It’s a bracingly cold, blustery day as The Weekly arrives for our shoot on the foreshore of Queenstown’s Lake Wakatipu. Ominous dark clouds loom, rain threatens and the wind whips bitingly through the thickest of coats and jumpers.
To be fair, we shouldn’t be surprised. The entire week’s weather has been similarly grim – we are in the depths of a New Zealand winter, after all.
As the photographer scurries off in search of a more protected spot, our cover star appears on the horizon, hair and make-up picture perfect, dressed and ready to go.
It’s then that the miracle occurs: the clouds part, revealing a stunning blue sky. The sun – matched only by the brightness of Rebecca Gibney’s beaming smile – emerges and the day, it seems, is saved.
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by this either. Rebecca is a determinedly glass-half-full kind of woman; a firm believer that putting out positive energy will attract the same in return.
And even if the sun hadn’t come out, says her good friend, actress and radio presenter Jane Kennedy, “Rebecca would have made lemonade out of it anyway.”
This is a key part of the 55-year-old’s personality, as we’ll learn both on set today and also later from several of Rebecca’s loved ones, who offer a deeper insight into just what makes the popular star tick.
And it’s certainly not hard to find people willing to talk. “Genuine”. “Selfless”. “Generous”. “Joyful”. “Loyal”.
These are just a few of the glowing adjectives friends and colleagues use to describe the woman who has endeared herself to TV viewers for four decades, since making her debut in Kiwi series Sea Urchins at the age of 16.
“I’m very much for the sisterhood – and the brotherhood, too,” says Rebecca of her determination to play the role of mentor and cheerleader for a new generation of actors.
“My philosophy is that we’re all here not only to learn as much as we can, but to help each other through it.”
“It’s important to have each other’s back because this industry can be brutal and full of rejection, so you need people around to lift you up. I’m a mother hen on set – I can’t be happy unless everybody else is happy.”
Certainly, that’s evident today, where the joyful peal of Rebecca’s laughter is a constant refrain. It was also evident on the Melbourne set of her latest TV project, Halifax: Retribution.
To lift people’s moods, Rebecca would send in ice-cream vans as a surprise, and hire massage therapists to pamper weary cast and crew on long shoot days.
Not that she reveals this herself – it’s the grateful team who share their leading lady’s generosity, adding that she’d probably be less than thrilled they’re doing so.
“She’s humble,” explains Michala Banas, who joins the new iteration of the popular crime drama, on which Rebecca is now also an executive producer.
“Announcing that she does these amazing things for everyone makes it about her, and she wouldn’t want that. But she would do all these little things where you’d go, ‘I feel really appreciated right now’.”
The upcoming Nine series sees Rebecca reprising the lead role of forensic psychiatrist Jane Halifax, a character created for her 26 years ago by “the two Rogers” – highly respected producers Roger Simpson and Roger Le Mesurier.
Having worked with Rebecca on the 1993 TV series Snowy, they knew the then-28-year-old actress had the chops to helm what would prove to be an incredibly successful run of 21 telemovies – even if she didn’t necessarily believe it herself.
WATCH BELOW: Rebecca called in some celebrity friends earlier this year to create this joyous video, alleviating some of the stress the COVID-19 pandemic inflicting on all of us. Interview continues after video.
“I went through a lot of self-doubt in my 20s and early 30s,” she admits. “I was convinced I wasn’t that great. And I look at the work now and there was some dodgy acting going on in a few of those!
It’s true that youth is wasted on the young because with wisdom and hindsight you go, ‘If only I had believed in myself’. But I didn’t.”
“I saw a talented young actress with quiet determination,” Roger Simpson – who returns for Halifax: Retribution – says, shaking his head in disbelief at this revelation.
“I remember when she finally started earning decent money for her role in Halifax, Rebecca hired a limo, bought a case of expensive French champagne and took her girlfriends out on the town. Rebecca is known for her generosity to cast and crew and delights in buying presents.”
For those on the outside looking in, Rebecca had it all in those years. The series was not only popular with viewers, but was nominated consistently for both AFI and Logie Awards.
And while her first marriage to musician Irwin Thomas may have ended in 1995, she had a loyal group of friends to guide her through it. But with the filming schedule set at a gruelling pace, in private things were far from perfect.
Rebecca had begun suffering frequent panic attacks that she’d attempt to dull with Valium. She was taking sleeping pills at night just to get some rest; the intense plots filled with serial killers and the mentally deranged infiltrating her dreams.
Plus, there was an undercurrent of anger. Her father Austin, who had been an alcoholic and often violently beat her mother, Shirley, throughout their marriage, had died at the age of 51, just as Rebecca felt she was finally getting to know and forgive him.
Plus, she says, “I was so full of self-loathing … I basically had a breakdown.”
Things came to a head when Rebecca and Roger Le Mesurier (who would retire in 2006) headed to the south of France to sell Halifax F.P. to international buyers. “I did all the publicity and everything was fine, but I knew cracks were starting to show,” Rebecca says now.
“We got on the plane to come home and I had a massive anxiety attack. It took five Valiums to get me from London back to Australia, with Roger basically holding my hand the entire way. I was on oxygen from France to London because I couldn’t breathe, it was that bad.”
Finally touching down on home soil, Roger handed her a card that would change her life – and see the perpetually sunny star we now know emerge.
It was the details of a clinical psychologist who, Rebecca says, saved her life. “I’d developed agoraphobia and the only time I went out of my house was to drive and see her,” she reveals.
On the shelves of the psychologist’s office was a row of toys. Nestled among them was a headless doll – very reminiscent, Rebecca laughs now, of the doll she toted around herself as a child.
The youngest of six, she was used to hand-me-downs and never found it unusual that her favourite toy lacked an essential body part.
“When I’d go in and see the psychologist, she’d say, ‘pick a toy’ and I would always gravitate towards that one, because it was broken. And I guess that’s a metaphor for my life because I’m always trying to fix everybody and everything. If someone’s got something wrong, I want to fix it.”
“I remember Bec would stay with me sometimes when she was going through a rough patch,” says her Come In Spinner co-star and long-time friend Kerry Armstrong.
“Then when I was going through a financial rough patch, every now and then there’d be a hundred dollars in my letterbox.”
“She’d swear black and blue it wasn’t her, but what she didn’t realise was that I knew what her envelopes looked like. She’d leave the money in a really nice ‘Rebecca Gibney envelope’ because she likes good stationery.
WATCH BELOW: Rebecca has previous been very open about her experiences with anxiety. Story continues below.
“Bec’s been beside me for 30 years. Because our lives have been so full of adventures, many highs and lows, I think during many of those times our friendship literally kept us afloat.”
Opening the floodgates to talk about her anxiety and her past lifted a weight from Rebecca’s shoulders – one which she’s glad she was able to shed with Roger Le Mesurier’s help.
And it wasn’t the last favour he’d do for her. In ’99, he would introduce her to Richard Bell, a young production designer Roger hoped to lure over to work on the Halifax set.
“Roger called me over and said, ‘Meet Richard’,” Rebecca recalls of the fateful meeting which would see the two marry just over a year later.
“I shook his hand and he looked down at his shoes and turned bright red and I went, ‘Oh my God, he’s gorgeous!'” Richard accepted the job, and three months later won the heart of the leading lady as the pair swiftly realised how much they had in common.
Not only had they lived on the same street when they were five and six years old respectively, but Richard’s aunt had worked alongside Rebecca’s dad at the local drycleaners.
Their families went on to move to Wellington at the same time, Rebecca says, and “we’d hang out at the same cafes and bars. We had so many sliding-door moments.”
They moved to Melbourne in the same year, and worked in the same industry for 15 years. “But if I’d met him in my early 20s, we wouldn’t have worked out because I was still trying to discover who I was,” she says with the wisdom of hindsight.
“When I did meet him, I was 35 and coming out the other end of my breakdown, and I was ready.”
Not that Richard was ready, she jokes. “He’d just come out of a long-term relationship and he was like, ‘No, it’s too soon’. But I’m a force to be reckoned with and I know a good catch when I see it – ‘I’m not letting you go, buddy!'”
Halifax: Retribution starts on Tuesday, August 25, at 8.45pm on Nine.
To read our full interview with Rebecca Gibney, grab a copy of The Australian Women’s Weekly‘s September issue, on sale now.