Heather Mitchell slips mischievously out of a waffle bathrobe and dashes naked towards the swimming pool. It’s one of the sexiest scenes in the first season of the Binge drama Love Me. She jumps in the deep end – not perhaps the most elegant of all jumps but not too splashy – and unsurprisingly Hugo Weaving follows.
In that moment, Heather embodies joy, and the unselfconscious confidence of a woman in the prime of life. And at 64, with an Order of Australia, a Silver Logie this year for Most Outstanding Supporting Actress and a queue of coveted theatre and television roles in her diary, that is exactly where she finds herself.
“As a young actress,” she admits, “I would often read scenes requiring nudity – predominantly sex scenes, which were almost obligatory in every script – and I felt uncomfortable about exposing my body.”
Less so now. The reason, she suspects, is that the nudity isn’t so gratuitous.
“In Love Me, the shedding of clothes was driven by the truth of the situation,” she explains. “Standing naked felt like a natural extension of the character [free-spirited Anita], and I felt comfortable with that … I should add that it was the middle of winter and the water was freezing. The scene didn’t originally have Hugo jumping in after me, but being the beautiful man he is, he said, ‘If she has to suffer, so will I’.”
Heather has become, not only more comfortable in her long, lanky body, but grateful for its inner strength.
“As I’ve aged, my body has seen me through many ups and downs, and each time it survives another challenge I’m grateful for its resilience, and less and less fearful of it,” she says. It’s seen her through cancer and childbirth, twice each, and bounced back stronger. “I want my body to serve me well. I think our sixties are a fascinating time. I was really excited to turn 50 but turning 60 was different. It was like, well this is getting to the pointy end.”
Heather was born in Korea, where her father, Red Mitchell, was planting trees in a reforestation program. He was Kansas-born, a Quaker, a pacifist, and in his spare time, a painter of beautiful watercolours. Her mother, Shirley Price, was a Jewish girl from Coogee. They’d met in Shanghai, where she’d worked for the United Nations and volunteered in orphanages.
“They were both adventurous,” Heather explains, “and both committed to leaving the world a better place. They imagined a life of adventure and travel.”
From Korea, the family (Heather is the youngest of three) moved to Jamaica, where she remembers carefree days of sunshine and splashing in the sea. Then life changed irrevocably. The family returned to Australia – for what was supposed to be a brief interlude – but Shirley was diagnosed with leukaemia.
“They gave her three years initially and she lived for seven,” says Heather. Shirley died when her youngest daughter was 17, on the last day of her HSC trials.
In the meantime, the family settled in Camden on the outskirts of Sydney. “In those days, Camden was a beautiful country town,” Heather recalls, “with blossom trees and jacarandas. We had a happy time there.”
Shirley and her daughter were close, and her impact on Heather’s life still resonates. It’s a cold spring morning, a long way from Camden. Heather is sitting by the harbour, with a steaming pot of chai, sharing memories that tumble, clear and vivid, from her actor’s mind.
There was Shirley the activist: “She was involved in the Vietnam Moratorium.”
Her warmth and generosity: “She would embrace anyone who arrived who didn’t quite fit in. I remember a woman and her family came to Camden from Pakistan. They didn’t know anyone and Mum adopted them immediately. She loved people, company, conversation. She formed a local discussion group.”
More memories of her mother emerge: “So many are to do with when she was unwell, but she never talked about her illness. Clearly children know when things are not right, and you pick up on every nuance in a family, but there are unspoken rules about what can be discussed. Over the years we witnessed her weakening strength, her weakening health, her long visits to the hospital. Eventually, clearly she was dying, but even that was never spoken of. We were very close. I felt unconditionally loved by her. It’s interesting that you can feel that from someone, yet never broach the biggest subject in the room.
“I feel I carry my parents with me quite strongly,” Heather adds. It’s in her generosity and her love of freedom. She is supportive of her friends and family to a fault, and of younger actors. Sydney Theatre Company Artistic Director, Kip Williams, once told The Sydney Morning Herald: “She has a shimmering energy and an effervescence that is incomparable, and she makes sure everyone is taken care of, which is why she is a leader in our company and in the industry.”
Heather also inherited an awareness of a quiet, inward-looking, spiritual aspect to life.
“My mother had great acceptance of her situation,” she continues. “She reached a point where she realised, ‘I can’t beat this, so I am going to embrace it’. She studied Taoism – reading Alan Watts books and so on. She believed very much that she was part of all of nature and that she would go back to nature. She would lie in bed, delighting in watching the sunlight filter through the bamboo and the windowpane, listening to the birds. She found great joy in really small things that often go unnoticed. I witnessed that and I certainly try to practise that as much as I can.”
Her father, meanwhile, went to Quaker meetings. “The Quakers don’t have a minister or a leader,” she explains. “So your relationship is directly between you and God or whatever you want to call that. When they come together, they usually sit in silence … The thing I got from that was the sitting in silence – how nice that is. Then, in the ’70s my father learnt transcendental meditation. He was one of the first in Australia to do that, around the time the Beatles did. My sister and I learnt it, too. It was beautiful. It was a real gift he gave us.”
Heather stopped meditating for a while, when she was a young acting student and felt she needed more angst in her life. “And sure enough I became buffeted by the winds,” she laughs. She took it up again and still meditates daily.
After her mother died, she and her father spent some time in Hawaii. Then she returned home to study at Sydney College of the Arts. “At that stage,” she says, “I wasn’t thinking about acting as a career. We’d lived in a country town. I’d only ever seen two plays.” Then she met some students from NIDA [the National Institute of Dramatic Art], fell in love with live theatre and life pivoted again.
She graduated from NIDA in 1980 and began working with the Sydney Theatre Company (STC). After 40 years in theatre, she still performs with the STC, and sits on its board. She’s also triumphed in wildly diverse roles in film, television and on stage: The Great Gatsby, Muriel’s Wedding, Janet King, Strictly Ballroom The Musical, and more.
In 1989, she met cinematographer Martin McGrath, the love of her life.
“I certainly wasn’t looking for a long-term relationship,” she insists. “I wanted to keep my freedom.”
But she went to see a clairvoyant (a 29th birthday present from friends). She was an old woman in a retirement village, and she told Heather that: “I was going to meet my guardian angel; I was going to meet a man with broad shoulders, tapering in at the waist, which I thought wasn’t bad; that I was going to be surrounded by silver; and that a job would come up which would be inconvenient, but which I must take.”
That very afternoon, Heather received a message from her agent. She’d been offered a job in the ‘silver city’ of Broken Hill. At the eleventh hour, one of the leads had pulled out of a telemovie, The Water Trolley, and there was a plane strike so it would be a day-long commute by Army Hercules. She left next morning.
“Anyway, long story short,” Heather chuckles, “Martin was one of the people who met me at the airport. Then, a few nights later, it was pouring with rain and we were the last people to leave the pub. We walked up the hill together, and we ended up sleeping together that night. I was looking at his silhouette as we were lying in bed. There was a huge window behind him and the neon lights of the hotel were shining through the rain, and it was like a wall of silver streamers. He said, ‘I want to be your guardian angel’. Then he leant over and took out of his pocket a little silver ingot that he’d bought for me.
“I avoided him for a few days after that, thinking, this is just too weird.”
It still gives her shivers. Naturally, her resolve broke and they’ve been together ever since. Though she no longer visits clairvoyants.
It was a decade before Heather and Martin started a family and when they did, they were blessed with two boys, Finn and Seamus.
At five weeks’ old, Seamus, the younger, contracted meningitis. “He was resuscitated a number of times,” says Heather. For a while his life hung in the balance, and after he’d finally recovered, they were told he was on the autism spectrum.
The family rallied. “And he’s comfortable with me talking about this,” Heather says, “because he is very proud of how he has come through it all. He is a brilliant basketballer. That’s his passion. And he’s now a basketball coach at [elite Sydney boys’ school] Cranbrook.”
Heather is proud of both her boys. Finn followed in the family tradition and went to art school. He is a budding cinematographer, a talented painter and is currently in Tasmania, working with his father on the new Marta Dusseldorp series, Bay of Fires.
Her boys were in primary school when Heather was first diagnosed with breast cancer, and it threw her back, emotionally, into those years when her mother was ill.
“I hadn’t really dealt with what she’d lived through,” she explains. “I immediately thought, ‘I have two small children, I’ve been diagnosed, I will now go through treatment and die.’ I just assumed I would die. Then I had just one or two sessions with a psychologist, and I realised that I didn’t have to do that. From that day on, I was certain I would live.”
The road to recovery was long and harrowing, however, and neither she nor Martin was able to work for some years – they sold their house.
“The lump had been there for three years undiagnosed,” she explains. “I was aware of it, but they kept saying it was nothing. Then, when it was correctly diagnosed, I had to go through massive treatments. I was very, very sick and it was touch and go for a while. We had two little kids. It wasn’t an age when it was convenient to get cancer. And it affected Martin very deeply … What saw me through was my friends – my dear friends. My female friends, in particular – they’ve seen me through everything. Women are amazing.”
Ultimately though, Heather’s recovery was complete, her health returned, her career rebounded, and she took on some of the great roles of her career, including The Harp in the South and Still Point Turning: The Catherine McGregor Story. Which is why it came as a shock when the cancer returned earlier this year.
“It was, ‘Oh, there’s a lump.’ ‘It can’t be.’ ‘It is.’ I didn’t want to go through extensive treatment. I didn’t want it to interrupt the things that make me happy. I decided, ‘I’m going to deal with it as quickly as possible.'”
Heather wanted a mastectomy – “I thought, just get rid of them” – but her doctors dissuaded her. Instead, in a nine-hour operation, much of her breast was removed and then fat, skin and blood vessels were relocated from her stomach to rebuild the breast.
Now, she says, “I have this cute little breast. I call it my pikelet.” And (never accuse this woman of being shy) she whips up her jumper and unzips her jeans to show the surgeon’s handiwork on her tummy.
“It’s microsurgery, extraordinary microsurgery,” she exclaims. “I had the most brilliant surgeons … And I’ve asked Finn if he will design a tattoo for my new breast.”
It sounds simple, but there was a three-month recovery. Again Heather’s girlfriends stepped into the breach, and she is in fine fettle now. But taking all that time off has thrown the tail end of her year into a spin.
We’ve met today at the Wharf Theatre, where Heather is rehearsing an extraordinary one-hander, RBG: Of Many, One. Written by star Australian playwright Suzie Miller and directed by Priscilla Jackman, it explores the life of the trailblazing US Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
When she wraps rehearsals here, she’ll fly to Melbourne to shoot the second season of Love Me. Then, barely stopping for breath, return for the opening night of RBG, which runs from October 29 almost to Christmas. And somehow, among all this, she has also written a book, Everything and Nothing, a collection of memoir-vignettes, which will be published in May by Allen & Unwin. “There seem to be more hours in the day for Heather Mitchell than anyone else,” Kip says.
In between, there will be Christmas and, she’s hoping, a chance to reconnect with Martin and the boys. Thanks to madly spinning schedules, they’ve not seen as much of one another as they’d like. “This will be one of the longest stretches that Martin and I have been apart – eight months,” she says. But they speak four times a day, and have a bond that transcends oceans.
“He’s a wonderful man, but nothing makes either of us happier than the other one doing their thing,” she says. “We can spend a lot of time apart and that’s okay because there’s a real sense of security in the relationships within our family. And wherever my family is, that’s where I’ve always felt at home.” AWW
Heather Mitchell’s memoir, Everything or Nothing (Allen & Unwin), is available from May 2.
This story was first published in The Australian Women’s Weekly, November 2022.