Noni Hazlehurst is the warm face of empathy and compassion in Who Do You Think You Are?, Tuesday 17 April 2018.
Google her name and “empathy”, and reams of results come up. What beloved actress Noni Hazlehurst has to say on empathy is no more important than now in a world sorely lacking.
It’s a trait she mines on her emotional journey to discover the painful history of her parents Leonie and George Hazlehurst in Who Do You Think You Are? “I want to know my parents as human beings, not just as parents,” says Hazlehurst (also born Leonie).
Rare is it that the actress, whose credits over an almost 45-year career span everything from Play School (1978-2001), to Monkey Grip (1982), Candy (2006), and A Place To Call Home (2013-18), doesn’t speak of the need for empathy in interviews. It would be a wise wager to presume that one of her missions in life is to spread the word.
“I don't understand why the instincts that we are born with – to be kind, to be tolerant and to be compassionate – are seen as a weakness,” she told The Sydney Morning Herald.
From the mental health of young children to homelessness, there’s much we can learn from Noni Hazlehurst. Let’s just go right ahead and call her Australia’s unofficial “Ambassador For Empathy”.
“I was so angry that I’d been told from the top not to feel empathy for people who were suffering.”
In her powerful speech after being inducted into the Logies Hall of Fame in 2016, Hazlehurst orated with the poise of a highly principled politician. She revealed in a Dumbo Feather podcast that she wrote the sobering call to action just an hour before heading to the ceremony.
The actress had been spurred on by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull saying Australians “cannot be misty-eyed” about asylum-seekers who arrive by boat. A little over a week before the Logies, young Iranian refugee Omid Masoumali had died after setting himself on fire at the Nauru detention centre, a video emerging of Masoumali’s cries of agony amidst questions of grossly inadequate medical care.
“If something touches my heart, I cry pretty readily,” said Hazlehurst opening her speech. “I was disturbed this week that a misty-eyed response to a particularly frightful human story in the news was deemed inappropriate and we were extorted not to feel, not to have empathy, not to love.”
“I was so angry that I’d been told from the top not to feel empathy for people who were suffering,” she told Dumbo Feather later. “I was so furious because I thought, how dare you tell me how to feel, or not to feel, because not feeling has been the reason so much agony is being perpetrated into the world.”
“I started to see the world through a preschooler’s eyes.”
Hazlehurst spent almost a quarter of a century on childhood TV institution Play School. Generations of Australians grew up watching her warm and welcoming face as she looked into the camera lense with a knack for making a child feel like she was talking only to them. She is, as The Feed’s Marc Fennell has called her, “the nation’s ‘Mum In Chief’.”
It was Play School that sparked Hazlehurst’s advocacy for the mental health of young children.
“I did not realise the utter importance of that preschool age group because more connections are made in the brain in the first couple of years of life than in the rest of their life put together,” she told Dumbo Feather.
During her Logies acceptance speech, the actress zeroed in on the effect on children of a news cycle drenched in negativity and violence, and later elaborated on her great concern for them in an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald.
“We can't be surprised later when kids are stressed and anxious and depressed,” she said. “They need some peace and some good news to balance what they see."
Hazlehurst generated much buzz in her speech for pitching a TV channel “that encourages optimism not pessimism, that restores our empathy and love for our fellow human beings.”
And 40 years on since first appearing on Play School, she spoke with an undimmed reverence and compassion for what young children can teach us.
“I started to see the world through a preschooler’s eyes, to see how free and unafraid they are to just be. They haven’t yet been conditioned. But also how easily frightened and overwhelmed they are, how easily abused, and particularly how empathetic they are. No child is born a bigot.”
“It's a great leveler to walk a mile in someone's shoes.”
An advocate for the homeless, Hazlehurst continues to perform her celebrated long-running role in the one-woman play Mother, the story of sixty-something homeless woman Christie.
The play written by Daniel Keene, challenges the audience to suspend judgement of others.
“There but for the grace of God, and a few bad decisions, and some environmental influences, go most of us, in terms of homelessness,” Hazlehurst told the Hawkesbury Gazette. “I don't believe people who haven't made it in life just haven't tried hard enough, you know. There are people who slip through the cracks.”
“These are divisive times where everything is reduced to us versus them. To combat,” Hazlehurst said in an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald. “It's a great leveler to walk a mile in someone's shoes, if you know their story you can understand the way they are.”
“If we don't have empathy, we have war.”
In 2016, on the set of A Place To Call Home, Fennell asked Hazlehurst in an interview for The Feed what she’d like to be remembered for. She paused and responded with her typically humanitarian approach.
“I want to make stories I can be proud of,” she said. “That you can make a positive contribution to people seeing each other as human beings.”
Who Do You Think You Are airs on SBS Tuesday nights at 7:30pm. You can watch previous episodes of the series at SBS On Demand