“I DO THE BEST I CAN”
At the pinnacle of her career, Australian television’s golden girl Jessica Marais opens up to Stellar about motherhood, missed opportunities and why she won’t let mental illness define her
She’s one of the most successful actors on Australian television, but for Jessica Marais life hasn’t always been rosy. She talks to Stellar about the pressures of fame, juggling co-parenting, and managing her mental health.
It is a bitterly cold winter afternoon in Melbourne’s Hawthorn, and kids in school blazers are piling off buses and making their way home. Just over the fence of one of the suburb’s federation houses, Jessica Marais stands on a verandah wearing black stilettos, a red and black brocade coat and not much more. Despite her legs starting to turn an unnatural shade of blue, Marais is a good sport – laughing as she shivers while posing for Stellar’s photographer.
Later, rugged up in a puffy jacket and tucking into a plate of roast chicken and vegetables, Marais opens up about juggling one of the busiest schedules in Australian television; one that enables her to star in both The Wrong Girl and Love Child.
“This year I took on quite a lot between the two jobs, which has been amazing, but it’s been a bit of a learning curve, in hindsight, looking back and going, ‘OK, I probably took on a bit too much there,’” she tells Stellar.
Making time to see her five-year-old daughter Scout, whose father is her ex-fiancé and former Packed To The Rafters co-star James Stewart, remains Marais’s first priority. The 32-year-old is currently filming the second season of The Wrong Girl in Melbourne and travels back to Sydney, where she is usually based, as often as she can. Scout, who will start school next year, regularly flies down to Melbourne, too.
Marais laments “time management” as her biggest challenge as a single mother, but says she and Stewart are making it work together. “Luckily we try to manage and it’s not me on my own with her all the time,” she explains. “She has her father and his family, so we just do the best we can.”
In the second season of The Wrong Girl, which Marais has been filming the morning of her Stellar shoot, her character Lily has picked up and moved to New Zealand to be with Jack (played by Rob Collins). Does Marais – who had Scout when she was 27 and in the midst of pursuing a career in Hollywood as a gangster’s moll in the TV series Magic City – ever feel like she missed out on that kind of freedom by becoming, by today’s standards, a young mother?
“I mean, it is not so young,” she counters. “When you hit 30 I think, inevitably, whether you’ve had children
or not, I think you re-evaluate your life a little bit… Look, I don’t want to get hung up on what I’ve missed out on or what I regret. Obviously there are things I think I have, but I’ve also been wonderfully blessed and what she has brought to my life has changed me. It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s changed me. And it continues to change me or challenge me – and so does work. That’s interesting as well.”
Marais says that she has a lot of respect for her actor friends who go to Hollywood to slog it out, describing her time there from 2011–2012 as enjoyable, but hard. She remains equally on the fence about returning one day.
“It was short-lived and very particular, that experience,” she explains. “It also was one that I fell pregnant during and had my daughter closely after, so there’s a whole bunch of… stuff. I would love to go back and give it a go, but I just don’t know. It’s about fitting life in, and life with Scout, and we’re a split family and we have to all think of each other when we make decisions.”
She is also quick to point out that the decision might not just be up to her. “Hollywood may not want me!” she says with a laugh. “You know what I mean? That’s how it is.”
Locally, there’s no such issue. Earlier this year, Marais was nominated for a Gold Logie for both her roles in Love Child and The Wrong Girl. Co-star Ian Meadows, who plays her best friend/love interest Pete in the latter, wasn’t surprised. “How she can go from that very sort of upright, contained character in Love Child to suddenly who she is as [ The Wrong Girl’s] Lily – it was really impressive for everyone to see how she jumped into the comedy and how much fun everyone has playing with her in that sense,” he tells Stellar.
Marais was the only woman to be nominated for the Gold Logie alongside five men, with Samuel Johnson ultimately winning. Marais says she was pleased to be given the nod, but admits, “I don’t know of another year where there’s only been one woman.
“I would love to see more women represented, and there are obviously a lot of women who have missed out on recognition. I think you only have to look at the show we have [ The Wrong Girl] and [the female cast] and they’re all incredibly talented actors.”
IT’S ALMOST A decade since Marais, who was born in South Africa but spent
most of her childhood in Perth, was plucked from NIDA to star as Rachel Rafter in Packed To The Rafters, which ran for six seasons from 2008. An instant hit, Marais says she was completely unprepared for the impact the show’s success would have on her life.
“I was really naïve to it,” she says. “I look back at that time really fondly because it was such an exciting, fun, confidence-building time, but I almost feel as though it happened at this really particular time in the industry that was right before the onslaught of social media and the pre-packaged celebrity cult that we have now. I feel we were almost like little test products of celebrity, some of the kids from that time.”
But bursting into the public eye in such spectacular fashion has brought some challenges. “It hasn’t come without its personal costs, because it’s been very much a crash course of learning [how to navigate fame],” she says. “Whereas I think now people can come out with their produced form of celebrity so much more easily. They’re not trying to find their identity within it.”
Along the way, Marais has sought advice from mentors such as her onscreen mums and industry veterans, Rebecca Gibney ( Rafters) and Kerry Armstrong ( The Wrong Girl).
“Trying to be an authentic woman in the industry is something that I’ve talked a lot about with Kerry and other women who have been mentoring me… trying to be an authentic person within the industry, and not be shot down for it, is quite difficult,” she says.
“We are less forgiving of female mistakes in general,” she continues. “I think we’re held to a higher standard because we’re meant to be mothers, and I think the Madonna-whore complex still exists quite a lot. We’re expected to be perfect, and the second we’re not everyone can’t wait to… you know? I just think with boys they get away with being lads and cowboys and it’s an age-old myth that’s existed for a very long time. And I don’t really know how we fight it or change it.”
Striving for authenticity in the public eye can also be a double-edged sword, as Marais has personally discovered. A few years ago she revealed in an interview she has bipolar disorder and has been suffering from episodes since she was 12.
“I didn’t feel ready for the amount of attention that I felt I received around it, because it’s a common condition that a lot of people are living with, and people fight their day-to-day battles and it’s the same thing,” she tells Stellar. “I’d like to be able to be inspirational to people in terms of being able to say you’re not alone, there are other people like this, but it’s not something that I feel entirely defines me and it’s not something that I want to be a how-to [or] go-to guru on.”
One of the public discussions that sparked at the time was how Marais was managing her illness, after she revealed she wasn’t taking medication.
“Now I am actually [on medication], but I wasn’t then,” she clarifies. “And then people say it’s irresponsible or… it’s a can of worms talking about any of your personal struggles. Luckily I get to deal with some of those through the characters that I play, which I think is in some way representing those issues, by showing women who are struggling, who aren’t coping with all of the things. They might be a control freak in one area of their lives and a complete mess in another. I think that is empowering women by allowing those issues to come to light.”
Marais maintains that being true to herself doesn’t mean she has to share every single detail of her life – especially when it comes to discussing new relationships.
“Oh, everyone always wants to know,” she says with a throaty chuckle. “I know it sounds clichéd, but I think I’ve learnt a big lesson in keeping my romantic life as private as possible.”
Nevertheless, working on two shows where she plays a woman in a man’s world at work – Love Child’s Joan works in a hospital in the early ’70s and Lily works as a producer in breakfast television – has made Marais question the role of men in her life. “They are both women trying to exist in a patriarchal world, and it’s interesting that they’re decades apart in time but facing similar problems, which is again, an age-old issue,” she says.
“It’s definitely made me look at my life and whether as a woman I feel I need a man and male approval to complete me. And I don’t think that women who do want that are wrong, but it’s an interesting question that is there.”
As for what’s next, Marais says she wants to keep working creatively (she’s been writing a side project that she hopes to develop) and that she simply loves being a mum to Scout, who she describes as “tricky and amazing”.
“I just think people in the creative industries… crave normalcy and stability and the mundane, and then I also crave producing, writing, developing and working on both sides of the camera.
“My dreams really are just to live a fulfilled life,” she says with a shrug. “Have balance and, it sounds ridiculous, but to leave the world with something better than what I came into it with.” The Wrong Girl Season 2 is coming soon to Network Ten.
JESSICA WEARS Altuzarra coat, davidjones.com.au HAIR & MAKE-UP Julia Green
GOLDEN GIRL (from top) Jessica Marais and co-star Rob Collins in The Wrong Girl; at the 2011 Logies with her Packed To The Rafters “mum” Rebecca Gibney; with Stewart and their daughter Scout; on the 2014 Logies red carpet.