From Seagull to Singapore, the eyes have it

Maeve Dermody: Returning to television in Serangoon Road. ''The sheer energy that went into [it] was huge.'' Photo: Edwina Pickles
Maeve Dermody: Returning to television in Serangoon Road. ''The sheer energy that went into [it] was huge.'' Photo: Edwina Pickles

If you ever seek out and watch the 1990s arthouse film Breathing Under Water, you'll see a barefooted five-year-old girl in a floral dress step up onto a seesaw and balance in the middle. It's Maeve Dermody's first screen appearance, as a character named Maeve, in a film directed by her mother, academic Susan Murphy Dermody. ''It was all incentive-based work,'' says Dermody, now 28. ''I had my starbook, and when I got to my positions right I would get my stars. Which I hope I've moved on from a little.''

By now, with a career spanning stage, television and film, Dermody's starbook must be positively aglow. She has worked with every major theatre company in Sydney, earned AFI Award nominations for her performances in the films Beautiful Kate and Black Water, and has become one of Australia's most prolific television actresses.

The paradox is that, on screen or in person, it's partly Dermody's watchfulness that makes her so watchable. Her thoughtful blue-grey eyes give her the appearance of missing nothing, and her natural air of quiet composure lends weight to every word. The smile, when it arrives, feels like some sort of reward.

In the Balmain cottage she shares with dog Juniper, it's clear that Dermody is well versed in introspection. After a couple of years on the arm of Sam Worthington and roles alongside one alpha-hunk after another, she has had her fair share of questions about the men in her life, and write-ups describing her as wearing such-and-such and reflecting on what it was like smooching so-and-so.

Wasted opportunities, these. Not to mention a criminal disservice to Dermody, who seems naturally inclined to pour her heart out, on stage or in interview.

It says something about Dermody, for example, that the role that has terrified her the most - and note that she spent Black Water being terrorised by the saltwater crocodile from hell - was playing an actress.

In Chekhov's The Seagull, the aspiring actress Nina is enamoured of fame and drawn irresistibly to the spotlight. By the end of the play, though, the dream has curdled, and Nina is left with little but disillusionment and despair.

Playing Nina at Belvoir in 2011, Dermody was left to grapple with that despair on a nightly basis for six weeks - twice on matinee days - spending a significant portion of the show trapped in a Perspex box alone with those feelings.

Her grief had nothing to do with the production. It was the bitter encapsulation of an actor's lot in life that she found difficult not to take personally.

''I would wake up with a huge weight about having to do it again,'' Dermody says. ''In a way it's an incredible role. I just think it has a little bit of poison in it. And it sounds a little bit dramatic, and a little bit borderline to me when I say that, but just going through that stuff repeatedly plants the questioning in yourself. It put some fear into me, ultimately.

''But I think fear gives you something to work with,'' she says. ''I hope that's what I've been doing.''

Dermody has not yet ventured back on the boards. Instead, she's spent two years tackling television. Roles in Rake and Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries led to parts in a host of Australia's most dramatically punctuated mini-series: Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo, Bikie Wars: Brothers in Arms, and Power Games: The Packer-Murdoch War.

In a way, Dermody's recent CV is as much a testament to her ability to look fabulous in period dress as it is of the high quality of new locally produced drama.

Dermody will next appear on Serangoon Road, a milestone Asian-Australian television co-production between the ABC and HBO Asia. She plays Claire Simpson, the bored wife of an ex-pat businessman in 1960s Singapore, who brings some extra humidity into the life of ex-soldier-turned-detective Sam Callaghan, played by Don Hany.

''The art, and detail, and sheer energy that went into the sets and costume and make-up on Serangoon Road was huge,'' Dermody says. ''The sets were extraordinary - I'd never been on anything like it. There were two completely built streets with stalls 1960s Singapore-style, and 400 extras a day. It was on a huge scale.''

It was also, of course, a colossal commitment. Living and filming for the most part of six months in Batam, Indonesia, Dermody found that her own loneliness crept into her performance. ''It was my first job in another country, feeling really isolated in a foreign place. With pretty much all men. Which is fine but … I spent a lot of time by myself and I definitely read two or three books a week. And kind of just had my head down, really. But that's what Claire is dealing with too.''

Now there's every sign that in her career and her life Dermody is closing one chapter and entering a new one. She's recently come out the other end of a six-year arts degree majoring in Art History and English Literature, which she managed to keep up alongside her stage and screen commitments, injecting new energy to her obsession with film.

Her immediate plans are to direct a ''long short film'' she has written and then pursue a postgrad degree in directing overseas.

She's spent the last couple of days with her mum, collaborating on a script. Most importantly, Dermody's first ever director is still very much on hand to offer directorial advice.

''Whenever I have agony about this business - because it quite often agonises - I talk to her about it. She's encouraging but realistic too. She was a film academic for many years but she also wrote other features that never got their legs that she stayed with for years. So she knows how ridiculous it is. She's seen so many careers of actors, brilliant actors …'' Dermody trails off. ''There's so much luck and ridiculous things involved. So I go crying to her. For better or worse.''

Serangoon Road, ABC1, Sunday, 8.30pm

This story From Seagull to Singapore, the eyes have it first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.