Teresa’s tribe

Attending her first Oscars earlier this year was a dream come true for actor Teresa Palmer. But it was creating her own family that was always her greatest passion.

Teresa Palmer is hiking to the top of the Hollywood sign. Her baby Forest is strapped to her chest, snug tight in a baby carrier like a little koala. Her toddler Bodhi is nearby playing pirates with her stepson Isaac and husband Mark Webber in the family home, a virtual tree house nestled in the hills.

It is the eve of Palmer’s 31st birthday, the day before the Australian actress is to attend her first Oscars ceremony. “It feels quite surreal, to be honest, but also quite magical,” she says, barely out of breath despite the steep incline. “I’ve been very reminiscent lately, about being a teenager and having big dreams to come to America and to work in film. At night, when the kids are asleep and I have a moment to myself, I really go back to that time when I was longing to have the opportunity to be an actor working in film, and think about how incredible it is that this is all happening. It’s my gratitude list. Sometimes I wish I could go back to that 15-year-old and say: ‘You’ll never believe this, but on your 31st birthday you will be going to the Oscars!’”

She stops and touches the security fence guarding the iconic sign that marks the physical pinnacle of the land where movies and dreams are made. Palmer has, quite literally, made it to the top of Hollywood. “I always touch the fence and turn around symbolically to say I got to the top!” she says with a laugh, looking at the spectacular view of Los Angeles stretching out below.

The next day, the tree house is a bustle of activity with Palmer ensconced calmly in the centre. A make-up artist is perfecting her signature minimal look, a hairstylist fashions her long blonde tresses into a loose wavy natural do to match her ethereal floaty ice-blue Prada gown, and all the while Palmer is bouncing Forest in a baby bouncer with one foot. Bodhi comes careening in from the garage yelling “Surprise!” before handing his mum a cupcake and bursting into Happy Birthday. Webber had surprised her that morning with a birthday brunch, which included Australian actress and model Phoebe Tonkin (who was a bridesmaid at her wedding in 2013) and the rest of her LA tribe. Forest starts grumbling and Webber takes him away to calm him.

“Babe, he may need a nap,” the ever-multitasking Palmer says, hooking Neil Lane diamonds into her ears to complete her outfit, by now resplendent in all her red carpet glory.

Minutes later she heads out the door to her first Academy Awards as one of the few female members of the cast of Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson’s inspiring war film that garnered six Oscar nominations and won two technical awards.

“I’ve got goosebumps and I’m nervous!” says Palmer. “It’s a big moment, because I’ve been thinking about it since I was a teenager and dreaming that one day I would get to attend the Oscars and now it’s the big day, on my 31st birthday, so it’s a bit overwhelming!”

With that she kisses Bodhi and says: “Maybe you’ll see Mama on the telly!” and jumps into the SUV.

Motherhood. Movies. Making the most of the moment. They are what define Palmer, and what has transformed her into the woman she is today: a veritable Earth Mother who juggles her many roles – mother, wife, actor, activist, friend – in a raw, open, honest fashion that she documents on Your Zen Mama, the parenting website she co-founded six years ago. It has opened a whole new world to Palmer, and anointed her as a poster woman for modern mothers. On the surface she is all that – a stunning blonde, blue-eyed actress working her way up the Tinseltown ladder with the perfect modern family and the fabulous bohemian lifestyle. But underneath the shiny surface there is more complexity to Palmer, and even more to admire.

I first interviewed Palmer in 2005 when she was 19 and filming The December Boys, one of her first films. At the time, she jokingly recalled stories of stalking Leonardo DiCaprio around her first Hollywood party and dating an AFL player. It was soon after that she moved from Adelaide to LA, embarking on that rite of passage of young actresses moving to Hollywood to follow their dreams. Palmer had dreamt of being in movies since the age of eight when she first saw Alfonso Cuarón’s 1995 fantasy, A Little Princess. “Even though I had a beautiful childhood, it was complicated in many ways and that was the movie that I escaped into,” she says. “I just absolutely fell in love with the magic on screen, and it was that movie that made me want to be an actor, because I was the same age as the little girl in the film and I thought: ‘I want to be doing that, I want to play a little princess.’”

thought: ‘I want to be doing that, I want to play a little princess.’” Showing bold initiative, 15-year-old Palmer researched who represented Nicole Kidman – one of her favourite actresses – and began relentlessly emailing one of Hollywood’s biggest agencies. “I started emailing William Morris every few months saying: ‘I want to be an actress, would you represent me?’” she says, laughing.

“I think my dream was born out of escapism, because I grew up in a really loving environment, but my mum had some mental health challenges and I just channelled a lot of my emotions through acting and could get closer to myself through performing, and so that’s what I started doing in my teens.”

Palmer’s independence and determined spirit came from her “colourful” upbringing and by no means perfect childhood. She worked at the Hungry Jack’s drive-through, listened to rap music and skateboarded with the boys. You get the feeling she was a bit of a teenage rebel with a big heart who struggled first with the dichotomy of a split family life, and again in her 20s with the trials of being a fledgling actress, and has only just come into her own in recent years. In Adelaide she attended a private school, but lived in a housing estate half the time, bouncing between her polar opposite parents – her “dorky and endearing” father Kevin, an atheist; and her mother, Paula, a strict Catholic who suffers bipolar and schizoaffective disorder.

“I don’t remember a ton of my childhood, to be honest, but whenever I think back, it was so happy because a part of her illness meant that I had the most relaxed mum ever. I was free to do anything I wanted, especially as a teenager,” she says. “But I had a little too much freedom, because my mum didn’t have the tools to be able to know how to control me as a teenager. It was obviously a very complex relationship that we had, but we were very enmeshed – she really, really needed me and I really, really needed her. She still is my best friend.”

Palmer now never spends more than three months apart from her mother, and Paula was with her when she filmed the psychological thriller Berlin Syndrome in Germany last year. Director Cate Shortland witnessed their beautiful yet complex relationship first-hand in Berlin. After emotionally intense days on set, the first thing Palmer would do was to phone Paula asking what she would like for dinner.

Shortland says this perfectly encapsulates Palmer’s selfless disposition. “People think Teresa is so shiny, happy,” says Shortland. “But she’s got a huge amount on her plate. And even though her beautiful mother has suffered from illness in Teresa’s life, what she always gave Teresa was bountiful love … I think Teresa has got a lot of goodness that her mother has probably given her, that is what she gives to others.”

I ask Palmer if her mother’s mental health informed how she herself wanted to parent her own children, and she nods. “I became so self-sufficient because I had to grow up so quickly. Even though I know it wasn’t a typical upbringing, I’m actually so grateful for all the experiences, because it really taught me how to take care of myself. I think if I had not experienced the childhood I had, I never would have been able to come out to America at the age of 19 and survive those challenging first few years where I was desperately lonely. I knew I had to branch out, I knew I had to stand on my own two feet and there was so much more to discover and explore of the world.”

Paula remains “such a ray of sunshine in my life. She is incredibly gentle and loving and giving and completely selfless,” Palmer says. “All she does is give to other people. I think I learnt so much about some of the things I write about on Your Zen Life and Your Zen Mama just from watching how my mum is in the world. And I love the example she sets for my kids. Just energetically being around such a kind person like that is the most beautiful education for them.”

She adds: “Now as a mother I truly appreciate all that she sacrificed to raise me as a single mother navigating her own
hardships. Day in day out she always put me front and centre of her universe despite her struggles. I’ll always be grateful to her for that and even more so for teaching me what being such a fiercely committed and loving parent looks like.”

She could easily be talking about herself. Best friend Tonkin describes Palmer as having “so much love in her heart that she would pour into her friendships, her family, even people she barely knew. Sometimes I forget she has three
kids at home, because of how effortless motherhood is to her. She has an amazing ability in that she can be an incredibly devoted mother while still remaining focused on her goals and her aspirations as an artist and a woman.”

Palmer created Your Zen Life with Tonkin in 2011, and subsequently Your Zen Mama when she had Bodhi in 2014 and after hitting “one of my lowest points” in LA.

It was a time she now refers to as “the Dark Ages”: a traumatic break-up, casting knock-backs, desperate loneliness. But it was also characterbuilding. “I felt like I was just marinating in the feeling of broken dreams, because it was just all around me. It was in the audition rooms, it made me feel so sad, your spirit gets broken over and over … but those years were important for my growth as a woman.

“I realised I needed to cultivate some sort of spiritual life and I just turned inward – I found meditation, I started saying yes to things,” she says. “I started learning about philosophies, about theology and started going to meditation sessions and it was very healing and I knew I was enough, just the way I was. I didn’t have to look to anything external to find happiness.

“Once that clicked in for me, that’s when I started getting more jobs. And I met my husband a few months after that … I created that space for these wonderful things to come into my life and I had finally gotten to a place of truly understanding who I was.

“That was when Your Zen Life was born. I discovered a whole new side to me … it was always beneath me, always underlying and a part of the fabric of who I am. Once I leaned into that, that’s when life cracked open and these wonderful things started coming and I definitely found my happiness at that point.”

Your Zen Mama is “a community for mamas, papas, caregivers to feel empowered, inspired, accepted and supported” – and the site has opened Palmer up to a much wider audience – she has more than 468,000 followers on Instagram and allocates three hours a week to reply personally to emails from her followers, and to post her weekly video logs. She sees the site as an extension of her parenting self and a chance to use her fame to connect a wider community who are “tired of the mummy wars”.

“When I got into acting, I wasn’t getting into it just to have recognition and to make money, that didn’t feel totally right to me, it felt like something was missing,” she says. “But then it started to become fulfilling once I realised that there are no rules, that I can be someone who has a profile, but also be incredibly open and have an honest communication with people. Because of what I do I have a greater reach, so it means that I can use my profile to create a community where people can start to connect and it’s a positive, loving community where there is more unity, which is what I think we’re all feeling we need right now in this climate.”

Babies and motherhood were always in Palmer’s plan.

“At the core of who I was, as much as acting was a dream, my even bigger dream was to be in a family unit and to find my love and to have children,” she says, tenderly cupping Forest’s head. “So I was like a swinging pendulum, because I wanted to be an actress, but more than anything I wanted to find a stable, amazing relationship, which my parents did not have, and I felt like by following my dreams out here to LA meant I couldn’t do both. So I was very conflicted until I realised I could have both experiences in my life. It really helped me liberate the pressure that I put on myself – to find work and get the perfect job, to find a husband – and to just enjoy my experience here and organically these things fell into place and I became a much happier person.”

Palmer wants to add at least three more children to her and Webber’s brood along with “threenager” Bodhi and eight-yearold Isaac (of whom they share custody with Webber’s ex-wife Frankie Shaw, for whom, in a modern family way, Palmer was a bridesmaid at her wedding.)

“I can’t wait to be pregnant again and have another child,” Palmer says. “I love it, it’s my favourite thing in life. I feel most like me when I’m parenting and I’m with my sons.”

Palmer is often described as an Earth Mother. I ask if she likes the title, ironically, just as she begins breastfeeding mid-stride.

“I find that a flattering term, I love it, but I’m not nearly what people would perceive. I’m not cooking lentils every day or growing fruits and I don’t have an organic garden that I cook from, my life is not perfect at all,” she says matter-of-factly. “In fact, I try as hard as I can to parent as consciously as I can, but then, for instance, my kids get free-for-all TV on the plane, and my son, on rare occasions, will eat massive blocks of ice-creams and he’ll have chocolates. So I think people can create an idea of who someone is based on photographs or based on my writing, but I’m a totally flawed mum and I have struggles just like every other person. I’m also colourful and different every day. I think I’m a pretty eclectic person. I’m interested in the weirdest things you would never expect, like I am a true crime nut! I am obsessed with everything true crime, mysteries, UFOs … I listen to underground rap from the 90s and so I have my edgy side, too.

She credits Webber – an actor and director she met over Twitter in 2012 – with giving her the absolute support she needs to juggle everything, from her various acting roles, to being a hands-on mum doing the school run, to flying to Paris fashion week in March with Forest for a night as a guest of Valentino, to her commitments as the global face of Artistry cosmetics.

“I really struck gold with him,” Palmer says. “I love that I know his user manual so well and that he knows mine, we just really show up for each other. But it’s challenging, because you’re not just existing for yourself now, you make compromises for each other as you float through this journey together.”

Palmer has been criticised for her openness, especially about breastfeeding and parenting methods, but shrugs off any worry about pressure to conform to society.

“I am naturally an open person anyway and I don’t have to conform to the story of how a celebrity should or should not be,” she says. “So, I want to do both: I want to be a mummy blogger so that I get to do that; I want to write about wellness, so that’s what I’m doing; I want to be a stay-at-home mum and not hire help to raise my children. I wasn’t raised like that and I want to be with my children all the time, so when I’m not working and my husband’s not with us, it’s just me and I love that. It’s great, because I don’t have to be anyone other than myself.”

Except when she’s acting, of course. Palmer filmed Berlin Syndrome, her 24th feature, in the middle of a two-year period that saw her make nine movies back to back (and in between babies). The last, Hacksaw Ridge, is what eventually led her to the Oscars, but it was Berlin Syndrome – Shortland’s psychological thriller about an Australian backpacker who gets kidnapped, which premiered to acclaim at the Berlin Film Festival in February and opens in Australia this month – that left a lasting emotional impact.

“I had to go through a mourning process to let that character go,” Palmer says. “I love watching films with a strong female lead. I love being directed by females, they just have a different perspective. That film was really life-changing for me in many ways.

“I really felt safe with those women to be able to delve in and completely transform myself. She’s very different from who I am as a person and it meant intense focus on the character, really just diving in and being brave, and I felt held by all of those women, so I was able to do what I needed to do to breathe life into that character in an authentic way because of them.”

Shortland describes Palmer as a “half-girl-half-woman” whose emotional complexity enables her to delve deeper into her acting roles. “She has this innocence and this vitality and openness that’s really young and girlish, but she’s also a woman, she’s really like an archetypical goddess, Amazonian woman in some ways. There is an innocence about who she is, a beautiful excitement about the world. She’s had a massive life and a lot of knocks, and what we see is this very shiny blonde beautiful young woman, but she’s had a huge emotional young life. And that also goes into who she is, because she has a lot of empathy for others, and she’s smart on an emotional and intuitive level. I think that role is really protective and helps her be really grounded, that role as a mother, and speaking up for other women.”

Tonkin concurs: “Teresa, for all her lightness and warmth, has a very innate awareness of human emotion and has incredible empathy towards others. She has a certain darkness and edge that I think she holds close to her heart and only explores when she is playing a specific character. Sometimes I truly don’t know who I am watching on screen because her ability to transform from someone very positive and grounded into someone like her character in Berlin Syndrome, is really remarkable to see.”

As we near the end of our hike I admire the huge family and love Palmer has built around herself, but wonder out loud if she ever just wants a day off on her own.

“Oh yeah, for sure,” she says with a smile. “I want a day off but I want it with my kids. I don’t ever really choose to be alone, like if I ever want to have me time it’s typically taking a bath with Bodhi or, you know, going to a ‘Mummy and Me’ yoga class.”

The next day, though, she actually does head off on her own for the first time since Forest was born 11 weeks earlier, attending the Oscars and Vanity Fair party (later joined by Webber), where she partied with Sia Furler and chatted to Brie Larson and Lily Collins. The entire day, she says later, was surreal: “I decided to have a big open energy and just be present and enjoy myself, because to be able to fulfil that dream was very, very special for me and something that I really allowed myself to celebrate. But when we got home it was so nice to take off my make-up and to put on my trackie daks and jump into bed and snuggle with my hubs and have the kids jump into bed with us. That was heavenly. It was the most beautiful way to end my birthday.”

Words by: Sophie Tedmanson
Photographer: Nicole Bentley
Stylist: Kate Darvill
Nails: Jocelyn Petroni

Location: Centennial Parklands, Sydney, Australia.