Sitting at her kitchen bench, Kat Stewart is looking chic on Zoom, but soon tells me her feet are snuggled into a comfy pair of Uggies below. The actress is disarmingly relaxed and playful – a surprise considering the hard-edged characters she’s portrayed, such as real-life gangster’s wife Roberta Williams in Underbelly, the brassy Billie Proudman in Offspring and now the status obsessed Liz Wendell in Five Bedrooms. So, those characters were just acting, then? She laughs. “I’m actually quite well-behaved in real life,” she explains. “I think I’ve always loved the opportunity to let rip in my work. In a way, it means in real life I can be quite mild mannered.”
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Just off the Zoom screen, Kat’s two children – with fellow actor and husband David Whiteley Gigi (Georgia), five, and Archie, nine, are rumbling through the house. “I had kids late [Kat’s 48], so I have to live a long life and live as well as I can – for them and for myself,” she says. We discuss what ‘living well’ means in this strange pandemic era. “My body is not really a temple,” she says. “I think pleasure is really important in having a good quality of life. I’m one of those people who always has a bottle of champagne in the bottom of the fridge, because you never know when there’s something to celebrate… or commiserate. You should take those moments. If a friend is visiting from out of town, you should stop what you’re doing and seize that time together. If my dad invites me out to lunch, I’ll drop everything because he’s the best company in the world.”
A motherly love
The importance of savouring life’s simple pleasures is something that hit home when Kat’s mum, Kitty, tragically died in 2015 after a short battle with pancreatic cancer. “She told me that when she came out of the specialist’s office [having been given her diagnosis] that she and Dad held each other, and Mum said, ‘Our beautiful life,’” she recalls. “For the first time, she could see her life as if she was looking out the car window, and instead of seeing the chips on the windscreen, she could see the beautiful view. That’s the clarity [knowing she was dying] gave her. That’s something I’ve since tried to remember: to not see the chips in the windscreen, but to look out and see the view.” Since her mum’s death, Kat’s been reluctant to discuss her grief publicly. “At the time, you feel like the sky is falling and that you’re the only person it’s happened to,” she shares. “Of course, it’s not. But I never wanted to feel like I was exploiting it. I was also scared that if I talked about it, I’d just become... a puddle.”
Now, though, Kat wants to open up about how it felt to nurse her mother and how that time became a watershed that changed her. Kat, who has two older brothers, has often described how the family bonded during a year travelling around Europe when she was eight. “That was great for us as a family and we’ve been tight ever since; it was a defining period,” she says. That bond was especially strong with her mum. “We were annoyingly close. I’d speak to her several times a day. She was a hands-on mother and she anticipated everything I needed before I knew I needed it, especially with my first baby.” Like many first-time mums, Kat rolls her eyes and says: “I didn’t know what I was doing. Mum basically turned up every morning to help. I didn’t even know that I did need help. She was always there, she was always interested in how my work was going, she was across all my life.”
Strong to the end
Kat remembers her mum feeling “not quite right” for several months before finding out over the phone that she was living with inoperable cancer. “It’s not good news,” she told Kat, who immediately raced to her parents’ home. “Mum and Dad and my brother and I had a bit of a group hug,” she remembers. “We knew it was terminal.” Within two days of the diagnosis, her mother couldn’t swallow. “It was awful. I didn’t want her to be alone for any of it,” says Kat, who pulled out of a play she was about to start interstate.
“I was able to be with her every day, which was just the greatest gift. We all took turns to be with her. But she was such a consummate mother. It wasn’t, ‘poor me’; it was all about us.” She remembers her mum being carried out to an ambulance on a stretcher one chilly winter’s day and looking at Kat and, just like a mum, gently chiding her to put her coat on. “She’s literally at death’s door and she’s still mothering me,” she says, smiling. Kat pays tribute to the selfless way her mum behaved in her final weeks. “Even though she was tired, she made sure she saw everyone who wanted to see her to say goodbye, telling them the things they needed to hear to feel like they had closure,” says Kat, consciously keeping her voice from breaking. “She was looking after everyone.”
In a bittersweet twist, Kat had found out she was pregnant with her second child just weeks before her mother died. “When we learnt that I had a girl coming, Mum and I were thrilled that the bond between mother and daughter would continue,” says Kat, who reveals that her mum named her unborn grandchild. “I always knew my daughter’s middle name would be Kitty, after Mum. And she suggested naming her Georgia – Gigi for short – and that if she wants to be prime minister one day, she can be Georgia,” she says, laughing. Kat’s mum was just three days past her 70th birthday when she passed away. More heartbreaking was the fact it had only been four and a half months since her diagnosis. “I was privileged to be there when she died and then, three months later, I was in hospital to have my daughter, so [life] had that sense of coming full circle.”
Now that Gigi’s five, Kat has had time to process the memories of her mother. “With the benefit of time, I think I’m the luckiest girl in the world that I still ache for her,” she says. “It’s a reminder of that special connection, so I actually don’t want it to go away.”
It’s the kind of connection that Kat is enjoying forging now with her daughter. As Kat looks back on that bonding European trip her family took when she was small, she reflects: “Weirdly, I feel we’ve had a bit of that in lockdown, spending all this time together as a family. And even though you wouldn’t ask for COVID, there have been some silver linings, like Gigi’s contagious laugh. She has the kind of laugh that just doesn’t make sense for a little five-year-old girl; it’s almost like a grown-up’s dirty joke laugh. My little boy gets a great kick out of making her giggle.” Meanwhile, Kat’s lighting up our screens again as the delightfully impassive lawyer Liz in the new season of Five Bedrooms. Portraying strong, confident women appears to be a drawcard for Kat. “I love dynamic women,” she says. “I want to tell unapologetic stories about women in their 40s and 50s living full-blooded, sexual lives. We want to see ourselves on the screen. That’s my ambition – to keep going, unapologetically, in great projects.”
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5 Quick Questions for Kat
I get up at about six and write a journal for about three pages. It’s called Morning Pages, a complete downloading of your thoughts, a flushing out of stuff you don’t need. I get it on paper and never read it again.
I do yoga - not fancy handstands, just vinyasa flows for flexibility. That keeps me sane. My kids understand that’s Mummy’s time, so they know to keep quiet if they enter the room.
About 10 years ago, I discovered that I work better without gluten. I can cope with a little bit, so if there’s a fantastic dessert on offer, then I’m prepared to pay the price.
Haigh’s Chocolate Speckles. I just can’t be trusted with them!