Packed To The Rafters: articles

Rebecca Gibney, Michael Caton

Australians have taken Rebecca Gibney to their hearts, but she'll always be a Kiwi.

On the bright side

FOR REBECCA Gibney, the cup is always half full.

Whether talking about the serious, such as her battle with depression, or the mundane — like the cheeky roll of flab around her belly — the bubbly actress puts a positive spin on all she encounters. Criticism is being heaped on her latest television project Wicked Love? She takes heart from the fact she portrayed her character with dignity. She can't break into films? Not to worry, television is more lucrative than movies. Her childhood was tainted by domestic violence? She is grateful for her upbringing because it gave her compassion and understanding.

It's this attitude that has helped the Kiwi star of Packed to the Rafters, one of this year's highest-rating shows, banish her demons and become the golden girl of television both here and in Australia.

"My mum raised me to increase your appreciation and lower your expectations," she says on the phone from Sydney, where she's filming the third series of Rafters. "You've always got to be appreciative of your opportunities and not get too ahead of yourself."

Gibney has an enviable life — a doting husband, a son she adores and a sparkling career that has won her awards and the hearts of viewers on both sides of the Tasman. Such success can, and often does, go to the heads of those in the public eye, making them aloof, smug — and unwilling to reveal too much about themselves in interviews. But despite spending more than half her life in the limelight, Gibney is refreshingly frank, open and grounded. David Baldock, her producer on psychic investigation show Sensing Murder, confirms that "what you see is what you get".

"She certainly doesn't act like she's the star and everything should revolve around her," he says. "She works really hard, is totally professional and on Sensing Murder quickly became like part of the family."

While in part attributing her lack of airs and graces to "the Kiwi in me", Gibney admits there's little doubt her journey to this point has helped her keep her feet firmly on the ground. It hasn't always been easy for the girl from Levin, who as a kid loved climbing trees, gymnastics and eating feijoa icecream. She has never made any secret of the fact her father Austin was a violent alcoholic who beat her mother — once likening her family to that portrayed in Once Were Warriors. Austin died when Gibney was just 17, leaving her with deep emotional scars. While careerwise her star rose in her 20s with roles in Zoo Family, Flying Doctors and Halifax f.p., sporadic panic attacks culminated in an emotional collapse in her early 30s, and she was forced to seek help for depression and agoraphobia. Ad Feedback

Gibney relates these chapters in her life without a trace of self-pity — on the contrary, she seems almost thankful for them.

"Someone said to me this morning, `suffering makes you a better person,' and I do believe that, because it makes you more compassionate towards other people's suffering," she says. "Scratch the surface of anyone's life and you'll find that everyone has been touched by tragedy or suffering in some form. For us it was alcoholism, and it's given me an understanding of that illness. I'm very grateful for my upbringing, a lot of positive came from it and I wouldn't change my family's past for anything."

Sharing such a turbulent past has made Gibney incredibly close to her siblings, as well as her mum, Shirley, who lives in Brisbane. She based her portrayal of Julie Rafter, the feisty, sensible and big-hearted matriarch of Packed to the Rafters, on big sisters Diana, Theresa and Stella — who all have older children of their own. But when the plot called for Julie to unexpectedly get pregnant in later life, 45-year-old Gibney was able to draw on her own experience.

Her first marriage to singer Jack Jones, frontman of Southern Sons, ended without children, and when the actress hooked up with production designer Richard Bell they discussed not bothering with kids. The pair, who wed in November 2001, were the type of couple who loved travel and avoided holiday spots swarming with youngsters. They felt no burning need to start a family — until Gibney realised her baby-making days could soon be over.

"I got to 38 and decided that I didn't want to be 45 and contemplating trying to have a baby or thinking that I'd missed my chance. So we decided we'd give it a go and if it happened in the next 12 months we'd know it was meant to be and if it didn't then that was ok too." She was astonished when she was pregnant within three months.

After a smooth pregnancy, son Zac was born three weeks early in April 2004. Despite the fact he weighed a massive 9lb 1oz, the actress delivered him without drugs, and claims she "actually quite enjoyed the birth — which is odd."

Speaking incredibly quickly, often falling over her words and punctuating her comments with shouts of laughter, Gibney sounds much younger than a woman in her mid-40s. But she admits her advancing years were a factor in deciding against more children.

"I think leaving it a bit later in life you don't have as much energy," she says. "The struggle of going back to sleepless nights — and the whole responsibility thing of this incredibly small person relying on you for everything. We also asked Zac how he'd feel about a little brother or sister. He asked if it meant he had to share mummy and daddy, and when we said yes, he said no thanks. He likes us being the Three Musketeers."

As she eagerly describes how confident her son is, how well he did on his first day at school, and his easy acceptance of the family's recent move from Tasmania to Sydney, it's clear Gibney is one proud mum. And despite the fact she moves in the glamorous world of showbiz, she's never happier than when "outside with my son kicking a footie around".

Her youthful attitude is complemented by a youthful look — something which she freely admits has been aided by Botox. But she cheerfully discusses her crow's feet and "role of flab around my middle", and has no intention of denying herself her favourite treats for the sake of a few pounds. "I don't want to be one of those people that gets to 90 and says, `I wish I had more icecream and less beans."

WHILE THERE'S no doubting the TV industry is fickle, eating too much icecream is unlikely to knock Gibney off her perch as one of the most popular and talented local stars currently beaming into our living rooms. Jo Porter, producer of Packed to the Rafters, is continually impressed by Gibney's professionalism and skill.

"Her performance is so open she just disappears into a role which is why she connects so readily with audiences — as they see the character rather than the actress," Porter says. "She also makes it look effortless."

Gibney admits being a little disappointed she has never had a major break on the silver screen, but realised long ago that Hollywood wasn't for her.

"I tried it when I was 26 — I lasted three weeks and decided to come home." She is philosophical about the lack of local movie opportunities. "Unfortunately it's a bit snobby — I've done so much television and there's that judgemental attitude that TV actors don't do films. Television pays better than film anyway."

And television has fully embraced this vivacious Kiwi almost from the moment she set foot in Australia at the age of 19. Her most recent project was Wicked Love — a controversial television movie based on the true story of Maria Korp, who was strangled and left for dead by her husband and his mistress in 2005, in a tale of swinging, sex and lies. Korp's family have blasted both Gibney and the project for their insensitivity. Gibney admits she agonised over taking the role, but ultimately has no regrets.

"Obviously it's going to bring back some terrible memories for the family and the children and that's really sad, but we had comments from certain family members who hadn't actually seen the project. It was disappointing. I think I portrayed the character with warmth, dignity and an unwavering loyalty to her family."

As with many of our stars who have done well over the Tasman, Australians have been quick to claim Gibney as their own. She believes this isn't entirely unwarranted, admitting "I've got a foot in both camps".

"I have become an Australian citizen and have grown up on television here, and I'm incredibly grateful that the Australian public have really taken me as one of their own," she says. "But I think there's still very much a part of me that lies in New Zealand."

She misses the Kiwi bush, wandering everywhere barefoot and our great icecream (Gibney is very big on icecream). She lives on the northern beaches of Sydney, in the seaside suburb of Avalon, where "people get around in flip-flops, shorts and singlets", but would she give it all up to return to New Zealand?

"If they ever give me a job of course I'll bloody come back," she laughs. "I've been asking for years — please can someone give me a job over there?"

Crowded house

Rebecca Gibney has brought a lot of personal experience to her role in Packed to the Rafters, and critics agree the show's real-life topics are predominantly what have captivated viewers on both sides of the Tasman.

"One of the great things about Rafters is we are reflecting real life," says Gibney. "We are showing those decisions people have to make." So far in 2010, more than 2 million New Zealanders have tuned in to the show, according to figures from AGB NMR. In Australia, it was the highest-rating show on the Seven Network when it launched in 2008, with an average audience of 1,939,000 watching each episode. Seven's head of drama, John Holmes, has described the show's success as "extraordinary". "We knew we had a great show and a brilliant cast but the response from audiences has been overwhelming."

Julie Eley, editor of TV Guide, believes that while Rafters is an Australian drama, "it could just as easily be a slice of New Zealand life". "It's a feel-good family drama that ticks all the boxes with storylines many of us can relate to — especially the empty-nesters among us who have seen their children return home or those who have had to deal with the onset of dementia in older parents.

"But what elevates it above the average is that the cast have a rare chemistry and energy who do full justice to a witty script. And, really, it's just nice to have a TV series which leaves you smiling at the end of it. "Also, at the end of the day, it's good to support our Australian counterparts. We might like Desperate Housewives but we have more in common with a suburban Aussie family than we do with the women of Wisteria Lane."

Jane Wilson, TVNZ's general manager of programming, agrees that the show's popularity can be attributed to the feel-good factor. "In today's busy life, this light-hearted drama is exactly what viewers want to watch — it's a bit of escapism the whole family can enjoy together," she says. "It's a warm-hearted, quality drama with likeable characters that we can all relate to." As with any show's success, this one was about timing. The Sydney Morning Herald's TV critic, Michael Idato, pointed out that a plotline of empty nesters having their hopes for a quiet life shattered "when credit-crunched children came home, sat uncannily in the zeitgeist, resonating powerfully with viewers".

By Cath Bennett
Sunday Star Times (NZ)
April 11, 2010