There was a jittery period in July-August of 2013 when it seemed like an essential feature of the Melbourne landscape would be disappearing forever. Ten’s promos for its addictive comedic drama Offspring were warning in no uncertain terms that someone very close to Asher Keddie’s neurotic Fitzroy obstetrician, Nina Proudman, was about to die.
Would it be younger brother and taco entrepreneur Jimmy (Richard Davies)? Nina’s boyfriend and the father of her baby, Patrick (Matthew Le Nevez)? Not – gasp – Nina’s awkward, giddy, blunt, utterly endearing older sister Billie, played to screwball perfection by Kat Stewart? A nation of viewers – well, 1.057 million of them – held their breath.
In the end it was the handsome Patrick who died, victim of a freak accident: devastating for Nina, but a reprieve for Stewart’s fans. “My mother was really concerned,” Kat Stewart tells Time Out. “She really wanted to know and I would not tell her. We were really strict about it because we wanted the audience to experience [Patrick’s death] the way we did.”
Stewart’s character survives to play a big part in Offspring’s fifth season, kicking off this month. “We pick up six months later, which is good given that Billie was such a mess at the end of season four. She had ruined the business and potentially ruined her marriage. So now she’s living with Nina, co-parenting Nina’s baby girl, and that’s given her such purpose, so she is in a much better place. Her career is hotting up again, and she is hell-bent on winning Mick [Eddie Perfect] back, so she is very focused.”
Much of the charm of Offspring is down to the chemistry between the two sisters: one blonde, successful and an over-thinker; the other brunette, bumbling and prone to speaking her mind. (“Have her killed,” Billie advises her sister against a romantic rival in series four: “Break her legs.”)
“We knew we wanted to have a character who was a blurter, not the most tactful person in the world,” says co-producer and co-creator Imogen Banks. “Kat is able to do that in a way you can identify with. She’s able to get inside difficult people, and somehow make the character very likeable.”
While much of the attention has been on the multiple Logie-winning Keddie, it’s Stewart’s career that has lately picked up pace. Last year Stewart co-starred in Shaun Micallef’s comedy procedural Mr & Mrs Murder, about husband-and-wife crime-scene cleaners with a sideline in solving killings: her laid-back chemistry with Micallef was a joy to behold. "Nicola needed a good comic actor to give it depth as well as laughs," Micallef tells Time Out via email. "Not all actors are good at comedy; sometimes they think different rules apply and come across as a bit arch or caricatured. The production also needed an actor who could improvise. Kat ticked all the boxes."
At the end of May she will appear on stage for the first time in four years in the debut play by Working Dog’s Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner and Rob Sitch. Set on board Air Force One, MTC’s The Speechmaker has Stewart playing Mitch, one of the US president’s advisors; two other regular Offspring cast members, Lachy Hulme and Jane Harber, are in it too.
And she’s just been cast in Sucker, a grifting road movie based on Lawrence Leung’s stage show.
“Kat’s one of those actors that gets better and better with every role,” Banks says. “I don’t think we’ve seen nearly half of her capabilities.”
“I credit Offspring with getting me pregnant”
Stewart can trace her stage career back to murky recollections of her childhood in Bairnsdale, East Gippsland, population 10,000. “I remember treading out on stage as an angel in a nativity play. And in Year 2 we had a teacher that used to get us to enact stories. I was a shy kid, but I wasn’t shy when we did that.” Seeing a production of Annie on London’s West End at the age of eight – the family spent a year travelling Europe in a campervan – was another lightbulb moment.
She graduated in marketing and worked in book publicity, had a change of heart, enrolled in the National Theatre Drama School and by 2001 was getting TV roles in the likes of Stingers and Blue Heelers. Hearing about a new artist-driven theatre company in St Kilda, she went along to see the Red Stitch production of Extremities, featuring actor (and Stewart’s future husband) David Whiteley. Stewart joined ensemble, stayed for ten years, and honed her craft on plays including Debbie Tucker Greene’s Dirty Butterfly and Edward Albee’s Play About the Baby. “Because Red Stitch is an ensemble we were able to stretch ourselves in different roles and that means you grow. It was a fantastic time.”
There are moments in movies and TV when an actor cast in the right part seems suddenly to snap into focus, and their career is off like a frog in a sock. One such moment occurs in episode six of the original Underbelly (2008) when Stewart, as gangland wife Roberta Williams, visits her husband (Gyton Grantley) in prison, and unleashes a hilarious tirade that is equal parts strength, vulnerability and profanity: “My back is fuckin’ killing me and the house is a fuckin’ bombsite. I’m doing my fuckin’ best Carl Williams awright so don’t say one more fuckin’ word…”
“You often get rewrites as you’re filming things,” Stewart recalls with a laugh, “and they realised they had a quota on swearing, so a lot of characters were having their swear words taken out – but I don’t think I ever lost a single one.” She says she declined to reprise the role in Fat Tony & Co because she originally never got to meet Williams, and her iconic portrayal is now clearly inaccurate: “We know much more about her now.”
The role of the cocaine-snorting Nat on Banks and John Edwards’ steamy Showcase drama Tangle led to her being cast in their TV movie Offspring, which quickly became a series. Stewart is now one of the most recognised faces on our streets. “I had someone the other day at one of our local cafés say, ‘you know, you look a lot like that Kat Stewart.’ I thought, ‘God, I’ve let myself go.’”
TV has changed her life in other ways too: “I credit Offspring with getting me pregnant,” she says. In season two, Billie and Mick encounter problems trying to conceive. “That storyline made me think, gee, it might not be that easy. I shouldn’t keep putting this off. So Billie prompted some action!” Stewart and Whiteley’s son Archie is now two years old. “And interestingly, Eddie [Perfect] had a little girl six weeks after Archie. It’s amazing the power writers have over us.”
Few TV shows capture the mood of a city as Offspring does Melbourne, a town Stewart says she’s “totally besotted with”.
“I’ve lived here since I was 14. Growing up in the country we would come up to Melbourne on the weekend and it would just be so exciting. We’d go to Victoria Market. My brothers were at boarding school here so we would see them and go to Toto’s in Carlton for pizza. And we’d go to movies – I remember seeing Pretty in Pink andFerris Bueller’s Day Off.
“I’ve been so lucky that so much of the work I’ve done has been in Melbourne. I’m keen to work all over the place, but this is home, always.”
Offspring screens on Ten from Wed 14 May, 8.30pm.
The Speechmaker Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne, May 31-Jul 5.
KAT STEWART'S HAIR & MAKE-UP: JUSTIN HENRY