Debra first appeared on our screens as the matriarch of the show Pippa Fletcher on 23rd July 1990, after Vanessa Downing stepped down from the role. Over her 8 years on the show Debra truly made the role her own, and created the Pippa that everyone knows and loves. As she returned to Australian screens for another stint in July 2007, Debra was kind enough to talk to us for this exclusive interview...
How did you first get into acting?
I auditioned for NIDA, Australia's main drama school, when I was 17 and just finishing school, and I was accepted, graduating 3 years later... and have been acting ever since.
How did you approach taking on the already established role of Pippa? Did you meet up with your predecessor Vanessa at all?
Having never watched H&A, I watched about 50 episodes in a row before I started on the show; but didn't need to meet with Vanessa... we ran into each other at Channel 7 functions and mostly talked about our mutual passion for live theatre.
What were the most challenging storylines for you to work on? Were there any plots that you wished you hadn't had to film?
Obviously the cot death story line was tough because our daughter was only 9 weeks old at the time and we were new parents with those same fears... they use real "ambos" in those sorts of scenes and one of the paramedics had attended a cot death just 2 weeks prior to helping us shoot our scenes... so all in all it was sobering stuff.
Did you have much input into the character of Pippa? Were there ever times where you thought 'Pippa would never do this'?
Some writers write better for some characters and so, when you come across a script that is not quite Pippa, you adjust it until it is... very small adjustments and no-one notices... that's the actors job.
What were your all time favourite storylines to work on?
As much as it was a time when Dennis was leaving the show, the Michael drowning episodes were nice and challenging - and a bit different from the cuppa tea and crying teenagers things that Pippa normally dealt with....
The other lovely storyline was the one where Sally fell for a bad boy at school, played by a young Heath Ledger... it was great to see the beginning of this extraordinary young man's career..
Every couple of years, the group of kids you worked with changed. Did you ever feel like a motherly figure to them in real life as well?
I always totally felt like a mother figure to them.... as well as career guidance counsellor, acting coach, relationship adviser, nutritionist, mentor, disciplinarian.... my husband Dennis was their resident laugh-a-minute lunatic...
There were reports that the real life birth of your child was filmed by Seven for possible use as the birth of Dale, was there any truth to these rumours?
The only people at Grace's birth were a midwife, a doctor, my dear friend Jackie Woodburne and the wondrous Dennis.... where do these rumours start????
Was there anything particularly unusual/unique/different about working with you off-screen husband on-screen as well? How did it feel for Dennis' character to be written out?
Working with Dennis felt totally normal - we are both very professional actors... the only odd thing was people in the street who found it hard to separate us from the characters... in fact we had one gentleman at our local shopping precinct who stood staring at Grace in her little car seat and when he noticed us looking at him he said " Oh, I am so glad that he got better..."
The advantage of Dennis' departure from the show was that he was then free to return to his first love, the stage. And he was around during the day to care for Grace, so that solved the nanny issue! So it was a win/win.
You saw many characters come and go during your time on the show, which departure affected you the most, if any?
Only the day that Dennis left because we had lived a huge whole chunk of our relationship on that Ross house set... from secretly dating to secretly marrying and then being secretly pregnant until it was safe to let everyone know... then Grace and her nanny were in a room just off to the side of the studio... so it was significant moment when "Michael" shot his last scenes.
In 1997 you had to portray a very different side to Pippa's character after she woke from a coma. Was this a refreshing change and how did it feel to play her in such a different manner?
Yes, a refreshing challenge and it felt great!!
How did you come about the decision to leave?
With a lot of long hard thought! Many many calls to my agent for yet another wee chat... ultimately, it was the desire to return to Melbourne to be near my wonderful mother, who was then in the last years of her long life, that drove the decision... and we saw her almost every day for 3 and a half years before she passed away... such a gift of time...
Do you still feel an attachment to the character of Pippa? What do you think she is getting up to off-screen?
The public never release me from my attachment to Pippa! That is not a bad thing... I am attached to the qualities that Pippa represents... warmth, conscious mothering, discipline and the trust that she inspires... all qualities that the viewers seemed to respond to very strongly..
Apparently Pippa and her husband Ian and their daughter (?) live in Queensland, staying out of this rat race that seems to be making it's rapid presence felt more and more.... not unlike Dennis and myself really... except that we don't live in Queensland...
Do you keep in contact with any of your former cast members?
The beautiful Kate Ritchie, who then passes on our regards to any of the others that she sees.
Would you consider returning on a more permanent basis again in the future?
Our life is so firmly established in Melbourne that it would be hard to go back permanently, and that's assuming the producers would want Pippa to come back!!... But, as they say in the popular press: never say never.....
Are you happy to keep returning for the occasional wedding, death, etc? How does it feel to return to the show for such occasions?
I love coming back, because I enjoy the fact that the viewers get to see good ol' Pip in the house again - and it's always a challenge to figure out who all the new ones are....
What would you think if you were invited back to play out a heavier storyline for Pippa, such as an illness?
Have you heard something that I haven't?? As long as it's truthful, even those sorts of storylines are compelling to do and watch; but I prefer to think that Pippa is more useful if she stays healthy and still able to help in a crisis....
In early 2006 there were rumours that Pippa was to return for a 6 month stint following Flynn's death. Was there any truth to these rumours or was it only ever planned to be a short return?
No truth at all.... perhaps some wishful thinking?
Do you watch Home and Away at all nowadays, and if so how do you think it has changed in the years since your departure?
I no longer watch the show; but can't really escape knowing about it because of the TV mags in the supermarket and the people who approach me to tell me that they are no longer allowing their 9 year olds to watch, because of the pole-dancing and drugs.... my feeling is that, once where H&A was the moral yardstick, it now seems to be following popular culture.... I miss the good old days...
We, as a family, are certainly not on the fast treadmill, we live in the bush, our kids are educated very simply, there is an extremely strict limit to TV and we live a gentle life... we are not hermits by any means, but we find that soccer and dancing and ski holidays and bush-walks feed our souls very well thankyou...!
Does working on a show for so long ever become tedious, or do new characters help keep it exciting?
When one of the main reasons for working on a show like H&A is financial security, it shouldn't become tedious... it's always interesting to have new storylines and new faces; but I don't think other types of jobs differ from this...
How did it feel to see Kate Ritchie finally receive the recognition she deserves in the shape of her Silver and Gold logie wins over the last 2 years?
Fabulous, fabulous fabulous.... she deserves it all!!
If you were granted a wish and you could have any role on any play, film or TV show, what would your dream role be?
This is a secret... Lady Macbeth on stage somewhere wondrous...
Which medium do you prefer and why? Stage, Film or TV?
I prefer work in any arena or medium....
Have you ever thought about directing, writing, or producing as well as acting?
Yes, to directing , no to writing... I have a million ideas, but the journey to the paper is never a happy one...as for producing... at this stage, that still sounds like such a grown-ups job to me....
Debra and Dennis in costume for their parts of Ellen & Red Kelly, parents of Ned Kelly, in the play 'Quilting the Armour'. The play tells the story of Ned Kelly from the women's perspective and it is hoped that they will tour the play in Ireland next year. In 1980 Debra played the part of Ned's sister Maggie in the Seven mini-series 'The Last Outlaw', and so the saga has a special place in her heart. They are pictured with writer/director Rodney Hall.
How difficult is it to combine a family life with the demands of a production schedule?
It just takes organising... something I've discovered that I have a knack for. It also requires treats, in case Daddy burnt the dinner.....
Are your children moving into acting at all?
Not at the moment; but both of them have a mean array of flawlessly accented character voices, so genes may out....
Yourself and Dennis are ambassadors of the children's charity Barnardos
which obviously plays an important part in your lives. How did this come about and how does it fit in to your lives both professionally and personally?
It came about through our roles as foster parents and we've now become one of the family at Barnardos.... it's great to be able lend profile to events that the charity runs and our kids also now have an awareness that there are children out there who require assistance.
Favourite Holiday Destination?
Whistler Ski Resort in Canada
"Mister God, This is Anna" by Fynn
The Degustation menu at Tetsuya's in Sydney - Japanese/French Fusion at its finest!