Packed To The Rafters: articles

Rebecca Gibney overcomes her demons

IT'S 7.30 on a sunny Sydney morning as cast members of Australia's most-loved show, Packed To The Rafters, file into a large rehearsal room at Epping. They amble to a breakfast spread and take a piece of fruit or pastry, then settle around a big square of tables for the morning's script "read-through". It's early for some, but the inter-generational group seems happy.

And what's not to like? They are part of a show with a mix of rootsy family plotlines and appealing characters that made it such an instant hit, even the actors were surprised.

Then, of course, there is the secret weapon: Aussie golden-girl actress Rebecca Gibney.

Having made the long trek from the Northern Beaches, where she has bought a house, Gibney arrives a little fuzzy but smiling.

The Gold Logie-winner greets her on-screen family warmly. Then she gets down to business ... her arrival seeming to concentrate the energy in the room.

After all, Gibney embodies Julie Rafter: part loving Earth mother and human Band-Aid; part pragmatist and troubleshooter.

As the read-through begins, Gibney slips into Julie mode as effortlessly as the rest of us would pull on a favourite jumper.

More than 20 years of acting have given Gibney the ease she displays this morning.

But there is another force at work: the once-troubled actor is finally at peace. She shocked many of her fans when she revealed early this year just how much her mental health had suffered at the hands of her late, alcoholic father. She had previously told Andrew Denton on Enough Rope about her emotional outbursts, insecurities and the lasting trauma inflicted by hearing and seeing the results of her father's regular beatings of her mother when Gibney was a child in New Zealand.

But when she revealed soon after her Logie triumph that she had had such a bad emotional collapse at 30 she had to take Valium just to go to the supermarket, her many fans drew a collective sharp breath.

She experienced severe panic attacks, feared leaving the house and was severely depressed.

Her mental state deteriorated until she became so agitated on a long-haul flight that with the urging of her travelling companion, producer and friend Roger LeMesurier, she finally sought the help she needed.

Fourteen years later, the 44-year-old is happy to talk about her darkest moments and how she pulled herself out the other side with the help of extended therapy.

"I feel really fortunate, even though it's fairly common knowledge that I was raised in a somewhat dysfunctional family," says Gibney, who was her parents' sixth child.

"Through it all, my brothers and sisters were my best friends ... and I always felt protected and very looked after. Mum always shielded me from any of the seriously traumatic incidents but obviously there is leftover stuff that happens to you when you have a father who's not well."

Such was Gibney's early lack of self-belief that even after she moved to Australia and became a sought-after star in her early twenties, she kept waiting to be outed as a fake.

"I was gobsmacked when I got the role of Emma Plimpton on The Flying Doctors. I just thought I was faking. I just kept saying, 'They're going to figure out I don't know what I'm doing one day and go, 'Oh, she's not that good'. I had a terrible lack of confidence."

Gibney says her three years on the show helped her believe in her ability enough to stick with a career she had fallen into during a holiday visit to Australia.

When she talks about the character up to two million Australians tune into watch each week, she could be talking about herself.

"Julie is a woman you'd adore to have next door when times are tough, a woman you know that if you were up in the middle of the night with a crisis, she'd come and fix whatever the problem is," she says.

The actor speaks in the same kind of language about her own attitude to mothering.

Zac, the son she has with her production- designer husband Richard Bell, is in many ways the centre of Gibney's universe.

She has said her debilitating panic attacks stopped after Zac was born five years ago and that he gave her "an entire new world".

"We'd decided initially that we weren't going to have children. That just wasn't a big part of our lives. We got two dogs instead," she says over tea and Vegemite toast in her dressing room. "It was about that time that we both felt the need to move to the country.

"We both felt a bit burnt out. We'd been in the industry a long time and we both felt the need to get back to Earth, I suppose."

A friend, meanwhile, recommended to the pair that they consider Tasmania as a place to establish their rural retreat.

So they took a driving holiday, reached the idyllic beauty of the Tamar Valley and after seeing it decided, "This is it - we're home".

Just three weeks later the couple moved in to their rural Tasmanian property.

Three months later, Gibney was pregnant at 39, and describes her second marriage (her first was to singer Jack Jones) as being nigh on sublime and Zac as a life-changing force.

Of Bell, she says: "He is the kindest, most wonderful human I know.

"And I trust him implicitly with anything and everything."

They met on the set of Magda Szubanski's telemovie Dog Woman and married on a Thai beach in 2001. Though Julie is pregnant in her mid-forties in the show - and Gibney has previously hinted about having more children - she's adamant she and Bell are happy with just the one child.

And she gives every impression of being happy with herself at last, too. She readily admits the psychologist she found through her friend LeMesurier helped her to find the strategies for living that likely saved her life.

Before that, daily life was dominated by her depression.

"She saved my life because I saw her twice a week for a year, then every week for another year after that. And she sort of brought me back from the brink," she says.

Gibney regrets that she was so debilitated by the condition, she could not even tell her mother.

"At the time it happened I couldn't explain it or tell anybody about it. I think that's true of so many people who suffer any kind of depression or breakdown.

"They can't explain it."

On Enough Rope in 2003, Gibney gave an honest account of the times when she would lose control of her emotions, particularly falling victim to jealousy, and physically lash out.

She says she suffered an overwhelming feeling of self-loathing but she didn't know where it came from ... because "you have a great job, you have great friends and you live in a fabulous apartment and life is good".

Now Gibney is not only reconciled with her childhood trauma, but with herself.

"I'm comfortable in my own skin, yes ... I've taken baby steps," she says. "Certainly being in a very happy, stable marriage with someone who completely accepts me, warts and all, helps. I don't have to be anything other than who I am, and I think I'm more myself with Richard than with anyone. He's taught me to be more myself, because he accepts who I am."

Even ageing, the bane of many a talented actor's career, no longer bothers her.

"I do feel like I'm waving the flag for the middle-aged woman who has a few lines around her eyes and a bit of a roll around her middle," Gibney says, exaggerating the visible effects of ageing on her face. "They're the inevitable signs of ageing. I don't want to stop the clock ... I just want to slow it down."

So where to next? Well, planning is well advanced for series three of Rafters, so expect the fun to continue.

By Wendy Tuohy
September 26, 2009
The Daily Telegraph