Kate Mulvany’s world of pain – The Australian

It’s summer in New York City and here’s Kate Mulvany, alone in her apartment, having just deposited a couple of drops of golden tincture beneath her tongue. Outside, the sidewalk simmers, hotter than a match head, flaring in the sun. The windows of her corner brownstone in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene overlook the magnolias and old-growth trees of a neighbourhood park, but the actor and writer is far away. Somewhere, in fact, she has never been.

The potion fuelling her magic carpet ride is CBD oil, the latest wellness craze to sweep through the trend-obsessed capital of the world. Also known as cannabidiol, CBD is a non-psychoactive compound extracted from the cannabis plant and infused into a dizzying array of oils, lotions and — because this is New York — coffee, gummy bears, popcorn, cupcakes and cocktails. CBD is holy water to believers, promising to treat ailments from epilepsy to anxiety, arthritis to insomnia. Mulvany uses it for pain.

“I very hesitantly tried it, and for the first time in years I had a full half-hour pain-free,” she tells me during a Skype conversation a few weeks later. “And it was… I cried. I couldn’t believe I had no pain. I had no pain. At all. It was a very strange feeling and I went, ‘This is how most people must feel and must walk in the world’.”

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Mulvany, 41, has been living with chronic pain for almost 30 years. It’s the last thing she feels before sleep, the first feeling she has upon waking. A constant, invisible companion, whimpering and tugging at her sleeve since her early teens, when she first began to suffer the physical effects of excessive radiation used to treat the renal ­cancer she was born with.

Pain has ridden shotgun on the wild ride that has taken her from the far-flung port town of ­Geraldton in Western Australia to Perth and on to Sydney, where she has forged a career as one of Australia’s busiest actors and a prolific playwright and screenwriter. It’s dogged her through stage roles including Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Julius ­Caesar and Richard III, for which she won a Helpmann Award in 2017; while writing the musical Somewhere with Tim Minchin; and while adapting Jasper Jones for Belvoir St Theatre and The Harp in the South for Sydney Theatre Company.

She is renowned for being one of the ­hardest-working women in Australian showbiz. “She doesn’t complain at all,” says her best friend, actor Damon Herriman. “I forget that she has it [pain]. On set, no one would know.”

Kate Mulvany with Damon Herriman in The Little Death, 2014. Picture: supplied
Kate Mulvany with Damon Herriman in The Little Death, 2014. Picture: supplied

Along with big-screen roles in The Great Gatsby, The Turning, The Little Death (aka A Funny Kind of Love) and The Merger, Mulvany has starred in Underbelly, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Secret City and ­Fighting ­Season. In Foxtel’s upcoming series Lambs of God she plays a woman wrestling with addiction. “She has a great ability to take that pain and channel it into what she’s doing,” says showrunner Sarah Lambert. “I think that’s what makes for such raw and real performances; there’s no one else who can do it quite like that.”

Mulvany has perfected a choreography of movements to alleviate the pain in her back. She favours the left side. After a cancer-riddled kidney and a number of ribs were removed, those back muscles atrophied and the damaged vertebrae of her spine curved to match the contours of severe scoliosis. Because she has one kidney, she can’t take prescription painkillers although, believe her, she would ingest them by the handful if she could.

Costuming, lighting and blocking help when she’s working. Often, though, she’ll be the one leaning, hand on the back of a chair, or angled against a doorway. Performing, inhabiting a ­fictional body, takes her blessedly out of her own. But when it’s over, when the lights are killed, often she can no longer walk.

She’s here in New York with actor husband Hamish Michael while filming opposite Al Pacino in TV drama series The Hunt. Al Pacino! It’s a big deal; her first US gig, a breakthrough of sorts. Is she more thrilled about that or the discovery of CBD oil? It’s a toss-up.

I’ve long admired the blazing talent of this busy artist but, like much of her audience, had no idea that she suffered as she does. She disguises it well. It doesn’t define her. Lambert notes that everyone who encounters Kate Mulvany falls a ­little bit in love and, after just a short time in her bright-eyed, candid and generous company, I find myself cheering her on against the pain. Urging her to greatness, willing her escape.

Mulvany with husband Hamish Michael. Picture: supplied
Mulvany with husband Hamish Michael. Picture: supplied

It began when she was three years old. After she tripped and fell on a jetty during a visit to ­Fremantle, her mother Glenys, disturbed by the disproportionate intensity of the toddler’s screaming, rushed her to hospital. “Well, as you know, hers is a serious cancer,” the doctors said. Glenys was horrified: she’d had no idea. What she had cherished as a cute little pot belly was, in fact, a tumour that had been growing inside her ­daughter’s tiny body since birth. The second blow came when the family learnt the cancer was likely a result of her father Danny’s exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

“I was never angry at my body,” she says now, “but I’ve been angry at the systems that made my body this way.” Mulvany — blonde pixie cut, mismatched earrings, mustard-coloured “Brooklyn” sweatshirt — is sitting on an overstuffed couch in her living room, tilted slightly to the left. She tends to slouch into the scooped-out well in her side, a deep pocket of pain that replaces organs, bone and muscle lost to the aggressive treatments that managed to destroy her childhood cancer but also blighted her childhood.

“I’m angry that I have a cancer that came from the spraying of dioxin in South-East Asia in a war six years before I was even born,” she continues. “I’m angry that it has taken us so long to start cleaning up that dioxin.” The Agent Orange dioxin, one of the most toxic chemicals known to man, is thought to be responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths; a fourth generation is now suffering from associated illnesses including ­cancers, birth defects, auto-immune diseases and neurological defects. “There are babies being born that still have this toxin inside them,” she says. Mulvany is ambassador for Agent Orange Justice, agitating for redress on behalf of her “brothers and sisters of the mist” around the world.

Tears replace anger when talk turns to her dad, a ten-pound Pom who was conscripted to fight for Australia in the jungles of Nui Dat. He died in 2017 after a protracted battle with oesophageal cancer. He suffered from PTSD. “He was a ­superhero who held a lot of guilt from this legacy of dioxin,” she says. “He was angry about that, heartbroken and traumatised by that.”

Pre-dawn crayfishing trips off the wild coast of Geraldton with her dad form blissful childhood memories. But he also blamed himself for all the time his feather-light, bald little girl spent in the oncology ward, subjected to daily needles, operations and violent blasts of chemo. His blood was her blood and his blood was poison.

Like many veterans, Danny spoke about the war reluctantly. But Mulvany was a fellow soldier in that legacy and had every right to ask ­questions, which he answered graciously and honestly. From those conversations grew The Seed. Mulvany began writing the award-winning autobiographical play at 20, a year after she finished her studies at Perth’s Curtin University and set off across the Nullarbor to seek her fortune in Sydney. It won the Philip Parsons Young Playwrights Award in 2004 and the words kept coming, the scripts piling up in tandem with a burgeoning stage and screen ­presence. Belvoir St Theatre staged The Seed a few years later and she played the part of Rose, a stand-in for herself, a young woman who can’t have children because of the cancer handed down from her father. There’s a line about Rose’s ­inability to “pass things on, good or bad” and how hard it was for Mulvany to say it, we’ll never know. She disguises pain well.

The script for a film version of The Seed is ready to go, waiting for a rare break in her schedule. It’s not unusual for her to be writing a play and a TV series while also acting in a film and starting rehearsals for another play. “I’ve trained myself to do that,” she says. “I don’t really like a hectic ­lifestyle but for some reason I tend to have seven or eight things on the go at once. I think that comes from being a young artist and being told to never say no to anything so you desperately say yes, yes, yes and all of a sudden it becomes a habit.”

Perhaps it also comes from this: when Mulvany was a girl, she dreamt of one day having six ­children. Her plays are her babies. She’s written 25. “If I leave a legacy it’s through them,” she says. Suddenly, the anger is back. “My mum had always been very good at saying I probably couldn’t have children but when a doctor definitely said to me, ‘Don’t do it, don’t even try’ I was furious. That was the first time I’d really felt bitter fury about who the f..k had made that choice about my body. Why would my body always have to deal with this?” How fair is it, she asks, that she could not give her father a grandchild because “someone made a decision to drop some chemicals on a country”?

Damon Herriman first met Mulvany when they starred together in the 2002 Belvoir St ­Theatre production of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child. A shared love of the Beatles kicked off a deep and abiding friendship that has seen them through plenty of highs and some terrible lows. It was ­Herriman who Mulvany turned to following the 2008 suicide of her partner, All Saints actor Mark Priestley, after a long depression. She stayed for nine months in near-seclusion in the attic of ­Herriman’s home in Sydney’s inner-west. “That was obviously just a horrible time,” he says, “trying to find the right things to say to your friend who you love and care about and seeing them in such pain.” Herriman has worked steadily in Australia and is well known to US audiences for his role in the drama series Justified; he’ll next appear as Charles Manson in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and in the second season of Netflix hit Mindhunter. Ahead of that, the two friends will reunite for Foxtel’s upcoming original series Lambs of God, marking only the second time they’ve appeared on screen together after The Little Death in 2014. “We’re way more used to lying on a couch with a glass of wine watching TV than acting together,” Herriman laughs.

Mulvany with Daniel Henshall in Lambs of God. Picture: Mark Rogers
Mulvany with Daniel Henshall in Lambs of God. Picture: Mark Rogers

Lambs of God stars Essie Davis, Jessica Barden and The Handmaid’s Tale’s Ann Dowd as three nuns locked away in a remote convent who go on the defensive when a young priest (Sam Reid) brings news the church has sold their home to developers. Based on the novel by Sydney author Marele Day, it’s a tasty slice of Australian Gothic, all wax-dripping candelabras, derelict structures and damaged eccentrics, shot through with tar-black humour. Mulvany plays the priest’s estranged sister, “a broken butterfly” role that Lambert wrote into the story with her in mind. “There’s a rawness and a truth to Kate that I’ve always watched and admired,” she says, adding that no one donned kid gloves while she was on set. “You watch her ­preserve her energies for certain moments but we never had to accommodate [her chronic pain]. She just works bloody hard and never makes it anybody else’s problem.”

Mulvany’s working life got a whole lot easier the day she made a choice to embrace a label she’d baulked at. She was disabled. Proud of her body, and what it could do, but disabled. “I had no idea I could call it a disability,” she says. “Then one day a friend with a disability said, ‘You can’t walk some days, you live in chronic pain, your body can’t do the things that an able body can — that’s a disability’. And it was so nice, it was a relief, to say, ‘OK, I do’. ” For a decade now, she’s been utterly frank with colleagues about her boundaries. “I never turn down jobs because of my pain,” she says. Instead she says no, she can’t wear those high heels. In rehearsal, she’ll explain that she’s having a bad day, can she just rest a bit? People understand. “You know, it’s cancer; it’s going to have side effects and it did,” she says. “But if I hadn’t had the treatment that put me in this chronic pain I wouldn’t be here at all.”

In 2017, Mulvany dropped all pretence to play the role of the crippled “hunchback king” in Bell Shakespeare’s Richard III, a freeing experience that allowed her to not only reveal every coil and quirk of her body to the world but to offer it as a gift. “For the first time in 20 years as an actor I didn’t hide,” she says. “I wanted people to see my spine and the effect cancer has had on my body. I showed it in rehearsal one day, took my clothes off and said, ‘This is my real body, how my body wants to walk’. It was one of those jaw-drop moments with everyone in the cast going, ‘I had no idea’. Life kind of shifted on that day. It was completely empowering.”

Kate Mulvany in Richard III, 2017. Picture: Prudence Upton
Kate Mulvany in Richard III, 2017. Picture: Prudence Upton

Mulvany’s life experiences have left her with an unusual amount of compassion for those who are faulty or flawed and she found herself with plenty of sympathy for the devil that was King Richard. “I felt very protective of him, even though Shakespeare made him a villainous figure,” she says. “I’ve had terrible things said about my body over the years and if you’ve been told your body is monstrous, if you’re told you’re abnormal, you don’t fit the notion of beauty… well, I can see why Richard snapped. He wasn’t born a monster; he was made a monster by a lack of empathy and love.”

Water fights. Ice cream. Things with stripes. Falling in love. There are many reasons to choose life but, in the face of despair, sometimes it takes a great effort to recall them. Just before leaving for New York in March, Mulvany staged a one-woman show called Every Brilliant Thing at ­Belvoir, a performance that earned her a Helpmann nomination. (She’s also been nominated for her adaptation of Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South trilogy.) In it, her character describes growing up with a suicidal mother and the quest to save her by creating an inventory of things worth living for.

The play’s themes of depression and loss disturbed a deep seam of hurt in Mulvany, a continuum of emotional pain tracking back to Priestley’s suicide. “It was a lot harder than I expected,” she says quietly. “But it was also incredibly uplifting and inspiring. I’d walk down to the foyer after each show to check in on people to see they were OK and for them to see that I was OK. Almost every single person in the audience was or would be in their lives somehow touched by suicide or mental illness. It’s a big killer.”

Mulvany with Mark Priestley at Belvoir St Theatre, 2008. Picture: Richard Dobson
Mulvany with Mark Priestley at Belvoir St Theatre, 2008. Picture: Richard Dobson

The trauma of Priestley’s suicide has shifted gears over the years but never vanished. “It’s a part of my being,” she says. “Death is one thing; suicide is a whole other thing.” Mulvany has always talked openly of Priestley, his very public death, and his struggles with mental illness. She keeps him ­present. “Any grief stays with you but it’s not always a shadow,” she says. “Sometimes grief is a light inside you that you hold onto because you’re so grateful that you knew that person. With Mark that’s how I feel. I still feel complete sadness that he didn’t grow past the age of 32 but I also feel such pride that he walked this Earth and I got to walk next to him during his time here. So my grief is a very warm, loving grief.”

At the time she met Hamish it wasn’t. It was a fierce, cold, confused and angry grief. Raw. Meeting her future husband was like finding shelter on a ledge above the abyss. “I was very lonely and grief-stricken but also needing to get up and live again,” she says. She’d started back working, in a Sydney Theatre Company production of Rabbit, and a friend’s wedding prompted a rare night out. “It was an Australiana-themed wedding and I was dressed as a gumnut,” she recalls. “I had a dance on the dancefloor and a spotlight kept hitting me wherever I went and it was Hamish on the spotlight, dressed as a sailor. From that moment on we were just together. I’d known him for many years but hadn’t seen him in a while and he made me feel safe after a long time of not feeling safe.” They were married in 2015 at City Hall in New York; Herriman was “bridesman”.

Mulvany is “happily agnostic” but feels solidly connected to the departed, wherever they are. “I think there’s something very scientific about spirituality,” she says. “I once had this amazing woman say to me that whether we become dust or dimension we still remain part of the energy in this universe. I love those moments where you have that feeling that that person is around you; whether that is made up by me or whether it actually exists, it doesn’t matter, because it makes us feel better. It gives us that moment of reflection and thanks.”

This week, for some reason, her late father has felt especially present. “I have his medals and his Vietnam hat in my room here and it still smells of him,” she says. “Every now and then when I have one of those days, I pick up the hat and just smell it and say, ‘Thanks Dad, I needed that’. My dad built roads so he smelt of dirt and earth and dust.”

New York with its rivers of golden CBD oil willbe Mulvany’s home until at least October. She’s enjoying filming The Hunt, a period drama about Nazi-hunters in America; it’s the first time she can remember having just one project on the boil. Shooting into the early hours of the morning, she’s been pushing her body to the limit, muffling its shrieks of protests until the work is done.

There’s an electrical storm building outside now and Mulvany is about to settle in to watch an episode of a new American TV series called ­Perpetual Grace, starring her friends Herriman and Jacki Weaver. “Each day is kind of the same as the next but also very different to the next,” she says. There are no pain-free days, just pain-free moments. “Sometimes it’s so overwhelming that it sends you into a pit of despair,” she says. “I’m not going to lie, it’s got harder as I get older. But I’m proud of my body. My body is brilliant. It’s scarred and it’s wonky and it hurts and it can’t do a lot of stuff but it keeps me going.”

Lambs of God screens on Foxtel from July 21.

Feature Writer


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