Award-winning actor Rebecca Gibney has been working steadily in film and television for more than 40 years, with starring roles in everything from Sea Urchins to Packed to the Rafters. Gibney's latest project is a mini-series, the scenic Central Otago romance, Under the Vines, where she stars with Downton Abbey's Charles Edwards. Premiering on TVNZ1 from January 19.
There is a plaque with my name on it on Oxford St in Levin, because I was born in Levin, but I spent my early childhood in Hastings, where my father was a dry cleaner. When I was 10, dad changed careers and became a gardener at the Wellington Botanical Gardens so I spent my early teens in Wellington. Dad was also an alcoholic, so we moved around a fair bit and because we were always renting, we were always moving. By the time I was 18, we'd lived in around 25 houses.
I'm still a real gypsy toes. Even though I've loved the places we've lived, I'll often say, what's next? I'd been living in Australia for 35 years, when we came back to New Zealand, to do season two of Wanted. We set up in Queenstown, and we'd only been there a couple of weeks when our son Zac, he was 12 then, asked to stay. He's a real outdoors kid, and to be able to crawl through long grass and not worry about snakes and spiders was a revelation to him. He was born in Tasmania, we had 15 beautiful acres on a river, but it was full of snakes and spiders and he was constantly being bitten by jack jumpers. For a young boy to be told you can't do this and can't do that, to hear, yeah you can roll down that hill, you can crawl through that grass, he was like "Hallelujah I'm home".
There was a lot of trauma in my childhood. Dad was prone to violent outbursts, but I mostly remember the good stuff. Like when Dad won the Golden Kiwi when I was 6. He'd had a dream of turkeys, so instead of buying the syndicate's ticket on Friday, he bought it on the Tuesday, and won $24,000. He didn't have to share it, because he'd had the dream and he'd bought the ticket but, being part of a syndicate, he shared it. That was a lot of money in the early 70s, they each got around $4000. I remember being taken out of school for the day and given five dollars to spend on whatever I wanted. That was heaven on a stick.
I also remember Dad bringing home watermelons, spreading newspaper on the floor and us having pip-spitting competitions. You'd get points for how far you could spit pips. I'm so thankful to have grown up back then, when life was simple, before social media, even though there were nights Dad would come home and have these drunken rages. My older brothers and sisters - Michael, Teresa, Patrick, Diana and Stella - they experienced that more than me because I was often tucked away in bed, protected from a lot of it. Dad died when I was 17. He had a blood-clotting disease and he'd lost one leg and was due to lose the other. He didn't want to go back into hospital so perhaps he willed himself to die. My poor mum was home alone with him. She woke up and realised he'd stopped breathing. It was horrible.
I was a straight-A student at Kelburn Normal School but at about 13 or 14, when I was at Wellington Girls' College, I started to rebel. I started smoking and I stopped studying. I hated the world and I blamed my rebellion on my dad. Back then, I'd come home some days, and he'd be in his armchair with half a bottle of gin, then he'd get up and stagger down the hallway and I'd help him into bed. I couldn't bring friends home, and it made me angry and the angrier I got, the more I struggled. By 15 I was wagging and getting into trouble, so I left school and bagged fruit and worked for Radio Windy in the promo department. I also worked part-time at a modelling agency, when I was cast in a film. I'd never acted before, but I auditioned and got the role. I ended up on set in the South Island. The crew were lovely but the horrible German director went through three translators and everybody hated him. if I had to cry on set, he'd roll camera, then slap my face and say "now, you act".
I thought, if that's acting you can shove it. Back in Wellington, I auditioned for a kids' show called Sea Urchins that was being made for TVNZ. It was wonderful. Three months on boats in the Marlborough Sounds. Not long after, I went to Australia for a holiday, and I was working on a film set in the costume department when someone suggested I try get an agent. I auditioned for two new shows, then came back to New Zealand because I was homesick but, two weeks before Christmas, 1984, I found out I'd got both roles, so I moved back to Australia and it was non-stop from there. I often felt like I was faking it, as I'd never had a lesson, and while other actors were having in-depth discussions about Shakespeare and Stanislavski, I had no idea what they were talking about. But I worked hard and I kept getting jobs.
I had a mini emotional collapse in my early 30s. I'd had panic attacks from the age of 14, but they got worse after my first marriage broke down. Eventually, I was pushed over the edge while in the south of France at the television festival, with Halifax f.p. Our plane was grounded in Nice, I was with the producer Roger Le Mesurier, we're on the tarmac, the plane is packed, it's really hot and I started having a massive anxiety attack. I actually thought I was having a heart attack. It was so bad they brought in an oxygen tank. Eventually, we got to Heathrow, then I had to take five Valium to get back to Australia. When we landed in Melbourne, Roger handed me a card and said, "you need to see this woman".
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
I went back to my little flat but I was in such a bad place. The attacks were coming thick and fast and I developed agoraphobia. I couldn't leave my house, and I couldn't even tell Mum. It was terrible. So I rang the woman, and I saw her twice a week for six months then every week for a year. She saved my life.
She helped me see that I had spent my life pretending - not just as an actor but in real life as well. I had been covering things up. My heart would race, my hands clammy, I genuinely thought I was going insane, but it was just my body's way of saying, you haven't dealt with these things, so you have to take a moment and figure out what's going on, or you'll get really sick. Then there's that little voice in your head that says "you're not good enough". I'd been pushing that down for years. But the panic attacks forced me to do deal with it, to work out where those feelings were coming from. Because if you don't deal with your stuff, it will keep coming back. Luckily I learnt that lesson in my early 30s. It doesn't mean it's all fixed, but I now have the tools to deal with those feelings.
One of the joys of being over 50, I don't really care what people think of me. Acting's not the be all and end all either. Don't get me wrong, I love my job and I feel incredibly fortunate to have this career, but it's what I do for a living, it's not who I am. My son Zac has just finished high school and he loves acting – it's his thing. He's been accepted into Toi Whakaari next year and I wish I had his confidence when I was that age, but I was so busy worrying about my insecurities I didn't focus on the things I did have. These days, I can look in the mirror and say, "gee your eyes look nice today", instead of "oh god, more crow's feet".
Another great thing about getting older, there's no glass ceiling. There's no ceiling at all. Bugger that. I don't believe in ceilings. I don't believe in closed doors, I'll boot them down. If we don't get funding for a project, we'll find it elsewhere, or we'll just do it. I've made a lot of friends in the business so if I have to, I'll buy a bloody camera, get everyone together, make a frickin' film, sell it to a streamer and we can all share in the profits. The only person in charge of your life is you. You can't rely on anyone else to make something happen. In a business that relies so heavily on being chosen, I decided long ago, if I want to keep working I need to be a part of the whole process. Clearly, I believe in manifestation.
I'm all about being human. I wish we could ditch the labels and accept everyone for who they are. I don't censor myself. I'm happy with who I am now. If something I say or an experience I've shared can help someone then great but, if someone doesn't like it, tough titties. I don't need validation from anyone, because life is too short to worry about what people think of me. I am who I am and there's a real freedom when you get to that place.