Oct. 13, 2013, 3:30 a.m.
Tasma Walton realised with shock that she was pregnant in the run-up to her 40th birthday. She and husband Rove McManus were at home in LA, having just dropped off family at the airport, when they decided “maybe we should check this out,” she recalls, “because things hadn’t happened as they should … It was a really beautiful surprise.”
A happy accident?
“In many ways it was,” she replies. “I was about to buy tickets to Belize for my 40th [on August 19]. We were going to go hiking and I’d been putting the booking off.”
Playfully agreeing with the notion their suspicions were the cause of the delay, she laughs: “It was wonderful women’s intuition, maybe. Or maybe me just being a bit lazy.”
Walton had been equally mischievous in July when Sunday Life interviewed her about her role in gritty outback thriller Mystery Road, which comes out on Thursday. Mystery Road is a world away from her TV roles in The Secret Life of Us, Blue Heelers and BeastMaster, and it prompted a wide-ranging discussion about life, death, motherhood and whether she had ambitions of starting a family of her own. “Oh, look, apparently we have three babies called Hope, Joy and Plans,” she deflected beautifully. “They seem to be stashed in a closet somewhere at Woman’s Day.”
Two months later, on the phone from her home in the Santa Monica mountain range (she and McManus moved to California for work in 2010), Walton elaborates. “It was still very early stages, you don’t want to talk about something that’s … delicate and vulnerable.”
By September’s red carpet event for Mystery Road at the Toronto Film Festival, that had changed. “And, as it turns out, it’s very difficult to hide a little bump in an evening dress, so we made the announcement that we were expecting,” she says. “There would have been a hell of a lot of ‘has she been hitting the buffet a little too hard’ otherwise.”
Vivacious, quick-witted and multi-talented (her debut novel Heartless appeared in 2009 and she says she has two more on the way), there is an endearing frankness about Walton, despite her determination to protect her private life.
She describes her Mystery Road role as “something I could get my teeth into”. Written and directed by Ivan Sen, the movie revolves around the quest of indigenous detective Jay Swan (played by Aaron Pedersen) to solve a murder and also stars Hugo Weaving, Jack Thompson and True Blood‘s Ryan Kwanten. Walton appears as Mary Swan, Jay’s estranged wife and a poverty-stricken, beleaguered mother.
It’s a landscape she can relate to. Her early years held challenges, she suggests, and not just because she was two when her parents separated and she began to suffer asthma attacks. “I was clinically dead for 43 seconds apparently,” she says of one heart-stopping moment as a young child. “I was in hospital, mercifully.” She flashes a disarming, high-wattage smile. “I don’t think I’d still be here if I wasn’t.”
Walton was one of three children brought up by a struggling young mother in a housing commission suburb in Geraldton, Western Australia, that’s not unlike the world of Mystery Road, “so I understand that world and the terrible spiral”.
What she “could absolutely identify with” was the poverty, the mind-numbing regularity of that life … the lack of beauty, the violence, the disregard society has for people in that situation. The being left behind and the constant killing off of any hopes or dreams. “There is just no light,” she says, adding that people in such situations turn to “something to take you out of that experience, like alcohol or drugs”.
Asked if the level of violence, and implied violence, in Sen’s film is also something she relates to, Walton replies, “Yeah, definitely.” She responds to the question of how her mother escaped the poverty trap – a situation she describes as “brutal and virtually impossible to get out of” – with the statement: “She met a wonderful man when I was about 12. They are still together now.”
Walton connects her episodic asthma with stress. During her childhood, complications from the condition prompted a series of rushed trips to intensive care. “It was pretty full-on,” she says. “Having to will your body to breathe can be quite frightening. I was probably in hospital every eight to 12 weeks as a child … there’s not much you can do apart from get an IV [drip] and hope for the best.”
Just before her year 12 exams, Walton became sick again but waited so long to get treatment she was “almost beyond help”. “I was in the emergency room. Everything went out of focus except the detail of my mother’s face. I remember this overwhelming feeling of, ‘If I die now, it’s her heartbreak.’ The idea of her suffering willed me to keep going. It was enough to give me an extra surge of something, to keep trying.
“It would have been awful for her,” she shakes her head. “Poor thing. Poor mums.”
Walton will become a mother early next year. She and McManus plan to be in Australia for the birth, though she demurs about whether they’ll raise their child here or in the US. One thing they will not do is sell stories or pictures of what she regards as a private “joyous” event.
“It would seem very strange … to thrust this little being out into the big wide world before their time,” she says. “They don’t have a choice about it and our private life is our private life. Just because you are an actor, it doesn’t mean every aspect of your private life needs to be up on a big screen.”
A chameleonic performer, Walton has played Greek, Italian and, with this movie, indigenous roles. She is uncertain of her own heritage. “I’ve always had questions,” she says, explaining that her mother has English, Irish and Welsh blood, her father’s grandmother was Bulgarian, and that her own dark colouring has long led her to suspect that there may be other influences at play.
“You can get your DNA tested via a blood test in the States, which I did,” she volunteers. “I couldn’t wait. I thought, ‘This is going to be so exciting. I’m going to have all sorts, I bet.’ The result was 93 per cent UK and 7 per cent unknown. It was really frustrating; I was pretty pissed off, actually … a waste of a hundred bucks. I could have told you that.”
She dissolves into laughter. That said, one of Walton’s cousins recently found a genetic link between her family and a Bunurong woman from Port Phillip who died around 1860. “It’s exciting to think we have a connection to first Australians,” Walton says.
Mystery Road marks Walton’s second collaboration with Sen. The first came with Dreamland, his Nevada-filmed movie about an obsessive UFO hunter. It got no theatrical release, but she enjoyed the experience so much that when he suggested another project she leapt at the chance.
Later she reveals how the filmmaker, albeit briefly, saved her. Back in October 2007 the media suddenly twigged that she and Rove McManus were dating, and a bidding war for photographs of her apparently moving into his home began. It was, says Walton, the “very early stages” of their relationship and it generated a storm of publicity, largely because 11 months earlier McManus’s first wife, actor and singer Belinda Emmett, had died.
The McManus/Emmett pairing had indeed been high profile and Walton was instrumental in its genesis, having introduced McManus to Emmett (then starring in Home and Away) in 1999, the year after the 24-year-old was diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer. “It seemed to me it would be a really great match,” says Walton. “And I was right.”
Emmett joined All Saints in 2000, only to be diagnosed with secondary bone cancer. Weak and visibly frail, she married McManus in 2005. So when word broke about Walton’s subsequent involvement with McManus, everybody, it seemed, wanted to know. “Mercifully, I had Ivan’s movie [Dreamland] to do, so after that whirlwind of press happened I was on a plane to Nevada,” Walton recalls.
Asked if she had concerns about the public reaction to her relationship with McManus, she responds with a drawn out “yeeeeeeah”.
“It’s a human response to have concern over what people think of you, but you have to be detached. What’s important is your family and friends and how they feel about it. I love my family dearly, and have an awesome close circle of friends. Not one person in that circle thought there was anything wrong, they thought it was a beautiful thing, and that it was great for both of us considering our previous experiences.”
By her previous experience does she mean her break-up with fellow WA actor Danny Roberts? “Yeah,” Walton replies.
Walton says she decided to marry McManus because she knew she wanted to be with him for the rest of her life. She popped the question herself. “I’m not old-fashioned in any way,” she explains. “I’m a 1970s bra-burning kinda hairy-armpitted feminist, really. I asked his mum and she gave us her blessing and off we went.”
His mother, not his father? “She bought him into the world,” she says. “I think she has the right to decide.”
Walton may be about to become a first-time mum at 40, but she says she’s prepared. She feels “very lucky” that her younger sister was born when she was in her teens, and that she had a relationship with a man, Roberts, who had two children. “Child-rearing is not a foreign concept. I’ve had direct, hands-on experience.”
She responds to the question of how long she has been considering motherhood with a comment about learning from her own mother how difficult being a single parent can be. “The main factor was being with a man who was also ready, and who was as enamoured with the idea as I was.”
Asked if she and McManus have always wanted children, she replies, “We’ve had a lot of things to work through first. We’ve both made very big career decisions, moved countries. We’ve dealt with circumstances first and foremost and have reached a place where we are very happy and feel settled. The timing is really good.”
Photography by Trevor King; styling by Penny McCarthy; hair by Richard Kavanagh; make-up by Jody Oliver for La Mer. Lead-in image: Tasma wears Acne jumper. Top image: Tasma wears Max Mara coat, Bec & Bridge slip dress, Hermès belt and Windsor Smith boots.