Rebecca Gibney on Her Greatest Acting Challenge in “Mental”

Rebecca Gibney on Her Greatest Acting Challenge in “Mental”
Rebecca Gibney at the Tropfest Short Film Festival, February 17, 2013 in Sydney, Australia.
(Brendon Thorne/ Getty)

New Zealand-born Rebecca Gibney has become so familiar to Australian audiences that even she considers herself Australian these days. “Except when the All-Blacks play” she says.

Winner of multiple Golden Logie Awards for most popular personality on Australian Television, for her role as warm-hearted mother Julie Rafter in TV family drama “Packed to the Rafters,” Gibney has become an adopted national treasure.

But Gibney is not one to rest on her laurels, and her breakthrough for international audiences is coming through an altogether very different role, as Shirley Moochmore in film director P.J. Hogan’s challenging comedy-drama, “Mental.”

“Mental” is not just a story about mental illness, a blend of intense and difficult drama illuminated with moments of comedy, but for the director it is also a highly personal story of his own life. As Hogan told BLOUIN ARTINFO, Moochmoore was his own mom.

For Gibney, much has been made of the weight gain she endured for the filming, as friends and media raised eyebrows of shock and concern. But such was the actresses’ passion to accurately portray a woman suffering a serious breakdown, that she has already been rewarded by the Film Critics Circle of Australia, winning the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award on March 19. She describes the recognition as “the most proud moment of my career.”

Gibney and producer Jocelyn Moorhouse sat down with ARTINFO JAPAN to discuss why the popular TV actress took on the most challenging role of her life.

You went through an obvious and significant physical transformation for the film, but how did you prepare mentally for a role as demanding as this?

RG: As soon as I read the script I recognized the character, because my mother, she raised six children single-handedly pretty much, my father was abusive, and she was the ultimate people-pleaser very much like the character. Ironically her name is also Shirley. So as soon as I saw it, I thought this could be my homage to my mother, and I could do it well.

I’d often talk to my mom about how she hadn’t gone mad. She often said “I would have loved to have checked myself into somewhere but who would have looked after you kids?”

So in a way it was very cathartic for me to be able to do it, and I would ring her and say “I’m doing this scene” and she would say “that’s how I felt.” She was my touchstone. But often there were scenes where I’d cry so much, I didn’t know if I’d be able to cry again, and then P.J. [Hogan] would come and say “I’ll tell you a story about my mom,” and it’d be something very sad and the tears would start.

Everyone on set was in awe of him, even people like Toni Collette, because he would make me do things ten or fifteen times and I’d think he wouldn’t do that to Toni. But she would do it too because you want to do the right thing by him, and this is a very personal story for him.

How did you prepare for a part of someone who isn’t only real, but the director’s own mother?

RG: He’d always let me do my thing first, but then it was about challenging yourself to go places that I hadn’t been before. I went to some very dark places but he took me their gently, and I think he did it with everyone. It was the most thrilling role of my career, because I got to completely disappear in to a character where I didn’t see any of myself in them.

What was the vibe like on set, given the tough subject matter?

RG: P.J. is a very funny human being, so their would be moments where I am breaking down, and then five minutes later we are in fits of laughter because he knew he had to take us out of those places.

JM: Plus there are kids on set, so they were offering up all kinds of crazy ideas, because he let them do a bit of improvising.

Are all of the characters real?

JM: Pretty much yes, though not always in the same places as [P.J. Hogan] put them. So he’s taken them, combined them to protect some people, and of course to make it a better story.

Did you meet the real life people they are based on?

RG: His brothers and sisters came on set quite a lot and they were so proud. I never once felt worried, also because he believed in the script. I am from TV where we ad-lib left, right and center, but it was very particular and we all did it. That was the only terrifying thing because I thought I can’t say even one word!

Was it difficult for you to transition from that TV-style of acting to film acting?

RG: No, because I’d done some small roles in small films, but I felt so passionate about this role. So in auditions I put on a fat suit and scrubbed all my make-up off. People were looking at me down the street saying “is that Rebecca Gibney?”, but I knew it would be an experience I would never forget. It reminded me about the joy of acting, the craft of it. Sometimes when you are doing television you forget, because the scenes happen so quickly that you don’t get time to rehearse, where as in film you can shape it.

Is it necessary with modern effects to physically gain the weight as much as you did?

RG: I would have done more except my doctor found out I was insulin resistant! I was pre-diabetic, so they said I can’t gain more weight because I’ll develop diabetes. But I think it was important. The character has let herself go and you needed to see it, so it wouldn’t have worked with a fat suit. In the film you see my triple chin and wobbly buffalo wings, flabby arms, my greasy hair. I’m not method, but in this instance I think it was necessary.

In the film, Shirley becomes obsessed with the film “The Sound of Music” as a form of escape. If you could live in one film, which would you choose?

RG: I’d quite like to be a blue person in Avatar, I’d like to live in that world without the humans coming in and trashing it. Ride a dragon and hang out in the psychedelic atmosphere. I love that idea of the pure world.