CLASSIC AUSTRALIAN TELEVISION

INTERVIEW:
REBECCA GILLING

 


Copyright 2005 Don Storey.  All rights reserved.


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This interview originally appeared in TV Eye No. 4, February 1995.

Rebecca Gilling is one of Australia's most experienced and popular actors. She has appeared in many local and international films, television series and commercials. Because of her family connection to building and architecture, she has recently been seen as a presenter on the Nine Network's Our House programme. She is also well-known for her roles in Return To Eden, The Young Doctors and Glenview High, to name a few. In the last few years she has co-starred with Hollywood veterans Sam Elliot, Lee Majors, Robert Culp and Gary Busey. We sat down with Rebecca during a break in her busy Our House schedule and looked back on her career:

Where did you start your acting career?

The movie Stone was my first role, and it arose from a very successful TV commercial I did for Schwartzkopf Shampoo. I recently heard an interview with (casting agent) Liz Mullinar who said she 'discovered' me for that commercial in a pub. The commercial won several awards and I became reasonably well known as a result, such that Sandy Harbutt approached me initially for a non-speaking part in Stone, which I immediately snapped up. Another actress, Julie, later Amber, Rogers, pulled out of her speaking role and I stepped into that part, with my sister taking my original role. We worked for very little, and I remember one 26 hour day spent filming underground in a bomb shelter. I enjoyed the experience, and since I had taken a year off between secondary school and university to see the world, I decided to forgo my original plans and never looked back.

Your next role was in the movie version of Number 96.

It took me a long time to live down that role as people thought I was actually in the TV series, and I went to great pains to tell them I was only in the feature version. I played a character romantically involved with Jack Sellars, portrayed by Tom Oliver, who turned out to be doing a 'gaslight' on another character. It was one of only two 'bad' girl roles I've played. I received some hate mail following the movie's release with some people accusing me of corrupting the morals of Australia's youth! It seemed at the time to have been a bad career move with all the fuss the role generated. Following that I did The Man From Hong Kong. I'm grateful for all those early experiences for teaching me the business of film making.

Would you have accepted a role in the Number 96 series as a result of the Number 96 movie?

No, it wasn't where I wanted my career to go at the time; I guess I had higher aspirations of perhaps being another Judy Davis. However, about ten years ago I realised it was a choice between a 'driven' approach to acting, or a career which gave me a great deal of satisfaction but time to have another life besides.

You appeared in the pilot episode of Chopper Squad.

Yes, I did that pilot for Roger Mirams and played the female lead character who was paired romantically with Dennis Grosvenor. She was the nurse and radio operator who worked with the rescue squad (played in the series as a doctor by Jeanie Drynan). If it were produced today, where women's roles are not as stereotyped as then, I could have played the helicopter pilot and Robert Coleby the radio operator! I seem to remember that I did not want to do the series of Chopper Squad. But I enjoyed making the 90 minute version for Roger, who also did not continue into the series.

Perhaps your most well known part in the '70's was in Glenview High.

Ah yes, Glenview High, with Ken James and lovely Camilla Rountree, who moved from acting into film production wardrobe. It was my first experience working in a television series, with the familial atmosphere that develops with that situation. It was a great time in my life as I was able to buy my first house as a result of doing the series and television commercials for the Sydney Sun. I had a reasonable disposable income and job security for the first time in my life. I played an airline stewardess living in a house with Camilla and interacting with Ken James and Grigor Taylor's characters; Grigor played the main role of teacher at Glenview.

Did the fact that you were not playing a teacher limit your storylines and character development?

Yes, I guess it did. I spent most of the series in the house tiptoeing around Grigor or having subplot relationships with other people. By not playing a teacher I was unable to work directly with say, Brandon Burke, who played a student and was an excellent actor that I went to Drama School with. Looking back, the limitations of the character are more obvious now.

What about the drawn out relationship between your character, Robbie Dean, and Greg Walker, Grigor's character?

I think they may have stretched the 'will they, won't they?' a bit too long which can frustrate the audience somewhat. I think the characters eventually kissed or something, but it can be very manipulative if drawn out to the extent like in today's Northern Exposure with 'Maggie' and 'Joel'. Also, you can only sustain the interest in a series with schoolroom antics for just so long.

Following Glenview High you moved into a long run on The Young Doctors.

It was a funny thing - although I started out on The Young Doctors as a nurse, halfway through my time there - about a year in - they decided my character was a bit up-market for a nurse. So they dragged out a psychology degree she had and suddenly, overnight, I became a psychologist instead!

It was the ultimate in 'soap'?

Yes, of course, but it was wonderful training. Everything happened so fast with three cameras, and near enough was always good enough! We got our scripts on the Monday and recorded on the Wednesday. I was very grateful for the training it gave me, as I was able to explore acting out extreme emotions whereby I seemed to be required to cry every other week! It was fun, we all had a great time, and our tongues were all planted firmly in our cheeks!

Tell us about your exit from The Young Doctors.

I decided that they had to kill me off to prevent me from being tempted to rejoin the series again. My character had just married Alan Dale's character after a long romance, and I got electrocuted on my wedding night by touching a faulty lamp or something! - What a way to go!

Return To Eden made you very famous in the '80's.

It was certainly the biggest role I've ever done; critically it was not the best, but it made my name more than any other thing. It was great fun to do, the mini-series particularly with photography by Dean Semler and directed by an American, Karen Arthur. It came out looking wonderful, even though the script, by Michael Laurence, was a bit far-fetched. But it worked - it was our Dynasty (the U.S. series) with the Australian laconic element, which saved it from taking itself too seriously. I tried to make my character as normal as possible, a typical country girl despite the glitz of her surroundings. It has never ceased to amaze me how popular the series became internationally. I've received literally thousands of letters, from Eastern Europe to Asia. The only acting award I've ever won was 'Actress Of The Year' in Yugoslavia for Eden; Unfortunately I was unable to attend to accept it personally.

You looked far too young to be the mother of those children in Eden.

I guess it proves the power of television to make anything seem possible. As Stephanie pre the 'accident', I was meant to be playing a forty year old character who would have been old enough to have teenage children (I was about ten years younger myself). Following Stephanie's return after the 'accident' and in the series I had children played by actors almost my own age. To overcome the strangeness of this situation I played my role as if I was playing my own mother!

Despite it's popularity Return To Eden didn't make it into a second series.

It was extremely expensive for Channel Ten to continue and I guess this decided it's fate. In my case I did the first series out of loyalty to Hal McElroy following our success with the mini-series. If I hadn't been involved in the series it might not have gone ahead, as my character was central to the continuation of the plot. I certainly enjoyed doing a series shot entirely on film. When the series was not renewed it left our fans up in the air over everyone's fate. However we actually shot a series alternative ending which tied up all the loose ends. Unfortunately it was not shown in Australia, but at least it was available for international distribution.

Through your international exposure you were approached by Hollywood to team with Sam Elliot in the U.S. - Australian co-production for television, The Blue Lightning.

Yes, I had a lot of fun doing it, but I don't look back on it as one of the critical highlights of my career. It was the first time I had been offered a role sight unseen or without interview. Lee Philips, the director, had been an actor in Hollywood in the fifties and sixties, and knew exactly how to communicate with the cast. The conditions were challenging as we were mostly in Broken Hill in the middle of summer. Sam Elliot was a very nice man but very serious as an actor. Robert Culp seemed to be extremely bland and disconnected from everything. He could never remember my name and I became 'the girl'. I think he thought he was only doing this movie as a diversion, a visit to the antipodes. The only unusual episode during filming was a dispute between Sam and Robert over whose character should have the biggest gun in the shoot-out!

Has your height ever caused complications in casting you with your leading men?

I'll put it this way, being five feet ten I've spent the majority of my career working in bare feet! This hasn't been a problem though, as I understood the need to get both heads in frame. It was nice however to be looking up at my leading man in The Blue Lightning. (Sam Elliot is six foot two).

Danger Down Under or it's alternative title The Hawkesbury was another U.S. co-production for television, this time featuring Lee Majors and yourself. Was it meant to be the pilot for a series?

Yes it was, but since I was three months pregnant at the time I did not intend to continue into a later series, so I asked that my character be killed off! Lee Majors was very much more than just an actor on this project. As co-producer he had come to Australia to hopefully continue his career as the leading man in yet another television action series. However, the script did not seem to lead anywhere and no series eventuated. The only 'danger' in the title seemed to be my departure from the plot after being hit by a truck! I think that Lee knew this was one of his last opportunities to play the hero as he was already in his late forties, and he had done just about every action role imaginable in the public eye. He had a fair degree of say in everything we did but ultimately the project was unsuccessful.

What other roles followed these two telemovies?

I went to the Phillipines to shoot A Dangerous Life with another American, Gary Busey. The role had been intended for Tom Conti, that of a television reporter during the Marcos downfall. I played the character's estranged wife and our relationship was seen against the upheaval that focused world attention there at the time. It was another McElroy production, scripted by David Williamson. Another role was in ABC TV's Paper Man, which attracted controversy for it's portrayal of an Australian media baron. Parts of it were said to be too close to the lives of the Packers and Murdochs.

What has been your favourite role to date?

A feature called Feathers, directed by John Ruane of Death In Brunswick, set in the outer suburbs of Melbourne. I played a working class girl, married to a spray-painter, who has aspirations beyond her job at the beauty counter at Myer or David Jones. The role really challenged my dramatic experience and was well received in its limited theatre release. It was eventually screened on the ABC.

Have we overlooked any other significant career credits?

Like everyone I did my obligatory Cop Shop and I think Sullivans guest spots. I also did an episode of Special Squad which was shot entirely on film. There was a short-lived international series, a re-make of The Saint, and I appeared as the female villain in The Saint In Australia, with Simon Dutton and Nikki Coghill. I also auditioned for the female lead in the Australian version of Mission: Impossible. Possibly my accent was not American enough for the producers, as the role went to an American expatriate, Terry Markwell, who worked with me in Return To Eden.

Will we be seeing you in any acting roles in the near future?

For now my time is taken up with Our House which I enjoy greatly. But naturally if the right role were to come along and I was available, I would love to act again.