Many Australians will have seen actor Naomi Rukavina on stage. “I was Ginny, Hermione, McGonagall, Umbridge and Hooch,” she says of her three years in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, ticking each role off with a finger. “I did a lot.”
But the 40-year-old has just landed her first permanent television role in one of Australia’s most famous shows. In the rebooted Neighbours, Rukavina plays Dr Remi Varga-Murphy who, with her tradie wife Cara (Sara West) and their two sons, are the newest family to move to Ramsay Street.
Aside from being the first lesbian parents on Neighbours (“It would be so nice to have two mums,” Rukavina says, a little wistfully), the role has a lot of personal meaning for Rukavina. Her early experiences trying to find work on Australian TV have haunted her for decades.
“At one of my first castings for TV, an agent said to me, ‘You’ll never really work on TV, because we can’t cast you in any family. We can’t see it.’ I was so shocked. You should see my actual family. My mother is Croatian, she’s a 6ft eastern European, she’s pale, she has very classic features. And my dad is Nigerian and he’s quite dark. I’m in the middle. But that’s my family. So what do you mean, you can’t see it?”
Even as she found success in theatre, that aside, she says, “has stuck with me to this day”. So being cast as a mum in a mainstream Australian show feels like a huge victory. “It took a really long time for me to get here,” she says when we meet on the set in June. “When I got the call [to join Neighbours], the first thing I said to myself, to that casting guy all those years ago, was: ‘Fuck yeah. Taste it.’”
She wipes her eyes. “It’s a lot,” she adds. “‘You will never be part of it, we can’t see you’ … It’s cooked. They don’t know the impact that a comment like that has. I’m a pretty robust human. It’s not an easy industry. And that has stuck so hard, like a little barb. I’m not just a look, I’m an actual person.”
Neighbours made headlines around the world two years ago when some members of the cast and crew spoke out about allegedly racist incidents behind the scenes. Approached for this story, Fremantle Media declined to comment on what had changed since its independent review was completed. But on the other side of the camera, the show has a history of firsts for on-screen representation, especially when compared with other, predominantly Anglo-Aussie soaps. There are LGBTQ+ characters playing LGBTQ+ characters, including trans cast regular Georgie Stone; actors with disabilities cast as characters with disabilities; and biracial families like the Varga-Murphys and the returning Rodwells.
“I never like to think of it as like an agenda or anything like that – we’re reflecting real life,” Jason Herbison, the show’s long-time executive director, says. “In the early years when we did focus groups, in a group of 10 people you might have one person going, ‘I’m not sure about [gay couple] Aaron and David, I don’t think that should be on at tea time’. A couple years later that became one person every now and then, until finally there was not even one. That really showed me the power of a show like Neighbours to change, to normalise, to evolve. Why wouldn’t you want diverse progressive characters? They give you great stories.”
West, who plays Varga-Murphy’s wife, is a 35-year-old queer actor. “I feel Neighbours’ thing is pushing diversity,” she says. “To be on a show that’s on four nights a week, where our sons have their own storylines and not everything is about us being queer – we get to do everyday normal stuff that you don’t get time to explore in any other show.”
While Harry Potter wrapped up in Melbourne earlier this year, there was three-month crossover between the play and Neighbours’ filming schedule, which meant Rukavina was filming in Erinsborough during the day, then driving to the Princess Theatre to perform eight shows a week. “It has been a lot,” she says. “I think I’ve blacked out the last three months. I’m so exhausted. I did a 16-hour day every day.”
How does it feel to be part of the first female couple on Neighbours? “Feels bloody excellent,” says Rukavina. “Obviously, as an actor of colour, and as a queer actor for Sara, it’s really important to have real-life humans represented on our shows that go out internationally. We have this gorgeous little biracial, queer family … It’s really so heartening to have that representation come to such a loved show.
“It’s not tokenism. We’ve had lots of discussions where we get to go: ‘Oh, no, that’s not an accurate representation of what that would be.’ And the producers really listen, which is super exciting.”
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