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Claudia Karvan on how motherhood changes creativity.

The following is an unedited extract of ‘Motherhood and Creativity. The Divided Heart’, by Rachel Power.

For women of my generation, Claudia Karvan is the actor we have grown up with. From her movies High Tide, The Big Steal and The Heartbreak Kid, to her roles in some of the country’s most successful television series, including The Secret Life of Us, Love My Way and The Time of Our Lives, her characters’ lives have mirrored ours across the years. The fact that she has largely remained in Australia throughout her career makes this particularly the case. Claudia is the mother of two children, Audrey and Albee, with environmental engineer Jeremy Sparks, and stepmother to his daughter, Holiday. As a child, Claudia’s mother and stepfather ran the ultra-cool, bohemian nightclub Arthur’s, in Kings Cross, and the family lived in a part of Sydney considered so dubious that her school declared it permanently ‘out of bounds’. Having been brought up in such colourful circumstances, I ask if her childhood has had a strong influence on her professional life or on her parenting.

Claudia Karvan
Claudia and her son Albee. Image via Getty

‘Both,’ Claudia answers. ‘I think what I got to see through my childhood was human beings with their facades removed a lot. So there was no suburban pretence; it was all on show. That absolutely helps you as a performer, because you get to know human beings and you get to see drama. But as a parent, it’s made me realise how important consistency and security are.

‘It’s funny, I’m talking to you as a parent, but I feel more like a daughter now, at this stage of my life. I’m at least halfway through the major parenting years, but now my role as a daughter is becoming the competing or dominant one, and probably will be until my mother’s mortality kicks in.’

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‘Before having children, I imagine all that that time you spend just waiting around on film and TV sets might be a kind of luxury,’ I suggest, ‘but once you’ve got kids, and your time becomes so precious, it must be really irritating.’ ‘That’s a very good point. Because one of the gloriously indulgent natures of acting, particularly when you’re in your twenties, is that you have all this down time just sitting around in your trailer. I read so much! Now it’s frustrating, because if you’re not working you want to be with the kids. It’s as black and white as that. Or even if you are working, you often just want to be with the kids. And the longer you’re not with them, the less sense the world seems to make. I bring them on set sometimes, so they can just get bored with me. You just want to touch them and hold them and look at them – it’s a chemical reaction that you get addicted to and that you need.'

‘Has that made you more discriminating about what you’ll take on?’ ‘Yes. I’ve always been discriminating, but when the kids were little the absolute non-negotiable was that the work had to be in Sydney, because I didn’t want to be away. I don’t want to move them around a lot and my husband, Jez, has got his work. So Love My Way and Spirited were created specifically for Sydney. Time of Our Lives is the first gig I’ve done outside of Sydney and that was really very hard. It takes its toll, being away. I was away a maximum of three days a week for two to three months, and it’s just not worth it.’

claudia karvan
Claudia looking stunning at the AACTA Awards. Photo via Getty
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‘Why – what was the impact? And was that impact on you or on your family?’ ‘No, totally for me. I think it’s really good when I’m away from them. The dynamic changes – Jez takes on a lot more and Audrey steps up to the plate and becomes the woman of the house. Mothers do kind of rush in to fill the vacuum, sometimes to our discredit. They’re great when I’m not around! I love that. I think it’s a sign you’ve done a good job. If you’ve got a really needy kid who can’t survive without you it might be flattering
or nice for your ego, but I think that’s a warning bell.’

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‘Do you remember what it was like during those early months, working on The Secret Life of Us with a young baby?’ ‘I do, and sometimes I regret it – just the stress. It was six months, from when Audrey was seven weeks old until she was about eight months. And she wasn’t sleeping – she would wake every forty-five minutes – so it was pretty full-on.’

‘Is that regret also about feeling that you didn’t get the time to just be with her?’ ‘No, I don’t regret that, because I also remember days and days of just wandering around the house, just me and Audrey, feeling lonely and isolated in the seven weeks before recording began. I always say that I wouldn’t have had kids if I didn’t have my career. If I’d had to choose, I would have chosen my career, definitely. Then when I had a stable job with The Secret Life of Us and realised I could have both – that I could have a baby and work as well – I organised to get pregnant. Cheeky!'

‘Wow – are you really that sensible?’ ‘I’m a planner! So I don’t regret it for myself, but sometimes I wonder, “Did Audrey have a stressful first year?” But then I think most first kids would have a stressful first year, because us parents don’t know what we’re doing! It’s all trial and error. So it’s just the odd moment that I think that.’

When Claudia got together with Jeremy in the mid-1990s, his daughter, Holiday, also became a part of her life. I ask her whether having some responsibility for a child played a role in her career decisions even then. ‘Yes. It meant that I did jobs all over Australia, but I didn’t commit to doing the LA thing that everyone was doing then, because I would never encourage Jez to be away from his daughter. I wasn’t deeply inclined to that environment or culture anyway, but if I wasn’t with him I probably would have followed that same well-trodden path. ‘To be honest, there were times when the relationship was in trouble and she kept us together. My stepfather would often say this to me as well: “I was going to leave your mum but you were so cute!” And I feel the same way about Holiday. Sometimes I’d think, “Jeremy is really giving me the shits, but Holiday is so beautiful – I can’t leave Holiday!” It’s funny how kids keep people together. You’re loving them together so then you’re loving each other and it’s a continuous cycle of loveliness.'

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‘As a mother, do you feel like you’ve had to make tough choices about what you’re willing to sacrifice and what you won’t relinquish?’ ‘I don’t think I’ve sacrificed anything – I think I’ve gained everything. I’ve sacrificed loneliness and purposelessness, and the kind of unknowingness of being in your twenties – but I wouldn’t call that a sacrifice; I think it’s a relief. As a performer, as someone creating things, you can only draw on your own experience – and, for me, kids have created a really rich life. The self-knowledge you gain when you go through those major life milestones, you then bring to your work. ‘I’ve become a little bit more hands off – a bit more relaxed – about work. I’ve realised how much you can do on minimal sleep! You realise that you’re capable of a lot more than you ever thought possible – that your resources and stamina are almost infinite.’

I suggest that the physical demands of performing must be pretty tough during those early years of parenting. ‘When Audrey was about six months old, I was in a freezing cold pool doing scenes with mastitis. That was pretty intense. TV sets are pretty flexible working environments but the hours are just stupid, really. But acting is a series of sprints and then blocks of time off. So you get to be a full-time parent with little to do, and then you have a slab of work. That works well with a family. ‘No director has looked even mildly put out when I’ve said, “Oh sorry, I have to go and breastfeed.” Once I was doing a scene with Joel Edgerton, and while he was doing his closeup, I was breastfeeding Audrey out of shot. Albee also used to come to set and get breastfed. I’ve never ever had a problem. ‘The worst day, though – and I still feel sorry for myself when I think about it – Audrey would come out to the set of The Secret Life of Us with my friend to get breastfed, but one day Jez was home, so what arrived was a breast pump and a bottle and a picture of my daughter that said, “Please send me home some milk.” I just burst into tears. I was sitting in my trailer looking at this picture of my daughter, and she was sitting there holding the sign, all of four or five months old. I had to send off the milk in the car. That was the low point.

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'Does it ever concern you that your children will come across material that might be exposing?’ ‘It’s funny, isn’t it? I do think about them when I do compromising or complicated scenes. I have spoken to Audrey when she’s seen clips of me being tortured or traumatised – emotional scenes – but she says, “I know you’re acting.” I think they’re pretty sophisticated in their awareness of the difference between reality and acting. ‘That said, I did bring Audrey onto the set of Daybreakers and she saw one of those vampires dressed in make-up. It was just a vampire standing in the lunch queue, but of course through a five-year-old’s eyes … she was terrified! I thought, “Oh, that’s really bad parenting!” ‘The thing I would like is for the kids to actually like the shows that I’ve done. The other day – because she’s at high school and every Thursday morning the kids are talking about Puberty Blues – I said to Audrey, “I think I might retire from acting.” And she said, “Oh, don’t, it’s pretty cool having an actor for a mum.” So I took that as a quiet endorsement that she doesn’t resent it – yet!’

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‘You said once that one of the reasons you wanted to have a child was that you were sick of being able to do everything. What did you mean by that?’ ‘I just felt like I could do whatever I wanted to, and I was sick of that. I wanted someone else to be my boss. I had no parameters, really, and I wanted some. There’s a certain kind of indulgence that comes with being young that I wasn’t really enjoying. Does that make sense?’ ‘Yes, it makes total sense,’ I say. ‘But I think it’s interesting that you had the insight to see that having a baby might be the way to impose those limitations – because I don’t think most of us recognise, before having children, the kind of parameters they set up.’ ‘I wanted to invite chaos into my life – that’s another way of putting it,’ Claudia explains. ‘I wanted to have some other priorities that weren’t set and guided by me. I don’t know where that feeling came from. I think I was just sick of myself ! I wanted to make life a little bit more layered.’

‘Motherhood is perhaps the perfect condition for you, then,’ I suggest. ‘Chaos plus limitations – that is exactly what kids create!’ ‘It’s a strange dichotomy, but they do. They give your life purpose; they force you to make certain decisions over and over again. And they are levellers – which is a cliché, but it’s true. I needed direction, you see – I’m an actor!’

‘You’ve also said in other interviews that you’re a good mother.’ ‘I think I am! I never, ever could have predicted the overwhelming rush of love. I never imagined that feeling. When I was at school, we had what I think was a contraception awareness thing where we had to look after an egg for two weeks. If you couldn’t carry it around, you had to pay for someone else to babysit the egg. I put that egg in my locker for the whole two weeks. I thought, “Fuck that, I’m never having kids!”’ ‘I remember going to a maternity ward on a school excursion, and they talked to us about postnatal depression and women who throw their babies out the window, and I seriously thought, “That will be me!” I seriously didn’t have a maternal urge or bone in my body until I turned about twenty eight. Then something just clicked over – circumstance and various different forces – and I still thought, “This might not be for me, but I’ll give it a go.” That’s why I would never call myself a bad mother, because if you enjoy your kids’ company and you think they’re a ball to be around, that’s all you need to do!’ ‘I think that’s the perfect definition of a good mother,’ I say.

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‘Do you think being a creative person helps with your mothering and vice versa?’ ‘I think performance definitely helps with mothering – that connection and listening, and being aware of dialogue and changes in language, and kids’ funny observations on the world … It does feed my work as an actor, and as a creator of shows and as a producer, because they provide great material. Children are your feelers out into the world – they open all these little doors.’

Claudia’s shift into producing coincided with her early years of mothering. I ask her whether that was the result of a conscious decision to have more creative or practical control over her life. ‘It was a decision to have more interesting conversations, I think. I do baulk at the idea of more control or more power, because you actually don’t get that. To be honest, as a producer you’re almost more out of control than you are as an actor. It’s a much more amorphous position, the role of producer, in that it doesn’t have strict guidelines. And you have a lot of bosses and people to collaborate with. ‘But certainly I don’t know if I would have chased a directing career, or a writing career, because I think those particular jobs are very difficult to do as a mother, whereas producing is an excellent job to do with children. You don’t have to be on set at 5.30 in the morning, you don’t have to be on a night shoot. If your kid’s sick, you can stay home and produce from home. You can produce from the bedroom while the kids are asleep. A lot of meetings can be shifted around if there are family emergencies … It’s really flexible. So it’s very different to acting. Directing – again, the same thing: you have to be on set, you’ve got a whole crew, and the hours are insane.

Watch an interview with Claudia here (post continues after video)

‘I was at a panel discussion recently at a girls’ school. One of the women stepped up and said it was really disgusting and sexist for girls to be told, as career advice, to choose a job that will be easy when you have kids. She thought it was such a sexist thing to say but, unfortunately, I think it too. I don’t want to sound like I’m restricting anyone – everybody has to make their own decisions – but I’ve certainly made choices based on parenting.’ ‘I guess what she’s suggesting is that boys would never be told the same thing,’ I say. ‘And so then you ask, well, is it different?’ ‘Yeah, but do we want to be boys? Are they missing out? I don’t want to compete with them. This is the job of a lifetime – we create humans inside us, and breastfeed them. There’s no better gig, and no more extraordinary role to play. It’s a bloody miracle! ‘Equality is not only about providing opportunities for women in the workplace, it’s also about lifting up the value of raising a family, and being with your children, and not outsourcing that for $18 an hour. That’s what life’s all about: those relationships and that time. That’s what needs to be valued rather than wanting to earn as much as a man. I want that work to be valued rather than the work that’s done out there, nine to five.’

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‘And yet you’re obviously someone who wants both – children and a career.’ ‘I definitely need both for my own mental space; I would not be a good mum if I wasn’t working, I know that for a fact. I would be a shithouse mum. I would be a nightmare. I’d be frustrated, resentful, I’d probably get too involved in everything … I’m just too tightly wound. ‘I would love to be able to be someone who is content to just be at home. It’s probably ego, or that I’m addicted to the work I do and don’t want to miss out on the opportunities. Also, I know that this is a short phase of my life and in as little as five years I may be totally expendable – and then what have I got? So partly, even though I often don’t want to be at work and I’d rather be with my kids, I know I have to sustain this part of my life because I’m going to need it in the future.’

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‘Does having your own children help you work with children?’‘Oh god, yes!’ Claudia exclaims. ‘Because you know all the pop-culture references and you know how to tickle them and you know when they just want to be left alone. Sometimes you can kind of smother children, when they just want to exist in parallel, not be the focus of your attention. So you know when to avert your gaze and let them just be, and you know when to crack ’em up, and to not panic when they’re having a tantrum. So yes, totally.’

I tell Claudia that I’ve always wondered how actors cope with having to go to very dark places in their work, then go home and be mum (or dad). ‘It is a pleasure, because you turn around and go, “My children are alive!” and you relish it. You don’t carry the sadness with you. That was something I got from an interview with Cate Blanchett, who said that while performing in The Seagull, every night she had to cry. She’d just fallen in love with Andrew and she realised that grief was the flipside of love. And she’s right. It’s all about being alive – if you love life then you’re also alive to the tragedy or the grief. It’s the same condition.

‘When I was filming Love My Way [in which her character’s daughter dies], I noticed how happy I was when I was at home – how much I cherished reading books at night, how light I felt, which you just wouldn’t expect. The minute I had to go into those scenes, I used to look at the picture of the little girl, Alex Cook, just stare at her, and I was back in that place. I did go and interview some nurses at a children’s hospital to ask them about the responses they’d seen in parents when their children have died, which gives you a little bit of guidance. But eventually the way I came to it in my head was that the pain you’re feeling when you’re giving birth to the child is the same pain you’re feeling as the child is ripped away from you. That’s how I approached it; it’s like going through labour in reverse.’

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Claudia Karvan and her husband, Jeremy Sparks. Image via Getty

‘Could you have had the career you’ve had without your partner, Jeremy?’ I ask. ‘No. Or life. You change each other, you shape each other. Jez isn’t the person he was when I met him, and I’m not the person I was. There are so many pitfalls, because life just keeps changing. You change so much in twenty years. We are both very different, hopefully better, people. You’ve got to have that sustainability, because if you were just living for the day, you’d walk. Utterly. There have been afternoons where we’ve both admitted to getting home and sitting in the car outside,thinking, “Can I go in? I just don’t want to go in!” Just the noise … There have been periods when I would look across the table at Jez and think, “Okay, I’ll see you in two years. I will be here and we will have a really nice dinner and a good time – it’s all there waiting for us.”’

This is an extract from Motherhood & Creativity out now through Affirm Press, $24.99