Rebecca Gibney


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Sunday Magazine - The Mother of All Roles

  • Sunday Magazine
  • September 29, 2012

REBECCA Gibney is gyrating and singing, "I'm too sexy for this suit."

I've just been introduced to the actor on the filmset of Mental - which, today, is a two-storey brick house in Tweed Heads, NSW - and she's laughing about her transformation from one of Australia's most enduring beauties into frumpy Shirley Moochmore. Gibney gained 14kg to play the character and the rest of the work is done by the sung-about fat suit, which she offers to let me touch. (For the record, it feels like squidgy foam, not rolls of fat.)


A year later, I meet Gibney at a beautiful house on Sydney's North Shore, the location for sunday magazine's photoshoot. Having reverted to the svelte version of herself, she's squeezing into a size 8 lace dress and explaining she's having trouble shedding the last four kilos. But she's not too fussed, because losing it would mean giving up wine and chocolate.


With the shoot finished, Gibney puts on her own clothes - jeans, a blue long-sleeved top, a white T-shirt over the top and a striped blue scarf - and we sit in the manicured garden to chat. During her weight gain for the film, the 47-year-old discovered she was insulin resistant, a precursor to diabetes, so she had to tread carefully with food choices and seek the help of a nutritionist.


"I was eating a lot of rice, pasta, olive oils, peanut butter - essentially healthy stuff - and I stopped exercising. I'd go for walks, but I didn't do much strength training, so the weight came on really quickly. It was so sad!" she laughs. After filming finished, she lost the bulk of the weight by "upping the exercise, not eating rice and pasta, and switching to lean proteins, vegetables and salads".


Mental is the first film Toni Collette and director PJ Hogan have made together since the much-loved Muriel's Wedding 18 years ago. When Gibney caught wind of it, she campaigned heavily for the role of Shirley - the harassed mother-of-five dealing with a philandering husband (Anthony LaPaglia) and low self-esteem, who suffers a nervous breakdown and is committed. She donned a fat suit and a muu-muu for the audition.


"I'm just hoping people will go, 'Well, she can do something other than Julie Rafter or Jane Halifax'," Gibney says.


The New Zealand-born actor has been a TV fixture since her early 20s, when she starred in The Flying Doctors, and later the crime series Halifax FP. Her current role as suburban mum Julie Rafter on Packed to the Rafters has won her three Logies, including Gold in 2009.


"Maybe Mental will show people I'm not afraid to be different. I'm not afraid to look bad, I'm not afraid to do anything. I'm also at an age when I'm not afraid to give anything a go. When I auditioned, I said to PJ, 'I will stand on my head; I will do whatever it takes.'"


Hogan was sceptical about casting her. "When you read the character of Shirley on paper, the first name that springs to mind isn't Rebecca Gibney," he admits.


"Beforehand I said, 'Shirley's downtrodden, Shirley's let herself go - depressed people eat. Whenever I see pictures of Rebecca Gibney, she's on the red carpet at the Logies looking beautiful and wearing designer clothes. That's not Shirley.' My casting director said, 'People underestimate Rebecca Gibney and have done so for years.'"


But Hogan was forced to reconsider after Gibney auditioned. "Rebecca read for me and she was absolutely sensational," he says. Even so, he still needed further convincing. "I didn't want the great, beautiful actor peeping out from behind glasses. I said, 'Putting glasses on you isn't going to cut it.' Rebecca said she knew that and told me, 'I'll gain the weight; I know this character. You just have to trust me.' So I did."


Collette agrees Gibney lived up to her promise: "She cherished not being typecast; she wanted to try everything to make her character real and, man, did we laugh."


While initially "terrified" of meeting Collette, whom she'd "admired for so long", Gibney says her fears were allayed when she arrived for the first day of rehearsals and the Golden Globe-winning actor greeted her with a big hug. She recalls asking Collette about losing the 18kg she famously gained for her role as Muriel. "She said, 'Good luck with that one, because I'm not going to do it again!'"


Part of the reason Gibney identified so strongly with the role (which Hogan based on his own mother) is because she has experienced her own bouts of depression and anxiety, suffering a nervous breakdown in her 30s. She believes this stems from her troubled childhood and recognised her own mother, also called Shirley, in the character.


"My mother had a husband, my father, who beat her," she says. "He wasn't out having affairs, but he physically and emotionally beat her, so she raised six kids by herself.
I think we were a nightmare half the time but, in those days, we certainly didn't talk about it and there was no taking yourself off to a psychiatric institution. So, for me, it felt as if this was my homage to my mother.


"I wanted Shirley to have a real heart and to portray her with the softness and struggle my mum had. When I watched the film with Mum, I thought, Oh God, I hope she's OK with it," she says. "She cried a bit when she saw it, but she's proud of me because she did see herself in the character."


Does her upbringing influence the way she and her husband, production designer Richard Bell, raise their eight-year-old son, Zac?


"We're such a tight unit," says Gibney. "We talk about everything. Someone once asked me, 'What's the best thing about being a mum?' It's when I turn off the light after I've read Zac a story. It's those quiet moments when he talks about his deepest fears or his thoughts about everything, or he asks about the universe. We have an incredibly close bond and Richard and I are luckily very together on everything - on how we raise him, on how we feel about pretty much everything. Richard is my absolute soulmate."


Surprisingly, after a career spanning more than 30 years, this is Gibney's biggest film role to date. But don't imagine she looks at the crop of young Australian actors working in the US - such as her Rafters protégé and close friend Jessica Marais, who made the jump and is now filming the second season of the Miami-based TV series Magic City - and wonders what could have been.


"I went to Hollywood when I was 26, for about two-and-a-half weeks," she recalls with a laugh. "I got an agent and went to a Disney casting. I sat there staring at a life-size picture of Geena Davis, going, 'What am I doing?' I had a good career in Australia and I thought, I just can't do it. I didn't think I was that great an actor, or that good-looking. I thought, I'm kind of ordinary and I'm trying to crack Hollywood. Who am I kidding? This is stupid. By the time I went into the casting, I said, 'Sorry for wasting your time, I'm going home.' And I boarded the next plane back."


With Hogan at the helm and Collette in the lead, Mental is poised to be an international hit. I suggest Gibney could follow the path of Jacki Weaver, who caught the attention of Hollywood late in her career with her surprise Oscar nomination for low-budget Australian film Animal Kingdom. Is she prepared for that?


"Everyone has said, 'You could do a Jacki Weaver,' and I'm like, well, that would be lovely. I'm not going to chase it but, sure, if it makes it into a festival, I'll go overseas and strut a red carpet. Absolutely. At my age, it might be my last chance."