The carpark at Carousel at Christmas is a fresh hell — a desperate kind of chaos that’ll rattle even the most intrepid shopper.
But lauded playwright and actress Kate Mulvany, with her old dad on a last-ditch mercy dash for gifts, was unfazed. After all, she’d beaten childhood cancer (a battle that cost her a kidney and a couple of ribs), buried her boyfriend when she was just 30, adapted for stage some of our most beloved books and won an award for a role few women have had the balls to attempt. So how hard could this be, really?
Pretty god-damn hard, actually.
Kate’s darling dad Danny, a veteran of the Vietnam War, had long lived with the soul-destroying but happily, in his case, not family-destroying affliction post-traumatic stress disorder. But as he got older, it was getting worse.
“Dad started having what we called white-outs, where he would just stop and you’d just lose him; you’d look at his face and he was gone, he’d go to another place and start quivering,” she says.
And so it was on this sweltering summer’s day, when a seemingly mundane sortie became considerably too stressful.
“We were in the middle of the carpark and I had this terrible moment where … he went into a white-out and I knew that the only safe place for us to be was inside the TAB because everyone knew him there. But do you think we could get a bloody car spot?”
In this darkly hilarious scene from the never-to-be-made short film Carousel Carpark Christmas Clusterf…, a desperate daughter leaves the car running and sprints, zigzagging through traffic, to a woman she thinks is about to vacate her prized parking spot.
Breathless, she says through the open window: “I know you’re about to leave, do you mind just pulling out now so I can pull in and get my dad to a safe place. He’s not very well.”
Pan to the sticky face of the woman, who makes it clear she has other priorities. “I’m eating my ice-cream.”
“Please!” the girl almost yelps, glancing back to make sure her dad, alone in his fugue state, is OK. “Could you please just pull out, just move the car?” Other drivers honk their horns.
Zoom. In slow motion, the sweaty woman takes a big lick of her soft serve. “I’m eating my ice-cream,” she repeats curtly. “It’s not safe to drive eating my ice-cream.”
Cut to the part where a kindly McDonald’s worker allows Kate to park the car in one of the drive-through waiting bays after hearing her somewhat nonsensical but undeniably compelling pitch: “I’ve got to get my dad to the TAB because he’s having a Vietnam veteran white-out”.
Inside the TAB, in the quiet and the air-conditioning, with the familiar drone of the race callers and familiar faces of his mates and the comfort of his doting daughter, Danny came back from the Nui Dat jungle in his mind.
“That’s the kind of stuff that, at the age of 69, my dad … that was part of his trauma: going into white-out and not being able to deal with cars in a carpark and not being able to deal with too loud a noise. And being really fragile. And you’re looking at a soldier and it’s hard for a soldier to be fragile. And it’s hard to see a soldier fragile.”
Her father’s experience was just one of the things that drew Kate, 40, to Fighting Season, a Foxtel drama about the legacy of war and its often devastating impact on soldiers and their families. She found out she got the role of army wife and engineer Kim Nordenfelt two days after Danny died from oesophageal cancer last year, a disease he “fought like a soldier”.
“To get offered the role two days later, basically playing what is an amalgam of him and my mum in a way, and to tread that very delicate path of dealing with PTSD, which is what we had to deal with as a family … I’m not a religious person but it felt like whatever Dad’s energy was, was stirring things up and going: ‘I think you need to give this role to my daughter’.”
The personal parallels in the gritty series are extraordinary. Casting director Kirsty McGregor was familiar with Kate’s story: the daughter of a soldier exposed to Agent Orange, she was born with renal cancer caused by the deadly chemical and then grew up watching her guilt-ridden dad struggle with his own demons. Kirsty insisted the role was a perfect fit for Kate.
It’s hard for a soldier to be fragile. And it’s hard to see a soldier fragile.
“She was really adamant with the producers that I’ve lived this life and I know this life and luckily they agreed with her after doing some research, and they just gave me the role, which is kind of unheard of for someone like me who is primarily on stage … I’m not really your normal go-to for a female lead in a Foxtel series.”
As soon as she read the role — and learnt Kate Woods of Changi fame was on board as director — she knew she had to have it. And just as if her dad pulled a few more strings from above, her busy schedule opened up. “It just fell into place really beautifully: I was playing Richard the Third at the time so on the Sunday I closed Richard the Third and on the Monday I was on set shooting Fighting Season.”
She admits to calling her mum Glenys a couple of times to say: “I played you today, Mum.”
“It was emotional,” she says. “A lot of my writing and my work has been trying to see it through Dad’s eyes but really Mum was the true strength of the family — she couldn’t break, she really saw her husband through the absolute worst times. To step into her shoes as Kim, the partner of a soldier with PTSD, was really quite life changing and it opened not just my brain but my heart and my gut to my mum, to go ‘Wow, there’s a hero’ … the wives and children of these soldiers who have to get through every day, often in silence and often without a lot of help.”
Kate was diagnosed with acute renal cancer at three — a disease that had gone undetected from birth and only came to light when she was hospitalised after a fall on the Fremantle jetty. She had a tumour the size of a Sherrin that her mum never had any reason to think was anything more than a cute little pot belly. Its removal necessitated the removal of a kidney and some ribs, while the subsequent aggressive treatment caused irreversible damage to her tiny body — parts of her spine remain the size they were then.
The fact she inherited cancer-causing poison from her father made them a tragic type of blood brothers, as well as relatives. “I look like my dad but we had the same toxic chemical in our blood and that’s a big thing.” She insists she never blamed her
dad, who was a ten-pound Pom conscripted to war. “Dad was my absolute idol. He was our world.”
But Danny blamed himself. “He saw this little bald girl going through extreme chemo and radiotherapy and having organs removed and also the side-effects throughout my life. He saw me go through that anger — not at him but at the system. That can only cause terrible guilt,” she says. “And also for a long time — and still to some extent today — the questions aren’t getting answered. It was very difficult for him and then, of course, the domino effect through relationships is very profound. It caused a great, great bond between us but I think it caused a deep sense of remorse and guilt in my poor dad and, as a result, in my whole family who was just trying to lift him and go ‘It’s not your fault.’”
Taking on the role was not just a tribute to Danny but to his veteran brotherhood. “They are like second, third and fourth fathers to me,” she says. “This was a really good way to honour my dad’s legacy but also to keep their story going and alive so that people don’t just shut down about these issues. No matter what you believe about war and whether we should be there or not, we must take care of the people that come home and that have served their country because they need us. And we’ve ignored that over the years — and we still are.”
Kate also has a vast network of war-baby mates around the world. “I now have an extended community of children of Vietnam veterans across the world, including in Vietnam, who, of course, are children of American War veterans, as they call it there. We share stories and we hang out together because we don’t need to explain.”
While the trauma of Kate’s childhood is undeniable, there were still so many good times. A barefoot bandit in windy Geraldton, she’d get her kicks rock lobster fishing with Danny. Back then they’d measure the lobsters against the bush chook on the Emu Export box to make sure they were legal size. “It was just bliss,” she says wistfully.
Then one morning the petulant teen didn’t feel like going out for that pre-dawn boat trip. “Dad came in and woke me up to go crayfishing and I told him to piss off.” She laughs loudly but there’s a tinge of sadness. “I wish I could go back to myself and say ‘Just get up and keep going out with him’. That’s … probably the only regret I really have … just saying ‘No’ to him that one morning. And he never came back.”
These days when she heads home to Gero, she begs her mates to take her lobster fishing. “I go back as much as I can,” she says of her birthplace. “I crave it.” She also has family in Manjimup and Pemberton — Glenys hails from Northcliffe.
As a kid Kate loved the local soccer club, La Fiamma, where Danny was a coach, and cherished the get-togethers that inevitably followed each game. “La Fiamma means the flame. And it was really true to its word because every time we all went out together or people came around to our house or we went to the Sicilian godfather who was the founding member of La Fiamma, it was like sitting around a camp fire, you would just get stories from all around the world because La Fiamma was this melting pot of cultures.” That time not only engendered a love of community and multiculturalism but of storytelling, too. “I was blessed with this amazing bunch of storytellers who taught me the importance of listening to stories but also the ownership of stories — that their stories are their stories and my story is mystory and everyone has a story.” And importantly, that “we can all take part in that storytelling experience not necessarily by speaking but by listening. That was the greatest gift I’ve ever gotten in my life.”
During her time in hospital Kate read voraciously, and observed. She became a talented mimic and later, at 15, wrote and performed her first show at the Queens Park Theatre. “It was called Rosemary Lamb and it was about a woman who finds out her husband’s having an affair so she cooks his girlfriend, whose name is Rosemary, and forces him to eat her.” She cackles at the memory — and recalls being seduced by the stage.
Although Kate battled an illness that might have seen her fall behind at school, she ended up skipping a year such was her aptitude for English (“They forgot about the maths side of things unfortunately — to this day I can’t add four and five together.”) The little prodigy started Curtin University at just 16. “The family moved to Perth with me to go to Curtin and I just … I think because I was young I was taken care of but I was also quite wide-eyed and naive. I was a real country girl that all these city kids were showing me who Chekhov was and I got to do Shakespeare and I got an insight into indigenous theatre. I was absolutely a sponge because I was so young.”
After graduating, Kate auditioned for both WAAPA and NIDA but knockbacks saw the determined fledgling performer take on an unpaid role in a staging of Tracy Letts’ controversial play Killer Joe at The Blue Room in Northbridge. She tells a story about the late producer Di Bliss, then footloose while husband Alan Bond was in prison, becoming smitten with the show and its star and fundraising to take them on the road. “She was amazing,” Kate says.
And that’s how Kate got noticed on the east coast, got an agent and started to get a reputation as a formidable, determined and arresting performer. She raves about working alongside idols she’d watched on TV from her hospital bed: the likes of Judi Farr from Kingswood Country and the two Maxes, Cullen and Gillies.
She has since gone on to become one of the country’s most captivating performers and acclaimed writers: her Helpmann Award-winning turn as Richard III, in which she embraced her scoliosis as a connection to the loathsome character, is still spoken of with coos of reverence. On screen she had a role in Baz Luhrmann’s extravaganza Great Gatsby and the quirky relationship comedy Little Death. She wrote the celebrated stage adaptation of Perth author Craig Silvey’s modern classic Jasper Jones.
Of late she’s written Ruth Park’s Harp in the South books for the stage — it’s just finished playing in Sydney — and is promoting Fighting Season and upcoming flick The Merger. Mini series Lambs of God, which also stars Ann Dowd, who plays Aunt Lydia on The Handmaid’s Tale, will screen on Foxtel next year. She has been on the writing team for a Foxtel show called Upright, and is performing in Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People at Belvoir St Theatre in Surry Hills. It’s there that she manages to squeeze in this chat during her lunchbreak.
“It sounds like I’m doing it all at once but really I did a lot of the shooting last year so … I look busier than I am but I am still busy,” she says with a laugh.
There’s a knock on her dressing room door. “I just got this massive bunch of flowers delivered to me from my Harp in the South cast to say that they’re missing me.” You can hear the emotion in her voice.
There is so much to Kate’s story, and she is so overwhelmingly generous with it. She’s talked openly over the years about the sudden death of her boyfriend, fellow West Australian actor Mark Priestley. Mark, who starred in Changi and All Saints among other things, and suffered from depression, took his life in 2008. Kate barely survived the grief — not to mention the gruesome media coverage. Ten years on and she refuses to let him go, or to stop talking about him or his valiant battle.
“Losing Mark was something I won’t ever get over,” she says. “They take a piece of you with them and I’m kind of glad he has because I want him to have a piece of me wherever he goes. But at the same time you have to re-form yourself and you have to start walking in the world a different way because there is a piece of you missing.”
Losing Di Bliss to suicide in 2012 only further fuelled her fury about our mental health crisis — and how we as a community and the system as a whole still don’t adequately care for the mentally ill and their families and friends.
“A lot of the conversations around suicide don’t take care of the people who are either going through a mental health pattern or if you do lose someone … there’s really no conversations about how angry you’re allowed to feel — not necessarily at the person, although that does happen — but at the system as well,” she says.
“And it’s hard to talk about that because we absolutely need to focus on the people who are suffering from depression, that should be the main focus. But there is a whole other lot of people who also need that support and education about what depression is and what mental illness is and what are the true effects of suicide — the real effects on the people left behind. I don’t feel like I’ve ever really had that discussion properly.”
She insists that we keep the conversation going. “We’ve got to keep talking about it and we’ve also got to keep talking about the people that we lose to depression and suicide. We have to keep talking about them because they are gorgeous, beautiful people and we lost them and it’s not fair. So they deserve to live on, they deserve to thrive for the right reasons in our memory.”
We’ve also got to keep talking about the people that we lose.
Kate still has Mark’s cat Bowie, the 10-year-old black-and-white moggie with different-coloured eyes who’s just become a medical superstar after surviving pioneering brain surgery for a tumour of his pituitary gland. “He’s probably one of the most famous cats in the world right now,” she says proudly.
She and husband Hamish Michael, who she married in 2015 and who, too, is an actor, also share cat Heisenberg, named for a character in the series Breaking Bad, about a schoolteacher who has another life as a methamphetamine cook. “They’re both rescues. Heisenberg came from Kings Cross, he lived near a drug den and we just feel like he had a life before he joined us that we don’t know about.”
Kate says Hamish is “an honorary Perthling. He’s from Tasmania but most people know him from (ABC series) Janet King. And he’s an absolute gift and a delight to my life and I love him to bits.”
Speaking of Perthlings, the aforementioned show Upright will star Kate’s old friend Tim Minchin. Created by Chris Taylor from the Chaser (a series to occasionally feature Kate), it’s about “a down-and-out musician who has to get his piano across the Nullarbor to Perth see his dying mum and play her a song before she dies”.
In a nice bit of synergy, Upright also stars Milly Alcock, who plays Kate’s daughter Maya in Fighting Season, as Meg. “She’s heading in that direction too and they become this unlikely twosome. It’s very much a road trip but it’s exploring all of the facets of not just rural Australia but what it is to be a city slicker, what it is to be going home and what it is to be travelling towards things that you actually wanted to run away from.” Things we can all relate to.
It will go into production in week or so, and Kate says it will be a celebration of the west coast and its incredible talent. “It’s a really beautiful show and it’s also a show for Perth. It’s going to be fantastic.”
Fighting Season is on Fox Showcase.
If you or anyone you know needs help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.