With a smile to rival that of Julia Roberts, a magnetic presence and warm personality, Deborah Mailman has been a staple on Australian film and television screens since 1998. But in her latest role, as Superintendent Anna Morton in the Channel Nine series Bite Club, she is tackling the crime drama genre for the first time.
The Wollongong mother-of-two tells My Weekly Preview she is a die-hard fan of Law and Order: SVU and to take on this new role was a dream come true.
Filming for the series, which debuted on August 15 and will continue for eight weeks, wrapped up in Manly in December, giving Ms Mailman, husband Matthew Coonan and children Henry, 10, and Oliver, eight, an opportunity to visit the Sunshine Coast in July for some rest and relaxation, and to connect with Mr Coonan’s parents on the Noosa north shore.
“When it comes to my [Bite Club] character, professionally she hasn’t put a foot wrong and has worked so hard to get to where she is, even though there are some who think she is not competent enough to be in that position.
“But personally, she is getting it all wrong… she just happens to find her younger work mate incredibly attractive and although she’s a smart woman and she knows how stupid she is in getting herself in that situation, she can’t help herself. It’s an interesting dilemma to play with,” Ms Mailman says.
Picking up scattered pieces of Lego from the floor of her New South Wales home while conducting the interview, she admits she never had a grand design for how her career would play out when she set her sights on acting at the age of 16.
But through sheer hard work, spending a decade on the theatre circuit before her television debut, Ms Mailman became the first Aboriginal actress to win the Australian Film Institute (AFI) Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for the 1998 film Radiance. She went on to win four more AFI awards in film and television.
She is well known for her character Kelly Lewis on the successful series The Secret Life of Us and later played Cherie Butterfield in Offspring, for which she won two Logies for Most Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series in 2002 and 2004.
While both Kelly and Cherie hold a firm place in her heart (she played the characters for six and four years respectively) Ms Mailman says taking on the role of Eddie Mabo’s wife Bonita in the film Mabo changed her life.
The acclaimed film chronicled the story of the Torres Strait Islander who left school at age 15 and spearheaded the High Court challenge that overthrew the fiction of terra nullius, or ‘nobody’s land’.
“It wasn’t just a role, the project meant so much to me and to all of us,’’ she says.
“To play such an extraordinary woman was daunting at first, but it was such an incredible experience.
“A beautiful thing that came out of that production is the relationship I now have with the Mabo family. They have the Logie I won that year . I gave it to Bonita and we are really dear friends.”
Ms Mailman is a proud Kalkadoon (Mount Isa) woman and has played numerous other powerful Indigenous roles in television series including Redfern Now and Cleverman as well as acclaimed films Rabbit-Proof Fence, Bran Nue Dae, Oddball, The Sapphires and Paper Planes.
She says while Australia still has a long way to go in regards to Aboriginal affairs, the film and television industry has evolved considerably in the past 25 years.
“Way back in the early ’90s, there were hardly any Indigenous Australians on television, and now we are represented in dramas, comedies, documentaries, and a range of genres,” she says.
“The Indigenous unit of Screen Australia has been instrumental in seeing this happen and a lot of hard work, advocacy and investment has done it. Redfern Now, which was written, directed and produced by Indigenous Australians, was a real game-changer in showing what is possible for us and for the industry as a whole.
“I think it empowers us all when we do see our mob doing different roles and succeeding within the industry. We are now in a powerful place because we can be authors of our own stories, which was never the case, and the result is an incredibly diverse range of stories across all genres, even sci-fi in Cleverman.”
While Ms Mailman is excited to see how viewers react to her latest show, she is now working on a couple of passion projects, including writing a play adapted from her cousin Keelen Mailman’s book The Power of Bones, serving her second term on the Sydney Opera House Trust, and spending as much time as she can with her beloved boys.
“I love this job, I really do, despite all of its hardships and the unpredictability of it,” she says.
“But while it might look glamorous, it isn’t rosy. Often as actors we tend to be at the mercy of the industry, so it was more making sure that I was saying yes to as many different opportunities as I possibly could and you could never plan for what roles could come up.
“It is always hard to say no as an actor, but as your career progresses, it becomes just as important what you say no to as what you say yes to. Becoming a mother definitely made it easier for me to say no because my boys became my priority, and I remember one year working back-to-back and it killed me as I rarely got to see them.
“When work requires me to be everywhere else, I have to assess now how much time it will take me away from my boys because that year I was away, it really broke my heart and I won’t do it again.”