EXCLUSIVE: Rebecca Gibney chats family life, empty nesting and the hard-won self-acceptance she’s found with the passing years

"I feel very much at ease in my own skin."

Content Warning: This article touches on the topic of domestic violence and alcoholism which may be triggering for some readers.

Rebecca Gibney had never called a family meeting to discuss her career before, that was until she was offered the role of Abi Quinn in the hot-button Stan series, Prosper. 

“I was raised in a Christian family,” she tells The Weekly.

The Gibneys belonged to a Baptist church and Rebecca and her five older siblings were marched off to Sunday School each week, first in the little town of Levin and later in Wellington, New Zealand.

Some members of her family are still involved with charismatic Christianity, so she felt that it was only right to ask how they would feel if she accepted this role as the wife of a deeply flawed evangelical preacher on a mission to plant megachurches around the world.

Prosper, in which Rebecca stars opposite Richard Roxburgh, is primarily a family drama that could have played out in any cutthroat dynasty. But it also directs a lens at some of the ethical inconsistencies that have come to light in the Pentecostal movement in recent years.

Thankfully, Rebecca’s family are a considered bunch, and the meeting went well.

“They understood that the show is not having a go at faith or Christianity or religion,” she says. 

“It’s a family drama about how power and wealth can corrupt even the faithful. What I love about the series, particularly as it goes on, is that each character has redeemable features. There are no evil people. They’re just very flawed.

“So, my family were fine with that … I think they’d like to see this kind of thing exposed. Yes, it’s  about a family with secrets, but also, if you’re going to be heads of a megachurch, you’re expected to practise what you preach.”

When Rebecca left Wellington in 1984 to follow her acting muse to Australia – and a stellar career in film and television (The Flying Doctors, Packed to the Rafters, Halifax f.p. And more) – she also left her formal involvement with Christianity behind. Yet there is a sense of faith or spirituality that has never left her.

Rebecca is chatting today with The Weekly from the picturesque wine-growing region of Clyde in New Zealand’s South Island two weeks after our beachside photo-shoot in Sydney. 

Beyond her window, rolling green hills give way to rows of grapes and perfect cumulous puffs of cloud in a powder blue sky. 

She laughs and says that typically, being the South Island, the temperature is about to plummet and snow is forecast above 400 metres overnight. But surrounding herself with nature, and being thankful for the good things in life, help to keep her spiritually and emotionally grounded.

“Every morning, the first thing I do when I wake up is say a gratitude prayer,” she explains. 

Perhaps that is where her oft-cited generosity of spirit and sunny disposition are nurtured. “I just say: ‘Thank you for giving me this day, may I bless someone today with kindness, may I be as compassionate as possible.’ It’s a little ritual I do in my head.

“Then I tend to meditate and just call in energy and strength, wisdom, guidance and peace – all the good stuff – I just call it all in before I set foot on the ground. And the days I don’t do that – when I’m rushing around and I’m tired – I can feel my energy is scattered in different directions. 

“It’s something I have to do daily if I want to feel grounded and able to give out that energy.” 

She also tries to live her life with a sense of “compassion, of not judging people, of loving your neighbour as yourself”, but those are qualities she learned not so much from any particular religion as from her mother, Shirley, who has set an example of unconditional love that Rebecca will remember always.

“She’s an incredible woman, my mother,” Rebecca says. 

“When you look at her childhood, and then her young adulthood – and all through her life really – she was so badly treated by supposedly trusted members of her family, but she still managed to maintain this absolute desire to show compassion and forgiveness.”

As a child Shirley was sexually abused by her father, and Rebecca has recounted how she thwarted an attempt at abuse by that same grandfather when she was just 12 years old. 

When Shirley met Rebecca’s dad, Austin, she hoped he’d be her protector and her ticket out of an unhappy family. For a time, he was, but the dynamic shifted just a couple of years into their marriage when he began drinking.

“My dad became a violent alcoholic,” Rebecca explains, “so Mum had to deal with a lot of stuff.”

Rebecca remembers moving house perhaps 10 times while she was still in primary school as her father shifted from one job to the next. When he was drinking, she says, the violence was constant. 

He never hit his children but he treated his wife brutally. She remembers her mother protecting her from Austin’s rage, closing doors and making sure she and her siblings kept out of his way. And Shirley often bore bruises on her body that lasted months.

“Yet even when things were really dire and dark and bleak,” she says, “Mum would always take us aside and say, ‘You must show compassion’. 

For example, for Dad’s alcoholism, she would explain that it’s a disease: He doesn’t know what he’s doing. It’s not that she was trying to make excuses for it, but she was trying to say, ‘It’s not him’, because when Dad was sober, he was a very good human.

“So, I think she’s always instilled that in me – that people are usually doing the best they can. People aren’t born evil, either. It’s their circumstances, more often than not, that put them in those positions where they do awful things.

“I guess that’s why I’m always the glass half full.”

Shirley and all six of her children are still close, and Rebecca is thankful to her mum for those family relationships too.

“If one of my brothers or sisters called me now and said, ‘I need you’, I would drop everything to be there. And that would be the same vice versa. I think that’s pretty special, and she did that.”

Austin’s drinking contributed to his poor health. He developed a blood clotting disorder, suffered two strokes and eventually lost a leg. 

Rebecca was just 16 when she moved home to help care for him in the months before his death. 

She cooked for him, helped him get around, they watched TV, played cards together, and talked. For the first time in her life Rebecca felt she was getting to know her father beyond the violence, anger and addiction.

However, that process was suddenly cut short. Austin died in his sleep of a heart attack at just 51. His last words to Rebecca were, “I love you,” which was not something he’d said often.

She was heartbroken to lose him just as she was beginning to know him and forgive him for everything he’d put the family through.

Years later, however, when Rebecca’s son, Zac, was born, the memory of her father became a gift.

“It’s a weird thing,” she says softly. “When I gave birth and Zac came out, there was a moment when he looked at me and I saw my dad … This is going to make me emotional,” she adds and she blinks back tears.

“I looked at Zac and I went, ‘I’m going to give you the life he never had, because then you won’t grow up under the circumstances he did. 

I think that’s the reason my dad became an alcoholic – he didn’t get the love, the security and attention and everything else he needed. So, when I looked at Zac, I thought, ‘I’m going to make sure you get that’.

“And what’s even better is that the man I chose to have Zac with has all those qualities in spades, so I knew that Zac was going to have this incredibly secure environment.”

Rebecca met production designer Richard Bell (who she affectionately dubs “big R”) on the set of Magda Szubanski’s Dogwoman in 1999. He was tall, shy, handsome and, by coincidence, had lived on the same street as Rebecca when she was five years-old. 

Later, unbeknownst to each other, they’d both moved to Wellington and then to Australia at roughly the same time, and they’d worked in the same industry for years. 

She very quickly lost her heart to him and proposed just months later. Richard was so surprised he was sure she was joking, but he responded with “a massive yes” nonetheless.

“I knew she was a very special human from the first time we were introduced,” he tells The Weekly.

“I stared at my shoes, speechless and confused at the strength of my instant feelings for her.” 

They married in a very private ceremony in 2001. It was the second marriage for both (Rebecca was previously married to Irwin Thomas, aka singer Jack Jones), and the couple agreed that together they were enough and, in lieu of children, they’d just “have dogs and live a happy life”.

“But I got to 37, 38, and thought, hmm, maybe we’ll just try,” Rebecca recalls. 

“Then we always said, ‘Zac will become a part of our life, he’s not going to become our life.’ But of course he did. It stopped being about me, and it stopped being about Richard, and life became about him – about us. We were such a tight unit.”

Zac finished school and moved out of home two years ago to study drama, and both his parents are “incredibly proud” of the work he’s doing and of the young man he’s become.

“To be honest,” Rebecca says, “when he first declared that he wanted to act, I was terrified and horrified…but it was his passion. 

We actually just saw him perform in a play a couple of weeks ago and he blew me away.

“Of course, I’m going to say he stole the show, but he has so much confidence, and both Richard and I were like, ‘Wow, he’s really good.’

So we were able to breathe a sigh of relief. And he loves it. I couldn’t do what he does. When I was his age you couldn’t get me up on a stage if you paid me a million dollars. I still struggle with public speaking.”

Rebecca has been in Clyde shooting a new season of Under the Vines. Next week, the production moves south to Queenstown, where Zac will join his parents to celebrate Richard’s 60th birthday, and then stay on to work with his mother.

“He’s scored himself a little role in Under the Vines,” she says with undisguised delight. “He didn’t just get handed the role. He auditioned and did a good job, so now he’s going to be working opposite me.”

Rebecca’s eyes light up when she talks about Zac. She enjoys watching him take these first steps in his career but is philosophical about her evolving role in her adult son’s life. 

“In the end,” she says, “I guess we’re just caretakers of our children really, and that’s the thing that we have to keep reminding ourselves.

“When he doesn’t call for a while I think, that’s great, he doesn’t need us. Sometimes it’s hard but overall, I think at least we’ve done a wonderful job. 

“He’s a confident, secure, happy, generous, kind, good person, and he’s making his own way in the world.”

And the empty nesting has been far from a trial. Both Richard and Rebecca say they’ve grown closer year by year. They’ve even developed their own secret language with, Richard says, a vocabulary that just keeps expanding.

Nowadays, “we even know what each other is thinking,” he reveals. 

“We loved doing everything together when Zac was here,” Rebecca says with that sunshiny smile, “but now he’s gone, we’re just back to how we were before.”

“Richard and I are best friends. We work together, we create together, and when we hang out, we just love it. 

“He’s my best mate. We love the same things. We like the same music, the same food, going to the same places. We love nature, we love sailing. So, it’s not that different. And if we get a bit, ‘Oh I miss Zac,’ we just go and see him.”

This is not to say that every day, even in the Land of the Long White Cloud, is touched by paradise. Rebecca struggled with anxiety when she was younger and was rocked by full-blown panic attacks from the age of 14 until she was in her thirties. 

She had a breakdown at 32, after her first marriage collapsed, but recovered with the help of friends and family and “a great therapist”. 

She hasn’t experienced anything as traumatic as that since, but she has felt stress and worry begin to creep back into her life in recent months, and she has had to make some changes to send them packing.

First among those changes has been stepping back a little from the news and from social media. 

News of war in Europe and the Middle East, and the shocking impacts of climate change, have all taken a toll.

“Recently I got very tired,” she explains. “I was pushing myself and working very long hours, and then going on social media and worrying about what’s happening on the planet, and I could feel the anxiety coming in. 

“I started not sleeping because I’d get home after doing a 13-hour day and I’d look at the news and then I’d lie in bed thinking what can I do?”

Rebecca donated to charities and read all she could about the conflict between Israel and Palestine. But she was berated on social media for calling for a ceasefire.

“While we’re calling for peace, everyone’s attacking each other,” she says despairingly.

“The hate is quite phenomenal and probably why I’ve retreated a bit from social media. I think we need to guard ourselves.” 

Stepping back has helped, as have her morning rituals and taking time out for herself. Rebecca says she considers herself lucky her time in therapy provided the tools to recognise the warning signs and nip anxiety in the bud.

Age and hindsight are also godsends. 

When asked what advice she would give to that younger Rebecca, who struggled so hard to find her confidence, even while she was winning accolades (and a Gold Logie) for some of the finest roles of her career, and well she has quite the list.

  • “Stop obsessing about what other people might think of you. Really, it doesn’t matter.
  • Don’t obsess about your body. Who cares?
  • Stop wearing make-up. You’re beautiful without it. 
  • You don’t have to conform.
  • Have authenticity, integrity, kindness and compassion for yourself, so you can then share those qualities with other people. Those are the qualities I sorely lacked but kept looking for in other people, thinking, “Well, if that person loves me then I must be okay.” I would go back and say to find that in yourself.
  • Recognise that you are unique and special, that there’s only one of you and there will never be another one like you.
  • Realise that it’s yourself that you need to love first.”

Richard says he has always adored Rebecca, but that he’s been gratified  lately to see that “she has learned to not completely exhaust herself trying to fix everyone’s problems, though she still does try to! 

She is like a fuel supply of happiness and energy for the crews and cast she works with. It is a joyful thing to be with Bec on all levels and that includes work.”

Rebecca’s dream retirement plan, which is a long way off, she hastens to add, would be to live deep in a wild and beautiful forest.

“That’s where I’m going to see out my days,” she says. “Whenever I get near a forest, I feel completely at peace. And the older I get, the more I want to return to that. It’s calling me back.”

Richard, ever the romantic, says that in 10 years’ time he’d like to find them both “floating, anchored on our little sailboat in an unspoilt bay, laughing and dreaming and working on the things we love. And to top it all off, our son would be there!

“We are a very blessed and lucky wee trio. Oh, and our puppies would be there too.”

As she prepares for a summer of relaxation with friends and family, and ponders futures in forests and at sea, Rebecca’s overriding feeling is of contentment. 

“Every day, I wake up and I’m incredibly grateful to be in this body, in this place, in this time,” she muses. “So many people don’t have what I have.”

Rebecca also feels that some of the wisdom she wished for her younger self is beginning to settle in her heart.

“I know I’m a good person and I don’t need anyone else to tell me that,” she says finally. 

“I do feel very much at ease in my own skin, with who I am and what I’ve become.” 

The Stan Original Series Prosper will premiere on the streaming platform on January 18.

If you or someone you know has been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, help is always available. Call 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit their website.

Please remember to drink responsibly. If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Alcohol and Other Drug hotline 1800 250 015 or call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Related stories