One of Australia’s most recognisable actors, Marta Dusseldorp, who portrays savvy senior prosecutor Janet King, stars alongside Guy Pearce in Peter Temple adaptations Jack Irish and played Sarah in post-WWII drama A Place to Call Home, has an affinity for water.
The Aquarian lives in Hobart with her partner and former A Place to Call Home co-star Ben Winspear, where there’s always a salty tang in the air, and both of their daughters Grace and Maggie had water births. Then there’s the genius of her famous grandfather on her father’s side, Gerard ‘Dick’ Dusseldorp, a Dutchman and former POW, who would go on to found construction giant Lend Lease and work on the Snowy River hydro scheme.
Turns out that watery connection holds true on her mother’s side too, as she discovered while filling in the blanks in an emotional episode of Who Do You Think You Are? (WDYTA?). “When I found out on the Swiss side that, my great, great, great grandfather Jacob Probst also harnessed the flow [of the river Aare] to make the area around Bern the richest farming land in Switzerland, it was all very spiritual for me,” she tells SBS Guide.
Skipping forward a bit, her great, great grandmother Lina Probst left Bern behind when she took advantage of cheap transport by boat to Sydney. Lina's life in Sydney shares a fascinating watery connection with Dusseldorp, albeit through an act of civic kindness during a terrible flood.
Lina's daughter Gwenda would go on to marry Dusseldorp’s grandfather, Scottish paediatrician Sandy Robertson form Dumbarton near Glasgow. There’s a through line here too about charity. His was an incredible line of doctors who regularly treated the poor without charge. “I was thrilled with that, that it wasn’t about profit or self-aggrandisement, it was about people who understood what it was to have a meeting place to bring together all parts of community,” Dusseldorp says, noting that her own brother, also a doctor, recently performed a small operation on her. “It was really acute how I had come from learning about the medical path, so there I am sitting there and I’m thinking of these people who now have faces for me and voices almost. Your world becomes more populated.”
Learning about these converging histories has helped Dusseldorp feel more Australian herself, with the ‘wog’ tag attached to her Dutch background and her odd sense of humour often holding her apart as a kid. “I’ve never understood where I fit into the Australian story, because in a way, I’m quite ashamed of it,” she acknowledges. “Because I often think of the story of Australia as taking the land and robbing the people of their place and culture, so knowing that your foremothers didn’t contribute to that, it makes it easier to embrace that identity.”
A pub that Lina ran, The Royal Exchange in Sydney's Marrickville, has become a focal point in this rewriting. “Having a place I could see and feel and touch, it changed everything for me,” Dusseldorp says. “Lina created a place for people to belong, and that’s every walk of life. And as our Indigenous First Nations people have taught us, if you have a place you can go, that you know is from your family, then you can reconnect to the earth and feel a sense of belonging.”
You can watch Marta Dusseldorp’s appearance on Who Do You Think You Are? at SBS On Demand
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