Portrait

Lunch at a busy cafe with Alison Bell. By Sarah Price.

Actress and screenwriter Alison Bell

Within minutes of meeting Alison Bell I’m laughing. We’re talking about boobs. Boobs that swell, leak and sag. Boobs that suddenly shrink. Boobs that are publicly irreverent, refusing in a cafe or restaurant to be tucked gracefully into thick-strapped maternity bras. Talk of boobs turns to sleep deprivation and fatigued sex, public pressure and mother guilt. You can’t anticipate it, she says, and I agree. Being a new parent can sometimes be hilarious; other times, utterly demoralising. Somehow, Bell manages to make it both. She’s jaw-achingly funny. Honest. Very clever.

It’s midday, and we sit at a tiled cafe bench overlooking Albion Street in Sydney’s Surry Hills. Bell arrived early from a script-reading session, inconspicuous in jeans and a white shirt, dark hair pulled back in a loose ponytail. Sitting straight-backed on a steel stool with her legs crossed, she laughs, describes herself as “scruffy”. Hers is a beautiful kind of scruffy: minimal make-up over translucent skin, warm smile, large brown eyes in which an audience might lose themselves.

For more than 10 years she’s acted on the stage and screen, from serious theatre roles, for which she’s won two Helpmann Awards, to the sexually indulgent Roo McVie in the ABC series Laid. At its core, she tells me, acting is about empathy. “My job is to empathise with the character and be truthful to their experience. We look for familiarity and revelation in art and stories. That’s really important to me: that a story or a script has both of those aspects. It’s when we get to present the grey, challenge the binaries: that’s what I love.” The characters that stay with her are those that are beautifully drawn, that have extraordinary depth. “It keeps them alive, they feel like real people. If you spoke to my partner, he’d tell you that I don’t always shake some of the characters that quickly.”

Stretching behind us, the cafe echoes a frenetic din, its grey interior pallid against the bright day. Bell studies the menu. She suggests the huevos rancheros, the meal reminisced about by the newly parented couple in her latest work, The Letdown. After five years writing the show with her friend, Sarah Scheller, the script has given birth to an ABC pilot and possibly a series.

As co-writer, actor, associate producer and “baby wrangler”, Bell has been part of the problem solving and “in the middle of the story”. Her aim for the show is clear: to make people laugh, to make parents feel less guilty, “less alone in it”. So much pressure is placed on mothers, she says seriously, and there’s an odd assumption that if a woman falls pregnant she will know what to do. Presenting a different take on motherhood was important, “because with women, you don’t often see the truth on the screen”.

For the first three years of writing the show, Bell was the observer: friend and sister of people who had children. Then she fell pregnant. “I thought I knew, then I was in it,” she laughs. “It’s a life of extremes. I adore my son. It swings from being the most beautiful, humbling thing, to the most demoralising and challenging. Maybe you can’t have one without the other. You just have to accept that you could be humiliated at any moment.”

We talk about kids and work. Hanging on to aspects of her previous life has been difficult, she admits. “The biggest hit is to your relationships. I am mid-career, had a baby and took a hit. I’ve seen a lot of women lose. It takes an extraordinary woman to have children and give up everything.”
Bell is very composed. There’s no hint of fatigue you’d expect in a person with so much going on. I ask how she manages it all and immediately she’s talking about her partner, writer and actor John Leary. “He does a lot of the primary caring. We genuinely share the job. He’s humble. He values my career.” Logistically, though, it’s very difficult. “We’re gypsies,” she says. Normally based in Melbourne, they’re currently in Sydney for Leary’s work at the Sydney Theatre Company. “We don’t have a lot of routine. I sometimes crave that. But we have spontaneous jobs. There’s no routine apart from bedtime.”

Laughing, she talks about changes to her motivation since having a child. “Now I feel I can achieve more. I’ve discovered how lazy I was.” Since becoming a mother, she’s had a kick of ambition, “in terms of wanting to contribute positively”. Focused more on writing now, she wants to be part of changing the way women are presented on screen. “I see that as writing women in ways that are more truthful, respectful and well rounded,” she says. “I don’t want to rely on other people to do it anymore.”

There’s a moment of quiet as Bell looks through the open window to the street, forehead creasing into a slight frown. She rests her cutlery and continues, hands motioning, chipped red nail polish arcing and circling as she speaks. “I get really frustrated about representations of women on the screen. I’ve stayed on the stage mostly because of opportunity, but also because I get to play very complex women on the stage. There’s not so many of those roles on the screen, but it’s changing. It will change faster if we start writing them ourselves. I said to myself, ‘Stop whingeing about the lack of roles and start writing them.’

“These representations aren’t frequent enough, they need to be told. These are a lot of people’s stories.” At its best, she says, storytelling can make people feel good in the world. “It’s liberating, to think how I can twist this utterly demoralising moment into something that’s funny. Making people have a good laugh is a very noble purpose.”

It’s nearly 2pm, and our plates are cleared. A few wavy tendrils have escaped Bell’s ponytail and she’s checking her watch, excusing herself. She needs to get back to her son. She smiles goodbye and disappears through the door of the cafe, rushing away to her temporary home, to relieve the babysitter.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 11, 2016 as "Laughing mater". Subscribe here.

Sarah Price
is a Sydney-based writer.