It’s proving to be a big year for beloved actor, presenter and producer Noni Hazlehurst. She’s just wrapped filming the starring role in the comedy-drama feature June, Again alongside Claudia Karvan and Stephen Curry, will soon be seen in the provocative UK-Australian drama The End and returns in the second season of comedy The Let Down.
And she has relished making SBS’s life-affirming three-part documentary series, Every Family Has A Secret, as the warm-hearted host helping everyday Australians uncover a vital part of their past. From her home in the Gold Coast Hinterland, Hazlehurst tells SBS Guide it’s TV that “makes your heart feel good”.
Why did you want to be part of the show? Did your own journey on Who Do You Think You Are?, learning about your parents and your family, play into it?
Yes it did, absolutely, because the main take-away from that was, how did I not know this? I just found it incredible that whatever conditioning my family had, made them not want to be open and honest with me. And it’s hurtful and it’s weird, but I kind of understand now because I understand more about the context in which they lived, which I didn’t know before. And I felt so privileged to have been able to have that journey.
I knew that the people making Every Family Has A Secret, Artemis Media, wouldn’t exploit either the subject or the audience, that this would be done well, and caringly, and carefully. And I knew that it would be fascinating. I think people with real stories are far more interesting than anything that some producer can dream up! [laughs]
There are some amazing characters that come out of these family histories – acrobats, Nazi collaborators, potential spies…
And it’s a very brave thing for the subjects to do, to put your hand up to be doing this in public, a measure of [how] deep-seated is the need for answers. Because you are sometimes opening more than a can of worms, you’re laying yourself bare, and other family members may not like that. So there’s a lot of risk involved for these subjects and I commend them for their courage in not knowing where this would lead, but having the courage to face whatever it was.
For some participants like Angela Hamilton, who suspects her father was a Nazi collaborator, the journey is quite devastating. And for others there are positive things that eventuate and jaw-dropping twists and ‘sliding doors’ moments…
It’s like opening these doors and an avalanche coming through. Angela’s journey was particularly powerful and unsettling. She knew it wouldn’t be pretty but with all of the subjects, I asked them – it wasn’t always included in the show – but I asked them all, ‘Do you regret starting this whole process?’ and all of them said, ‘No, not at all’, that in some instances it was deeply upsetting and unsettling but it did give them a sense of understanding of how these things came to be and how they tend to be hidden, as well, and why.
Do you think there was quite a sense of closure for them?
Not necessarily. In one instance not at all, we didn’t get to the bottom of the story and hopefully the program might help in that way. No, I don’t think it was closure, I think in some instances it raised more questions than answers. But for some, yes there is a sense of peace, there is a sense of just letting that lump on your shoulder fall off a little bit, because some of these people have carried these things with them for a long time. Again, it reinforces what happens if you don’t talk to your kids and you don’t talk to each other, because when [people are] gone, it’s too late.
One of the things I love about the program is that as an audience member you go, ‘Oh my God, how would this affect me? What would I feel in this instance?’ So it’s very human and real, and you can’t not empathise.
You’ve talked about the need for empathy and this show slots into that category. As hard as it is for some of these people, there’s a real optimism to it, isn’t there?
Yeah, they’re being themselves, they’re not putting on an act, they’re not layering their characters with something that might be deemed socially or televisually acceptable, they’re really being themselves.
I always look for stories that I think are worth telling, whether it’s as a presenter or an actor or a producer, and I really love stories that make you feel that you’re connected to other human beings, because especially in these divisive times where so much is couched in terms of ‘us versus them’ or ‘you’re special and the other one’s not’, this sort of program does remind us that we share more similarities than differences.
With reality TV, shows such as Married at First Sight and My Kitchen Rules would suggest nasty TV has really been ‘in’ lately. Sometimes kindness on TV feels lacking…
Well you know the old saying, ‘If it bleeds, it leads’. To me, the fact that this is called ‘reality’ is deeply disturbing because it’s not reality, and there’s a lot of kids out there growing up thinking, oh that’s how ‘real housewives’ are meant to behave because it says it’s real.
My favourite reality shows are Long Lost Family, One Born Every Minute, where the stakes are really high for people, they’re actually life and death stakes. These are the stories that I relate to because I’m a human being and I understand what it’s like to be in some of those situations. And I care for the people going on these journeys as I would hope someone would care for me if I was in that situation. [laughs]
What do you think the effect is on a person having to hold on to a secret for years?
I guess there must be a sense of something missing, that you can’t reveal yourself, which is a wall, it’s putting up a wall. I guess it’s a measure of how manipulated people have been for centuries, often by organised religion and the rules laid down by that, sometimes by social norms, that we think we can’t be open, that we have to hide, that we have to be socially acceptable, that something that happened not even to us, way back, is somehow going to make people judge us.
We’re very judgmental – judgement is a really difficult thing to give up, whether it’s self judgement or judgement of others, and it’s not useful. If we’re constantly judging, it means that you feel like you have to perform in some way to pass muster, which is patently obvious and stupid.
But that’s why I was so lucky to work on Play School for 24 years, because a three-year-old child isn’t layering on social acceptability, they’re just who they are, and that’s incredibly freeing if you can manage that in any interaction with other people!
You were having to keep a hell of a lot of secrets for this show!
Yeah, when I first met the subjects, probably the producers did know how some of it would turn out because they’d done some research, but in some instances I didn’t. In other cases, things turned up during the making of the program.
It was certainly a roller coaster and often they moved me to tears on the day… I genuinely feel for these people being so vulnerable and so hurt.
So it was quite a journey for you as well?
Oh totally, yeah. But it’s not about me and that was freeing as well, that I’m just there to put them at ease in front of the camera because that’s quite confronting. To empathise and to let them know they could trust me was important.
When we think about grief we often think about death, but Every Family Has A Secret shows us a different kind of grief. For these people, it’s about this missing information and part of their identity that’s missing.
Yeah, there’s a big hole where information should be. Grief is something that we don’t allow ourselves to talk about very much, people are uncomfortable with it, but it’s a human emotion and it’s as valid as joy. But I think with the lancing of the boil, if you like, of these secrets, it does allow relief. It is like lifting a burden from someone’s shoulders, which is very powerful to see.
And I think the sense of relief for the audience too, that these people have been through these journeys and they’re still okay, they’re actually okay, that they’re better off knowing than not knowing. And to see forgiveness too. With that understanding often comes forgiveness and that’s very freeing for people.
What did you learn about the human spirit doing the show?
I think what’s interesting is we do a lot of psychoanalysis in our society, we tend to sort of look for the roots of our dysfunction and often blame others for the past and allow that past to influence our present. I think it reinforced for me that you don’t have to be the sum of your parts, that you can actually make conscious decisions about who you are, regardless of what went down before. I think that’s that sense of relief, that you don’t have to be bound by other people’s decisions and other people’s choices, that you are free to create your own reality.
Every Family Has A Secret premieres on SBS on Tuesday, 25 June at 7:30pm and continues on Tuesday nights 2 and 9 July. Catch up at SBS On Demand after episodes go to air.