Twenty years ago, ac­tor Kat Ste­wart took a risk and quit her “sen­si­ble” job. Now she wouldn’t have it any other way, and would love to grow old “dis­grace­fully to­gether” with her Off­spring al­ter ego.

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - Pho­tog­ra­phy JUSTIN RI­DLER Stylist MA­RINA AFON­INA Cre­ative Di­rec­tion ALEK­SAN­DRA BEARE Words PA­TRICK CARLYON

Kat Ste­wart wanted a con­ven­tional life. But she had un­con­ven­tional urges. Un­til they passed, she would try to be a reg­u­lar per­son. “Sen­si­ble things”, she tells Stel­lar, were what she did in the hope she would even­tu­ally “grow out of” the urge to act.

She was 24, a uni­ver­sity grad­u­ate who had thrived on psy­chol­ogy sub­jects, and work­ing as a pub­li­cist for Pen­guin Books. Af­ter hours, she would feed her act­ing habit at the Na­tional The­atre in St Kilda.

She hadn’t known any ac­tors while grow­ing up in East Gipp­s­land, Vic­to­ria. Act­ing was no ca­reer, she be­lieved, but a hobby she had in­dulged since pri­mary school. Its pur­suit was some­thing to hide – at least from her em­ploy­ers.

Then she landed a part: Harper Pitt, the val­ium-pop­ping wife in An­gels In Amer­ica. The show dates clashed with her real job, which de­manded her

at­ten­dance at the Ade­laide Writ­ers’ Fes­ti­val. Since she couldn’t be at both, Ste­wart had to make a choice. She opted to re­sign from Pen­guin. “That was the key mo­ment when I ac­tu­ally owned up to work that I had this pas­sion,” she says. “They prob­a­bly thought I was mad.”

Two decades later, the dilemma seems silly. Ste­wart is ac­claimed and cov­eted. Strangers still shout “Roberta” at her in the street, in def­er­ence to her velour-clad break­out role as a gang­ster moll in Un­der­belly. She shone at the Lo­gies in April, per­form­ing a live skit along­side Peter Hel­liar in a much-talked-about par­ody of Jacket-gate. And later this month, she re­turns as Bil­lie Proud­man in the sev­enth se­ries of Off­spring.

All this, and Ste­wart still as­sumes ev­ery role will be her last. Act­ing is “mad”, she says; the sched­ules are wild, the prospects in­se­cure. Yet it is a ca­reer Ste­wart has come to em­brace. There re­ally was no choice. Be­ing a “reg­u­lar per­son”, as she had hoped, would never do when act­ing was “in my bones”.

Her rel­a­tively low pro­file makes sense when you meet the 44-year-old in per­son. She smiles a lot and chats without self-ap­plause. She oozes a soft­ness that de­fies the char­ac­ters she grav­i­tates to. Ste­wart may be im­mac­u­lately groomed, but she is also without pre­ten­sion. She is an ac­tor, she points out, not a per­former who gets about in a cape.

She seems more in­ter­ested in her craft than its trap­pings. She seeks grip­ping sto­ries and fas­ci­nat­ing char­ac­ters. She misses the stage and frets about be­ing away from it, lest she weaken those muscles. She grabs all the good roles she can.

Take Bil­lie Proud­man. Ste­wart, along­side Asher Ked­die, leads what she calls a “sweet spot” for Aus­tralian com­edy-drama. Speak­ing of Bil­lie like a real per­son, she tells Stel­lar she’d love to grow old “dis­grace­fully to­gether”.

Ste­wart is com­fort­able with Off­spring’s 14-hour work days. When a sea­son wraps, a cou­ple of months at home in in­ner south-east Mel­bourne might fol­low. Or per­haps some week­ends on Phillip Is­land at her fa­ther’s farm, or catch-ups with a tight cir­cle of friends when moth­er­ing du­ties per­mit.

Ste­wart and her hus­band, ac­tor David Whiteley, jug­gle the par­ent­ing of Archie, five, and Gigi, 15 months. Some­times their sched­ules gel. Some­times they don’t. “There’s a lot of mud­dling,” she ex­plains. “I think if we had stan­dard cor­po­rate jobs it would be very dif­fer­ent. There’s no great se­cret, it’s re­ally just luck and flukes. And some­times it’s chaos when we’re both work­ing at once.”

There might be a stint on­stage, a kind of “glad­i­a­tor sport” that tests like no other form of act­ing. “In the­atre you only get one run at it; it has to be in your body and you have to be able to reach ev­ery­body at the back of the room,” she says. “It’s so alive be­cause you’re aware of the au­di­ence and how they’re re­ceiv­ing it.”

LIKE MOST VIEW­ERS, Ste­wart thought Off­spring was doomed af­ter its fifth sea­son in 2014, when gov­ern­ment tax re­bates ex­pired. On­screen, the plots were tied up. Be­tween the ac­tors, farewells were made.

Ste­wart did not hes­i­tate at the of­fer of more when it came around last year. She likens Bil­lie to “the badly be­haved friend who won’t go home”. Ste­wart has al­ways cared for her char­ac­ter, even dur­ing sea­son four, when Bil­lie cheated on her hus­band, lost a busi­ness, let down her sis­ter Nina (played by Ked­die) and be­came a “real mess”.

“She’s more au­da­cious than she was be­fore,” Ste­wart says of Bil­lie’s story arc in the up­com­ing sea­son. “She’s re­ally gutsy and brave. I love play­ing her.”

The off-cam­era re­la­tion­ship be­tween Ste­wart and Ked­die – a Gold Lo­gie win­ner – has al­ways com­manded at­ten­tion. Ste­wart says Ked­die’s pres­ence was one of the main rea­sons she joined the cast. They have “short­hand” as peo­ple and as char­ac­ters, and it has evolved. Both ac­tors de­scribe the other with sis­terly fa­mil­iar­ity. It’s an easy dy­namic, Ste­wart says, be­cause each year they know each other even bet­ter than the year be­fore.

Ste­wart scoffs at magazine claims of on-set tension from last year; the pair, she states, do not “hate each other’s guts”. If they did, she ar­gues, the show couldn’t be made. For the record, Ste­wart laughs, they did not brawl in the street.

No, they do not mix to­gether out­side of the show – but they spend long hours on the set. Be­sides, both have young fam­i­lies. Last year, Ste­wart re­turned to work when Gigi was just five weeks old.

It had been a dif­fi­cult time: Ste­wart dis­cov­ered she was preg­nant a week af­ter she was told her mother Kitty was dy­ing of cancer. At the time, Whiteley’s mother had al­ready re­ceived a ter­mi­nal cancer di­ag­no­sis. Ste­wart prefers not to dwell, at least in pub­lic, on that pe­riod, in­stead she fo­cuses on the good that came of it.

“The great thing is that Gigi has DNA from both those fab­u­lous women who we love still,” Ste­wart says. “So if any­thing, Gigi’s ar­rival has been this in­cred­i­bly won­der­ful thing that has helped put ev­ery­thing in per­spec­tive.”

Ked­die had son Valentino, who was 12 months older, on set last sea­son and jokes were cracked about “the creche” at Off­spring. Ked­die and Ste­wart have sep­a­rate rou­tines at work. The time they rel­ish lies in the many hours that they re­hearse and film, when they blend their dif­fer­ing ap­proaches to their roles.

Ked­die, too, de­scribes a “mu­tual ad­mi­ra­tion so­ci­ety”. Put sim­ply, Ste­wart stud­ies hard to be spon­ta­neous while Ked­die, in keep­ing with her char­ac­ter, al­lows her­self to re­act in the mo­ment. This dy­namic is built on years of trust.

“I couldn’t get ar­rested in my 20s. I had too much time to navel gaze in­stead of trust­ing my­self”

“It’s al­ways a chal­lenge of tone and style, and it re­quires rig­or­ous work,” Ked­die says. “We both love rig­or­ous work.”

“Work­ing with her is easy,” Ste­wart says in turn of Ked­die. “It’s also re­ally stim­u­lat­ing be­cause we at­tack it in dif­fer­ent ways, but some­how it works. She’s out­ra­geously tal­ented.”

An­other co-star, Gy­ton Grant­ley, worked with Ste­wart in 2008 on Un­der­belly, where she saun­tered like an al­ley cat in tracky dacks to play gang­land wife Roberta Wil­liams. Grant­ley re­calls Ste­wart as a sweetheart who turned up each day armed with a Prada hand­bag and Gucci sun­glasses. Then the cam­eras rolled – and she turned into “a mon­ster”.

“She’s fear­less,” he says. “She is a beau­ti­ful wo­man, but she’s not afraid to be ugly. Or vul­ner­a­ble. To show her fear or just the ugly side of her­self and her anger. She’s able to tap into emo­tion from a true place in­side her, which im­me­di­ately res­onates. The au­di­ence can’t avoid be­ing moved or af­fected.”

Be­fore Un­der­belly, Ste­wart was used to be­ing over­looked. If her act­ing start was be­lated by choice, her rise to­ward pub­lic recog­ni­tion was slow. For years she had kicked around, blink­ing on the en­ter­tain­ment radar but not flash­ing. As she puts it, “I couldn’t get ar­rested in my 20s. When you’re younger and you’ve got a lot of time to navel gaze, you spend a lot of time do­ing that in­stead of trust­ing your­self. That was re­ally in­struc­tive; it taught me a lot about let­ting go and fly­ing by the seat of your pants.”

It also taught her to quell ex­pec­ta­tions. Now she dares not think too far ahead. Ste­wart may do a movie. Or she might turn up in Hol­ly­wood – well, maybe one day. “You just don’t know where you’re go­ing to be,” she says con­spir­a­to­ri­ally as her eyes widen. “There are eas­ier lives to lead, but this is the one I love.”

Com­edy is harder than it looks, she says, and great comic ac­tors, such as Robin Wil­liams and Tom Hanks, tend to ex­cel in se­ri­ous roles. So does Ste­wart, as both Grant­ley and Hel­liar tell Stel­lar.

“Very few ac­tors can com­bine com­edy and drama so ef­fort­lessly, of­ten within the same scene,” Hel­liar says. “Her comic tim­ing is perfect. The Lo­gies sketch was orig­i­nally go­ing to have us both wear­ing white. But Kat suggested do­ing it in fuch­sia, as that was what she was wear­ing on the night. It un­doubt­edly made it 100 per cent fun­nier.”

Ked­die says Ste­wart pos­sesses an “inim­itable unique­ness”, and that “I don’t quite know how she does what she does. That’s the kind of per­for­mance you want to watch, that you’re com­pelled by.”

Ste­wart de­scribes act­ing as a kind of in­tel­lec­tual ex­er­cise in be­havioural stud­ies: “It’s an op­por­tu­nity to look at the world through some­one else’s eyes.” It’s the more un­sym­pa­thetic char­ac­ters, she says, who tend to be more in­ter­est­ing.

She speaks of Wal­ter White, played by Bryan Cranston in Break­ing Bad. More re­cently, Su­san Saran­don and Jes­sica Lange starred as arch ri­vals Bette Davis and Joan Craw­ford in Feud. “I re­ally am in­ter­ested in peo­ple and why they do the things they do,” Ste­wart says. “I think it’s im­pos­si­ble to hate some­one’s story that you know.”

Ste­wart is open to big­ger things over­seas, she says. Then again, she might just play Bil­lie Proud­man for­ever. “I don’t think I should be al­lowed to,” she says. “But I could.” Off­spring sea­son seven pre­mieres 8.30pm, Wed­nes­day June 28, on Net­work Ten.

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ON A ROLL (clock­wise from top left) Kat Ste­wart and her hus­band David Whiteley; with Peter Hel­liar dur­ing their Jacket-gate sketch at this year’s Lo­gies; in 2008’s Un­der­belly with Gy­ton Grant­ley; along­side Asher Ked­die in Off­spring.

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