Rachel Ward is making coffee, preparing a shoulder of lamb for dinner and washing up. At the same time, she’s checking on her cows behind the house and disappears every so often to help with the horses in the paddock out the front. Husband Bryan Brown wanders in from the verandah for a cup of tea before settling at the dining table and, as we chat, both he and Rachel transform into twinkly-eyed besotted grandparents when Anouk, two, and Zan, four, run past barefoot and half-dressed.
“Who would have guessed being a grandparent is so much fun,” says Rachel. “I’m Mopey and he’s Grandpa.”
The sun-kissed white-haired siblings are the children of Rachel and Bryan’s youngest daughter, actor/businesswoman Matilda Brown, and her husband, chef and former My Kitchen Rules contestant Scott Gooding.
It sounds chaotic, but it’s not – this is a typical day at the family farm. Wondering where is Rachel Ward’s farm? It’s in the Nambucca Valley, NSW.
As the hours wear on, the family members cross paths, seemingly organically, while also doing their own thing. This sense of independent togetherness is echoed in the yin and yang of Bryan and Rachel’s relationship. “We’re definitely not co-dependent,” says Rachel.
While both are still involved in filmmaking, Bryan has just finished his debut novel, a taut character-driven crime thriller. He claims he has no idea where the idea for the shocking opening to The Drowning came from, though certainly the tale’s setting was inspired by these parts and possibly by some of the locals – murderer excepted.
Particularly impressive are his female characters, who show depths of courage in often grim situations and are never depicted as victims, which Bryan says is innate. “Have you seen the women in my life? Starting with my mother, a very strong woman; had to be to get through the life she had. And then there’s Rachel, no retiring flower, and my daughters who are bright and give me s*** in the best way. I’m influenced by women’s choices and behaviour all the time and I enjoy writing about women.”
Rachel Ward’s farm film
While Bryan has been writing, Rachel has spent the past three years hurling herself headlong into converting this place – which has been the family getaway for decades – from conventional to regenerative farming. It’s not a hobby, Rachel is deadly serious. The devastating effects of three years of drought followed by the 2019-2020 Black Summer bushfires were the catalyst for a blinding realisation. Climate change and intensive farming had created an ecological disaster. Action was needed fast. So, with eyes now wide open, Rachel has set out on a life’s mission to save her barren land, capturing the challenging, back-breaking, emotional journey in a gripping documentary – Rachel’s Farm – as a call to action for others.
Working on the land with farm manager and neighbour Mick Green has often left Rachel solo in the house, with Bryan in their city home or away filming. “I find that I am good on my own. He’s fine on his own, too. I think it’s pretty healthy after 40 years of marriage to have some time apart,” she says. “We’re quite independent of each other.”
What’s more, becoming a full-time farmhand to breathe life into the clapped-out soil and implement a radical program of sustainable farming has energised Rachel and given the British born and raised 66-year-old a sense of belonging she has never felt before.
How did Bryan Brown and Rachel Ward meet?
Bryan and Rachel famously fell in love on the set of The Thorn Birds in 1982, the hit TV series adapted from Colleen McCullough’s sweeping romantic novel. Looking back, both agree on the source of that initial spark. “Sex. It was obviously your classic sexual attraction,” says Rachel grinning.
“Yes, straight off,” says Bryan. “But I think also it’s about how you share things. You feel comfortable. It feels right. She made me laugh a lot.”
By nature, Bryan is cautious, sensible and balanced. In Rachel he met a rebel who questioned everything, and that wasn’t the only difference. Rachel came from England’s upper classes, raised in a country pile in the well-heeled Cotswolds. Bryan was from working-class south-west Sydney.
“It was definitely opposites attract because we could not have been more opposite,” says Rachel. “I grew up in a world that was very hedonistic, and I wasn’t sure what my family’s values were. My father would vote for a system that benefited him, never for a system that served civic society. So, when I met Bryan, he had very strong values, from his mum, from being Catholic, voting Labor, he was a very moral man and I loved that.”
In contrast, Rachel’s childhood was like something out of Downton Abbey, she explains. “It was very much children should be seen and not heard. We had that thing where we went to see our parents in the evening to say goodnight, with our hair brushed and in our dressing gowns. I barely knew them.”
At age 10, Rachel was sent away to boarding school but as a girl her education was of little consequence to her parents. “The middle and the working classes in England moved on quite quickly with women’s rights and opportunities. It was the upper-middle class that stayed very much in the aspic of Victoriana.
“My father used to say, ‘What do you need an education for? You’re pretty enough to marry someone very rich.’ Or his other classic was, ‘There’s nothing more boring than an educated woman’. He was a stirrer, but he kind of meant it.”
Rachel was happiest when she was out in nature, on the farm, which became a giddy playground on weekends and holidays. “One of the great fun things to do as a kid was to stand in one of the harvesting bins and be rained on by corn and mice and rats and other things. I remember the shepherds and the lambs and we had ponies.
“English country life was incredible and is probably why I am enjoying farming so much now.”Rachel Ward
When Rachel went out into the world – first modelling in the UK and New York, and then acting – that upbringing created more problems. As soon as she opened her mouth she was judged, her plummy vowels setting her up for many falls. “David Bailey [the celebrity photographer] would go, ‘Oh we’ve got the posh one today, how’s Mummy, has she got her hat for Ascot?’ You were very much open to mockery.
Rachel also felt embarrassed. “I found coming from an elite background awkward. I would work with a lot of people who were working class, middle class, whatever, and I got an ear as to how the establishment were viewed. It was not favourable. It was the ’60s and ’70s and I just felt we were all ridiculous. Every time you were portrayed in film or books you were always the imperialists. We had the power.”
It’s no wonder Rachel left for the US at 19 and when she met Bryan she was excited to embark on a life in Australia. For Bryan, marrying Rachel was also a leap in the dark but not because of her background. He had never considered marriage or a family before. “I remember talking to my sister before I met Rachel and saying, ‘We’ll probably never get married because we came from a broken home’. If you haven’t seen something work, you’re not going to repeat it.”
Bryan’s mother Molly raised her two children single-handedly after their father walked out. “I never, ever gave a thought to marriage. I was 34 when I met Rachel; she was 24. I didn’t expect that I was going to meet someone and get married. I was just bouncing around, glad that I was getting this chance to act.”
But Bryan was captivated and only months after they met, he proposed. “He asked me very quickly and I said, ‘I don’t know, can’t you ask me again later?’. He said, ‘maybe not’,” recalls Rachel. “So I said ‘yes’. At that age, you have no concept of how long life is. I’d already lived in New York and I’d already lived in LA and I went, ‘Oh yes, Australia sounds kind of interesting’.”
Rachel Ward and Bryan Brown come home
What did she make of Australia back then? “I thought it was completely exotic and fabulous,” she smiles. “It was very foreign, very different. I was definitely romanced by it. We were going to spend half our time in America because that’s where I was getting my work, and half here. But the minute you have kids things change. America wasn’t my country, and it then became obvious that we were going to be here.
“Pretty quickly I realised Bryan could never live anywhere but Australia. It’s like his blood, he’s plugged into it. All his energy, all his spirit, all his passion, all his football teams, his culture – he’s just so deeply Australian and so deeply loyal to it. I don’t have the same feeling about England, especially my England, the England that I came from.”
While they happily raised three children, Rachel says over the years she has struggled to find her “real place” in Australia. “It’s not easy not to live where you come from,” she says.
At those times, Matilda says, Bryan has been “a pillar of strength … patient, kind and gentle; just ‘we’ll get through this and we’re all behind you’.”
“I’ve got a darkness in me,” Rachel explains further, “and Bryan’s got an eternal lightness in him. It’s maybe why we are attracted. It balances us in a way. I probably am a bit of a whingeing Pom. He’s the optimistic Aussie. I think one can have degrees of both. Sometimes his rose-coloured lenses are not quite discerning enough for me and he probably thinks mine are annoyingly untrusting.”
But regenerating the farm has created big changes in Rachel. “She’s been the most at peace ever since she’s been at the farm this much.”
When I ask Rachel if she now feels the sense of belonging she craved, she nods. “I do. Being in the entertainment industry was challenging, mainly because the artist’s job is really to reflect and build your culture, and I was never going to be a quintessential Australian. I think I got a lot of opportunity from the ‘pretty ticket’ but in a way, it stopped me developing.
“I wish I’d farmed from day one. I would like to have done something that was much more physically demanding. I need to be physically engaged and I need to get exhausted. I bloody love this.”
Read a longer version of this feature in the November 2023 issue of the magazine.