How Max McKenna is coming into their own

Ahead of a new SBS show, the only child of Gina Riley is out to prove that talent is more than just good genes.
Max McKenna in While The Men Are Away SBS

When your parents are Gina Riley and Kath & Kim’s executive producer Rick McKenna, chances are creativity is deep in your bloodlines. Certainly, for Max McKenna – who uses they/them pronouns – it seemed like a career in the arts was inevitable.

“It’s that funny thing,” they say with a laugh. “I came out of my mother, and I immediately wanted to be a performer. That is just all I have ever wanted to do.

“Obviously I’m incredibly privileged that I have grown up around it. And I have had a very different experience to a lot of kids: I got to see what the industry was like firsthand and how much work it takes.”

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JULY 12:  Gina Riley and Maggie Riley arrive for the Australian premiere of "Wicked" the musical at the Regent Theatre on July 12, 2008 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Kane Hibberd/Getty Images)

Where did Maggie McKenna go to school?

At 13, Max – who then went by their birth name of Maggie McKenna – had declared they would study acting in Los Angeles, determined to make a name for themselves away from the shadow of their parents’ fame. And at 18, Max did just that, having been accepted into a one-year course at LA’s American Musical and Dramatic Academy.

“Nepotism was always going to come up and I want to see if I was strong enough and if I was good enough to do it,” Max explains. “I wanted to go somewhere completely out of my comfort zone where I wasn’t known at all.”

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 14: (L-R) Grace Miell, Natalie Bassingthaighte, Emily Nkomo and Maggie McKenna attend a media call for "Jagged Little Pill - The Musical" at the Comedy Theatre on January 14, 2022 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Sam Tabone/WireImage)

It was a good move. Shortly after graduation Max landed the lead in Muriel’s Wedding: The Musical. Soon they were booking more jobs in the US and touring. And then came COVID.

“I came back just as they closed the borders,” Max recalls. “When all the jobs started getting cancelled that were months ahead it was awful.”

With some money in the bank thanks to those early tours, and a role in Jagged Little Pill – The Musical in Melbourne Max rode it out. And now they are making waves with their first TV role in SBS revisionist history piece While The Men Are Away.

Jana Zvudeniuk and Max McKenna in SBS series While The Men Are Away

What is While The Men Are Away About?

Set in 1940s rural Australia during World War II, the dramedy centres on two Australian Women’s Land Army recruits from Sydney who arrive to help farms in the country while the men, as the title suggests, are away on the frontlines. Max stars as Gwen, one of those eager and excited recruits who provides a huge dose of comedy and heart.

“Because my mum is so funny, I’ve have had such a fear of comedy,” they say now. “This was really testing for me. I’m so scared to be compared to my mother because I think she is she is a genius.”

Max McKenna and Gemma Ward in While The Men Are Away SBS (image: supplied).

But as someone who has also thrown themselves into the unknown – discovering who they are along the way – it was a role which really resonated with the 26-year-old actor.

“I love how open she is,” Max explains. “Gwen wears her heart on her sleeve; while everyone else is hiding she expresses exactly who she is. And I thought that would be so much fun and a challenge to play.”

When did Max McKenna identify as non-binary?

If you’re wondering who really is Max McKenna, they identify as a trans non-binary person – something which was a huge part of their LA journey. The support they received when coming out from their parents was unconditional.

“It’s a difficult process figuring out who you are, but it’s how people react that affects how your experience coming out is,” Max says of advice she’d give to parents and loved ones of someone going through a similar experience on how to communicate.

“Just come in with an open mind even if it feels foreign, even if it feels like a surprise. Sometimes it can even feel hurtful. Come in with empathy. There are so many great resources online that I encourage people to read and ask questions.”

There are no “wrong” questions, Max stresses, adding they would “prefer someone tries to ask rather than be so scared and ashamed that we can’t talk at all. We didn’t learn this in school. A lot of people didn’t learn about sexuality or gender identities and how to talk about it. So asking questions and even Googling things you may not know – that helps you with the right language or how to start introducing they/them pronouns into your vernacular.

“As long as someone is trying to understand and as long as you are trying to learn, that is a beautiful thing.”

While The Men Are Away, debuts Wednesday September 27, 8.30pm, SBS and SBS On Demand.

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