The tale of Marta Dusseldorp & Grace and Maggie Winspear
"My mother taught me about being a strong woman by leading by example. She roared through life," says the engaging Australian actor Marta Dusseldorp, sitting at Paddington's charming Alimentari café. She lives in the area, with her actor-director husband Ben Winspear and their daughter's Grace, eight, and Maggie, five.
The stylish Dusseldorp has clearly inherited her mothers strength. At 41, the star of television dramas Crownies, A Place to Call Home and Janet King, is witty, wise and not afraid to speak her mind. You could talk to her for hours on end about everything from motherhood to politics to how she spent many hours in her bedroom as a child singing along to Marylin Monroe.
When she fell pregnant with her first daughter Grace, the celebrated actress was one of 12 actors who, in 2005, was offered an exclusive contract by the Sydney Theatre Company to form The Actors Company. "I worked up until I was seven months. I felt really empowered. I was working with Deb Mailman at the time and she was also pregnant so we were tangoing together. I was three months pregnant and she was five months pregnant." Dusseldorp had originally planned to return to work after three months, but as many mothers will tell you, after a baby arrives, things don't always go as planned. "Unfortunately one of the directors didn't approve of me breastfeeding, so I had to withdraw from the show. I've never told anyone that. I think it's probably time. He couldn't make a place for me feeding every four hours." In retrospect, Dusseldorp says this was a gift. "It forced me to take a longer maternity leave. I ended up not going back to work until Grace was seven months old. I loved that time with her. What happened was outrageous, but at the same time, it made me stay at home, which I wouldn't have done. I guess I would have liked to have been the one who made that decision."
When her second daughter, Maggie, was born two and a half years later, she was intent to stay home as much as she could for that first year. "I think there is this overriding feeling of you've just had a child, what's the big deal? Well, we were all children once and it is a big deal." Indeed, the conundrum of pursing a fulfilling career while also trying to raise children is a constant battle for women. "There should be a place to do both. They do it in other places in the world and are incredibly supportive. There are a lot of theatre companies and productions, which are incredibly welcoming of new mothers and old mothers. What happened to me after Grace was born was an anomaly. It's not a common thing and as I say, it was a gift in retrospect. It was their loss. I think children bring an amazing energy into a room. They cry occasionally, but so do adults. On their good days, like adults have good days too, there's a magic to them that we cant recreate, particularly in a creative environment. Since I've had children, I've become a better performer."
In an age where everyone seems glued to a device, Dusseldorp is refreshingly present. You can see what a wonderful mother she must be and what an exceptional role model she is to her daughters. "Like all mothers, there are times when I find it hard to keep up. But certainly in their younger years, I prioritised them and I would make sure that they were always in a good place." And by a good place, she means being the one to tuck them into bed six nights a week.
Now that Grace and Maggie are a little older, Dusseldorp is taking on more work. Back in January, she won the 2015 4th AACTA Award for best actress in a television drama for Janet King. Season three of A Place To Home starts filming in Sydney next month and she's set to star in the next installment of the ABCs Jack Irish telemovie opposite Guy Pearce. She's also an Ambassador for Save The Children and Cancer Council's Daffodil Day.
On her success, she reflects that there have been a lot of no and a few yeses that changed everything. I used to take it personally when I was younger and got knockbacks, but you can't afford to. Her interest in drama started around the time her twin brothers were born. Dusseldorp was 10 years old and threw herself into boarding school. It was there I met my drama teacher Dick Johnson who told me I had something really special. He gave me the drama prize and really nurtured me so I came out believing I was an actor. I recently returned to my school to do a talk to the kids. I told them that saying no was as important as saying yes.
"Kids thrive on routine. I've heard so many mums go 'oh we just used to throw them under the table when we went out to dinner'. Really? I learn't very early on that routine was key. Until the lunchtime sleep stopped, I really stuck quite vigorously to it. My kids were asleep at seven. It was absolutely paramount to my sanity that I knew there was an end point. It meant I could work and I broke down once a week compared to every other night! To be honest, they were both good sleepers. I never told anyone that at the time, because there's a lot of people doing it really hard. I used to think, thank god! I saw so many mums at their wits end.
On advice to new mothers:
There's way too much advice and everyone thinks they know the right thing, when really a mother's intuition is everything. I remember once when Grace wasn't well and I took her to hospital, she had an x-ray. They said she was fine, so I took her home. She signaled to me that she wasnt ok. I took her back again, she had another x-ray with someone else and it turned out she had pneumonia. She was put into hospital that minute. Trust your instinct - you know your child better than anyone else.
On being a good role model:
I try to be exactly who I am, with all my faults. My girls are really good at deciphering what they want. I try and talk to them like they're smart, intelligent human beings who have opinions and occasionally I'll give them boundaries. They need me to tell them when it's enough and thats really my main job. They bring more to me than I give to them. Happy days!
On being an ambassador for Save The Children:
I wanted to highlight indigenous communities and the work thats going on to educate kids and creative education for kids and thats what Save The Children does up in Darwin. I went up and met Nancy Jeffrey, who has run Save The Children for over 10 years. It's such a healthy, proactive, extraordinary success story. It went from four people in a back room to 107 employees mostly from community, so the money is going back to the community. They are making a massive difference. They do practical things like pick the kids up and make sure they have shoes, uniforms, books and food available for them at the school. It might be the only hot meal they have that day or meal even. Then they've got the school program for 0-5 year olds - a play bus which they take to the under fives in remoter communities around Darwin as well as within Darwin. It might be the only break those mothers have all week. They are having to apply for funding again for the first time in 10 years because of the change in government and policy so it was an important time to highlight it and get some press around it so they can take it to legislation and try and tip it over the line and get the money they need. The experience was a gift to me and the girls. They have so much against them and they are so happy. We could learn from that. They have such a sense of family and place.
On children in refugee camps:
Last year, I did a campaign with Bryan Brown called Were Better Than This which is about children who are in refugee camps. There are over 700 children in refugee camps around Australia. It's not right. You scar those kids for the rest of their lives at a formative age. It shouldn't be happening. No child should be in detention. Bryan is trying to get a flame under it so there's actually some change to that policy. Ita Buttrose, Claudia Karvan, Deb Mailman - all of these people came together and sung this song. They're innocent children and your childhood sets you up for being a citizen of the world. In a non-war torn country that has lots of money, space and opportunity, these children should have all the basic needs and be able to imagine and dream - that goes for the indigenous kids and underprivileged kids."
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