Emily Symons has played the bubbly Marilyn in Home And Away for so long that anyone meeting her would expect nothing but smiles and laughs. But when TV WEEK sat down for a chat with the actress, the conversation turned surprisingly serious.
When Emily, mum to four-year-old Henry, was asked whether having a young son kept her young, she opened up about her fears as a mother.
"Every day is a reminder of how you have to stay alive as long as possible," she says.
"Because I had him so late in life, I'm very aware of the fact that my mother died very young, so I don't want that to happen to me. So I'm really conscious of eating properly, exercising and looking after myself, to give myself the best possible chance of being there for his 40th birthday."
Emily's beloved mother Glenn was there for her 40th birthday, but only just. She lost her battle with cancer in May 2010.
The actress had returned to Australia from the UK the previous year to look after her. It was then that Home And Away asked her to return as Marilyn, a role she'd first played in 1989.
"It helped that they didn't kill off my character," Emily says. "That door was left open for me and I was very grateful it was."
This year, Emily celebrated her 50th birthday, as well as the 30th anniversary of her first appearance in Home And Away.
"So it's actually been a big year for me," she adds.
For Emily, Marilyn was just her second big acting role – after a stint as Anne Costello in the short-lived soapie Richmond Hill. She calls Home And Away her "training ground".
"I was fresh out of high school," she says. "I didn't go to acting school – that [H&A] was my acting school. Everything I've learnt was from watching Ray Meagher [who plays Alf Stewart], Judy Nunn [Ailsa], Cornelia Frances [Morag] and Norman Coburn [Donald]."
Emily still remembers her first day on set vividly.
"Marilyn came in as Lance Smart's [Peter Vroom] girlfriend and they went on this big power cruiser. Lance was driving and he hit Mr Stewart, and Mr Stewart fell out and was going, 'Stone the crows!' or 'Flamin' galah!' So I met Ray. Marilyn was there in a fancy, sparkly outfit and it was fun."
She says there are many standout memories from her time on the show, including working with "beautiful" Kate Ritchie, who played Sally.
"There are lovely memories of the kids I've worked with over the years," she says. "I thought I was a kid myself then!
"I enjoyed the storylines with Mat Stevenson [as Adam]. Marilyn and Donald getting married was obviously a really big chapter, and a really happy one. Isla [Fisher, who played Shannon] was so funny and lovely and we all had so much fun."
Just as Emily has always looked up to the older Home And Away cast members, in more recent years, the younger cast members have looked up to her. Olivia Deeble, who played Raffy, has called Emily her "second mum".
Emily describes filming Raffy's departure from Summer Bay earlier this year as "awful".
"The Marilyn/Raffy friendship was so much fun for me," she says. "Olivia is such a lovely girl. She was a great energy to work with every day, so it brought a lovely kind of newness to what I do."
Emily says she and Olivia still text and talk.
"She's in Melbourne now," she says. "But I hope to be always in touch with Olivia. When she's a big movie star, I hope she remembers me!"
Of course, Emily is kept busy with Henry, her son with her ex-partner Paul Jackson. This year was a big one for him, as he started preschool.
"I sobbed like a baby at the school gates and he just went off and went, 'Bye, Mummy – stop taking photos of me,'" Emily remembers with a laugh. "And off he went without a backward glance. He's loving it."
Henry also visited his mum on the Home And Away set this year when his after-preschool childcare fell through.
"He's really interested in microphones and headphones and he loved all the technical side of it," Emily explains. "He thought it was so much fun, leaping around in his Spider-Man outfit."
But even though Henry has visited the set – and loves seeing magazine articles about his mum – Emily thinks he doesn't quite understand what her job is.
"He thinks it's normal that there's a picture of Mummy in the magazine. He's too young to watch Home And Away. I tell him that I work in television, but I don't think he really understands what that means. He's only four."
After so many years on the show, Emily still manages to get excited about what lies ahead for her character.
This year ended with high drama for Marilyn, as she was caught up in the terrifying siege at the hospital. Emily says the siege scenes were shot over "three very long days".
"The guys who played the baddies were fantastic," she remembers. "They were the nicest gentlemen you could ever hope to meet, but when they called 'Action!', oh, my God – it was terrifying. They had really loud voices, there were guns being waved... we didn't have to act because it was actually really scary."
She says shooting the siege had an impact on her.
"I literally had PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]," she remembers. "They broke us down, so we had to do crying and be frightened and grovel on the floor. We were dirty. They didn't put on any new make-up, so we were covered in tears and grime."
Now, she can't wait to see the storyline play out next year.
"I'm looking forward to the journeys Marilyn will take and how she resolves what happened in the siege," she says.
As for being 50, Emily declares she's "fine" with that.
"Age is just a number," she says. "I'm healthy, I'm happy, my son is healthy. There are a lot of people who are a lot worse off. I'm grateful to have a good job and great friends. I guess 50 freaks a lot of people out, but what can you do?"
And if fans of the show expect her to be like Marilyn in real life – beautifully groomed as well as bubbly – well, Emily is fine with that too.
"There are some people who are quite shocked that I'm just a normal mum," she says. "I'm probably always a bit feral and exhausted when I go out when I'm not working. They're probably really disappointed when they see me, actually!
"But there's a bit of Marilyn in me – in all of us!"
Home and Away returns to Channel Seven in 2020.