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Sunday Age

A part made in heaven

Author: Helen Greenwood
Date: 04/02/1996
Words: 2230
          Publication: THE SUNDAY AGE
Section: AGENDA
Page: 3
A top casting director decides to enter the priesthood after unleashing repressed memories of childhood abuse - it sounds like a film script. But it's true. Helen Greenwood reports.

IT WASN'T quite as dramatic as the conversion of St Paul. But when Liz Mullinar, Australia's most successful casting consultant, announced she was abandoning her career of 26 years and joining the priesthood - theatre, film and television folk were agog.

After all, for a quarter of a century, Mullinar's casting agency has been finding the faces for some of Australia's best-loved films, from `Picnic at Hanging Rock' to `Babe'.

Television series from the long running `Home and Away' to the forthcoming `Mercury' also owe their stars to Mullinar's agency.

When it comes to picking talents, Mullinar is one of the best. She was there when Judy Davis launched her Brilliant Career. She spotted Claudia Karvan, Jacquie McKenzie and Cate Blanchett. Soapie nymphette Melissa George owes her gauzy career to Mullinar's keen eye for the right person.

THEN there is her lifelong love of the theatre. She chaired the syndicate that set up Sydney's Belvoir Street Theatre more than 10 years ago. She helped save another theatre company from extinction five years ago. She sat on the boards of the Australian Film Commission, the National Institute of Dramatic Arts and The Smith Family, among others, and raised a family of two sons and three stepdaughters with her husband of 20 years, Rod Phillips. As she says, ``I was conscious of running through life and having to get a lot done."

But just under three years ago, her world turned topsy-turvy.

She was struck by a mystery illness and was hospitalised and confined to a wheelchair. She had been the dynamo who could make others feel better just by walking into the room.

``It was very frightening," she says, ``because I have always made myself better. I am a healthy person, I don't get sick.

" A few months later, after an alternative healer suggested her symptoms indicated she might have been the victim of childhood sexual abuse, she says she unearthed memories of a rape incident when she was in hospital at the age of five. She then began a slow, painful journey to recognition and recovery. And realised she had a calling. It was the church.

For most of her life, Mullinar has not been a churchgoer.

But she has always believed in Christianity. ``I mean," she says, ``I am the vicar's daughter."

MULLINAR was born in London, the daughter and grand-daughter of Anglican vicars. One of her great-grandfathers was the Mayor of Manchester; another led the anti-slavery campaign in England. Another relation, Sir Richard Acland, gave away his large estate because he didn't believe in owning property.

``I come from a very socialist family," she says. ``And I connect service with the Anglican Church because my entire heritage is with the Anglican Church. My father's life - and my mother's - was always given to looking after other people.

You always had to say how lovely it was to have some stranger for Christmas Day lunch even though you hated the thought.

``I remember now how cross we could be when my father would walk in with some awful person just when we would be sitting down to some family birthday and he would say, `There's always a place for someone who needs it'. And we'd all groan. It had a lasting impact on all of us."

Mullinar was one of six children. One sister is a nurse, another helps run a public asthma campaign in England and a third is a landscape designer. One brother is in the church and the other lives in Australia - he was one of the original writers on the `Bananas in Pyjamas' series.

The family grew up in Battersea, then one of the poorer parts of London. ``It may be," she says laughing, ``that from having had an impoverished childhood, I am somewhat intolerant of being poor."

Mullinar is quick to laugh. A petite blonde with a bright smile and fine movements, she lives in a inner Sydney mansion that has a cosy, sprawling grandeur. Oil paintings of sailing ships adorn one corner of the living room and a David Boyd hangs over the mantlepiece. A big black poodle sprawls on the carpet and a clock solemnly gongs the half hour as if it were in an English hallway.

As a child, Mullinar remembers, she ran away from school every day for a year at the age of six. By the time she was 15, she told her parents she wanted to leave school. From an early age, she had wanted to be an actress or a missionary which, she says, ``is curious considering for the largest part of my life, I have not been religious".

SO AN actress she set out to be. While she waited to enrol in drama school, she took a Cordon Bleu cooking course for three months (``my parents wanted me to have a trade to fall back on"). She was also the youth member of a board that raised money in 1961 to build the Chichester Festival Theatre.

She graduated from Guildhall School of Music and Drama in both courses and won an award for best character actress. She worked, got married to actor Rod Mullinar and, in 1966, the dutiful wife followed her husband to Australia.

``He had met up with Bill Hunter and some other Australians.

I hated the idea but said `lovely, we'll go for two years'.

" Her career stalled. The strong English accent was a problem.

And, apart from the Old Tote and a few independent theatre companies, there wasn't much happening in Sydney. She worked in a restaurant, did catering and joined the fledgling Australian Theatre for Young People, teaching drama workshops and directing plays for schools.

``My friend Hilary Linstead was a casting director at Lintas (advertising agency) and was moving into a producer's job there. She said, `Why don't you take my job?' " To get the job and the secretary that went with it, she had to change from her maiden name of Hopkinson to Mullinar.

``To my ex-husband's eternal regret, I think we are forever interlocked and connected with each other," she laughs.

As it turned out, she didn't last long in the nine-to-five routine. ``After nine months, my husband left me and I was hating the job anyway. There was a four-hour meeting when they discussed what cufflinks a man should wear in a Solvol commercial and I thought, `Liz, this is not your life'. It was one of those clear moments when I thought, `You have to get out of this or you will succumb and something very bad will happen to you'."

One of the television producers at the agency suggested that she freelance.

But Mullinar was torn. The missionary calling had resurfaced.

It was 1969, she was 24 and her marriage was over. Independent casting consultants didn't exist in Australia. She spent a month deciding what she was going to do and trying to get a boat to go to the Gilbert and Ellice islands.

``My sister was matron at the hospital, so I thought I would go over there and do good works - maybe so that I wouldn't have to work out what Christianity was about. Fortunately, for me and everyone else, there wasn't a boat available."

She laughs uproariously and agrees that perhaps she was having an early midlife crisis. Her face turns sober and she says, ``I think I was very unhappy and I was trying to be happy, so you move on to the next stage to see if that is happy. The end stage, when you know you should be happy, is when you are married with two children and lots of money. I was trying to get to that stage."

With $100 in the bank, she rented a serviced office in Kings Cross and gave herself two weeks to get a job. She began casting commercials, and was immediately happy and successful.

``I couldn't afford to have, and never have had, a month when I wasn't in profit," she says. She was so successful that she had to get a partner - her old friend Hilary Linstead.

Linstead looked after film, theatre and television because Mullinar brought in the big bucks from advertising. In 1985, Linstead left to become a film producer and Mullinar took on her role.

``Because I was an actress, I understand actors," Mullinar says. ``And I don't have an enormous amount of personal ego.

To cast, you have to always be thinking through someone else's head. You are working for the director, so you can never say, `I think this person is right for the role'. You are a conduit.

You are trying to find the right actor for their vision - it's never your vision."

In 1993, nearly 25 years after her first ``midlife crisis", Mullinar was hit by the one that almost cost her life. She was 48.

``I would have always said that I did it successfully (balancing her career, voluntary work and family). Now I wouldn't be so arrogant. I would say I did it using my mother as a role model, which we do. A lot of my needing to achieve came from my childhood abuse, which I had forgotten. I now understand that it drove me to do far more than I needed to do in my life to get approval."

The sexual abuse she says she recalls was an isolated incident when she was five, during a week when she was in hospital for a greenstick fracture of her arm. She believes the abuser was a doctor. For Mullinar, remembering brought relief. An insomniac all her life, she began to sleep. A person who was always terrified of being alone, she travelled through Indonesia on her own late last year, toting a backpack and staying at cheap losmens.

She is now a passionate defendant of recovered memory and has set up a support group called the Advocates for Survivors of Child Abuse.

Mullinar's impassioned response to the idea that mistakes can be made and false accusations levelled is: ``We are talking about a tiny percentage. Let us concern ourselves with how exciting it is that people are recovering memories because it gives them a chance to be healed."

The trauma through which she went, physically and emotionally, was the catalyst for her rediscovering her faith. ``I discovered that, if you prayed, it had an effect which I had never worked out before. In simplistic terms, if I prayed in the morning, I had a better day than if I didn't. I am being helped to heal myself by my faith."

Mullinar says she is more relaxed now, more willing to show her vulnerable side.``I was driven and needing to achieve, utterly absorbed with the theatre and film worlds. I still obviously care about those worlds and the people. But I feel that I should do something else with my life. I feel that I want to spend my time developing my spiritual side, working for other people."

About a year ago, Mullinar decided she wanted to be ordained as a priest. However, she didn't announce it until just before Christmas last year. ``I like to take my steps one at a time, " she says smiling. Until then, the Anglican Church had held no attraction for her during the years she had been in Australia.

``Obviously, because I am a woman, I will be critical of the church in Sydney at one level because it rejects me. I can't embrace a religion where I am not equal to men."

But her dissatisfaction ran deeper and was more personal than that. ``The church in Sydney is old-fashioned and I found it dead. It didn't give me what I was looking for. But I wasn't doing a lot of searching. You can do your own spiritual searching withoug necessarily going to a church. And, in fairness to the church, I didn't seek out more inspirational branches which I could have done."

Starting at the end of February, Mullinar will drive to St John's College at Morpeth in the Newcastle diocese where women are ordained. She will spend the weekdays there, returning on weekends to do parish duties at her local church.

``I find it quite curious now because I feel so completely at home with the idea of going into the church - it has always been a part of my life, but so totally unacknowledged."

Mullinar still retains a quarter share in the business she started, which now employs 16 people full-time, but she has resigned from all the public positions except as an AFC commissioner.

She considers herself lucky that her recovered memory of abuse didn't involve a relative or family friend. She is also grateful for the experience.

``It's made me work out a whole lot of things I wouldn't have examined if it hadn't happened. It's made me stop and think. The scales have come off my eyes in terms of all sorts of things in life."

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