Meet the new Muriel, Maggie McKenna

Altuzarra dress from Belinda. Photo: Hugh Stewart
Altuzarra dress from Belinda. Photo: Hugh Stewart

Growing up in Melbourne, Maggie McKenna suffered more than her fair share of schoolyard taunts. Singled out because her mum Gina Riley is a famous comedian and singer, Maggie was an easy target, not least because she liked to get up and perform herself.

"I struggled through school. I was very shy and self-conscious about everything I did," Maggie, 21, recalls. "I got bullied very early on in school, because I was known, because of my mum."

But the experience is helping Maggie put her own singing and acting chops to the test with the character of Muriel Heslop in the Sydney Theatre Company's musical version of the hit 1994 movie, Muriel's Wedding. First portrayed by Toni Collette, Muriel tries desperately to win the peer approval of the mean girls who laugh at her unfashionable clothes and love of Abba.

In rehearsal for the musical, written by the film's creator, P. J. Hogan, Maggie laughs at a memory: "You know, this is sad. I spent a lot of lunchtimes alone. But it's made me understand a character like Muriel so much better than other people might."

Just as Muriel fled Porpoise Spit to reinvent herself in Sydney, so too did Maggie fly to another city, Los Angeles, to make it on her own, in a place where her mum, who played spoilt daughter Kim in the sitcom Kath & Kim, is not so well known.

Two years studying in LA toughened Maggie up, but her quirky essence remains unchanged. "I'm very much an introvert," she says. "I feel finally like I'm coming into my own as a person."

I meet Maggie at the bar at the end of the wharf at the Walsh Bay home of the Sydney Theatre Company. Dressed in a dark green skirt and a blue denim jacket, her brunette hair long, she comes across as a confident young woman. When she gives her toothy smile, you can see traces of her mother.

Maggie grew up an only child in the inner-city Melbourne suburb of Elsternwick. A cassette of the Abba Gold greatest hits compilation, constantly played in the family car, underpinned her lifelong love of '70s music, matching Muriel's taste.

Maggie cannot recall her dad, TV producer Rick McKenna, ever singing, but she would sing along to the super Swedes with Gina, whose Shirley Bassey-sized pipes were famously put to use in the Kath & Kim theme, The Joker.

At age 11, Maggie won a national songwriting competition through Mushroom records. The song was called People Say. "I listen back to it now and think, 'Oh my god, I can't believe I wrote that.' But it was a really great experience because I've been writing music my whole life." (She has just released her first single, Psychopath, on Triple J Unearthed.)

The year after she won the songwriting contest, Gina took Maggie on a holiday to Los Angeles, where they saw the musical Wicked. It was then that Maggie, who related more to the misunderstood witch Elphaba than to the goody-two-shoes Glinda, fell in love with musical theatre and decided she wanted to sing and act. But her parents dissuaded her from attending casting auditions back home. "They said, 'Go and be a child first,' " says Maggie.

At 13, she wrote a song called Maggie for her then bestie, Maggie Rowsthorn, daughter of actor Peter Rowsthorn (who played Gina's husband Brett in Kath & Kim). Being friends with the daughter of another comedian created a sanctuary of mutual understanding. One of the lyrics is: "It sounds like I'm singing to myself and that's creepy."

While she struggled academically with subjects like maths, and socially with mean girl peers who seemed to be suffering a dose of envy, Maggie found her tribe in year 9, when she joined the performing group Stage Masters.

"I would recommend it to any young person," she beams, "because I found my best friends of all time, who are still my friends today. We did musicals, and it was the first time I felt I was accepted somewhere. That's when I started finding my feet and going, 'Hey, I can do this as a career.' " One look at the comments on Maggie's Instagram feed confirms how loyal those friends have remained.

In 2012, Gina and Rick relented and gave Maggie a tiny role in the feature film Kath & Kimderella. She played Spitting Girl, who had to spit on a king. She also worked as a production assistant and dabbled in writing for the short-lived sketch comedy, Open Slather, starring her mum and Magda Szubanski, which aired in 2015. That same year she decided to study her craft on foreign soil, making good on an ambition she had held for six years.

Macgraw

Macgraw "Cathedral" dress. Photo: Hugh Stewart

Aged 18, Maggie flew alone to LA, auditioned for, and was accepted into, the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. "I got on a plane and stuck out the two years by myself out there. It's the best thing I could have done," she says.

Why the US and not Australia?

"I wanted to grow up and have a big experience, to see America, because I do want to end up working there and here. And just to be out of my comfort zone."

It was a steep learning curve. She was confronted by the sight of Hollywood's homeless and felt unsafe out alone at night. She lived in dormitories with fellow wannabe actors. "To be nice, I bloody hated it," she says, laughing.

"Dorm experience is awful and I wouldn't recommend it, because there are people in your room constantly. People just take your stuff. For an only child, it was very confronting. But I made lots of great friends through it."

There were many teary phone calls home to Melbourne. Gina and Rick would tell her it was her decision whether to stay or come home. "I definitely toughened up and got a thicker skin."

Unsuccessful auditions were enlightening, revealing the sexism in the industry. "You feel like you have to walk a certain way and act a certain way as a young female," she says. "A lot of the roles I was up for in LA were 'pretty girl number two'. There would be a casting list saying, 'She is incredibly stunning and skinny but doesn't know it.'

"I'd walk into these auditions and, of course, everyone would be thinner than me, or everyone would be prettier, or blonder, and you couldn't compete. You started to feel not human, like, 'Oh, I am an object.' "

Throughout it all, Maggie continued to write songs. "A lot of poetry comes from you and your own experiences," she says. One recent poem she posted on Instagram hints at heartbreak. It reads:

"I conformed to the idea / Of how a girl should act / Soft and gentle / Quiet and beautiful / Though inside / My thoughts echoed like a football stadium / I thought that was what you wanted / Who I should be / But you didn't want me when I did all of this / And I no longer recognised my soul."

So is there anyone special in her life? "There is not," she says. "I'm loving being single at the moment because I'm so busy. I don't have time to see my friends, or breathe. It's great to take this time and enjoy the moment, and not have to worry about someone else."

Had the Muriel role not come along, Maggie might now be working as a princess at Disneyland in California. She reveals that while she was in training for the gig, her jaw would hurt from all the smiling she had to practise.

Fortunately, on her audition tape for Muriel's Wedding, Maggie nailed Dancing Queen, a difficult song with a two-octave range, its pitch alternating between deep lows and great heights.

While the role establishes Maggie as a performer in her own right, comparisons with her famous mother are inevitable. Having proved she can sing, Maggie is reluctant to say whether her sense of humour is the same as Gina's, though they do often laugh at the same things: "She and I will make each other cry with laughter in the street at something stupid one of us has said."

 Gucci dress; Zara shoes.

Gucci dress; Zara shoes. Photo: Hugh Stewart

If Muriel's Wedding the Musical is a hit here, with a national tour a possibility, Maggie might be playing the 22-year-old tearaway who steals her parents' money to reinvent herself in the emerald city for some time. Of course, Muriel craves the moment she can get married. But as a millennial who wasn't even born when the movie came out, marriage is not on Maggie's agenda. "I have never been the type of person to think about marriage," she says.

"Maybe one day. But my parents aren't married - it's a marriage in people's minds, but they never did the official ceremony."

Both Maggie and Gina are, to borrow a Kath & Kim catchphrase, conscious of the "look at moi" factor. "We don't like much attention on us, when it's us," she says. "We love dressing up and being other people but, as ourselves, the idea of putting on a big, white, goofy gown and walking down the aisle with everyone looking at you? That's terrifying."

Muriel's Wedding the Musical is on at Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, until January 27.

Fashion editor, Penny McCarthy. Photography, Hugh Stewart. Hair, Anthony Nader using David Mallett. Make-up Aimie Fiebig using Tom Ford. Fashion assistant, Archie Pham.

This story Meet the new Muriel, Maggie McKenna first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.