When Emily Symons learned that Marilyn Chambers, Summer Bay’s perennial optimist, would unveil her darker side, she nearly fell off her character’s iconic high heels.
Marilyn wakes up a changed person – and a fairly unpleasant one – after nearly succumbing to organophosphate poisoning as a result of an attack targeted against Tane Parata (Ethan Browne).
“It was quite a shock when it was first pitched to me and I had to be really talked into it,” says Symons, who has played Home And Away’s bubbly Marilyn on and off since 1989.
“Of course, I was thrilled to have the chance to tell a different Marilyn narrative, but it was a great challenge because Marilyn is all about love, happiness, and nurturing.” Now, all of a sudden, I’m expected to be mean to everyone.”
The plot may appear unbelievable, but it is based on true events. Organophosphates, sometimes known as insecticides, can cause everything from agitation and confusion to respiratory difficulties and neurological issues in extreme cases.
Marilyn appeared entirely normal when she was released from the hospital, according to Symons, but her friends and coworkers Irene (Lynne McGranger) and Leah (Ada Nicodemou) began to notice her peculiar behavior.
“It starts off quite comical because she suddenly doesn’t have a filter and she’s saying things that she would never normally say,” the actor says. But the situation takes a turn for the worse when Marilyn becomes paranoid about the treatment she is receiving from Dr. Logan Bennett (Harley Bonner).
“She is convinced that he has wronged her and that everyone at the hospital is lying to her.”
Marilyn’s paranoia leads her to file a complaint against him.
However, her dissatisfaction does not stop there, as she goes on the offensive against several of her longtime pals, including Alf Stewart (Ray Meagher).
“The filmmakers had to hold my hand because I was like, ‘I can’t say that?’ and they were like, ‘No, you have to say it because Marilyn isn’t herself,’” she adds.
“It was very hard, kind of like having an argument with your best friend. I kept saying, ‘I’m really sorry. I’m so, so sorry. I wasn’t allowed to soften it or change it in any way.”
At the age of 17, Symons began her soap career as the cunning Anne Costello in the short-lived Australian soap Richmond Hill. She was cast as the flighty but cheerful Marilyn the next year.
She left after 12 years and moved to the United Kingdom, where she appeared in pantomimes before being cast in Emmerdale as the unlucky-in-love barmaid Louise Appleton. After she returned to Australia in 2009 to care for her sick mother, she was requested to reprise her role as Marilyn on Home And Away.
Symons has no problem playing unsympathetic characters but found Marilyn’s transformation unsettling.
“Sometimes it’s good to step out of your comfort zone and do something that you’re not really comfortable with,” she says.
“I think it would be good to play a villain that was not Marilyn, you know, actually a different character. I would like her to go back to just being happy and nice.”
Symons says it’s usually easy for her to get into character after more than two decades as the bouncy blonde.
“It took a lot of commitment to do it differently and give it the weight it deserved,” she says. “However, it was a fantastic story to tell.”
“It was a story about mental health and behavior, and how she got lost there for a spell.” It was a fun-scary experience.”
Marilyn will take some time to regain her natural cheery mood, and some in the cast and crew would want to see her preserve a little of her new snark.
Closer to home, however, Symons is eager to see the old Marilyn return if only so she can resume watching the show with her six-year-old son Henry.
“He has just started to watch Home And Away. He calls it The Mummy Show,” she says.
“We watched a little bit the other night. He said, ‘Mummy, what are you doing?’ I just decided the story was getting a bit complex for him so we’ve missed a few nights and we might just wait till Mummy is back to normal.”