Talking to Deborra-lee made me realize why she’s at the top of her game. She’s a wife, mother, actress, director, producer, painter, seasoned traveler and to top all that off she’s the ambassador for World Vision along with Hollywood A-list actor husband, Hugh Jackman, and son, Oscar. If that’s not enough, she’s gunning the bureaucrats to change the adoption laws in Australia. I wish you could hear the conversation directly so that you would then be able to feel her enthusiasm for life and dynamo attitude that transcended down the phone line. Hopefully you will interpret as much in this in-depth, down-to-earth and frank bazinga conversation with one of Australia’s most energetic mum’s-cum-actor’s.
You’ve got a bit of an American accent happening there.
Yes I can here a hint of it definitely.
Well I lived there for 30 years so I wouldn’t be that surprised. I went to school there, I went to college and I stayed in and out of there for 30 years.
So when did your relationship start with the States?
When I went to drama school in 1980.
Time flies doesn’t it?
It really does.
So why did you go to drama school over there?
Well I couldn’t imagine anywhere more exciting than studying drama in New York City, where it’s all about naturalism. I was back here in London with all my friends and I had no interest in London what so ever and had visited New York frequently. I loved the city. So I went over and auditioned and got accepted into the American academy and that was that.
How long was the course for?
And would you say that the training was an essential part of your career?
(Laughs) I think every day of my life is an essential part of my career, but basically the training I had was sensational and I loved every minute of it. In fact, I was reluctant to enter the real world, I was quite happy to stay in drama school. That would have been fine.
You were raised in a single parent situation and I can relate to that, so does the older you have something to prove because of it?
You know what, I think that parents with crisis have got something to prove. So maybe hard kids or kids that had challenges when they were younger I’m sure is character building. For every challenge every kid has it makes you more of a fighter. I can’t say that with great authority. I am who I am based on every experience I’ve had and I don’t know how that’s played out. I can speculate but I can’t officially say that this is different and better to that or whatever. I had an unconventional childhood but I suppose you usually find that with actors.
Yeah my husband would agree with you on that one!
Yeah! I know its true with most actors who have had success. Maybe there’s a book written about it out there that actors need more love or they’ve got something to prove. I do believe that people have got their pathology in life.
Do you think that drives your ambition more?
I don’t know. I have been ambitious at times. I move out of ambition so I’m not sure. But I’m interested in life so maybe. I always drive forward.
Recently I went on my own emotional rollercoaster so what do you do to pull yourself out of it and refocus?
I am the total opposite. Ask any of my friends. If something gets me down or more or less something that I have to over come; I’m a fighter. So my natural instincts make me do whatever I’ve got to do to get myself out of it. It’s almost like I have an in-built system that says, “Right, all parties, let’s go because here we go. We’ll have a bit of drama on the way but let’s go.” And then I go in to fight it.
Would you say you know yourself really well?
You know what, I think I’ve really just gotten a handle on myself in the last year.
I don’t know. It’s all meant to be. I feel more empowered and more knowledgeable in what’s important. I’m very appreciative of what I created in the world. I love my family. I’ve created that and I love doing what I want to do. I feel confident.
You sound confident.
I haven’t always been let me tell you.
So have you addressed that specifically or has that just sort of happened?
No it’s an organic experience. I’m not a ‘sit on the top of a mountain and think about things’ type of person. Even when I meditate I paint. I’m an avid meditator. I paint oil paintings and that’s the way I meditate. I can’t just sit and meditate, I find that very hard. That’s very much who I am. I’ll meditate and paint, and five hours can pass and I am completely in the moment, which is what meditating is all about.
What happens to your paintings?
Well, I am glad they are in the storage room with the rest of our belongings in Long Island. My latest thrill was that I did a portrait of my son. An oil-painting like the old masters do of my son. I gold leafed it and tin foiled it. It turned out really good.
Practice makes perfect doesn’t it?
So where does spirituality fit in with your life; is it a big part and do you put some of your success down to spirituality?
Yep. I think spirituality is with you every minute. Even when you look at the man you’ve chosen to sit with at the movie cinema. If you have integrity and spirituality in your life, it can’t help but be a part of your every moment.
And have you used that to guide some of your decision-making? I read somewhere that you look for what messages you can see first like how Oscar, your son, came into your life.
Some of that was guardian angels with messages. So, yes I do look for messages and that’s probably the romantic in me. I look for messages and I get my messages. Then I say, “Ok, this is reassuring.” I ask, “Are guardian angels there or this is the right choice?”
You refer to yourself as a wild child is that because of your upbringing or your personality?
My personality. You know maybe I did have something to prove. I was a rebel without a cause. I was outspoken. I went to school and some people would say I was a naughty child and some would say I was spirited. And maybe it was being an only child, I don’t know. Whatever it was I was definitely outspoken and demonstrative. I was playful like a puppy. It got me in trouble. I’m also a Sagittarian so I tell you what I think without thinking first and then I get myself in trouble for being honest.
Is your life extremely fast-paced?
Yep, it’s New York fast-paced. It’s full of crazy times and people think that’s great. I’m into the handbag theory. No matter what size handbag I have there will be stuff falling out of the top. Even if it’s a big bag or a small one, that’s just the way it is. I’m like that in life because we move around so much. We move from country to country and I’m now pretty proficient at moving in. As I said before I’m active, I don’t like being inactive. I feel like it wouldn’t be achieving.
You sound like you have a great zest for life.
Yes, I guess so. I just like being entertained. I’m like a kid. I’m always asking; What are we doing now? What’s next?
It comes down to attitude then, doesn’t it?
About your upbringing, is that reflected in your choices of some of the roles you play such as a strong female type?
Yeah. I sort of try many. I auditioned for a role as a passive no one once and people laugh when I tell them. I don’t think I come across as a shrinking violet and that’s why I get those strong roles. It’s easier for me to play a stronger character. But I feel like I’ve played a lot of characters that are very vulnerable. You can either be a shrinking violet or a ball breaker.
So you’re more comfortable with the ball breakers?
No, I’ve played down trodden women before. I like playing stronger characters because they’re more focused.
Do you draw on your personal experiences to get in touch with the emotions of your characters?
Yeah, sometimes. Whatever you’ve got. Whatever the reasons. Whatever the material you’ve got you use it. In Jindabyne I played this woman and I didn’t know who she was. I had no idea, she seemed really grumpy on the pages and I thought, “God, they must be joking. Am I going to hate her?” I didn’t really have a lot to draw on for her so I just showed up, put the clothes on and put myself in that experience and used my imagination. That was not my life, that was total imagination. The film was done brilliant. I just showed up to see what would happen.
How do you approach your characters when you first get the script?
Just like I said I show up, put the clothes on and look at what they’re going through. I look into the eyes of the other people I’m working with. You just use your imagination. It doesn’t take a lot to see you’ve lost a child if you’re a mother. The thought of losing a child is horrific. You have empathy for it. As an actor we all have certain emotions, we have fear, anger and pain. The woman is a character and the things that trigger the emotions are the only differences. The interesting actors are the one’s where the choices are interesting like when dealing with a certain moment with anger and they choose to show humour. That is what defines who the character is. That is what the trigger is for that person. That either scares the character or is a funny mask we put on.
I agree. I think it’s also being in touch with and knowing yourself very well.
I do feel it’s transient though. It comes in and it goes out.
I suppose it’s being flexible and adaptable to that too. I guess I mean we have to be in touch with the child within us.
For an actor that’s the most important thing. Let’s face it we’re difficult. We go out there and pretend. If there’s something you’re not able to pretend then that child doesn’t make believe. When you lose that it’s pretty hard to be an actor.
So what’s one of your favourite roles so far?
Well I’d have to say the film Shame, which was years ago. That was my favourite role ever and my favourite film. I also did a film called A Matter of Convenience that I really liked. They’re all pretty serious but Shame would have to be my favourite film.
You recently starred opposite Charlize Theron and Woody Harrelson, how did you find that? Did you find it daunting at all?
No, they’re just actors. They’re just a bunch of kids trying to prove themselves too. They were very nice. I worked a lot with Woody Harrelson and I found it very hard to keep a straight face. He’s hilarious. He’s so funny. My God, it’s terrifying because I kept getting the giggles. It was probably a bit unprofessional really! That was extremely low budget but was being screened at Sundance Film Festival, which is good. So we’ll see how it goes. It was a very low budget feature film. I also did one in South Australia called Beautiful. It was directed by Dean O’Flaherty; he’s a first time director and I think it will be really interesting.
Can you talk much about that one yet?
It’s a thriller. That’s about it; it’s a thriller.
In your profession as an actor do you feel a responsibility to reveal a certain amount of yourself to the general public?
Do you mean privately?
Privately and/or professionally?
My private life? No, I don’t. I owe my audience a responsibility of entertaining them or educating them or sharing with them the likes of what I do which is my art. That’s who I am; my art. You mean the celebrity and that world?
No. I don’t feel it’s necessary. I mean I show up to events and if people learn from it or get something from it then that’s great. I don’t think so. I don’t feel I owe anyone.
Do you have any personal agendas you’re trying to achieve through your craft?
That’s as a celebrity not through my craft. I wouldn’t say that’s through my craft. That would be to use everything I have as an actor. Yeah I do have projects like at the moment I’m very involved with trying to change the laws in Australia about adoption. It’s more than that; it’s also my passion. I mean there are kids walking the streets in Africa a few years old and you’ve got families here in Australia desperate to adopt and the bureaucrats have simply turned their backs. It’s outrageous. Australia is the second lowest in the world as far as country adoptions go. There’s a lot of things about it that are completely unjust. It needs to be overhauled so I’m passionately fighting that fight. But you don’t know.
Fantastic. You must be proud of yourself.
Well it’s my passion. That’s what I do. I love that there’s all these people in that community who have been fighting it for years and no one’s heard them. I thought that to myself one day and said something, then all of a sudden I got a lot of attention. But you gotta work the moment and I’ve been very successful. People really do need to start to pay attention because it’s a huge injustice.
So you’re tackling them in Canberra?
Yep. Off I go. I’ve done a lot of interviews and I’ve got a lot of things coming up and I’ll sit down and have meetings with the politicians. But I’m not really good at the humanitarian aspect. Politics is not my game. I believe in one thing and that’s avoiding politics.
But if you treat it as pursuing your passion….
And, there’s politics everywhere anyway.
Yeah there’s politics in everything, I know.
Let’s get back to the personal stuff. What lured you to directing?
Basically, as an actor you’re the only who sits there on set and you’ve got one or two shots or something like that. Even in drama school I was like it. I’m very visual because I paint. I could always see how it was meant to be and when it wasn’t it annoyed me. I thought one day I want to do that. I never felt it was possible then that changed a few years ago. I sort of put my hand up and that’s when I made my short film, and I loved every minute of it. It is something I really want to do.
How do you balance it all? Everything in your life?
I did Dancing With The Stars and I decided the film industry is Dancing With The Stars. This is what I do. I’m passionate about wanting to make life smoother or easier. To be able to do everything I want to do, I have to be really organised. It’s all about organization. No matter what my family always comes first. I can organise to do things with my life but if my kids get unhealthy everything goes by the wayside.
Do you ever feel like throwing in the towel or just taking a year off?