Asher Keddie has long been popular. But now that she’s also being recognised for the quality of her acting, will the US come calling? By Steve Dow.

Asher Keddie shows off her Party Tricks

2013 Gold Logie winner Asher Keddie.
2013 Gold Logie winner Asher Keddie.

Strange force, this power of popularity. Actors chase audience recognition for years, and the love is sometimes returned magnified and manifold. Fans are ready everywhere with a warm greeting, so there’s the tricky ground of negotiating emotional terrain away from the cameras. When a handsome, confident painter who has never seen a performance by Asher Keddie, Australia’s most popular television actor, asks to paint her for the Archibald Prize for portraiture, she falls for him, and he for her. 

Their artistic popularity is consistent and concurrent: Vincent Fantauzzo has already won the People’s Choice award twice at the Archibald, then a third time in 2013 for his huge canvas of Keddie, and again, in 2014, for his painting of his four-year-old son. She marries him, on a beach in Fiji, reinforcing their combined appeal in perpetuity, like some kind of replicating popularity DNA, a double helix of charisma.

Back in Melbourne, Keddie is now playing a political leader whose centre-left vision is for improved public transport rather than freeways and toll roads, and who despises dirt units and smear campaigns. She is tempted to sacrifice her sincerely held principles, however, to cling to power. The hungry chorus of reporters and photographers, assembled on the steps, wants to know: is she worried about losing government to a personality drafted by the Liberal Party because of his popular presence on the television? Did she see this coming? Was she shocked? 

“This isn’t the Logies,” Keddie, as the fictional Labor premier of Victoria, Kate Ballard, reminds the media throng in the new six-part television series Party Tricks, in a wry nod to Keddie’s 15 nominations for the television statuettes since 2005. Keddie has won all her six Logies during her five seasons as the perennially popular, heart-on-sleeve lead character, obstetrician Nina Proudman, in the inventive dramedy Offspring, including the big one, the gold Logie in 2013, for Australian television’s most popular personality. 

When Keddie won her first Logie, in 2011, she joked in her acceptance speech: “You’ve no idea how happy I am that I’m the most loved. The most popular. That’s so cool, I don’t care if I’m good or not.” Most Logie awards are fan voted. Finally, this year, she took home a Logie for the quality of her work – most outstanding actress. At last, the Logies judges from a TV industry panel were as rapt as her fans. But the popularity and critical praise have been hard won. 

1 . Starting young

It’s 1983. The Young Talent Time TV show. Johnny Young and Tina Arena introduce a nine-year-old contestant, Asher Keddie. Wearing a pink bib and braces, a pink bow on her ponytail, she sings Dr Love: “Dr Love, please come running, can’t you see I’m in pain?”

The judge with the helmet of hair and a moustache befitting the Village People awards her 79 points: “Asher’s certainly got a bubbly personality. She’s performing with plenty of confidence and obviously enjoys performing and that certainly makes her very easy to watch. I think that you chose a fairly difficult song tonight, Asher; one that required a lot of singing techniques and I think that perhaps your breathing let you down … tonight, a very pretty girl and I think you’ve got a future.”

At 40, a sixth season of Offspring uncertain, Keddie again finds herself at a critical professional juncture but with a promising future.

“There’s never a time I can remember where I wasn’t encouraged to do what I wanted to do and express myself,” says Keddie. “My mum in particular was the kind of mother, and still is, even when my sister and I crossed the line when we were little, we were never punished for it. She would laugh and encourage us to be who we were and very quietly, in a very sophisticated, communicative way, tell us that there were boundaries in life and perhaps we should consider them.” 

The elder of two daughters raised by schoolteachers James and Robi Keddie in bayside Melbourne, Asher was born in 1974. She and her sister Bronte went to conventional schools but were raised as free spirits. Robi taught English literature and physical education and James lectured in physiology and anatomy at university. Asher was named after the actor Jane Asher; Bronte for writer Emily Brontë. 

Asher enrolled in ballet and singing classes. Robi indulged one very early memorable whim in her eldest child. 

“She let me go down to the local Safeway in her wedding dress with a 10-foot train, much to the annoyance of all the other mothers with the trolleys running over me. She let me dance up and down the aisles in a dress that was drowning me, but she couldn’t bear the thought of me not having that experience. I was four. Ridiculous.”

Keddie laughs. She’s in a light cotton top, her hair brushed back. We’re sitting in a booth in La Chinesca, a bar in the basement of Harley House on the corner of Collins and Exhibition streets, a dark but warm space with exposed concrete columns. On the walls are lots of large prints of paintings by her husband, British-born Melbourne artist Fantauzzo, 37, including the People’s Choice-winning Archibald entries. A print of his painting of her is on a prominent wall and Keddie says she was “ganged up on” to allow the picture to be hung there. Keddie is fond of the dumplings here in the bar, which Fantauzzo half owns. 

2 . ‘A funny life’

Keddie’s first TV role was in the drama Five Mile Creek in 1985, at age 10. Soon after, when making the film Fortress, Keddie had an epiphany, sitting in a hotel room about to be picked up at 6am to go on set: “I have a funny life.” 

She was good at ballet. At 14, before an audition for the Victorian Ballet, she dislocated her knee, tearing the ligaments and ending any ambition to dance. “I still dislocate my knee once a year; it kills me. I’ve got to have surgery at some point and I keep putting it off.” But she says the ballet disappointment has been blown out of proportion: she simply switched her ambition to acting. It was the immediacy of performing in front of an audience that thrilled her. 

Her parents insisted she shelve acting for a few years to concentrate on high school. From the age of 15, she became “painfully self-conscious. I don’t know if ‘shy’ covers it. That lasted right through to my 20s.” In another interview, Keddie reflected on her 20s as a time of bad relationships, of “wanting to feel the pain” of a tortured artist, but behaving in an “unattractive” way that was “insular but temperamental as well, because I couldn’t be myself”. 

What changed was getting the role of Julia Jackson in the series Love My Way in 2004, the year she turned 30. Keddie has credited her co-star, Dan Wyllie, whom she met on set, for pushing “me to look at myself and realise that people did like me and did want to work with me”. One of the show’s creators was John Edwards, who would later co-create Offspring, Paper Giants and Party Tricks.

Before then, Keddie says she was a “really closed person”. “Being told that I could hold my own in a really good ensemble – I found that enormously encouraging. I think it was the first time I genuinely felt someone liked what I was doing as an adult. I made a choice. I could expose myself emotionally, as humiliating as that may be as an actor, or I could play it safe and have no impact at all.” 

Keddie says she worked with “truth” and “from the inside out” with her character suffering postnatal depression, issues with her father, and a relationship with an older man, needily enduring his physical and emotional abuse. Viewers “loved or hated me”, but peer-judged Logie, Australian Film Institute and ASTRA award nominations began piling up. 

In 2010, playing Blanche d’Alpuget in the telemovie Hawke and Nina in Offspring, Keddie moved to a whole new level of public fascination. She says family and friends still send her up with: “You? Popular? That’s hilarious.” 

“It was never about being popular. I don’t know what to do with that, now that that’s happened.” She looks stumped when I ask if there’s anything else she’d like to achieve with the advantage of using a popular profile. Had this level of recognition come in her 20s, “I’d have rejected it, for sure.” 

She and Fantauzzo feel blessed and encouraged to share popular success. “I don’t know if you can understand it; it’s a funny kind of thing.”

Fantauzzo, who has a four-year-old son, Luca, from a previous relationship, says the couple had an “instant connection I’d never felt before”. Keddie, previously married to actor and musician Jay Bowen, with whom she had moved to a Macedon Ranges property to get away from constant recognition around St Kilda, was “immediately inspired” by Fantauzzo. 

“We do have different ideas, and butt heads about them and get very fiery about our different opinions. Not fundamental things, but ideas and choices. Most of the time we come to the same place, but there’s always a vigorous conversation.” 

Fantauzzo will ask Keddie what she’s feeling when looking at his paintings in progress. Keddie works through her characters in her head, away from others, feeding the horses or even picking up manure, but she was keen to know Fantauzzo’s thoughts on her style of playing her latest character, Kate Ballard, in Party Tricks, with more of a poker face than, say, Nina, to suit the slow-burn, more complex plot. 

Kate must endure, as Julia Gillard did, sexist political barbs of being childless, and is judged on her figure. Keddie is fascinated by misogyny in the Australian workplace, not ever having encountered it in her working life, but excuses herself as unqualified to judge whether Australian politics has a problem with women.

She’d be happy to do a sixth season of Offspring, but the show, having passed 65 episodes, is no longer eligible for a 20 per cent producer tax offset, making it more expensive to make. The producers and the Ten Network are currently talking. “I’ve learned the hard way to let go and not hold on to things so tightly anymore.”

Is recognition at this level in Australia a difficult thing? For the most part, says Keddie, it’s fine, people in Australia being generally so warm. 

“At the risk of sounding all over myself about it, I don’t want to sound as though it’s more important than it is, but, yes, if I’m honest, life is really different if you’re publicly recognised. You become vulnerable. Of course there are moments day to day I’d prefer people weren’t watching us eat or watching me have a conversation with Luca. That’s okay, that just kind of comes with it.

“There are those bigger thoughts that hit me now and again. I’ll never experience what anonymity feels like again, walking down the street or buying a piece of clothing in a shop. I suppose that’s why I moved myself out of town, like a lot of actors do. You can live a simplified life with a little more freedom than perhaps walking down the street in St Kilda. I don’t dislike [recognition, but] I don’t know that I’ll ever be completely comfortable with it.”

Career-wise, she’s open now more than ever to the idea of acting overseas, perhaps taking a sabbatical in New York if she gets an offer in film or TV, or if Fantauzzo wants to paint or exhibit there again. 

“We often talk about that, Vincent and I. Are we living in a bubble here? I worry about that, doing what we do, that I put us in a bubble more than other people. I worry that, because I want to protect us, that then I close the door to us living as normal a life as possible and interacting and making new friends. 

“It would be fun to live in a different culture. We’re both really big on New York, and I can see us both at some point in life heading there and he can paint and I can just support,” she laughs. “Or do something else in the arts as well.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 4, 2014 as "Brimful of Asher".

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Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley Arts Journalism award recipient.

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