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Home and Away

EXCLUSIVE: Emily Symons on her greatest Home and Away challenge and the touching bond her son and Ray Meagher share

''It’s a completely different Marilyn, which has been really hard to play.''

By Stephen Downie
Emily Symons has just arrived at the set of Home And Away, at Sydney's Palm Beach. The winding trip that snakes around the Bilgola Bends to Sydney's northern tip is one she's made countless times over the years. And it's one, more so lately than ever before, for which she's grateful.
"It's a lovely part of the world," Emily, 52, tells TV WEEK down the line as she prepares to film scenes as Marilyn Chambers on the hit Channel Seven drama. "On a beautiful day, when there's no wind and blue sky, you can't beat it.
"And because of not going further than 5km [during COVID lockdown], being able to go on this long drive is a very special taste of freedom."
Summer Bay has been Emily's second home on and off for more than 30 years. (Image: TV WEEK)
Summer Bay has been Emily's second home on and off for more than 30 years. It's understandable she's forged firm bonds with the cast: with Ada Nicodemou, who plays Leah, and Lynne McGranger, who plays Irene, and Georgie Parker, who plays Roo.
"They're such a supportive group of women," Emily shares. "To work with those women has been such a joy and we're all such good friends.
"We all call it our Home And Away family, but for me it really is."
Of course, there's also the very special friendship she has with her co-star, Ray Meagher, who has played the inimitable Alf Stewart since H&A started.
"I've had such a long friendship with Ray," Emily says. "He's been a permanent figure in my life and is a very dear friend."
And Ray has become like an uncle to Emily's six-year-old son, Henry.
Over her four stints on the drama, loveable hairdresser Marilyn has been married three times, been electrocuted, and suffered amnesia. (Image: Seven)
"We socialise with Ray, and Henry knew him as a family friend before he knew he was on television," Emily says. "He's asked, 'What's Ray doing on the television?' It's a bit of a surprise."
On screen, the bonds between Marilyn, Alf and the others are being tested in a way they never have before. Over her four stints on the drama (Emily left in 2001 and spent eight years in the UK soap Emmerdale), loveable hairdresser Marilyn has been married three times, been electrocuted, and suffered amnesia.
But in current storylines, she's making enemies of her friends, going out of her way to be nasty. That's not like Marilyn at all. In fact, Maz's personality is almost unrecognisable, the result of organophosphate poisoning at the black-tie event at Salt, which almost killed Tane (Ethan Browne).
Emily says she was "shocked" when producers told her the direction her storylines were taking. But she did her research on this type of poisoning, which is a "very real thing".
"Apparently, when you get organophosphate poisoning, there can be changes to the brain and to behaviour as a result, whereas everything else remains normal," she says.
Playing this altered version of Marilyn has been Emily's greatest challenge on the show. Her instinct was to fight the transformation and play Marilyn as the nice, bubbly blonde she always has been, and who fans love.
Now, she was pushed out of her comfort zone kicking and screaming. Nasty Marilyn, Emily explains, "had to be dragged out of me".
"This is the most challenging thing I've ever done as Marilyn," she confesses. "It's a completely different Marilyn, which has been really hard to play, because she's second nature to me now.
"To suddenly have to create another [version of the] character… some days, I was like, 'I can't say that – that's so horrible.' But I had to go there to make the story work."
Doing scenes with Lynne, for example, where she had to fire up at her co-star, were especially tough. Emily likened it to "having a fight with your best friend". And after every take, Emily would apologise to Lynne for the tirade she'd just delivered.
Emily's son Henry has just started to watch the series. (Image: Instagram)
"It was confronting," she says, "but it was a good acting course. I was playing the opposite of Marilyn. All her character traits evaporated – suddenly, she's argumentative, hostile and furious with John [Shane Withington].The crew really enjoyed a bit of a change."
What's true is that watching Marilyn with no filter, speaking her mind and blasting all and sundry, is entertaining. But it's also a world away from Emily herself.
"I think I have a filter," she says. "I think I'm good at reading the room – whereas in this story, Marilyn is not good!"
It will be interesting to see how fans take Maz's personality transplant. Will they run with it or freak out?
"I'm a bit nervous," Emily confesses of how viewers might react. "I hope it will work and I hope they understand."
As far Emily's future in Summer Bay, the actress says she's "happy to stay put for as long as they'll have me". (Image: TV WEEK)
The storyline might be a bit much to take for one younger fan – Emily's son Henry, who's just started to watch the series, calling it "the Mummy show". Henry is even following the storylines, recently telling his mother, "I saw the man with the rose [Tane], and he didn't die from the poison."
"It's so cute," his proud mum says, beaming.
Emily has enjoyed spending the extra time during lockdown with "Hen", who has recently gone back to school.
"He's so grown up – and really tall," she says. "I can't believe I have a tall child. He's gorgeous. We're loving life."
As far Emily's future in Summer Bay, the actress says she's "happy to stay put for as long as they'll have me". Which means we'll be seeing more of Marilyn, whatever version that might be, for some time yet.

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