She laughed at the suggestion she symbolises universal motherhood. But actor, Debra Lawrance agreed that Pippa, her iconic character in Home and Away, was one of Australia’s most loved, on-screen mothers and touched a chord in people across the globe.
Even Princess Diana was a fan. At an event held in her honour during her last Australian tour in 1996, the Princess of Wales famously recognised Debra. Walking up to her with hand outstretched she confessed to being a regular viewer of the Australian soap. Debra recalls being completely overwhelmed by Diana’s beauty. “I can speak in wet cement but couldn’t utter a word for the first couple of minutes. Everything about her was ethereal,” she said. “I was desperately sad when she died and remember thinking that I had always thought she looked angelic with her halo of blonde hair.”
Next year Debra will be shooting the second series of the ABC comedy/drama series Please Like Me in which she plays another mother, Josh Thomas’ mum, Rose.
She acknowledges that worldwide recognition has its upside and downside: one disadvantage to fame being lack of privacy.
Based in Sydney 1990 to 1998 to accommodate Home & Away’s demanding daily schedule, Debra and husband, Dennis Coard, who she met on set (Dennis’ character, Michael played Pippa’s screen husband), returned to Melbourne to look for property.
Debra was raised in North Ringwood. She spoke fondly of the orchards and open paddocks of her childhood and remembered the carving up of the suburb into one-acre blocks, neatly separated by paved roads, saddening her.
When their oldest child, Grace, now 21, was five an abusive note shoved under the front door of their rented home in one of Sydney’s northern suburbs made them acutely aware of how vulnerable they were to the whims of the general public. This was their impetus to seek seclusion.
Keen to replicate the semi-rural lifestyle Debra had as a child and educate their children at the Rudolf Steiner School in Warranwood, Dennis and Debra purchased a house on a two-acre block. The masses of trees on and surrounding their land won them over. “We live in the treetops which means we don’t have to look at other houses or listen to anyone else’s toilet flushing. It’s private and peaceful and every window looks out onto beautiful greenery.”
For several weeks this year Debra has been in Sydney performing in Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced living on the 24th floor of an apartment building in the centre of the city. Back home for a couple of nights she talks of the Sydney apartment block “humming perpetually” and how relaxing it is to be in her own bed listening to frogs.
Debra refers to their property as a sanctuary. The house is light and airy and full of beautiful old French furniture and treasured pieces that she and Dennis have collected.
“It’s a bit dusty around the edges and it needs new carpet,” she laughed. “I guess if you were going to call it something it would be shabby chic or boho but I don’t like those terms. We’ve simply collected a whole lot of things we like and over the years it’s become a specific look. Some people might say there’s rather a lot of stuff in our house and that would be accurate. Our friends say they feel calm and welcomed here because the house tends to embrace you.”
Pride of place is a special object d’art, a bronze statue of the Greek mythological femme fatale, Circe, a replica of the piece in the National Gallery of Victoria modelled by Bertram Mackennal in 1893. Standing around 46cm high it possesses the same powerful, magnetic presence as the considerably larger one in the gallery. It was a joint anniversary present on one of the rare occasions that Debra and Dennis celebrate their marriage.
“We were married on February 29 so we only have an anniversary every four years. We mark the day by buying a piece of artwork each time it falls,” she said. They have been married 22 years.
Debra’s description of their home as a sanctuary took on an almost too literal meaning a few months ago when Dennis spent several weeks at home recuperating and valuing the tranquillity after a cardiac arrest. A stent was inserted and he is doing well but Debra admits it shook them both because Dennis is a fit 62 year old, who had exhibited no apparent sign of heart failure.
“It was frightening because it was so unexpected. It also made us realise that this place really is a sanctuary.” She talks of watching the seasons each year, of pottering in the garden and the reassurance that comes from seeing the same flowers burst through the soil every spring. This year she was interstate on a job and missed spring in Melbourne. Their two children Grace and William, 14, not wanting her to miss the spectacle of the hundreds of freesias in their yard, plied her with photos.
Amused by the memory she tells of kangaroos camping on their property at night and flattening plants so they’re not directly on the ground. “William often acts like a traffic cop, shepherding them across the road to avoid the morning peak hour traffic,” she said.
Between acting gigs Debra conducts workshops. Entitled Are You Being Heard? The premise behind the name is that many women, particularly in the workplace, find it difficult to be heard and understood in an environment dominated by men.
The reason for this, explained Debra, is that the female voice is lighter by nature in energy and tone than the male voice and the brain reads a deeper voice as an indication that the body is in a place of calm. “The bottom line is that we trust people with deeper voices. The deeper the voice the more trust we feel. This is why we often find that many CEOs have magnificent voices and are supported by teams of very gifted women in senior management roles.“This is not an anti-men theory,” she stressed. “It’s a fact. Women feel marginalised and exhausted in the workplace trying to be heard.”
The solution is simple and effective, she said. While women will never have the larger vocal equipment of men, they do have chest resonance and just need to learn how to access it. This entails identifying and getting rid of lifelong negative speech habits that trap the voice in the nose, throat and head.
A woman with a distinctly Australian accent is saddled with a double whammy, she said. Debra worked alongside Meryl Streep on Evil Angels, the film about the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain, and almost cringes recalling the criticism heaped on Meryl for her take on Lindy Chamberlain’s heavy Australian accent.
“I was there and so was Lindy and that was her voice. But because we hate our accent so much we couldn’t cope with one of the finest actors in the world playing our voice back to us. Meryl is a very clever actress. She didn’t suddenly get one role wrong. “We have a deep shame about the accent and that colours our opinion.”
A graduate of the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in NSW in 1977 along with fellow students, Mel Gibson, Steve Bisley and Judy Davis, Debra said, for her, both acting and teaching are about, “taking people to another place”.
“When I get around to writing my book, one chapter heading will be, ‘The Obligation to the Congregation’ because whether it’s a wedding or a class or an audience the obligation on us is to change people a little bit so that when they walk out they feel shinier. “It’s the same sense of giving that comes from cooking for someone: baking a wonderful lemon tart that’s been made with beautiful organic ingredients and lemons from a tree in the garden. It’s our job, our obligation, to create something that takes people to another way of being.”