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Home and Away’s Penny McNamee reveals: “Why I almost walked away"

The actress opens up on returning to work after having her second baby

By Helen Vnuk
As Tori lay in a Summer Bay hospital bed in a coma, Penny McNamee, the actress who portrays her in Home And Away, was enjoying the first few months of her baby daughter Neve's life.
But all too quickly, Penny's maternity leave came to an end. It was time for her to return to work.
"I don't think I felt ready," Penny, 36, admits to TV WEEK. "But I felt like I could manage it. I really enjoyed my six months' maternity leave and would have probably happily done it for another six.
"But having a fantastic job – and knowing how hard the producer and the writers worked to keep Tori on screen – played on my mind. I really didn't want to let them down and I also didn't want to lose the opportunity I'd been given."
Penny McNamee "didn't feel ready" to return to work. Image: TV WEEK
Penny, who's starred in Home And Away since 2016, is mum to four-year-old Jack, as well as nine-month-old Neve. She says there will come a time when she decides to "just be at home" with her kids for a while.
"I don't know how long I'll be able to keep up the juggle of such a demanding job and having two young children," she explains.
"It's interesting – when they're really little, they actually don't need you as much as they potentially do when they're in primary school and high school, from what I've been told by my sisters, who both have older children.
"So once my kids hit primary school, I'll probably have to take a step back from my career."
Penny with her adorable newborn Neve. Image: Instagram
Returning to work has been a challenge for Penny in more ways than one. As well as juggling her children and job, she says she was conscious of trying to get her body back.
"There's an extra-special pressure that comes with being on a national television show, particularly one that's set on a beach," she says.
The actress say she "isn't a fitness fanatic", but she did try to exercise at least three times a week for half an hour at a stretch.
"I got my body back into shape gently," she says. "I started just walking and then slowly took that up to a jog. I didn't cut out anything from my diet as such. I just made sure I was eating well and drinking lots of water.
"I feel good now. I don't think your body ever recovers. You can't go back and have your 20-year-old body again, but I'm happy with where I'm at after having two children. I'm just going to own it."
Penny says she's fine with doing beach scenes in Home And Away.
"I feel like everyone who watches the show knows I'm a mother in real life. I'm not a supermodel – I'm an actress, and this is what I look like."
Penny with her on-screen bub. Image: TV WEEK
Penny describes Neve as "a joy", but admits she's still struggling with sleep deprivation. She jokes that the two days she spent shooting coma scenes during her maternity leave were "the best".
"They asked me to come in and film these coma scenes. They were like, 'All you have to do is lie in a bed and be asleep.' I'm like, 'You're paying me to sleep? Yes! I'm there!'
"I caught up on all my sleep, although they had to schedule time for me to breastfeed. Every three hours, I had to get out of the bed and go and breastfeed and come back in."
Neve is an "unpredictable" baby, meaning the amount of sleep Penny gets can vary wildly.
"Some nights, you get a full night's sleep and wake up in the morning and think you've won the lottery – you're going to be able to get through the day without bursting into tears," she says.
"Then other nights, you're up eight times and come into work with three hours' sleep. Trying to remember medical terms as the doctor is rather tricky."
Penny has come up with strategies for getting through a day of shooting when she's feeling sleep-deprived.
"I try not to count how many hours sleep I've had, and I try to not talk about it. I don't go into work and say, 'I haven't had any sleep,' because that's almost self-perpetuating. So I have a coffee in the morning, one in the afternoon, and try to act upbeat."
Penny came in during her maternity leave to shoot scenes in a coma. Image: Channel Seven.
Although Penny brought Neve to the Home And Away set for the two days of shooting during her maternity leave, she no longer does that.
"When recording, you can't really have a child crying or calling out, so it's easier to just leave her at home," she explains. "We have a great au pair who cares for her.
"Also, I find the split focus hard having my child with me at work. I'm better at going, 'Now I'm at work, now I'm a professional,' and when I go home, that's when I'm Mum."
Married to marketing executive Matt Tooker for the past decade, Penny says she'd love to have a third child. But she knows it might not be possible.
"I don't know if we'll be blessed with another, as I have endometriosis. So the older I get, the harder it's going to be to conceive. I think we'd like to try for another one, and if we're blessed with one, that would be fantastic, but if we're not, we'll be OK with that too. We're just so happy to have two little kids."
Neve sits in on one of the Home and Away production meetings. Image: Instagram
Penny comes from a family of talented performers. Her younger sister, Packed To The Rafters' Jessica McNamee, and her niece, Teagan Croft, have both found acting success in the US.
Penny herself spent several years in New York, scoring roles in shows such as Elementary and Blue Bloods. She was also in the US horror movie See No Evil with Zoë Ventoura, who's now on Home And Away with her.
"We got on so well, and we've been in touch ever since," Penny says. "Zoë and I are great friends."
Even though she's worked overseas, Penny couldn't be happier than where she is right now. No matter how tired she feels when she turns up for work, she never stops appreciating how lucky she is.
"I just remind myself that I'm so blessed to have a baby and a job I love," she says. "So on the days when it's hard and you're sleep-deprived, just remember to be grateful for it all."

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