She contains multitudes

Prue Waterman, Sheila Turner, Kerry Burgess, Lisa Cook, Angela Burke, Daphne Graham, the Reverend Grace Curtis and Pippa Ross have something in common. They, among others, are the beloved Australian actor, Debra Lawrance.

And if it wasn’t for a fill-in gig in a Monash University production of The Boyfriend, the then 14-year-old might have become the doctor she thought she wanted to be, she told fellow Media Super member, Kelly Kayne.

Auspicious beginnings

Debra has been among us in various guises since she left the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) as part of the class of 1977, which contained fellow luminaries like Mel Gibson, Judy Davis and Steve Bisley.

‘I was very young when I went to NIDA. I loved every minute of the training; it felt like coming home, and I feel I left with a really thorough experience of the craft of acting, a good solid work method, and a trained voice and body.

‘I notice the same elements in other graduates with whom I’m fortunate to work from time to time, she said.

Anticipating a theatre career, Debra was pleasantly surprised at the amount of television work she was offered.

‘We had the security of Crawford Productions’ series in those days – they provided a good quantity of work over a variety of shows, and it was a very safe place to learn the technicalities of TV performance on the job,’ Debra said.

Debra’s career mirrors the Australian television industry growing up – The Sullivans, Glenview High and Skyways in the 1970s; A Country Practice, Sons and Daughters, Prisoner, and The Fast Lane in the 1980s; and Home and Away and Blue Heelers straddling the 1990s and 2000s.

Home and Away provided a home

Probably best known for her character Pippa Ross, Debra is grateful to her eight-year stint in the long-running series Home and Away. It provided acting challenges, financial security and it was where she met husband, Dennis Coard.

‘We lived a huge chunk of our relationship on that Ross house set… from secretly dating to secretly marrying and then being secretly pregnant until it was safe to let everyone know… then (daughter) Grace and her nanny were in a room just off to the side of the studio.

‘No-one knew that such a long run was in the future of the show. And now there’s a great many actors who would love to be working on it because, if your character is popular, you could be employed forever!’ Debra said.

What’s not to like?

Post Home and Away, Debra’s theatre career has flourished with roles in the London tour of Jack Davis’ No Sugar, Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of The Memory of Water, Steel Magnolias and the title role in Driving Miss Daisy.

But it’s Debra’s role as Rose in the Josh Thomas comedy, Please Like Me, that she describes as ‘one of the best jobs I’ve ever had, and I’ve worked with Meryl Streep!’. Debra plays Thomas’ troubled mum, a woman whose life hasn’t quite turned out as hoped and is further burdened with a diagnosis of bi-polar disorder.

‘When playing someone who has a mental illness, the responsibility to not stuff it up is really strong. You have to get it right. Not just for the people who are sufferers, but for the people who care about them — their loved ones.

‘Actors are there to represent the human condition back to itself. It’s never about the actor. It’s about the content. That’s what I strive for in my work.

‘I don’t want people to see Debra. I want people to see Rose, and more than Rose, the state of Rose. I want people to feel that state,’ Debra said.

If the show’s success is anything to go by, Debra is achieving that in spades. The ABC is soon to screen the third series of Please Like Me, and thanks to US cable channel Pivot TV, it already enjoys an enthusiastic audience all over the world.

Advice from the future

And if she could offer some advice to a young Debra starting out?

‘I would tell my younger self to be more courageous; but my younger self would probably look at me quizzically and say “what are you talking about, where did you come from and why do you look vaguely familiar?”’