There’s a scene in Asher Keddie’s new television series, Strife, where her character, Evelyn, has reached the end of her tether. Her media business is failing to attract advertisers, she’s been humiliated on national TV and when she goes to collect her daughter from her estranged husband, the teen refuses to leave, saying she’d rather stay with her dad.
Dejection is writ large on Evelyn’s face, but as she prepares to go she’s stopped by her husband. The shirt she’s wearing, is it his?
What Keddie does next captures precisely why this trailblazing 49-year-old Australian actor is arguably the best we have. Wordlessly she strips off the shirt, shoves it into her husband’s hands and drives home wearing only her bra.
Few actors can convey so much without dialogue. It takes a compelling face, a surety of movement and complete belief in the character. It feels as though at some point we will watch Keddie and catch a glimpse of Nina in Offspring or Heather in Nine Perfect Strangers or Sally in The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart.
But no. Barely months after she was last on our screens, Keddie has magicked up yet another unique character from her seemingly endless and chameleonic repertoire and, once again, she is as transporting and believable as all the other roles.
Keddie laughs. She likes the shirt scene too – enjoyed playing it. “That’s when I’m in my sweet spot,” she explains, “when I’m telling a story that begins with authenticity but we’re able to find levity in it. I like to watch something and really feel my heartstrings are being tugged, then three seconds later laugh out loud.”
Thirteen years after she won over a generation playing the funny, relatable and stylish Nina Proudman in the first season of Offspring, Keddie is poised to reignite that same devoted fan base with Strife.
Loosely based on digital media dynamo Mia Freedman’s 2017 book Work, Strife, Balance, it tells the story of a former magazine editor called Evelyn Jones spearheading online journalism with a website called Eve.
It could have been a series covering the well-worn tropes of juggling and “having it all” but in the hands of Keddie, who worked alongside Bruna Papandrea, Steve Hutensky and Jodi Matterson, it’s been reimagined as something far fresher and more layered.
“The show is about ambition,” says Keddie, her hair tied up in a messy bun as she speaks via Zoom from her home in Victoria. “I really like the character because we see the cost of what she’s trying to do in finding her own voice as a female boss, leading a team of people and dealing with the sexism that was rife at the time.
“It’s not just about juggling, it’s about navigating a new landscape in the media world where women were finding their voices. It was the beginning of personal essays and that transferring to the internet.”
If it feels as if Keddie has been here before – playing Ita Buttrose in a Logie Award-winning performance in the acclaimed 2011 mini-series Paper Giants – yes, there are similarities, but she insists they’re different.
“They’re both trailblazers but I’m not playing Mia, but a woman we’ve created,” she explains. “I’m hoping it’s relatable to women in their forties who find themselves feeling as if they want to do more and want to offer more.
“I very consciously made sure we exposed her [Evelyn’s] private victories and failures as much as we do the public ones. I wanted the audience to go on a journey with me, not watch me go through it.”
Nevertheless, fans of Freedman and her publishing and podcasting juggernaut will spot some shared character traits. There’s Evelyn’s frenetic energy – as Keddie says, her character “listens sometimes but not always” – and as the series progresses there are deeper elements at play around mental health (Freedman has been open about her anxiety and ADHD).
Fashion is where they depart. Keddie has not opted for bright colours and mismatched ensembles but a more structured silhouette. Think oversized shirts, pleated pants and trainers. Could Evelyn’s wardrobe drive the same social commentary and copycats as Proudman’s covetable looks in Offspring?
“She’s less bohemian than Nina but I like her style,” says Keddie. “I really wanted her to be feminine but in a stronger way. But I didn’t want her to feel businesslike.”
If Evelyn’s wardrobe is timeless, the environment she works in most definitely isn’t. Set in 2012, before #MeToo and cancel culture, Strife is a reminder of how much the landscape has changed in a decade.
It’s caused Keddie to reflect. “Back then women were trying to find our voices in a different and more authentic way and that sometimes meant we were fighting each other or trying to push against each other to get ahead,” she says. “I feel we’ve progressed, that we’re more aligned and way more supportive than we used to be. Certainly, that’s what’s happened in my life and industry.”
Indeed, Strife is a product of that new alignment with Made Up Stories helming the project, Freedman executive producing and Keddie making the words and vision come to life. Papandrea says she regards Keddie’s dramatic and comedic talents in the same category as Nicole Kidman’s, a fellow Australian she’s worked with multiple times.
“I really believe that actors, to have that kind of range, have to be empathetic and complicated human beings,” says Papandrea. “She [Keddie] is one of the best actor/producers I’ve eve worked with because she is so smart about the whole piece – the script, the decision of which director to hire, the design of the clothes. Her instincts are some of the best and her performance is so strong.”
Matterson is equally enamoured. “Asher is so incredibly gifted as a comic actress,” she says. “Her physical comedy, her timing are so phenomenal and then she backs it up with this incredible dramatic weight. Very few people can do that.”
As for Freedman, Keddie says they’ve become friends. “She’s a powerhouse and beautiful and sensitive and relatable and all the things that have made her so successful.”
While the actor laughingly reveals that she can’t keep up with Freedman’s manic messaging, they were chatting on a Zoom call together shortly before our interview.
After years of featuring in ensemble casts, Keddie is once again enjoying helming a show. She held her own working alongside Nicole Kidman and Melissa McCarthy (in Nine Perfect Strangers), Sigourney Weaver (in The Lost Flowers) and Cate Blanchett (in Stateless) but she was ready to take the lead again and pull the audience with her.
“It’s been so good for me as a performer not to lead all day, every day – like Offspring – but I was ready to jump in again,” she says. “I felt really hungry for it.”
Pick up a copy of the November issue of marie claire Australia on sale Thursday 19th October to read the full story!