that he’ll misread a social situation or someone will misread him and he’ll get his lights punched out or be arrested. But he’s 26 and I have to learn to let go.
“Parents of autistic kids know that we can never cut the psychological umbilical cord, but their condition doesn’t mean that they’ll always be living in our attics. With the right support and encouragement, they can give back to society in the most remarkable ways. The lateral, literal, tangential logic of autistic people is truly unique, creative and inspiring. As my son has taught me, there is no such thing as normal and abnormal, just ordinary and extraordinary.”
Kathy is in the process of splitting from husband Geoffrey, which she hopes won’t reverberate too much on Jules. “I really don’t want to say much. Basically, Geoff and I have separated on the warmest of terms and remain close and committed to the family we have created together. I think that, for women, life is in two acts
– the trick is to survive the interval.
I’m in the interval right now, but I’m definitely buying a big round of drinks!
“Geoff is the smartest man I’ve ever met, saving the world’s underdogs from their kennels. I love and respect him so much and always will. Sometimes it’s just good to take a breather and break from each other to recharge. I don’t know what will happen in the future. I’m definitely going to spend more time in Australia. I miss home so much.”
Jules says he too doesn’t rule out living and working in Australia. Careerwise, he would love to score a role playing a regular “neurotypical” character. “That’s our mission, isn’t it, Jules? Imagine playing a baddie in a James Bond movie,” poses Kathy.
“That would be really fun, actually,” replies Jules, his beautiful mind already calculating the possibilities. Certainly, if anyone can make it happen, Julius Robertson can.
“I wish women were more accepting of me. Something scares them.”
Best Laid Plans by Kathy Lette is published by Penguin and on sale now.
Kathy Lette and her son, Julius Robertson, photographed in Sydney where Kathy would like to spend more time. “I miss home so much.”
Jules has built up a following in the BBC TV series Holby City.