Actor Emily Symons has played Marilyn Chambers for more than 30 years but the news that the Summer Bay favorite has a secret love child has shocked her as much as viewers.
“It’s the biggest story I’ve ever done,” says Chambers, who admits to shedding real tears while filming the emotional Home And Away storyline. “It was a really, really challenging, uncomfortable different space for Marilyn to be in.”
Marilyn’s life has been turned upside down by the mysterious Heather (RFDS’ Sofia Nolan).
Over the past few weeks, the young woman has inveigled herself into Bay life while at the same time secretly terrorizing Marilyn whose subsequent erratic behavior has made friends – including Roo (Georgie Parker), Leah (Ada Nicodemou) and Irene (Lynne McGranger) – turn against her and question her mental health.
However, at breaking point, Marilyn can’t hold the truth back any longer, and confesses to Leah that she suspects Heather is her estranged daughter from an extramarital affair in her youth.
Desperate to keep a lid on her secret, Marilyn makes Leah promise not to tell a soul.
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The revelation was a bolt out of the blue for fans familiar with the character’s past.
Marilyn did have a son, Byron, with husband Norman Fisher, but the child died from liver cancer.
In subsequent years, she went to great lengths – even kidnapping – to satisfy her maternal urges but eventually found satisfaction when she, and now former husband John (Shane Withington), adopted troubled teen Jett (Will McDonald).
Symons says while she was just as surprised as viewers to learn Marilyn had been hiding such a big secret for so long, she was blown away by how the show’s writers managed to weave the Heather story into Marilyn’s life.
“At first, I was like, ‘Wow, when would that have happened?’. But when you go through the timeline, it actually makes sense. Gradually the layers are peeled away and you find out why she felt that she couldn’t share this information for all of her adult life. Ultimately, this is a story about shame and secrecy.”
The actor believes Marilyn’s story is one that many of the drama’s older viewers will recognize and possibly even identify with.
“It’s not an unusual story,” she says, pointing out Marilyn’s pregnancy happened some 30 years ago in different times when attitudes to unwed mothers were very different.
“I think if you were vulnerable, had no money and no way to live, and were being coercively controlled by a wealthy powerful man, you would just do what you thought was best for the child – and I think that’s what she did.”
Attitudes have changed a lot in the intervening years, adds Symons, who is herself a single mother to seven-year-old Henry.
“If it was happening in 2020, everybody would have gone, ‘Oh, well, never mind, let’s all raise the baby together’.
“You wouldn’t have a problem sharing that with your loved ones and your friends and your support group.
So yeah, it’s different times.”
However, while the storyline has been gruelling, Symons has relished getting to know her screen daughter.
“She’s just a delight and such a brilliant actor. She is incredibly professional, so talented.
“I mean, she is one to watch. She’ll be a big movie star before we know it,” she says of Nolan whose first big role was playing former Home And Away favorite Stephen Peacock’s daughter on The Flying Doctors reboot RFDS.
“She’s amazing. I think we both got PTSD from telling the story and we became very, very close.”
Meanwhile, despite Marilyn having confessed everything to Leah, her secret is very much under wraps and it appears Heather has not finished with Marilyn yet.
Symons is not surprised at how quickly Marilyn’s friends were won over by the young woman, describing the character as a master manipulator.
“Heather can be 100 per cent convincing, you know, sugar sweet, butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, and she just did a job on everyone.
“Every episode something else is revealed, so it’s a really interesting journey,” says Symons, refusing to reveal whether there is a happy ending for the mother and daughter.
“I think Marilyn desperately wants that because, ultimately, she loves her but Heather is very damaged.”
Home And Away, TVNZ 2, weeknights