In 2015, Kat Stewart should have been on top of the world.
She was in the first flush of pregnancy with a much longed-for second child, a daughter she would call Gigi. Her marriage to fellow actor David Whiteley was going from strength to strength, the pair having successfully navigated their way from colleagues to friends to blissful lovers. And her career was still on an upward trajectory, with a comeback seventh season of Offspring soon to be announced, and several other projects in the works.
Yet behind closed doors she was in the midst of unthinkable heartbreak.
Five days after she'd learnt she was pregnant, her mother Kitty had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer – a disease that would claim her life four-and-a-half months later.
Not only that, but David's mother, Shirley, who had herself been battling cancer, would also lose her fight during this time.
There were endless hospital and hospice visits and many shed tears, all of which could have taken the gloss from her happiness.
But Kat has never operated in that way. Instead, she embraced the positive, tapping into what we'll learn during our time together is a glass half-full attitude to life.
"The great thing was that I had such a strong bond with Mum and she was thrilled," she says with a genuine smile. "Mum knew that Gigi was a little girl – she actually named her. I'm very close to [firstborn son] Archie and Mum was too, but obviously she was very excited for me to be able to pass on that mother-daughter bond.
"Gigi is such a great, funny, strong, sassy little thing. And we all felt like – especially because my husband lost his mum just a few months before I lost mine – that she was this great surprise who came along to cheer us up. And she has – she's endlessly entertaining."
"It was horrific on paper, but the reality of where I was at meant that I was completely able to understand what Kat was going through," David, 55, later tells The Weekly of the comfort the two found in their shared experience. "So, I didn't have to pretend, I didn't have to make an effort to empathise because I was going through exactly the same thing. In fact, they were even in the same hospice at some point."
More than five years on, Kat's mother is never far from her thoughts.
"You know how, as you get older, with your kids you think, 'Oh, I sound exactly like Mum.' Or, 'That's exactly what Dad would say'," the 48-year-old muses at one point. "Well, in Mum's case it's even nicer because I obviously miss her."
That closeness was born in a happy childhood. Kat – or Katherine as she was christened, in honour of her mother's birth name – was "very lucky to get parachuted into the Stewart family," she beams.
The youngest of three (brothers David and Jeremy are five and three years her senior respectively), she spent her formative years in East Gippsland's Bairnsdale, where father Tony was a lawyer. Kitty was a teacher before leaving the profession to care for her family.
"She was with us all the time, which is such a luxury," Kat says. "I don't know that we realised just how lucky we were because it's not something that happens so much now."
Tony – who was best friends with his wife-to-be's older brother – started dating Kitty when they were both in their teens. And throughout their lasting marriage the pair never lost their passion for life, or each other.
"I'm always sceptical of people who act like they have all the answers for a great relationship," Kat muses of the blueprint she received for her own lasting union with David, who she wed in 2008.
"I think life and relationships have their ups and downs. But Mum and Dad were really passionate. They fought, but they were funny and they made each other laugh. They were always honest and they were a great team who brought out the best in each other."
They also, she adds, brought out the best in their kids.
At the age of eight, Kat was painfully shy, only showing confidence in early performances on stage (more on that later). But her world broadened after Tony ditched his law career, bought a caravan and took the family on a year-long trip around Europe.
"It was a pretty progressive thing to do in the '80s," she laughs. "My dad loved travel and he'd burnt out a bit. At the age of 37, he went, 'Right, that's it, I'm retiring.' It didn't work out, we ran out of money eventually, but that was the romantic idea – that we would just sort of travel around."
At first, the siblings were schooled by correspondence. But while her brothers had each other, Kat was lonely, so her parents placed her in a London school for a stint.
"They all thought Australians were really tough and strong and clearly I was neither of those things," she reflects. "But it made me bolder. I became more adventurous and tried new things. Coming from a small country town, it was a wonderful start because your world was very small. We travelled around in our campervan and tried different foods and heard different languages and saw new works of art. It was a great experience for me."
The family would return to Bairnsdale a year later but eventually relocated to Melbourne when Kat was 14.
Kat had been bitten by the acting bug – hard – when she made her stage debut at the age of five. Cast as an angel, the timid prep schooler was the only one from her class to make the cut for the annual Christmas play.
"I got to wear wings," she laughs now, recollecting the moment which would kick start an acclaimed TV career; her latest project, Five Bedrooms, is readying to release a third season on Network Ten and new streaming service Paramount Plus.
"Someone pushed me on stage at the right moment and then pushed me off again. I remember it as being really exciting. Then in grade two I had a teacher, Mrs McManus, who would get us to act out stories. Being a really shy kid, I got very confident and bossy and I loved it. From an early age I remember loving that feeling. But it wasn't a career option."
Instead she took the sensible route, studying marketing and arts at uni before landing a job as a publicist in book publishing. But the lure of acting remained. She'd clock off from her day job to study acting three days a week, hoping to make the leap to a career as a working actor – a move, Kat says, her parents encouraged despite the profession's unsteady nature.
Eventually, she went for an audition at Melbourne's Red Stitch Theatre.
David, a founding ensemble member, was among those on the audition panel and says he was in awe when his future wife took to the stage.
"She was just perfect," he reflects. "We all just looked at each other and went, 'Okay, that's probably a yes'."
With her background in publicity, Kat quickly became involved in promoting the fledgling company, a fact David says clued him in to how smart and driven she was.
A few years later in 2002 they played a married couple in Down the Road and, it was then, David recalls, "that we realised we had a bit of a frisson."
"Because we were both with other people I remember coming up to [our first kissing scene] and thinking, 'I really shouldn't be looking forward to this,'" Kat says, grinning.
It wasn't until 2004, when they both found themselves single and the attraction had become obvious to not only themselves, but their friends, that the inevitable happened.
David invited her to dinner at his apartment.
"No etchings," he jokes, "and not a very big apartment. More like, come and see my kitchenette."
"I had a no actor policy before David," Kat says. "Actors have a reputation for being quite flighty, but David is very centred, sure of who he is and emotionally intelligent. And we were very much friends before we got together."
From that first date, things moved quickly: they would marry four years later but not without something of a hiccup.
Kat began working in TV and David reveals he wasn't taking her absence from home or the theatre well. "It made me very possessive and jealous and all sorts of things," he admits.
"She's not like that at all, but my crazy little brain led to some difficulties and we had a big, big fight. It basically looked like it was over. And that's when I realised that she was way too important to me to lose."
At that moment, he made an internal pledge to propose in a year's time. And he did – after first seeking Tony's permission to ask for his daughter's hand. The pair married six months later.
At the same time, Kat's career was exploding.
Underbelly was yet to air in Melbourne thanks to a court injunction, but her performance as Roberta Williams was the talk of water coolers across the rest of the country.
The Sydney-based cast were doing nightclub appearances, being mobbed at red carpet events and gifted extravagant freebies. But for Kat and the rest of the Melbourne team, life was going on much as it had before.
"I was still doing independent theatre and working on an SBS show," she says.
Still, she was booking great gigs. And then came a little show called Offspring.When the show launched in 2010, she may not have been the leading lady (that honour went to Asher Keddie and her character Nina Proudman), but playing Nina's feisty older sister Billie officially made Kat a household name.
"That was megamania," says David proudly of his wife's transition to bonafide star. "It was really thrilling to find out how much the audience felt for her. And the great thing was that we had some time before we had kids where we got to go to all these opening nights, awards nights and events. It was great fun."
Kat, for her part, squirms in her chair as we probe her about how it felt to burst into sudden fame.
It's a subject that makes her visibly uncomfortable and she's keen to remind us of the fact that, having been "raised in the country, you need to be down to earth."
"I didn't let myself get too distracted by it because, well, I think you just don't want to become a d*head," she says with characteristic frankness. "I loved the dressing up side of it. And it's lovely when someone comes up to you and says they enjoyed something. But you need to get on with the next thing."
For the couple, that was babies – something they'd put off at first, enjoying newlywed bliss as well as the ability to ride the career wave. But when Kat did some research into IVF for an Offspring storyline, she got a rude shock.
"I was 37 or 38 and I looked at the stats for fertility and I had to give myself a little pep talk," she says. "I went, hang on, we're acting like we can do this whenever suits us. It's not how it works. And it might not happen."
Fortunately, at 39, Archie arrived.
"We were lucky," Kat admits.
He was just five weeks old the first time he accompanied his mother to the Offspring set. Four years later, three-week-old Gigi visited the same set.
The kids, Kat smiles, are both creative and – given their genes – there is "a good chance" they'll follow their parents into the entertainment industry.
Archie recently wrote and directed an Easter play with his older cousins. Gigi is an aspiring rock star, obsessed with Blondie and Led Zeppelin, a microphone her current favoured toy.
"I would never push them but I wouldn't rain on their parade either," Kat's quick to add when asked how she'd feel about a new generation of actors. "We'll see what happens."
Until then, Kat is happy to just enjoy family life. Melbourne's many pandemic lockdowns gave the foursome a chance to spend more time together and she relished it.
"I'd love to say I'm a, 'Get dirty kids, eat dirt, relax,' kind of parent," she laughs. "I'm not. I have to force myself to give them space, to not jump up straight away when they hurt themselves, help them to be resilient. The silver lining of COVID was knowing they were safe and with me. I wish I was a cool parent but I'm really not."
"She's a fabulous mum," David rebuts later. "She's the heartand soul of the family. She's very warm, very kind and not at all phoney. She's thoughtful, she has a strong sense of values – something which is not always typical of people in this industry – and she's very principled."
For that, Kat thanks her parents. And it's the reason why she and David have made sure that their grandparents are still a huge part of their children's lives, despite Tony being the only one still living.
"David and I talk about them all the time, constantly," Kat says. "The values that our parents have given us and that we give our kids, it's not something you can necessarily touch but it informs you and shapes who we are.
"I think it's really important [for Archie and Gigi] so that they've got a sense of who they were. But also, it's healthy to talk about them yourself, so it keeps them present for you."
Read more in the August issue of Australian Women's Weekly - on sale now.