Blackjack: articles

Marta Dusseldorp

Photo: Marco Del Grande

Rise and shine

She’s from an illustrious family and has acted with Judy Davis and Glenn Close. Little wonder, writes Catherine Keenan, that Marta Dusseldorp is feeling lucky.

Most people remember the late Dick Dusseldorp as the multimillionaire philanthropist who founded the developer Lend Lease, but to his granddaughter, Marta, he was just the intense man they occasionally visited in Tahiti.

He’d explain how you get pictures on the TV and why the sun sets and how buildings stand up. “And I’m, like, eight, going, ‘That’s great. Can we go for a swim now?’ “

It was only when he died, in 2000, that she found out about his other achievements: among them, building Australia Square and much of the Sydney Opera House.

He knew about some of her plaudits: her smooth run out of drama school, when she landed a role in the Hollywood movie Paradise Road with Glenn Close and Frances McDormand and was picked up by the Melbourne Theatre Company.

He didn’t live to see her career blossom, to see her holding her own earlier this year with Judy Davis and Colin Friels in the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Victory. Or starring with Matt Day and Lisa McCune in the ABC telemovie Hell Has Harbour Views, which is likely to screen next year. Or playing Colin Friels’s offsider in a series of three BlackJack telemovies, the first of which screens on Channel Ten soon.

In fact, her grandfather never saw Dusseldorp on stage at all. “The one time he was coming, I was doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Playhouse, and I booked his seats and was so excited. And he actually died the day before he was due to fly out to see the show,” she says, the faintest hint of tears sheening her eyes.

Most of her family flew to Tahiti for the funeral, but Dusseldorp stayed behind. The show must go on. “I had this empty row of seats, and I was doing a monologue, playing Helena, and I started crying. And I couldn’t stop. It was terrible. But Helena was upset so people didn’t really notice.

“And I looked up and my mum was sitting in his seat. She had come without telling me. And she was sitting forward in her seat and she was going, ‘Come on, Marta, it’s OK.’ And I just went”—she mimes wiping her eyes and sniffs—“and managed to get on with it. It was one of the most amazing moments of my life on stage.”

Dusseldorp smiles rather dazzlingly—something she’s very good at. As if an illustrious family and acting talent were not enough, she’s also effortlessly beautiful.

I meet her at a cafe in Balmain and, even in casual clothes and with no make-up, she turns heads. Green eyes, silky skin and a knife-edge jawbone are quite a combination and at times she seems to almost glow with well-being. When she flashes her smile (her teeth are perfectly straight and white, of course), it’s difficult not to feel charmed.

There have certainly been low points, however. When she was eight, her nine-month-old brother died of leukaemia and it changed her sense of the world.

“I became much more—I wouldn’t say spiritual, but the world suddenly blew open for me and I realised it wasn’t the safe place that I thought it was.”

She took ballet lessons from the age of four, dancing every day and sometimes soaking her bloody feet in methylated spirits, she says. At 14, when she was forced to choose between trying to get into the Australian Ballet and school, she chose school and hung up her shoes.

It was only when, soon after, she did a play that she realised it was storytelling that interested her, and turned towards acting. She found it helped, and eased the lingering impact of her brother’s death.

“I found, dare I say it, a church in theatre. It was like a quiet place where I could contact him. It sounds tacky. I was young then. But that was the start of it.”

Dusseldorp was clearly something of a precocious child, and at 14 she made another dramatic decision.

By then, her mother had given birth to healthy twin boys, nicknamed Search and Destroy, and the house was rather boisterous. Most teenage girls would probably have craved a bit of quiet and privacy, but still, her solution was rather extreme: she asked to be sent away to boarding school.

“I just needed to find out, at the ripe old age of 14, who I was.”

Surprisingly, her parents let her go. Of course, once she got there she hated it and cried every night, begging to return home.

But having made her bed, she was forced to lie in it. Fortunately, she soon met the drama teacher Dick Johnson and it’s been acting ever since.

She studied at the University of NSW for two years, majoring in theatre and film, but it was very little study and lots of plays.

Mainly, she was growing up before applying for drama school.

She was devastated when she was accepted by the Victorian College of the Arts and the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, but not NIDA. She accepted the Melbourne offer.

At 31, her CV includes STC’s The Way of the World, Ensemble Theatre’s All My Sons and the touring production of Company B’s Cloudstreet. She was in Paul Cox’s 2000 film Innocence and recently finished touring with the Belvoir Street Theatre’s production of The Underpants. Then, of course, there was Victory, a coarse, cruel, often impenetrable play set in Restoration England and written by Howard Barker. Co-directed by Davis and Dusseldorp’s boyfriend, Ben Winspear, it had a stellar cast including John Gaden, David Field, Peter Carroll, as well as Davis and Friels.

Was she intimidated by Davis? “Not really. I mean, yes, of course. I thought, ‘I’ve got to get my socks up!’ “

What about that memorable scene where she is off-handedly rogered by Friels; surely it must have been, um, uncomfortable rehearsing that for the first time in front of both their partners?

“No. We just laughed.”

But there must have been tension in the room at the time, with the two couples working together? Especially given the much-publicised difficulties in Davis and Friels’s relationship?

And Winspear sharing the directorial role with Davis? “Again, no; really supportive. We talked about it a lot beforehand.”

She flashes that brilliant smile again and I almost believe her.

After Victory, she had a day and a half to rehearse for The Underpants and then she set off on tour. It was a relief to do such a light, funny play, as Victory had made her cry every night as she stood in the wings listening to the opening speeches about dismembering bodies.

“I think that that’s important, to seed that up before you go on. It’s not something I personally can just walk onto and go, ‘And now I act!’”

Dusseldorp once ventured to Britain to seek out work, but baulked at the cut-throat nature of the business and came home. She says she doesn’t have any grand ambitions and has a gentle, endearing lack of concern about status and money—much easier to affect, of course, when you were born with both.

Like many actors, she’s constantly talking about the wonderful people she’s worked with and being lucky and blessed. But in her case, it rings true.

By Catherine Keenan
October 16, 2004
The Sydney Morning Herald