Max McKenna has moved past childhood introversion to self-acceptance and stage success, and is now starring in a historical comedy on SBS TV. By Steve Dow.

Actor Max McKenna

Actor Max McKenna.
Actor Max McKenna.
Credit: Anthony Tosello

A year ago, the Melbourne-born actor, singer and songwriter Max McKenna posted a childhood photograph to Instagram of themself sitting aboard a boat. Giving the victory sign, they wear a pink and white baseball cap and pink top. Their feet, clad in baby blue socks, rest on the boat’s wheel. “Happy national coming out day,” says the caption. “I think I hid it well.”

At 21, McKenna was cast in the title role for the premiere of P. J. Hogan’s deliciously camp Muriel’s Wedding: The Musical. Their stage career has since blossomed, accompanied by a remarkable transformation in their public persona. Now 26, McKenna, speaking from a Brisbane hotel room, wears their sense of self well.

They jumped at the chance to star in a new, eight-part SBS comedy–drama series that premieres on September 27. While the Men Are Away, written by Alexandra Burke, Kim Wilson and Monica Zanetti, gives Australian history a provocatively queer twist.

“I hadn’t read or seen something like that for an Australian audience about World War II, about queer outsiders, and I thought that was really cool,” says McKenna of first reading the script. “Since coming out myself, I’ve been really drawn to queer content and queer-driven shows … A lot of this [story] is made up, but there’s a lot of queer history that isn’t written about or isn’t seen, so it’s nice to reclaim it.”

McKenna plays Gwen, a member of the Women’s Land Army who is billeted to an apple and pig farm in the town of Bush. The story has vibes of small-town prejudice similar to those in Jocelyn Moorhouse’s The Dressmaker: a prisoner-of-war camp is to be built next to the farm, to house “filthy Huns” and “Ities”.

In the first episode, Gwen stumbles upon another character, Francesca (Italian actor Michela de Rossi), having sex with a woman. By the second episode, Gwen is having erotic dreams about Francesca/Frankie, and congress progresses from there.

“Gwen comes off as a bit elitist and pretentious,” says McKenna. “She’s come from a very privileged background and doesn’t understand the injustices of the world. There’s a part of herself that she’s been hiding and, once she figures that out, it allows her to have a lot more empathy and compassion for other people.”

While the Men Are Away is stacked with satire about Australian racism and gender inequality, which persists today. Kuku Djungan actor Phoebe Grainer plays Kathleen, for example, who lives on a mission and, we’re told in the opening montage, “works the land stolen from her”.

“All the storylines feel important for what’s happening right now politically,” says McKenna, who supports the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. “But I don’t want to say too much because I want Indigenous voices to be heard speaking on this matter.”

I first interviewed McKenna in 2017 at the Wharf bar near Sydney Theatre Company, when they were using binary pronouns and about to debut as Muriel. McKenna spoke then of schoolyard taunts because their mother is the comedian and singer Gina Riley, a co-creator, with Jane Turner, of the series Kath & Kim. Their father is one of the show’s executive producers, Rick McKenna.

“I struggled through school. I was very shy and self-conscious about everything I did,” McKenna recalled then. Spending school lunchtimes alone, they felt close to the character of Muriel, who tries desperately to win the peer approval of the mean girls who laugh at her clothes and love of ABBA – a band McKenna also loved.

How does the quarter-life Max look back at their younger self? “I mean, so much has changed for me in the last three years,” they say. “I had really been struggling with who I was up until the age of about 23. The pandemic and being locked away … I think I had to come to terms with a lot of things I’d been running from within myself, and especially in an industry where you’re trying to present yourself as product for other people to take on in a show.

“I had been performing femininity and trying to be a certain way to appease a certain audience, and when I was locked away I went, Oh, I actually don’t think that’s who I am, and I just came to terms with a lot of stuff about myself. I feel so much more free and so much more confident in who I am and what I have to offer the world now. It’s been a beautiful experience, and finding community has been amazing.”

Officially, McKenna came out about their sexuality about four years ago. “It was definitely a gradual process,” they say. “As early as I can remember, I had feelings for girls … but I didn’t really understand what that meant.

“I think that’s a lot of people’s experiences in coming out as lesbian. You go, I don’t know if I’m obsessed with them as a friend, or if I actually have feelings, because the patriarchy makes you think, Oh well, I need to be liked by men so that means I’m worth something, or I’m attractive.

“It took a long time to unpack those ideas of is this who I am, or is this who I’ve been told to be? That’s how I’ve become a human being in this world.”

McKenna grew up an only child in the inner-Melbourne suburb of Elsternwick. At 11, they won a national songwriting competition through Mushroom records with a song called “People Say”. A year later, McKenna and their mother took a holiday to Los Angeles, where they saw the musical Wicked. McKenna related more to the misunderstood witch, Elphaba, than to the good witch, Glinda. Wicked made them want to sing and act.

They finally found their school tribe in Year 9, when they joined the performing group Stage Masters. Their first onscreen role came in 2012, when their parents gave them a tiny role in the feature film Kath & Kimderella as Spitting Girl, who had to spit on a king.

McKenna says their mother is “creative and cool and just goes with her gut”, while their father is “analytical and so business-savvy – they’re the yin and the yang”. McKenna “leans more to the creative artist, more chaotic side of life”, although they like to think they have business skills, too.

“[My parents are] super proud of me, and they’ve always been really supportive. They’ve always been realistic, though, about how hard the industry is. It hasn’t all been easy and it has been challenging, but I am so privileged and lucky to have had guidance from them.”

At 18, McKenna flew alone to Los Angeles to study for two years at the American Music and Dramatic Academy, living in dormitories with fellow actors. “I definitely toughened up and got a thicker skin,” McKenna recalled when I first interviewed them.

A few years after playing Muriel, McKenna was cast as Jo in the Australian production of the musical Jagged Little Pill, inspired by Alanis Morissette’s 1995 album of the same name. There had been a “massive discussion” about Jo’s gender identity dating to the show’s run on Broadway, says McKenna. Jo was perceived as gender non-conforming in the pre-Broadway version of the show, although the Broadway production later stated Jo was never written or conceived as non-binary.

“I had come out before I was a part of that show, but I think my Jo was definitely a gender-fluid Jo, and a lot of trans people came to see the show and did feel represented,” they tell me. “It was a great moment, regardless of what the actual role was written as. It still felt powerful in the sense of it as a non-binary person up on stage being fearless in that way.”

McKenna says using non-binary pronouns has been part of their liberation. “When finding your sexuality lives outside of the patriarchy, you go, Well, if I’m not a woman in the same way as I was when I was dating men, then am I a woman, and where does my gender live now?

“There actually are times when I do feel more comfortable with male pronouns than I do with female pronouns. What’s so beautiful about gender fluidity is that it is an ever-growing, ever-changing thing.”

McKenna beams when speaking of fellow actor Teo Vergara, their understudy in Jagged Little Pill, who is also non-binary. The pair have been in a relationship now for 18 months. “We fell in love during that show,” says McKenna.

Meanwhile, McKenna’s songwriting is continuing apace. They are developing several projects, including a musical that is their “lockdown baby” with 21 songs “about gender identity and gender binaries” that is also “magical and fun and camp”.

McKenna is keeping the name of their musical private for now. “But it is being developed,” they tell me. “Musicals just take a really long time – most people’s first musicals can take up to 10 years to get staged because they just need workshops and development. So, hopefully soon – but yes, I’m still working on it.”

In the meantime, musical fans can see McKenna reunited with musician couple Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall – who wrote much of the music for Muriel’s Wedding: The Musical – in the satirical musical Bananaland, which has just opened at Brisbane Festival and is Nuttall’s first musical script.

McKenna plays Ruby Semblance, lead singer of a failing art rock group named Kitty Litter that pivots to become a children’s band when their song “Bananaland” suddenly becomes popular with kids and parents. Simon Phillips, who directed Muriel, also directs Bananaland, which is likely to tour Australia next year.

Semblance believes in “art, music and angry choreography”, so is a very different role to While the Men Are Away’s Gwen: “She’s very much a person who’s super strong in her beliefs and is fighting to change the world,” says McKenna. “But her fight is a little misguided, and she is on a learning journey herself of figuring out sometimes, maybe to get your message across, anger isn’t the key.”

The creators had McKenna in mind when writing the role, says Nuttall. “A lot of our writing comes out of a pop-rock tradition, and Max early on in Muriel showed this ability to straddle those two forms.”

Miller-Heidke adds that McKenna “has been a bit of a muse” since Muriel. “I find Max’s voice to have this other-worldly beauty and power and emotion, and also [I admire] their acting chops – particularly for this role, because there’s a fair bit of clowning. Max is hilarious.”

McKenna says Miller-Heidke is “a legend”. “I’ve been in awe of her since I was a kid, so it’s so cool that she writes songs for my voice,” they say. “It’s very cool to have music written specifically for your voice and tone. Not many people get to do that in a new musical. It’s really sick, yeah.”

McKenna is more pop, but loves a bit of indie rock-pop. “That’s what I listened to a lot growing up,” they say. “That’s sort of inspired where my voice sits now, a wide range of things.”

They still want to have a crack at performing in New York. “I’m back and forth and have management and lots of friends over there,” they tell me. “I did a Broadway workshop there last year. But I’m booking a lot of work here, and I want to be where the work is.”

And so what of that “shy and self-conscious” kid that McKenna was – are they still present?

“I’m definitely still introverted, but I have a lot more confidence in myself,” they say. “I’m not as hard on myself for wanting time alone. I actually love my lone time. But I have such a great community of friends. I definitely don’t feel as self-conscious as I used to be.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 23, 2023 as "Queering history".

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