Melissa George: I couldn’t even afford a baguette after break-up
Melissa George is preening, and she's happy to admit it.
Nestled in a sunlit corner of the apartment where she lives in Paris, while her sons Raphaël, six, and Solal, four, play quietly across the room, she is recounting the moment - pre-COVID-19, obviously - she got to put on some Valentino and Schiaparelli haute couture and take a few glamorous photos, some of which now accompany this interview.
Over a Zoom video chat, she reminds Stellar with a smirk, "There is not one drop of make-up on. Yes, I am showing off. I'm showing off, major!"
The 43-year-old's relaxed views toward beauty and ageing have clearly been influenced by her time in the country where she has resided since 2011.
"It's a very French attitude. Or European attitude. Don't cover your imperfections. Don't cover your greys," she says.
"The older you are in this city, the more sought-after you are."
France - and Paris in particular - has had a profound effect on all aspects of Perth-born George's life, personally and professionally.
It's no secret she is in the middle of an ongoing custody battle with ex-partner Jean-David Blanc, which followed an alleged domestic violence incident in September 2016.
As it stands, neither party can take their children out of the country without the other's written permission, which initially led George to press pause on her career (and her income) to be with her boys.
Although, as she points out, ever since she got her start at age 16 by playing Angel on Home And Away, her career has never followed a steady path. Says George: "There have been so many stops and starts."
The starts include a move to the US in late 1997 and appearances in David Lynch's cult noir thriller Mulholland Drive with Naomi Watts, along with roles on TV series such as Alias, Friends, Grey's Anatomy, The Good Wife and In Treatment, the latter of which she received a Golden Globe nomination for in 2009.
Yet, just as her career would take her in one direction, her personal life would pull her more forcibly in another, including to Argentina, where she lived for a spell with former husband Claudio Dabed.
Not anymore. There is a change in the air.
"What I've done," George explains, "is reduced the personal life - and really lifted up the professional."
It's a move that has paid off, with new roles opposite Sean Penn, French icon Catherine Deneuve and a highly sought-after lead part in Apple TV+'s upcoming The Mosquito Coast, which she was filming with Justin Theroux in Mexico before lockdowns went into place.
And she is also promoting a small role - albeit one she refers to as "a dream" - in La La Land director Damien Chazelle's new Netflix series The Eddy, which is set in a Parisian jazz club.
When George speaks to Stellar, she does so in an Australian accent laced with a French inflection.
She is funny, honest and raw, and just as happy to talk about the past - including that infamous 2012 The Morning Show bust-up, when she flatly refused to discuss her days on Home And Away - as she is about her future.
"I've gotten to the point in my life where I can see having some sort of ounce of tragedy in one's life has actually been a gift, because I've been able to work with my idols. If I wasn't blocked in France, I wouldn't be working with my idols."
It's a simple but important question. How are you at the moment?
You know, I'm just very grateful. Very grateful that I have a roof over my head and two beautiful kids with me. Life has been very, very interesting the past several years, so today is just about being grateful. I'm really sensitive to the small things, and so appreciative of every little thing.
How are you coping in lockdown - or as the French call it, confinement?
It's no secret how much I wanted children. However, being a single mum with two little boys is hard. But I'm a much better person when I'm needed; I've realised that in confinement. It's that simple. That is where true happiness comes from. And today I'm needed. My boys cannot survive without me, and that's when I thrive. That's the secret of life. To me, that's it.
You've got some big projects dropping soon. As 2020 began, did you feel like this would be your year?
Absolutely. I finished the end of last year with a major casting for The Mosquito Coast. Before that, I didn't do a casting for two months because I was like, "I've been through enough. I can't have any more let-downs. I'm not even gonna play the game. I'm not strong enough to have any more breaking moments."
But it got to the point where my agent said, "You need to read for this role in the next 30 minutes." So I put my kids to sleep in their little bunk beds, I set up a camera and I did three scenes. And my kids, from their bed, were saying "Mummy, what are you doing?" I just yelled out to them, "I'm building a future!" And I got the role.
Filming The Eddy right there in Paris must have been quite a thrill for you. How did that come about?
My agent arranged a meeting on set with Damien [Chazelle, the director]. He was filming and we had a little meeting and I said, "I'm confused. What am I doing here?" and he said, "I want you to be in The Eddy. But I have a quick question. You're Australian. But you're speaking French to everybody on set. Can you be American?" and I was like, "Yes. I've been American for the past 20 years." And I started filming that Friday. I know I'm not in the whole thing, but you'd much rather be at the best party. And I joined the best party.
When you take time off in an industry like yours, are there anxieties and fears about getting back in?
No, it's actually a beautiful thing because when you take a step back, you learn from life, which makes your acting much richer. The reason I did one take of a nine-minute monologue [for The Mosquito Coast] is because I've lived enough life over these years to actually carry me through to a better level.
It sounds like you've learnt to make the most of your situation.
I was left with nothing [after the separation and court battles]. And when I say nothing, I was left between choosing to take the bus or buy the baguette. That's no joke. So I said, OK - what do you have? I've got beautiful jewellery and designer clothes. And I just sold absolutely everything. I wouldn't take work because I didn't want to leave my babies. I mean, once you've lost it all, you really know what you need. Trust me.
Pre-confinement, what was everyday life like for you and your boys?
A severely, brilliantly organised juggle. But really exciting. I always have a picnic blanket in my bag, no matter where I go, because I often find myself with my kids at Palais-Royal, sitting on the grass or kicking a soccer ball.
Or we go to the Louvre. It's a very Parisian experience. But there is a lot of Australia in my kids, too. They had to do a show-and-tell the other day with their class and it was all about their "Pop and Nana from Perth".
Speaking of Australia, with all the tragedy since the start of the year, does it draw you to want to be back home?
It does. It makes me sit and fantasise about how I could make it work. Could I physically go back now? I always dream about that. But when you make choices in life with a non-Australian, which I did unfortunately, the choices are what I'm living today. So sadly, I don't think I can.
But any chance I do have to come home … You know, I would love to have an Australian husband. Maybe that's the next chapter?
On the custody front, is there any update?
There is no update. I decided to stop waiting for the updates and the day I decided that, magic started the next morning. I was constantly waiting for a judge to decide my career or my future. And that was a mistake. Because you decide your destiny. You decide what's best for you and your children. You need to work. You need to financially live. You need to be strong. And that was my decision. Since that day, I've no longer called anyone to say, "Hey, what's the date of my freedom?"
How have the past four years changed you?
I don't know if anyone interviewed me before everything went down south here, but 100 per cent of people say I'm much calmer and more considerate now. I wouldn't be friends with the Melissa from before. I was so busy marrying the wrong men that I had to fix up the problems and the pieces.
Whereas today, I don't do anything like that. I would be really happy to be friends with Melissa today. And I know how to find happiness in the darkness, that's for sure. Before I couldn't. It's taken a long time, but I'm now in a place where I feel this was all a good idea.
W ell, then, we can't go anywhere without asking about Home And Away …
[cuts off question] You can ask the new Melissa now about Home And Away. The problem [referring to her controversial The Morning Show interview in 2012] was, I wanted children. It was the fact I yearned to feel complete and didn't want to reflect on the past.
It was purely an animal thing because I hadn't had my family yet and I was depressed. It's basically why I acted the way I acted. But I could just talk about Home And Away, to be honest.
How do you look back on that time in your life now?
I feel lucky. But there [were] a lot of painful memories from those days, too, because I was far too young to be working those [long] hours. And I was living away from my mother and father. I was only 16.
Career-wise, do you feel like the best is yet to come?
Oh, yeah, it has to be. There have been so many stops and starts because my personal life is far more exciting than my professional. What I've done is reduced the personal life and really lifted up the professional life, and it's why I feel the best is yet to come.
The Eddy streams on Netflix from May 8.
Originally published as Melissa George: I couldn't even afford a baguette after break-up