City Homicide:articles

nadine garner

Nadine Garner, "there is still a very big pull towards a conventional-looking female in casting".

A woman of balance

The child star now has a child of her own and a new appreciation of her parents. By Nicole Brady.

NADINE GARNER carries herself with the poise of a dancer. She has presence, people look up from their lattes as she enters the busy Windsor cafe. And while her beauty is unique and striking — she is all eyes, their cool green dominating her petite face — it is as typical of the women we are accustomed to on our screens as the remnants of the dance training many of them undertook as girls.

All points Garner is not unaware of. It turns out they underpin many conversations she has had over the years with casting directors and television executives.

"Maybe in the way we view women generally in pop culture, we do want them to be very feminine or very conventional," she says over a cup of tea.

"Unfortunately in casting, there is still a very big pull towards a conventional-looking female, which the networks feel safe casting on screen. And I include myself in that as a caucasian female, and I think it's a shame."

As the TV industry competes with other forms of entertainment, the decision makers have become "more conservative than ever", she says.

"To some extent that's forced us back a couple of decades. It's not an environment in which casting people or heads of networks are going to make risky decisions.

"I don't want to get too political but I think it comes from the whole climate of conservatism. In a sense I think that's fed into the way we portray ourselves on television and what we feel safe and comfortable with."

Having been part of the local industry since she debuted as Tamara in the family series The Henderson Kids (1985), Garner is well qualified to comment. In the two decades since, she has experienced the highs (a best supporting actress AFI award for Mull in 1989) and the lows, bouts of unemployment.

Those of us who grew up watching her as a child star on The Henderson Kids have been surprised to see our children just as absorbed by Garner, this time as the stern house-mother, Deb, in the popular children's series Blue Water High. How did she find the flipside of working on a children's show?

"It is a very difficult job to be in a supporting role in a children's show, and there is a lot of humility required to do it," she says. "Inevitably you are only ever a two-dimensional character and never really fleshed out as an adult, but I quite liked the chance to feel what that was like.

"It's important as an actor to always know that you're a team player, and you certainly know you're a team player when you're an adult in a kids' TV series," she says with a wry smile.

After Blue Water High, Garner and cameraman husband Cameron Barnett had Edan, now 19 months. Her co-starring role as Detective Jennifer Mapplethorpe in Seven's high-rating police series City Homicide is the first major part she's taken on since Edan was born, and like all working mothers, she's finding juggling her time a struggle.

The rigours of a tight, five-month television shoot meant there were days she left home before Edan woke up and returned when he was back in bed. She fought "the sick feeling in my stomach" and consoled herself with the knowledge that she would soon be able to spend long days at home with him.

Garner gets annoyed, she says, about our "cultural obsession with the working mother". "Every week there is an article in the paper about some new study about the children of working mothers."

Motherhood has, however, informed her work on City Homicide. Her character is a single, working woman who thinks she may have forgone emotional happiness for her career. It is an area Garner hopes will be more fully explored in the next series as it is one she believes resonates among viewers.

"I love the idea of exploring the idea that in order to be a good detective Jennifer has had to sacrifice her own personal intimacies, and I think that's not only true of people who work in the police force but also in people who work under enormous pressure in the corporate sector. How much of their personal needs are put aside in order to be a high achiever and what does that to do their femininity or their maternal instincts?"

Garner looks back with wonder at the fact her parents allowed her to leave home aged 12 and go on location near Colac for long periods of filming for The Henderson Kids.

"I also admire them and I admire their courage and their ability to let me go," she says, acknowledging that the TV show environment was incredibly safe and nurturing. "That they trusted the world and they trusted me and they trusted the circumstances enough to let me go, I really respect them for that and I really thank them for that because I just wouldn't be who I am without it."

These days a parent or guardian would be required by law to be on a remote set with a child so young, but the world has changed a lot since then. The observation prompts a discussion about the differences in the freedom of her childhood and that her child will grow up experiencing and leads her to wonder whether the world truly is less safe nowadays as many seem to believe. She questions whether there is a link between the construct of the world as a dangerous, predatory place and the popularity of police shows like the one she is working on.

"It's a really good question for people to sit down and talk about. How unsafe is the world really, and does that all marry into our obsession into police dramas and cop shows and hospital shows where people are on their death bed?

"We are obsessed with that and somehow it must filter through into how we view life and the safety or non-safety of our existence."

City Homicide screens Mondays at 8.30pm on Seven.

By Nicole Brady
November 1, 2007
The Age