For almost two decades, Madeleine West has been a shining star. From her start in Neighbours in 2000 to hit dramas The Wrong Girl, Playing For Keeps and Underbelly, and even cameos in comedies such as True Story with Hamish & Andy and Get Krack!n, she has been a screen staple.
"I think I've been on almost every show on Australian TV," Madeleine, 39, tells TV WEEK with a laugh, "whether it's a small part or in a lead role."
Even so, the actress admits she "never in a million years" imagined she'd return to the show that started it all – Neighbours.
"I've made a point of playing different characters with every new job I've had because I think it challenged and stretched me as an actor," she says.
Despite her wealth of experience, Madeleine reveals her unexpected return to the show she cut her teeth on would prove her most challenging role to date.
"This storyline is the hardest thing I've done," she explains of playing both Dee Bliss and Andrea Somers, who have now been revealed to be long-lost twins.
"There are so many factors when playing two characters at once, who interact with each other and have such a convoluted history," Madeleine says.
"It was like doing a master class in acting every single day."
The 15-year mystery of Dee's disappearance – having plummeted off a cliff in a car on her wedding day – was finally solved this year in what has been one of Neighbours' biggest storylines.
When Madeleine returned to the drama in 2017, not long after its 30th anniversary, she was cast as Andrea, a wicked con artist – and Dee's doppelgänger. She says she had no idea what would eventuate from the explosive two-year-long storyline and shock revelation that Dee was, in fact, alive.
"I'd been approached to come back several times," she recalls. "At first, it was just as a doppelgänger [Andrea]. But that storyline was received with so much enthusiasm that producer Jason [Herbison] said, 'It's time for Dee to come back.'"
As Madeleine chats excitedly about Dee's resurrection, you can't help but be swept up in her pride about the show.
"It's an amazing storyline; I've never had so much fun in my life," she says before commending how far Neighbours has come in its almost 35 years on air.
"I feel I've come away from it a better and stronger actor than I've ever been," she reflects.
Australia's longest-running drama has not only managed to keep up with the times, it's broken down barriers, made history and entertained us all at the same time.
Just last year, the soap aired Australia's first same-sex wedding since the legalisation of gay marriage. It also delivered a special International Women's Day episode featuring a female-only cast and production.
"Neighbours is creating challenging and hard-hitting storylines," Madeleine explains. "It has to be a mirror to society. It can't be soft and fluffy, otherwise it becomes redundant."
So when people query her decision to return, she's quick to react.
"I'll challenge anyone who asks why I went back to Neighbours," she says. "Why wouldn't I when I have the opportunity to play these high-arching storylines?"
Looking back on her time away since leaving the show in 2003 to "spread her wings", Madeleine appreciates her career coming full circle.
"I consider myself a character actor and felt the need to play some other characters – which, of course, I went on to do," she says. "I started on the show 20 years ago this year, so it feels apt I've come back now."
It's not just a matter of timing that makes Madeleine's return to Neighbours feel like the right move. The busy actress has taken the opportunity to fulfil a life-long dream of going behind the camera.
"I've done my directing attachment," Madeleine reveals. "It's always been my end goal. It's a nice cycle; the footnote of my career has been facilitated by my starting point."
Adding yet another credit to her name with directing is all in a day's work for the busy mother-of-six. When we chat, she's on her second day of filming the second season of 10 drama Playing For Keeps.
"I can't give anything away, but Kath's storyline is exciting," Madeleine teases of her character, "and a real testament to the strength of womanhood."
Amid a busy schedule of acting, directing, writing a series of children's books and travelling, Madeleine has taken on spearheading the expansion of international charity Project Soar.
Its aim is to educate and empower teenage girls in Third World countries.
"I'm a mother of five daughters, so I've always been interested in the cause of women," she explains. "I think now, in this modern age, the big question is, 'How do we emancipate women around the world?' The answer to that is through education and empowerment."
Not only is the actress pioneering the launch of the charity's Ghana office, she's also bringing the blueprint home to Australia to launch her own charity.
"It's called Neighbours With No Fences and is designed to facilitate the education and development of young girls in Indigenous communities," she says.
It's no easy feat, but Madeleine is making a difference while also making the most of life.
"You need to learn to ask for help when you need it," she says of juggling it all.
"But I've also chosen an activated life, to strive beyond the normal bounds, and am trying to live a well-rounded life."
Neighbours airs Weeknights, 6.30pm, 10 Peach, DRAMA