Deborah Mailman: ‘I am quite an emotional person. I’m always overthinking things’

They were stargazers. At night, Deborah Mailman and her rodeo rider dad, Wally, would lie on the trampoline in their front yard in the Queensland mining town of Mount Isa, seeing what they could spot. Once, when she was about 12, a mysterious light appeared in the cloudy sky.

“This might sound really crazy,” the Total Control and Offspring star says at her family home near Wollongong, NSW, where she has lived for almost 15 years. The 49-year-old leans forward and pushes her hands away, palms facing out: “I swear me and Dad saw a UFO one night.” She cups her hands above her head. “It was beyond the clouds, so it wasn’t a definitive shape, but then it went in a square motion – zzzt, zzzt, zzzt, zzzt,” she says, drawing a square in the air with an index finger, “and then, shoom.” She darts the same finger away suddenly.

Deborah Mailman: “I think too much about what people think.”Credit:Tim Bauer

“I went, ‘Dad, did you see that?’ He said, ‘Yeah!’ I was like, ‘What does that?’ ” She laughs. “He was
like, ‘I don’t know.’ We agreed just not to speak of it ever again.”

A knack for storytelling is the legacy of campfire yarns and the Mount Isa rodeo grounds, where Deborah grew up amid horses and cattle kicking up dust and buzzing sideshow alleys. She’s like her late dad, and can “talk until the cows come home”. She laughs readily and when I first meet her she hugs me, as she does with strangers.

On screen, Deborah has always had quick access to this vulnerability, from her AFI award-winning debut role as wayward sister Nona in the film Radiance, to her television breakthrough as naive professional matchmaker turned wise psychology student Kelly in The Secret Life of Us (now enjoying a Netflix reboot for a new generation). Not to mention, more recently, her role as Lorraine, who faced down her rapist in a scorching courtroom finale of Redfern Now.

I don’t know how she cries so readily before the cameras, I tell her. “Look,” she says, leaning forward, casting her eyes high, “I’m not sure how either. I do feel the emotions are there constantly and that when there’s a moment within the story that demands that rawness, that’s my job.

“I have to get there somehow. It’s not always easy but I am quite an emotional person – it’s just there under the surface. I mean, I cry at RSPCA ads.”

“I think too much about what people think. … It’s a pattern for me in the early stages, when I’m preparing for a role. I get highly nervous, highly anxious, really stressed.”

When Blackfella Films partners Rachel Perkins and Darren Dale offered Deborah the starring role as Alex Irving in Total Control, playing a populist senator drafted into Federal Parliament by PM Rachel Anderson (Rachel Griffiths), Deborah’s Mystery Road co-star Judy Davis offered to help her find the emotional truth of a character who’d bring down the government at the end of the first series. “I went to Judy’s place a number of times, just one on one; we spent hours together.

“I find I’m out of my depth a lot of the time when it comes to politics. But Judy’s like Rachel Griffiths – they really love that.”

In the upcoming second season, a battle of the independents ensues, so Alex must build alliances to survive. I tell Deborah I see similarities between Alex and a real woman she portrayed, Bonita Mabo, wife of the Indigenous rights campaigner Eddie Mabo, in the 2012 telemovie, Mabo. Both are reluctantly drafted into politics and both have a strong sense of duty to their respective communities.

What bits of Deborah are in Alex? “Maybe the temper. It’s great when you can get a character such as Alex, who gets unhinged and is a loose cannon. I like playing that sort of frustration. I can feel it too as Deb, so sometimes it’s nice to channel it somewhere.”

She wishes she had Alex’s steeliness: “I think too much about what people think. I’m always overthinking things.”

So, how does she control her inner saboteur? “I just allow it now,” she says. “It’s a pattern for me in the early stages, when I’m preparing for a role. I get incredibly nervous, highly anxious, really stressed. I know that at some stage I will snap out of it because I can’t indulge any more.“

If she wants to watch something to help relieve that stress, she tunes in to NASA TV – you can find it online – to view the stars like she did with her dad. “It’s really calming, especially when it’s travelling over Earth. I love seeing the world from that point of view.”

In the 1950s and ’60s, Wally Mailman, a proud Bidjara man born by the Warrego river in south-central Queensland, had been a renowned rough rider, bull rider, saddle bronc rider and “bulldogger” – he could bring a steer to the ground by its horns.

His rodeo skills took him mustering “up through the guts” of the state, and to New Zealand as part of a group demonstration show. There, at a bush ball, he met Jane Pahau, a Ngāti Porou woman, whom he married in 1965. Wally brought his Maori wife back to the Queensland town of Augathella, “in the middle of bloody nowhere”, says Deborah, who was born in 1972. Her birthplace, and those of three of her four siblings, mark points along the rodeo trail to Mount Isa, where Wally became caretaker at the rodeo grounds.

Deborah wanted to become a teacher but made a “sharp left turn” when she learnt it was possible to train as an actor. She was cast as Dorothy in a Kalkadoon State High School production of The Wizard of Oz, but protested that she wanted to play the Wicked Witch.

“I was clutching at straws, going, ‘She can’t be black.’ ” Her drama teacher answered, “Deborah, Dorothy can be any colour she wants to be.”

“An Indigenous prime minister? That’s something I’d love to see in my lifetime.”Credit:Tim Bauer

The production toured local primary schools, where she heard one little voice somewhere in an audience say, “That’s Dorothy?” Deborah bursts into laughter. “I’ll always remember that voice.”
Wally taught his children that if they were going to achieve anything, they would have to work “twice as hard” as non-Indigenous people. “Dad was born in 1923, so he saw it all in terms of the White Australia Policy … he didn’t speak too much of racism.”

Wally would incorporate Bidjara words into his conversations with his children – yagal for cold or gandu for child – and later did community work back on country. “If Dad had decided to stay in Augathella, I’d be telling you a different story, because all the Mailmans were there, and I would have a stronger sense of what it meant to be Bidjara. In Mount Isa, away from family, we lost that connection and what that meant.”

In the 2006 documentary series Going Bush, in which Deborah travelled the outback with athlete Cathy Freeman, Yolngu women in eastern Arnhem Land performed a spiritual cleansing ceremony on Deborah and Cathy, creating a “bush sauna” of burning pandanus nuts and grasses soaked in water, then applying oils to their bodies.

Deborah looked overwhelmed as she recalled a “shedding of the skin and stepping into another”, and the women said: “You have identity, you come from the soil. You have a spirit.” It was also a fertility ritual, she recalls now: “It wasn’t long after that I met my husband and fell pregnant.”

Her husband, Matthew Coonan, the director and founder of a social-media intelligence and management agency, is the “most kind, funniest, gentle person”, she says. “He’s got a wicked sense of humour. Also,” she laughs, “he’s pretty bloody good-looking.”

Their eldest son Henry, who’s about to turn 15, is sporty and loves basketball, while younger son Oliver, going on 12, is a passionate “tech nerd”. Deborah occasionally drops Bidjara words into conversation with them, like Wally did with her, and hopes one day to take them to Augathella, to the Warrego river and Bidjara country where her father, paternal grandparents, aunts and uncles are buried.

While anxiously awaiting reaction to season two of Total Control, which takes in the politics of black deaths in custody and complex land negotiations, does she muse on whether Australia will ever get an Indigenous PM?

“There are some great people who could certainly fill that position,” she says. “There are also really significant changes that need to happen. We’re still looking for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, we’re still trying to get the Uluru Statement from the Heart accepted, and constitutional recognition. So an Indigenous prime minister? That’s something I’d love to see in my lifetime.”

The second season of Total Control premieres on ABC TV on November 7 and will then be available on ABC iview.

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