Jackie: Susan will cross boundaries

Neighbours icon Jackie Woodburne talks about life as one half of the Kennedys, and how it feels for Karl and Susan to be facing their biggest challenge yet.

Jackie: Susan will cross boundaries

As Neighbours icon Susan Kennedy, Jackie Woodburne has been a fixture on Ramsay Street for 17 years, and during that time has seen her alter ego switch careers, battle an MS diagnosis, and care for a who's who of Erinsborough's waifs and strays.

And all this is of course saying nothing of her turbulent yet seemingly unbreakable relationship with Dr Karl, to whom she's now been married three times despite a string of indiscretions between them.

Now, at the beginning of a new chapter in their lives, the Kennedys are set to reach a turning point when Susan finds her sympathies drawn to local builder Jim Dolan. But could it prove one challenge too many for Erinsborough's power couple? We caught up with star Jackie Woodburne to find out.

You're now the longest-serving female actor on Neighbours. What is it about the role that you most enjoy, and does it still challenge you?

I like Susan because she adapts, as we all do I suppose, but over the years she’s had so many big things happen to her that she’s just had to take in her stride and get on with it. Also it is a challenge still, because the show is constantly evolving. New actors are coming in all the time, so the character adapts to those characters as well.

How do you think the character's changed over that time?

After the last relationship that Karl and Izzy had, I think once Karl and Susan got back together at that time they were both different. Well, they had to be. They could no longer be the slightly naive, exuberant people they were. I think they’d been both a bit damaged by that, so I think that’s probably informed both of them since then.

You're one half of Ramsay Street's best-loved partnerships. What do you think it is that makes Karl and Susan so popular with viewers?

Because I think they’re so flawed. There’s two things: they make horrendous mistakes, both of them, but they both are coming from a place of well meaning. They’re both wanting to try and do the right thing and be helpful, but so often they get it so terribly wrong, and I think we can all relate to that.

They've had quite a turbulent relationship. What for you have been the most memorable scenes or storylines to film?

There’s a few standouts. The Karl/Susan/Izzy love triangle is a favourite because there were so many great scenes. For Karl and Susan there’s always great scenes, but for Susan and Izzy there were some absolute rippers – a couple of big fights in the street that I particularly enjoyed, as did Natalie [Bassingthwaite].

The onset of the MS was a very challenging storyline to do for so many reasons. Obviously a story like that you have to try and get it authentic, to make it real for people and families of people who have MS. So that’s always a challenge, when it has to be accurate in that way but at the same time you’ve got to tell a story. It’s a drama; situations are going to be heightened, so finding that balance is challenging. I enjoyed that story very much, and I do enjoy the light stuff with Alan Fletcher, playing Karl. We both, I think, more than anything enjoy the comedy.

How do you cope with the shift between comedy and drama?

After so many years together we really do speak in shorthand, and we pretty much know what the other one’s going to do.

After so many years together we really do speak in shorthand, and we pretty much know what the other one’s going to do. Neither of us have egos in terms of giving suggestions to the other one... There’s no temperament there in that way, so that’s great, but occasionally we do, with the comedy stuff, start to enjoy ourselves a little bit too much, and we do have to be told to behave, but no, there’s no problem drawing the line.

Susan's relationship with Karl is set to hit the rocks when she becomes emotionally involved with another man. What was your reaction to that storyline when you got the script?

Her challenge I think is going to be to find out who she is as one half of a couple, as opposed to being the hub of a wheel.

I think it’s a great story. Karl and Susan are both in their 50s; they’ve been married together; they’ve raised a bunch of kids; they’ve had careers and jobs. And to use the popular term ‘empty nesters’, that’s what they’re looking at. For him he thinks, 'That’s great, terrific! More time for us; we can travel.' But for her it’s, ‘Well, I don’t know how to be that person. I know how to be this person, who’s someone who’s wrangling kids and busy doing things.' But her challenge I think is going to be to find out who she is as one half of a couple, as opposed to being the hub of a wheel.

Were you worried about the couple's future when you saw that storyline?

We both were. When we heard about it, when we saw each other, we went, ‘They’re going to break us up. I think they’re going to break us up. Oh no, no! Now we’re going to work with other people.’ No, we both have the same attitude to the work. We’re hungry for stories, and we’re hungry for new developments for the characters, so it’s just something else to explore.

What can you tell us about Jim, and how he and Susan become involved?

Jim Dolan was a builder [who] was working for Lyn Scully when her house burnt down, and she runs into him at the hospital and remembers him, and he remembers her, and they chat. He’s there to get some information; he’s had a melanoma removed, and he’s come to get some more information about that. He’s a very uncomplicated man – what you see is what you get – and he’s a bit bewildered by the whole hospital process, so she says, ‘Oh, I’ll give you a hand.’

[Susan] crosses boundaries, in that she neglects the rest of her life – her husband, her friends, her family – because she’s so completely focused on this man, and that’s where it reaches a crisis point.

And she gets involved with him at that very basic level, but as he becomes more unwell and the cancer invades other parts of his body, and he has no family and he’s very much a loner, she instinctively wants to look after him. She crosses boundaries in that she neglects the rest of her life – her husband, her friends, her family – because she’s so completely focused on this man, and that’s where it reaches a crisis point in terms of, 'Well, is this the life you want?’ from Karl’s perspective of ‘What about me? What about us?’ And her perspective is, ‘But this man is dying. Don’t be so selfish. This is not about you or me; it’s about him.’ So it’s a really interesting story.

So, does Karl's reaction change as Susan's friendship with Jim develops?

It does. I think he initially is a bit just put out that it’s taking so much of her time, and then he thinks, ‘Well, no, I should not be so selfish. I’ll try and be more amenable.’ But then as he sees her becoming probably, I think, unrealistically involved with him – she does neglect the rest of her responsibilities – then he is I think probably justifiably angry that she’s not thinking about anything else but Jim.

Presumably this all paves the way for Mal to return. Whose side does he take, if either?

The kids have all been talking to each other behind the parents’ backs and saying, ‘Look, you know, things are not great. Someone needs to step up and pitch in,' so Mal comes over to try and broker some peace. And initially I think he takes Susan’s side because he can see that from the outside she’s helping someone who’s very ill, and how could you be angry about that? But I think as he observes the situation more closely he does see that there are other cracks appearing as well. He does understand why his dad is so upset and so insecure about what Susan’s doing.

But just having Benjie McNair back to play Malcolm, seriously, it was like he’d left yesterday. It really was. There was a scene we were doing, I think day two, and just in the middle of the take I started picking lint off his jacket and tidying him up a bit, you know, just because it’s my boy and he’s come back. It was lovely; it really was.

Will the family get to enjoy any lighter moments together?

Yes, well, some, but I hope more in the future.

Do you think there's anything the Kennedys' marriage couldn't survive?

I reckon if they can survive, you know, two affairs with 25-year-olds, I think they can probably survive anything!

Do you think Susan's struggling now with characters like Rebecca and Lyn on Ramsay Street?

Absolutely. I think over the years there’s always been a best mate, and that’s been great fodder for drama and for comedy. There was a lovely period when there was Susan, Lyn and Liljana (played by Marcella Russo), and the three of them were all so different, but the value we got out of that in terms of female friendships and female relationships was great because we got to see these women in roles other than mothers and wives. We saw them as maybe the girls they would have been 20 or 30 years ago, so I do miss that. I think it’s going to be tricky for the character to maintain those other aspects when she doesn’t have a best mate.

Is there anyone else you'd like to see return to Ramsay Street?

I’d love Jesse to come back, but I don’t think the producers of House would probably let him go. I’d love that. Andrew Bibby, who played Lance Wilkinson, I think was a great character. He was, you know, one of the younger ones, but he was very different; he was very nerdy, and he did great comedy, as did Jonathan Dutton. That kind of clique of kids at that time were sensational; they were great. Jacinta Stapleton. Kids who have gone on now, 10 years later, to be jobbing actors; they’re working in the industry all the time, but even back then you could see that they got it, and they really wanted to learn, and they were inspiring and great.

What do you hope the future holds for Susan?

You know, I’m kind of with Susan. I like the Kennedy house when it’s full of noisy kids, being naughty and creating havoc. I like it loud and messy. So that would be my hope, that we get a bit of that happening again.

Do you ever pitch storylines for Susan, and do they get used?

Yes. Sometimes they do. When Zeke went missing, it was my idea that he was found by someone, you know, taken in, on the pretence that it was his son, and that’s how we found him; that’s how we were able to get him back. That was one.

Years ago I pitched an idea about Karl and Susan having another baby, and he wanted to and she didn’t, but she would agree as long as he said he’d be the primary carer. But he said no way, and she said, ‘Well, I’m not just a baby farm.’ So that was an idea that I had.

But occasionally if you get a chance to sit down with the writers, often it’s a pretty fluid thing; something will come up, just an idea or a notion that will get translated, obviously, by the story department into a much bigger idea. What they’ve got to come up with really when you think about it, all of those stories, week after week. I think they’re amazing.

Want more? Stay tuned for Jackie's answers to some of your questions.