TV veteran brings personal health battle into new Christmas film

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Over her 42-year career, Australian television royalty Heather Mitchell has done it all – kids’ sci-fi (Spellbinder), soap (A Country Practice), period (A Place to Call Home), legal drama (Crownies), whodunit (Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries). What she hadn’t yet chalked up was a Christmas movie. Until now.

In comedian Tegan Higginbotham’s funny and heartfelt film, Jones Family Christmas, Mitchell plays another Heather, whose life has parallels with her own. Crafty, fussy, farming matriarch Heather Jones is the glue that binds a fractured family on that special, sweltering day in the southern hemisphere.

Australian TV favourite Heather Mitchell stars in Jones Family Christmas.

“I am a mother of two boys, and I certainly relate to her in that you want everyone to be happy at any cost,” says Mitchell. “There are certain days – birthdays, celebrations – when you just want it to be a memorable occasion, and you’ll do almost anything to make sure that everyone’s happy to the point of overdoing it. And then your own expectations can cause the problems. You cannot control other people’s feelings. As a parent, you have to let go.”

Filming for four weeks in a farmhouse on the outskirts of Melbourne, on a set designed by Toni McCutcheon (Nowhere Boys), Mitchell felt right at home. “I loved the art direction. They went for a slightly older, more nostalgic feel, not a brash, Christmassy look, and it helped us all, as actors, to create that atmosphere.”

Most of the ensemble cast (Neil Melville, Marg Downey, Genevieve Morris) were old friends. She has known the three actors playing her character’s grown children (Nicholas Denton, Max McKenna and Ella Scott Lynch) since they were small. She recalls holding Scott Lynch as a baby.

The movie combines the elements of its seasonal genre, and adds a contemporary Australian flavour. Misunderstandings, the awkwardness of the offspring’s partners (Dushan Philips and Tahlee Fereday), the indulged grandchild (Anay Gadre), and family secrets threaten to ruin the turkey feast.

The cast of Jones Family Christmas (from left): Tahlee Fereday, Nicholas Denton, Max McKenna, Heather Mitchell, Ella Scott Lynch, Neil Melville and Dushan Philips.

There are Christmas miracles of sorts, and a blessed baby in the form of an orphaned joey. There are also heavy themes pertinent to the rural setting: encroaching bushfires, homophobia and men’s mental health.

“Mental health is beautifully and subtly treated in the film,” says Mitchell. “It focuses on a lot of the intimate, individual details of the family unit, and then the wider issues of the community. The overriding thing is that people need each other and come together. With family secrets, it asks, why do we keep things from our kids, and is that helpful?

“We try and protect our kids. It’s just something we do innately, and we don’t necessarily protect them in the best ways. Sometimes, they get to an age where they’re no longer your kids to protect, and you need to be honest with them as adults, and when is that? At what age does that happen?”

Mitchell was involved in the addition of a story arc that mirrors her battle with cancer, which she shared in May on the ABC’s Australian Story. “We wanted to give an extra reason for [Heather Jones’] desperate need for everyone to be happy,” she says. “It moved up the dial in terms of performance. But we didn’t want it to be an issue. It’s not about Heather’s personal health issues. It’s more about how, when we are confronted with someone we love’s health issue, or our own, it makes us react in certain ways.”

After she completes filming on two forthcoming series – Paramount’s Fakes and Sony Pictures Television’s adaptation of Richard Flanagan’s novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Mitchell will return to her first love, the theatre. In January she will take on national tour her acclaimed performance in the Sydney Theatre Company’s one-woman play RBG: Of Many, One, about the late US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“I just love the live experience,” she says. “I love being in the dark, and everyone has this incredible focus. No one’s distracted by other things. Everyone’s come with the intention of listening and being part of the experience.”

Jones Family Christmas is streaming on Stan from November 23. Nine owns Stan and this masthead.

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