Kat Stewart always knew if she was ever invited to participate in Who Do You Think You Are? she would say yes.
It would be a chance to learn about little-known facets of her family tree, all at the show’s behest. But she didn’t realise she would first have to ‘pitch’ her family’s story to producers.
“They’ve got to make sure you’ve got an interesting enough story,” she tells TV Tonight.
“I had a coffee with a lovely producer and she said, ‘Look, tell me what you know. But just so you know, this is a chat. And if you’ve got dull history, this will be the last time we see each other!'”
Thankfully her family passed the test for the SBS series, setting her on a two week filming excursion last August. But the series by Warner Bros. Australia has a number of filming techniques for its engaging storytelling, including not telling the guest if they will be heading overseas.
“I thought I might be going to Ireland”
“I remember saying, ‘What climate should I be packing for?'” she continues.
“I have Irish heritage so I thought I might be going to Ireland.
“But the show was very kind, they knew I would be organising childcare. They said, ‘You won’t be going too far from home.'”
Stewart filmed her episode in Tasmania and Victoria, remarkably learning she had family links to Collingwood -where much of Offspring had been filmed.
“I really thought it was all about Gippsland for both sides of my family. I had no idea we had strong beginnings in Collingwood and even Richmond.”
Learning about the poverty in Collingwood in the early 1860s, Stewart discovered tragic truths about her great-great-grandmother.
“She just had everything go wrong that you can imagine”
“Without ruining the story, she just had everything go wrong that you can imagine, but she endured. She found ways, not only to just keep going, but to turn it around and make it better for her surviving children. I just found her incredibly inspiring,” she reveals.
“We’re having a bit of a bit of a tough time at the moment worldwide, but for the most part, we’re so lucky to live in this age.”
There are also links to an ancestor who had a pioneering role during a contentious time in Colonial Australia.
Stewart admits that even though she knew WDYTYA? likes to tug at the emotions, she found it hard to fight back the tears.
“The big surprise for me was how emotionally invested I became”
“The big surprise for me was how emotionally invested I became in it. I’d watched and seen how people got involved, but I thought ‘Come on!’
“I was prepared for that. ‘I’m not giving it, I’m not giving it!’ I’m used to this!’ But they got me.
“I tried to keep a kind of outside perspective, thinking I wouldn’t be manipulated, but sure enough on came the water works!”
“I don’t really like doing public stuff as ‘me’ at all”
The Five Bedrooms star admits also preferring to work the actor’s mask. Yet WDYTYA? is far more revealing of the woman behind the performer.
“I don’t really like doing public stuff as ‘me’ at all. I’m quite mild mannered. I’m happy to be whoever I need to be in character,” she admits.
“But it didn’t feel like my show.
“I felt like I was giving (my family) an opportunity to shine.”
Stewart has kept much of the details from family until the episode airs. But as a young mother she hopes her own children will one day be able to appreciate what it uncovered.
“We’re not here forever”
“What emerged to me was the whole idea that we’re not here forever. If you’re going to distil someone’s life into a paragraph for an obituary you’ve got to think about what’s important to you and what are the key things that are important to pass on to your kids and to the people you love?
“It’s not just about the work, but who you are.
“I’m very grateful for the experience.”
Who Do You Think You Are? airs 7:30pm Tuesday on SBS.