Halifax fp: articles

Getting to know the devil inside

'Cops and robbers' isn't good enough for the modern discriminating television audience; they want to know what makes crims tick. Hence, Rebecca Gibney stars as Australian criminal psychologist, Halifax fp. BEN WALSH reports.

'I obtained numerous case studies of different serial killers and psychopaths and I got a bit morbid for a while. People would come around to my house and there would be piles of headless corpses pictures, and I think they thought I was a bit sick. Well, I am," confesses New Zealand-born actor Rebecca Gibney.

While the majority of female roles seem to be as either 'tarts with hearts' or one-dimensional bitches, 30-something Gibney has bagged one of the few prized woman TV characters. Emulating her heroine, British actress Helen Mirren, Gibney plays forensic psychologist Jane Halifax in Halifax fp, a Saturday night regular on Channel Five.

Set in Melbourne, the crime drama has garnered huge ratings in Australia, and Gibney, formerly a mechanic in The Flying Doctors, has been nominated for a Silver Logie for her depiction as the crime-busting workaholic.

Keen to understand her character, Gibney decided to interview numerous psychiatrists and forensic scientists. So, did she end up combining their characteristics?

"I incorporated certain characteristics, but, basically with any role, I use as much of myself as possible, or else you tend to lose that human edge to it."

Any of these forensic types slightly honey nut loops? "They're all a bit mad really. I mean one guy said that as a release, he would go into a room and do these amazing tapestries for hours on end," she stresses. "I went to his house and saw one on his wall, and it was really extraordinary. I mean, he was carrying so much dark morbid stuff around with him that he had to find some way to get rid of it." Although Gibney's character doesn't possess many eccentricities, she says Halifax is nevertheless "an emotional basket-case and her personal life is pretty screwed-up". Hardly surprising given the traumas she's subjected to.

"My favourite story was the last one I did, where I was being stalked by this madman, and meanwhile a young baby has been suffocated and I'm trying to work out whether the mother, the father or the kid did it," she says.

"There's also a relationship with my mother involved while I'm being stalked by this weirdo. (She pauses) That show for me was a fabulous acting opportunity."

However, fact disturbs Gibney far more than fiction, and her research has led her to viewing some pretty disturbing material.

"There was one case about a 14-year-old boy whom I saw interviewed in prison. When he was 11 he got a two-year-old boy and put a stick up his bum and tortured him beyond belief. "But he had no recollection of doing it, because he suffered from explosive disorder which means that he suffered from mental blackouts. It was all really frightening as this 14 year old was actually rather sweet and he said, 'I'm sorry for what I've done, but I don't remember doing it'."

All of this is quite a departure from Gibney's quiet childhood and life as a "naive" teenager in Wellington. She started the road to fame as a model before eventually falling into acting.

"Back in 1985 I went to Australia on a working holiday and ended up getting a role. Next thing I knew I got a part on The Flying Doctors, which I stayed on for three years. I'd never even had a formal acting lesson in my life."

So, given she's appeared in two medic shows Gibney must have accumulated considerable medical knowledge? "No," she laughs raucously. "I played the mechanic in The Flying Doctors. I could probably fix a car better than I can fix someone's heart condition. I have a basic knowledge on neurological disorders, but not much on physical disorders."

Has she ever extended her research to meeting any criminals? "They [the producers] won't let me meet the murderers. But yeah, I would like to meet them, but that's the morbid side of me, wanting to know what causes this psychopathic behaviour. However, quite often people do these terrible things, and there is absolutely no diagnosis for it. I find that quite fascinating," she says.

A huge fan of Prime Suspect, Gibney admits never having seen Jack Klugman as the world's most famous forensic scientist in Quincy, but worships the wonderful Cracker.

"Unfortunately, on Halifax fp we don't get as grubby and down to it as in Cracker, but in Australia we tend to make it a bit more slick and lean towards the American way of things. We try to find a balance, find our own style, something in between America and England."

However, she would love to do something a little bit more grungy and more down to earth like Cracker or her personal favourite Prime Suspect.

"Ohh, Helen Mirren is a role model to me," she gushes. "Especially when I'm doing this particular role because I try and copy her." In fact, when you ask Gibney about her other role models the list is most distinguished.

"I'm a big Bette Davis and Audrey Hepburn fan, because they both had incredibly strong roles and did them so well, which you don't see that often these days. Well, there's Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange and that's about it," she says.

What about Tom Cruise's raison d'etre?

"Nicole Kidman has done incredibly well and she's incredibly driven. She's really gone out there and grabbed it with both hands. I know a lot of people who know her personally and they say she's a really nice person as well."

After a best actress award from the Australian Film Institute for the World War Two-set social drama Come In Spinner, Gibney dipped her toes in Hollywood and found it distinctly grubby. "I went to Hollywood two years ago to suss it out and decided on sight that I hated it. It's not my bag, and I couldn't afford the plastic surgery bills," she says.

When not acting, Gibney is a part-time interviewer and it was in this capacity that she returned to LA. She interviewed the likes of Debbie Harry, James Woods, and Dennis Rodman for the Eric Banna chat show in Australia. So, what was the controversial basketball star like? "Rodman was three hours late and obnoxious. I'd just caught the red ye from LA to New York, I was exhausted and I ended up sitting in a hotel room for three hours waiting for him. When he did turn up he sort of grunted for five minutes and then left," says Gibney.

Not content with acting, researching sociopathic behaviour and interviewing, she also produces. Last year she filmed Kangaroo Palace in London, a tale of four Australians who hit Earls Court in 1964. Gibney says she had an absolute blast, but there were a couple of things that rankled. "The weather's a bit miserable, and the loud, drunken Australians that come over can be a little bit embarrassing." Although, on the whole, she adores her adopted nation. "I love their forthrightness. Their very honest, direct, incredibly down to earth, and they see straight through people."

As our quick-fire conversation draws to a close, has she got any advise for Poms visiting Australia? "Take a lot of sunscreen, enjoy the wine because it's sensational, try and not whinge too much because they don't tolerate whingers over here. There's that terrible expression 'Whingeing Poms', and that's sort of stuck," says Gibney.

Channel 5 screens Halifax fp 9pm Saturdays.

By Ben Walsh
TNT Magazine, Issue 714
May 1997