The Secret Life of Us: articles

Deborah Mailman

Deborah Mailman: "The great thing about Kelly (her character from The Secret Life of Us) is that schoolgirls from North Sydney to Fitzroy Crossing can relate to her, and that makes a difference."

Breaking through the barriers

Who could forget the scene in the 1997 Australian film Radiance where Deborah Mailman, dressed in a lurid, orange kimono, acts out the heroine’s suicide in Madama Butterfly? Hooting tunelessly at the top of her voice, she falls to the ground in a death slump.

Seconds later, up she pops with a huge, beaming smile on her face.

It turned out to be a prize-win-ning smile, when Mailman col-lected both the Film Critics Circle’s and the AFI’s Best Actress awards the following year.

More recently, that beam has been illuminating the small screen in the hit Channel 10 drama series The Secret Life of Us. Mailman plays Kelly, the flatmate with the startling dress sense who is always trying to sort out her friends’ lovelives and looking for love. Kelly can mostly be found hanging out in groovy St Kilda, drinking lattes or serving up fancy drinks at her local bar.

St Kilda is a long way from Mailman’s home turf of Mount Isa.

She grew up next to the famous Isa rodeo grounds, where her Aboriginal father was caretaker. He’d met Mailman’s mother, a Maori, in New Zealand when he was representing Australia in a bull-riding competition back in the 1960s. She remembers an idyllic childhood, in which she and her four siblings treated the rodeo like one big family playground.

So how does an Aboriginal girl who grew up roping poddy calves in rural Queensland become one of the most respected film, theatre and television actors in the country?

When we meet for a chat in a Fitzroy cafe, Mailman still seems a bit bemused by the path her life has taken.

"I really don’t know. My school friends thought I was outgoing and bubbly, but that masked a lot of insecurities, and maybe that’s the reason I chose drama—to build a bit of self-confidence. I had a great teacher, and I won a few speech and drama competitions, and just fell in love with it."

Everyone knows that acting is a profession with more than 90 per cent unemployment. But, in the early 1990s, when Mailman was studying drama at Queensland’s University of Technology, there wasn’t a single indigenous actor in an ongoing Australian television role. Did she think twice about her career choice?

"I didn’t see it as a disadvantage; it simply wasn’t in my thoughts. It was a bit naive maybe, but I didn’t believe I would be pushed back because of the colour of my skin."

Mailman's optimism could simply be the product of her childhood in Mount Isa, where, she says, she and her siblings experienced little prejudice.

"All of us kids were really smart at school and found it quite easy to make friends, so there wasn't any blatant racism towards us. Certainly Mount Isa was a segregated community in some ways, but we all pretty much had the same opportunities as everyone else. Mum and dad were really respected in both the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities."

One of the most unusual and, for this critic, refreshing aspects of Mailman's character, Kelly, in The Secret Life of Us is the way in which her Aboriginality is never an issue. Not all critics have responded so positively, however, and Mailman is sensitive about those negative reactions.

"I find it odd that people criticise the fact that her Aboriginality is so subtle. And a lot of this is coming from non-Aboriginal people. They say, 'Is she really a blackfella? Where's her family?' But, as Deb Mailman, I don't wake up every morning with my family. I don't always have a political agenda.

"A lot of people see Kelly as a bit ditsy and they're saying, 'Finally, we have a black woman on screen and she's like this!' But I love the fact that Kelly's drive in life is to fall in love. Why can't she have a sexuality? I'm not going to allow her to be a victim or get to the point where she's got bubbles in her head!"

Mailman is learning to deal with the public recognition that comes with a high-profile television role. Generally, she says, she enjoys being stopped in the street by fans. Her own love-life, though, is strictly off-limits to the general public.

Mailman lives in inner Melbourne and describes herself as a home-body who's happiest reading the weekend papers. Her closest friends are other actors and she says she loves the fact that there's a vibrant, Aboriginal arts community in this city.

Life for this 29-year-old actor sounds almost too good to be true. She's worked with some of the country's most famous actors and directors, including Geoffrey Rush, Neil Armfield and Barrie Kosky.

The one-woman show she developed with indigenous writer and director Wesley Enoch in the mid-'90s, The Seven Stages of Grieving, will have another season with the Sydney Theatre Company later this year. And she can be seen in Phil Noyce's feature film, Rabbit-Proof Fence, now screening.

Underneath the industry success story, though, there is still the anxious young girl who took up speech and drama classes to build her self-confidence. When I ask her about the differences between the actor and her TV character, she compares herself unfavourably with Kelly.

"She's much more adventurous than I am. She'll try anything, whereas I'd rather stay at home. Because I've got an AFI award, I feel there is a certain expectation when I walk into a room, you know, that that Deb Mailman must know something! But I'm just as nervous with every experience. I still doubt whether or not I can pull something off. I still think, when is the review going to come along that says Deb Mailman's not very good? It's nerve-wracking, constantly wondering if I'm still watchable."

In spite of having been almost constantly employed for over a decade, Mailman worries about where the next job is going to come from. When I suggest, tongue-in-cheek, that she could always go to England (where Secret Life is going gangbusters) and get some work in a provincial pantomime, she doesn't dismiss the idea.

"At least that'd help pay for a house!" she replies. Sometimes, she says, she thinks she'd be happier working as a jillaroo, out bush on horseback in country Queensland.

And even though her own career has gone from strength to strength, Mailman is keenly aware of the challenges facing most indigenous actors in the industry.

"I think there's a huge gap in casting Aboriginal actors in commercial television. There's Ernie Dingo, who's a presenter, but at the moment I'm the only actor in an ongoing role. Some people think that there aren't many Aboriginal actors around, and if there are, they're not that good. It's stupid. There's such an incredible pool of talent out there and they're still coming out of drama schools. People just need to take a leap of faith. All I can do is keep doing my own work. The great thing about Kelly is that schoolgirls from North Sydney to Fitzroy Crossing can relate to her, and that makes a difference. That's how things start changing in little ways. And that's why I love doing this job."

By Sian Prior
Picture: Nicole Emanuel
March 11, 2002
The Age