She got her start at Unley Youth Theatre at age 13, now Kate Box is one of Australia’s most versatile and in-demand actors, drawn to roles with grit and guts.
Kate Box: Don’t box me in
It is little wonder actor Kate Box is exhausted. She’s just “de-bloodied” after a particularly gruelling stunt scene on the set of Aussie prison drama Wentworth.
Kate plays Lou Kelly, a career criminal who’s ended up back behind bars, this time with her boyfriend Reb Keane. Reb (played by Zoe Terakes) was born Rebecca but identifies as male and Kate’s character is there to protect him at any cost. It’s an unconventional love story and delves into the kind of gritty, real life tales that drive Kate’s love for her craft.
“I’ve always been most interested in characters that are born from the gutter a bit, or have a lot to fight for,” she says. “ I’ve always been fascinated by what it’s like to get inside somebody else’s head or walk in somebody else’s shoes.
“I think it was the same instinct that drove me towards studying acting and still does. I still approach characters and new roles most fascinated by their childhood and what shaped them to make the decisions they make as an adult and see the world the way they see it.”
Kate’s own childhood was shaped by parents Greg and Lorraine, both social workers, and older sister Sally, a scientist who today works as the Threatened Species Commissioner in Canberra.
“She’s a pretty extraordinary human being,” Kate says. “We haven’t lived in the same city since I was 17 but we’ve always been really close and we rely on each other a lot.”
The family lived in Colonel Light Gardens where Kate attended the local primary school. As an Aussie kid growing up in the ’80s, her favourite television shows were A Country Practice, The Henderson Kids and Inspector Gadget. But she also found time to “run amok”, often pretending to run away from home, “just so they’d worry about where I was”.
“Some of the stuff I put my parents through … I was a bit of a shit stirrer,” she admits. “But I always really wanted to make people laugh and make them feel good so that was a big driver for me when I was acting up.”
Family holidays were spent at Aldinga Beach, camping in the Flinders Ranges, or on the Yorke Peninsula where Kate’s grandfather Howard worked as a fisherman six months of the year.
“We would sleep out in the annexe and early in the morning Pop would take us out fishing on the boat,” Kate says. “He also taught us how to water ski on his homemade skis. He would take all of his grandchildren out on the boat, drop us off on a sandbar and loop back around to get each of us. It was great fun. And a little bit terrifying.”
Then, at age 13 while at Annesley College, Kate made the transformative decision to join Unley Youth Theatre (now Urban Myth). The grass roots theatre group was a breeding ground for raw talent and Kate mingled with other young creatives who would go on to become lifelong friends and collaborators. They included award-winning filmmakers Sophie Hyde and Matthew Cormack who today run Closer Productions, and Drew Proffitt, now a respected screenwriter and one of the creators of the television series House Husbands.
“I joined Unley Youth as much as a social thing as anything, and the friends I made there are still some of my closest friends in Adelaide,” she says.
“We were about 12 or 13 years old when we met, in the late ‘80s, and we were all just kicking around making theatre together. It was an amazing place that theatre company, we were all really close. I never studied acting at school, it was all outside of school.”
Kate eventually began a bachelor of arts degree, majoring in psychology, at Adelaide University but says, at age 17, she wasn’t mature enough for the course. She finished the degree, but changed her major to politics and Australian studies. It was then Kate decided to give acting a go, auditioning for the Victorian College of the Arts and NIDA. She was accepted into the prestigious NIDA course and moved to Sydney at age 22.
“Going into drama school, while it was exciting, it did take me a while to work out why I wanted to be there and what acting meant to me,” Kate says.
“But, after an uncertain start to uni education, it was really exhilarating to go down this road. It’s a pretty all-consuming degree, you’re there at 9am and you finish at 6pm and you tend to have rehearsals outside of that, so you want to work out what’s driving you pretty quickly.
“It was a pretty awesome time, being part of a whole new community, all consumed by the craft of telling stories. I’ve always loved study and the making of work. I certainly feel more at home in the rehearsal room than on the stage.”
The aspiring actor worked at a backpackers to pay her way through NIDA, and then, after graduating in 2003, took a job at a friend’s toy shop in Sydney as she began the inevitable highs and lows of the life of an auditioning actor.
Kate’s first stage appearance was with Bell Shakespeare Company in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, then the Sydney Theatre Company’s Top Girls, which earned her a Helpmann award nomination for best female support in a play.
Her film debut was in the 2007 comedy drama Black Balloon, and there were television roles as well, including in the children’s series My Place, and in one episode of All Saints.
“I love All Saints and the story lines they had to come up with. My character had an over-active gag reflex,” she laughs.
“But the first time I had money go into my account for an acting job I couldn’t quite believe it. I just couldn’t believe I was getting paid for a job I felt so passionate about. I was so thrilled. I thought, ‘It’s all coming together, I’ve actually done this and I am a working actor. It may only be for a few months a year for a while, but I am a working actor’.”
Other television roles included Offspring and Small Claims: White Wedding, but it was landing the role of long-suffering secretary Nicole Varga in the ABC comedy series Rake in 2010 that significantly lifted Kate’s profile with Australian audiences.
She starred alongside veteran actor Richard Roxburgh who played the infuriating but loveable Cleaver Greene and Kate says it was Richard who taught her to be “bolder” in her work.
“Rake had great scripts and really struck a great chord with people,” she says. “The character of Cleaver Green was so beautifully written and executed and watching Rich work, he makes bold choices.
“There is a real joy in the way Rich finds more extreme reactions to a moment. Maybe it’s because I’m six feet tall, but I’ve always been that kid at the back of the class photo and you grow up trying to make yourself a little smaller, to sink down. You are just kind of aware of your size. I found myself falling into that trap a bit as an actor, and not just in my physical size but in my responses, too. I think I was trying to make things more ‘naturalistic’ or less offensive or something.
“There is a kind of precise messiness to the characters Rich creates and a bravery and that really emboldened me and gave me more courage as an actor. I was able to be larger in my expression of character, just a little bit more dangerous in what I was prepared to show, and not keep my performance neat in any way. Actually, I’m probably at my best and happiest as an actor when I’m just letting it all hang out. Why not just play and live big?”
That bold approach came in handy for Kate’s role in the 2014 comedy film The Little Death, which depicts the secret suburban lives of five couples and their sexual fetishes. The movie, which also starred good friend and former Adelaide actor Damon Herriman, earned Kate an AACTA nomination for best actress in a leading role.
Other acting credits included Upright alongside Tim Minchin, Old School with Sam Neill, Les Norton, where Kate played ocker party girl Lauren “Lozza” Johnson, and most recently in this year’s ABC refugee detention drama Stateless with Cate Blanchett.
But it was in 2016 that life came full circle for Kate when she came back to Adelaide to star in the six-part miniseries Fu**ing Adelaide. The comedy drama tells the story of three siblings who reunite back in Adelaide where their mother is selling the family home.
The team behind the project was Sophie Hyde and Bryan Mason from Closer Productions, and included some of the creatives Kate had known since the Unley Youth Theatre days.
“That was great because I had grown up with so many of the people working on it and we’d been wanting to make stuff together for so long,” Kate says. “It was the first time since we’d all been doing this professionally that I’d been able to come back and make something with them.
“I’ve loved Sophie for a very long time, we’ve been friends for so long and to be able to get on set with her and watch her work, and Bryan as well, was such an exciting thing, there was a nostalgia to it but also a real thrill.
“Sophie and Bryan’s daughter Audrey was also working on it, and at that time I was breastfeeding my daughter Robin, with my mum on set helping out, so it really felt like a family affair. I was making something with my mates and it felt so right, it made me think I just want to work like this all the time.”
One role Kate felt fiercely passionate about playing was that of Marg McCann in the 2018 feature length television movie Riot.
The film depicts the real-life events around the birth of Australia’s LGBTI rights movement in the late 1970s, culminating in the first Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in Sydney in 1978.
As a gay woman, Kate felt personally connected to such an important story, and was so keen to be involved, she wrote to the director asking for the part, something she had never done before. Not only did she win the role, but she also won an AACTA for best lead actress in a television drama.
“That was a pretty fulfilling time in my career, and it was the same time as the marriage equality debate, so being able to go to that job and tell that story was a pretty healing experience,” she says.
“To be able to work alongside a lot of the original ‘78ers was a massive privilege. Our set was filled with extras and consultants and crew who were there at the riots and driving the movement, and you knew you had been granted the path that you were on because of these extraordinary humans.
“There was a night of filming in particular where we jumped on the back of the truck and paraded down [Sydney’s] Oxford Street and then ran through the streets where the riots broke out and sang protest songs outside the police station. It was overwhelming. Especially as a few of the original ’78ers got involved as well, we all felt it, it was very emotional.”
Kate, 41, says she feels grateful for Riot and the opportunity to play such a proud, strong activist and “someone with a lot more courage than I have often had”.
“I think that’s a great thing about this job, you play these characters and they never fully leave you,” she says.
“There’s always some part of them that sticks around and I was so grateful to walk with that character for a bit because the courage that she displayed definitely helped me to live my life with more truth and courage.”
Kate says while winning awards is not a motivating factor, winning the AACTA for Riot was particularly meaningful for her, allowing her to stand “front and centre” around issues of gay rights, acceptance and social inclusion.
“I felt proud to be part of a story that is so often kind of sidelined, so to stand dead centre and celebrate this story in such a commercial way, that felt really wonderful,” she says.
Kate and her partner, actor Jada Alberts (Wentworth, Cleverman, Mystery Road), have been together for 11 years. They met at a playwright’s conference and Kate says it was pretty much love at first sight. The Sydney-based couple now has three daughters, Robin, 4, Ivy, 3 and Francis, 1.
“The love is extraordinary and the challenge is massive, I mean being a parent is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she says.
“But it has also put so many things in perspective for me. The way I’m able to find balance in my life now. It’s clearer to me what’s important, what I need to press pause on and what I need to focus on. Our children have given me that.
“They are also incredibly funny and affectionate, we have a really affectionate household, which I love.”
The couple juggle their acting commitments with parenting and Kate says once she’s finished on Wentworth she’s looking forward to just hanging with her girls at home in Sydney. There are also tentative plans to head home to Adelaide at the end of the year with Jada due to shoot a film here.
“The beautiful and terrifying thing about this job is that I never truly know where I’m headed and who or what’s awaiting me,” Kate says. “I’m never working all the time but, when I am, it requires such attention and focus and you often become very close to the people that you’re working with.
“Then you move on to the next project and you become very close to those people and that story — not just the people you work with but your investment in and love for that new character. And then you up and move again. I love that.”
This story first appeared in the October 2020 issue of SALIFE magazine.
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