Mandy McElhinney has played roles from Nene King in the miniseries Paper Giants: Magazine Wars to Gina Rinehart in last year’s House of Hancock and continues her part as the strict Matron Frances Bolton in the new season of drama Love Child, starting on June 20. Many viewers also know her at one half of the romantic duo Rhonda and Ketut in the AAMI insurance ads. McElhinney, 45, tells Kate Waterhouse about her career, her greatest achievement and finding fame from “a little ad that I did to pay the rent”.
What is a day in your life?
At the moment I am filming Hyde and Seek, which is a new crime thriller on Channel Nine. So when I’m filming, my life is: get up in the morning, go to work, and get home – usually, dinner’s waiting for me at home, which is really nice. My partner is Italian, so he will cook something. And then straight to bed. But when I’m not working, we’re writing.
What have you learnt from playing the Matron in Love Child?
I knew a little bit about the forced adoption and a little bit of the stolen-generation stories, but since immersing myself in this world I’m constantly amazed by the extent to which this issue has affected Australia. There is not a week that goes by – and I’m not exaggerating by that – where someone doesn’t say to me that they know somebody [it has affected]. The extent of the damage that was done by these people – with good intentions, I believe – is still affecting our society today. So it is a massive issue.
What do you think makes the series so popular?
I think there is a lot of love in that show and a lot of the love between women and really interesting, different characters; and I think something about the fascination of that era, as well, is one of the strengths of the show. Families can watch it because it touches a lot of generations in different ways.
You’ve played so many interesting roles. What has been your favourite?
Nene King was such a wild, fabulous character to play [in Paper Giants] – very fun character; very liberating, free character. She was a real revolutionary.
What has been your greatest achievement so far?
Definitely playing Gina [Rinehart]. That was the most difficult thing that I’ve done, for lots of reasons; not just because of the complexities of that character and that she is an incredibly private person, and unlocking the mystery of the family wasn’t an easy task. It was also a very demanding shoot – to expand 30 years … It took a lot out of me, emotionally and mentally… It’s something I don’t take lightly, the responsibility of portraying somebody.
Was it a daunting experience to play such a prominent figure who is still alive?
Yes, absolutely … It is a sort of feeling that somebody is, I don’t know, is doing a puppet show of your life. But I think if you can recognise that it is entertainment, it is telling a story and maybe highlighting some of your achievements that you might have felt have been swept under the rug. I think providing some insight into people can help them as well. It certainly showed people what she has achieved.
Did you ever get any feedback from the Rinehart family?
No, no, there was none. I wouldn’t expect it.
If you ran into Gina, what would you say?
I would love to have a conversation with her because I’ve really delved into her life … I feel I had an understanding of what makes her tick in some way. Absolutely the centre of our story was her incredibly intense connection with her father. I developed a very beautiful connection with Sam [Neill] playing that role. I found it very moving – her relationship with her father – and I really feel for her and feel for her loss that she must have had when he died. I lost my father six years ago and I think it’s something you never get over.
You were nominated for a Logie for most outstanding actress for Paper Giants. What did that mean to you?
That was pretty amazing. It was really – I know it sounds like such a cliche to say, it’s so lovely just to be nominated, but being nominated with those women was such a defining moment for me, in so many ways. I was looking at Marta [Dusseldorp] on the stage – known her for years in the theatre. She was reading my name out along with Dan Wyllie. And hearing those names – I’ve seen them all on stage, I’ve worked with some of them. I admire all their work so much. It sort of felt like a coming-of-age moment. This is what it means by making it – it’s when you feel, “Oh, I belong with these people that I think are amazing.”
What do you think makes an outstanding actress?
Wow, I think an ability to be able to see the big thing. I think the most amazing actresses are those that allow all of themselves – the flaws, the strengths, the vulnerabilities – to be seen. The really challenging part of our work is to have the camera pointing at you. As a woman, your instinct is to hide and to allow your vanity – your ego, your insecurities – to rule you. To be an exceptional actor, you have to be able to bare yourself in a way that’s not entirely comfortable, especially for women. They’re the actors I admire the most.
Your AAMI insurance advertisements, playing Rhonda, became viral. Did you ever expect that?
Not at all. I’ve been an actor for 20 years. And then all of a sudden I did that, which was really a little ad that I did to pay the rent, and then, all of a sudden, I found that I was famous. Unless you’ve experienced it, you never really understand. Being recognised, after having [anonymity] for so long, is such a strange moment. It makes you feel exposed. You know that feeling where you’ve got something between your teeth? All the time. It’s like that.
Do many people mistake you as Rhonda?
A lot of people [accidently] call me Rhonda! People don’t realise you’re an actor. They start talking to you like you’re a friend and they’re going, “Yeah, we’ve met before.” At one point I had to leave a lunch with my girlfriends because people started mobbing me.
It was in a pub. There was huge chunk of people. They became quite pushy, going, “I want to photo with you. I want to photo…” and they just started dragging me, to take selfies. My girlfriends were like, “We have to get you out of here.”
What do you do in your downtime when you’re not working?
My partner has got me into fishing lately. I love being outdoors and we recently got a boating licence. I love doing those ocean activities. I like hiking and taking a book and finding a tree and sitting under it.
Love Child, season three, starts on Monday, June 20, at 8.30pm on Channel Nine.
WE WENT TO The Roots Next Door, North Sydney.
WE ATE Health bowl salad with kale, red cabbage, alfalfa sprouts, roast pumpkin, dukkah, fetta, almonds, chicken, avocado and honey lemon dressing.
WE DRANK coffee and orange juice.
MANDY WORE Sheike top and Moss & Spy skirt.
I WORE Skin and Threads jacket and jumper. Witchery leather pants.