One of the benefits of creating your own TV show, as Celia Pacquola has discovered, is that you can orchestrate any scenario you please. So for the second series of the ABC sitcom Rosehaven, which she wrote with her co-star and fellow comedian Luke McGregor, she contrived a scene with a petting zoo, simply so she could pat a baby goat. “I refused to cut it,” the 34-year-old says proudly.
But it doesn’t always work out. In another episode Celia imbued her character Emma with her own real-life hatred of bananas, writing a scene in which Emma pretends to drink banana smoothies made for her, before secretly tipping them down the sink.
However the props department made real banana smoothies, so for an entire day of shooting Celia was forced to sip the dreaded concoction. “In writing everything that is true to me, I inadvertently made myself eat the thing I hate most in the world.” She grimaces. “It was the biggest mistake ever.”
Banana blunders aside, the new series of Rosehaven caps off the most successful phase of Celia’s career. A 10-year veteran of the stand-up comedy circuit, she is a multi-award winning performer, recognised as much for her writing and acting skills as her comedic ability. Her distinct lack of “look at me” (she isn’t on Instagram and only uses Twitter to promote her work) in the often shouty world of showbiz has won her a devoted following who can’t get enough of the understated – yet scene stealing – characters she plays.
In the past 12 months Celia has won an Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts award for her role in The Beautiful Lie (based on the Tolstoy novel Anna Karenina), her first dramatic part, and an Australian Writers’ Guild Awgie award she shares with McGregor for Rosehaven. She has reprised her role as Nat in Working Dog’s popular satire Utopia, narrates the new ABC Me series Mustangs FC, and has just wrapped production on Rosehaven.
The frenetic pace has left her feeling a little off-kilter when we meet on a sunny spring morning at an inner-Sydney cafe. Slighter in person than on screen, she’s dressed in a blue floral T-shirt, black jeans and nude pumps, her auburn hair rippling across her angular jaw. She’s easy company, quick with one-liners and self-deprecating wit, and clearly very smart.
There’s a hint of vulnerability behind her wide smile and as we talk it becomes apparent she’s prone to self-doubt. She’s still learning how to reconcile her booming career with managing the anxiety and depression she readily admits to suffering. Her prodigious workload is now catching up with her.
“I haven’t had a break,” she says. “This year’s been amazing. This is the annoying thing – I’m so happy because I love being busy and I love having work, but it’s gotten a bit much. When you wake up and you don’t know where you’re supposed to be, it gets a bit overwhelming. There’s a lot to do and you don’t want to let anyone down and you don’t want to say no to anything, because I want to do all the things.”
Growing up in Victoria’s Yarra Valley, Celia had little inkling of the bright future that awaited her. She avoided the limelight and struggled to fit in at school. Beyond idolising The Young Ones‘ Rik Mayall, she didn’t even know a career in comedy was “a thing”.
“I was never the real clown,” she says. “I wasn’t really a funny kid. My mum would say I was a real sensitive kid. A lot of comedians are like, ‘I loved getting the laugh’, whereas I was way more quiet.”
The youngest of three girls, Celia was a bookish child who spent the long days in the country writing stories to ward off boredom. “It made me have time to be creative ’cause when all you’ve got is a stick then you’ve got to come up with something to do with the stick.”
High school was a different kind of torture. As a country girl who bussed into the Melbourne suburbs to attend the posh girls’ school Tintern Grammar, Celia felt out of place. She did well academically but never found her niche and was constantly switching between friendship groups.
“High school sucks,” she says flatly. “You don’t know who you are and you’re forced to be with a bunch of people you don’t necessarily have much in common with. Then you’re stuck with these people for your most awkward years, and if you f… up, that stays with you.”
Celia still remembers the sting of being mocked by one of the popular girls for her dance moves which, until then, she thought were cool. “Kids can be cruel. Girls don’t hit each other, they psychologically torment each other.”
Celia describes herself as “a deep-end kind of girl”, arguably a trait she inherited from her mum Pam, an accountant. Not long after Celia left home at 18 her mother was hanging out washing in the backyard when a light plane flew overhead. Inspired, Pam secretly signed up for flying lessons and qualified as a pilot without telling her family. Two weeks after her first solo flight she left Celia’s father.
“She’s just an amazing woman who would just choose to do stuff and do it,” says Celia, who is close to her mother. “She was feeling a bit trapped. I think that she needed to prove to herself she could do it. I should not speak on her behalf [but] it was very closely related. I was very proud of her.”
Celia believes her parents’ split was for the best, but is reluctant to discuss her Italian-born father beyond stating that he was a schoolteacher and builder and they are not particularly close.
But she found her tribe – the “arty weirdo types” – when she arrived at Deakin University. “Suddenly all that baggage is gone, you’re meeting people who you have something in common with and you know yourself a little bit better,” she says before invoking one of her favourite phrases with a big grin: “It was the best.”
She studied writing and drama but soon abandoned the idea of becoming an actor because she didn’t think she had what it took to make it. “I just did not have the confidence in my skills.”
Waitressing to pay the bills, Celia had vague notions of becoming a scriptwriter and formed a theatre company with friends, staging plays and sketch comedy. In 2006, her then boyfriend entered her into the Raw Comedy awards. Apart from the “really great” feeling when she got her first big laugh, Celia’s main recollection of the experience is “a blur of terror”.
Yet she’d found her calling. She made it to the final, performing in front of 1000 people, and was crowned best firsttime entrant (Hannah Gadsby won the competition). She was convinced it was a fluke, but the gigs kept coming. “I went, ‘I’ll keep doing this until it stops’ – and it hasn’t stopped,” she says, with a note of disbelief, before slipping back into comedy patter. “It could still happen any day, any day now!”
Celia made her national television debut on Rove Live and went on to appear on shows including Good News Week, Have You Been Paying Attention? and Spicks and Specks, as well as writing for various programs. She shuttled back and forth between Britain and Australia touring her successful comedy routines, basing herself in London for four years. She returned to live in Melbourne in 2014, lured by projects that allowed her to branch out beyond stand-up.
It was on the set of Utopia that Celia’s friendship with Luke McGregor blossomed, the two riffing between scenes. They were so in sync that they decided to pitch a joint project to the ABC, which ultimately became Rosehaven, a comedy set in a real estate agency in rural Tasmania.
“Thinking about it now,” Celia laughs, “the balls on us to make a TV show, ’cause people could have hated it, we could have hated it, or my personal nightmare was that people would go, ‘This show would be perfect if bloody Celia wasn’t on it.’ “
But the first series was a hit, and Celia and Luke have enjoyed writing the second, with its cast of established characters, much more. “I personally think it’s better. We’re more comfortable, there are more jokes, there are more antics. So if they liked the first one, they’ll like this one,” she says confidently before admitting, “I’ll still be spewing on the night it premieres.”
Celia and Luke will watch the first episode go to air from the couch at her place, having Tasmanian wine and cheese, with Twitter firmly switched off until they get word whether audiences like the new series as much as they do.
Says Luke, “One of my favourite things about Ceals is that I can ask her pretty much anything and she’ll run with it. Like, if you didn’t have ears on your head, and you had to put two ears somewhere else on your body, where would you put them? Writing Rosehaven together is so much fun because we can have these discussions through the characters. I hope we continue to hang out long after Rosehaven is finished.”
Celia is getting better at savouring her achievements but for a long time she thought she had to be miserable to be successful as a comedian, so closely did the two states parallel in her life. In hindsight she realises that her relatively swift success fed this suspicion.
“The proof was I was having a good career and I was also really miserable and really stressed about it the whole time,” she says. “When you’ve got nothing to lose you can be really funny. And also, happy people aren’t funny. You know what I mean? People who’ve just been dumped are way more fun to hang out with than someone who’s just got married.”
It has taken time to get a handle on her anxiety and depression. She was doing all the right things to manage her condition – meditating, exercising, talking to someone, not drinking too much and getting enough sleep – but nothing seemed to be working. Filling out the mental health assessment form at her GP’s surgery a few years ago, one question stumped her. “It was: ‘What do you look forward to?’ And I genuinely went, ‘Nothing. There is nothing I look forward to.’ That was a real shock, not a single thing. That’s when I went, ‘I would like some medication please.’ ” Her easy chatter dries up as she fiddles with the ice in her apple and mint drink.
Celia’s depression is now under control thanks to anti-depressants but she still has to contend with bouts of anxiety. These manifest as constant stress, doubts, imagining worst-case scenarios and being super-paranoid.
“I’ve learnt now, unfortunately, that it is something you manage rather than cure, which is thoroughly annoying because when you’re in a good place you’re like, ‘I’m fixed, I can do whatever I want now!’ And then it gets bad again. I’m getting better at seeing it, trying to pull it up before it gets too bad.”
When life gets busy, as Celia’s has been, the anxiety gets harder to spot. At the moment she’s conscious of needing to create more routine in her life and schedule proper days off. She’s reading in bed at night for a much-needed mental break, working her way through Stephen King’s entire oeuvre after Luke introduced her to the terror of It. “I love books so much. I’m trying to read more because it makes me happy and it really takes me out of my own head.”
But while Celia is happy to talk about her mental health in the hope it will help others, not every aspect of her life is for public consumption. She’s become more discreet about her love life, which was fodder for her stand-up shows until she broke up with her boyfriend of five years in the middle of touring a show about the success of their long-distance relationship.
“It was brutal and I went, ‘I am not doing that again.’ I learnt a very valuable lesson, which was don’t talk about being happy on stage.” Now all she will say is she is “dating dot dot dot”.
Despite the strain of her schedule, Celia loves variety and is happiest juggling a range of projects. With Rosehaven completed, she’s starting to feel a bit “antsy” because she hasn’t been on stage for three months. “I love stand-up because I can say whatever I want and I can express myself. It’s just me. There’s nowhere to hide.”
But she’s steering away from the personal confession style and moving into the realm of opinion. She looks back on old routines and realises how much she has changed and matured as a performer. “I couldn’t do those jokes any more. I remember I was really apologetic. I’m more confident now.”
Apart from returning to stand-up, Celia is keen to play a villain next (“it would be a real challenge for me to go against every core and fibre of my being, which is to be liked”) and would also like to attempt writing a book. Despite all her success, she doesn’t think she’s made it. “You never have made it. It’s just the next, what’s next? When it’s good it’s the best thing ever, it’s a ridiculous way to spend your life.”
The first episode of season two of Rosehaven airs on ABC1 on October 25 at 9.05pm.