Dividing her time between Australia and LA, Claire van der Boom has a peripatetic career and life. I meet the actress, born in Broome, in Sydney where she is playing the lead in the new ABC medical drama, Pulse. Not long after we’re introduced, Claire is lightly rubbing my shoulder as a friendly gesture. Brunette and fine-featured, the 34-year-old is adept at forging a quick connection and does tactile well. “My character is feeling guilty because she’s just lost a patient,” she says, by way of explanation.
Claire plays Frankie, a kidney transplant patient turned transplant surgeon who must keep her medical history a secret. Transplant patients have compromised immune systems, making them susceptible to the infections lurking around hospital wards, and Frankie fears competitive colleagues will use the information against her.
Frankie is based on the series’ co-creator and writer, Mel Hill, a medical registrar at a Sydney hospital. After Hill, a University of Sydney economics graduate, received a kidney transplant in 2007, she studied for a medical degree, wanting to do for others what had been done for her.
In character as Frankie, Claire stands in a well-lit private room as a young male visitor, visiting his dying father, inserts a cassette tape of a violin concerto into a player next to the bed. Claire stares into the middle distance, and her eyes slowly close. Wordlessly she conveys hurt, vulnerability, regret.
Director Peter Andrikidis, wearing a pork-pie hat, calls “Cut”. We’re filming in a former health insurance agency building in Parramatta which has been gutted and transformed into City West Public Hospital. I remark on the natural lighting that streams through adjacent windows. “Yeah,” he quips. “It’s beautiful. Everybody dies in that room. We’ve had three deaths.”
Most of Claire’s work in recent years has been in the US: a recurring role as Rachel Edwards in the reboot of Hawaii Five-O, as well as a younger version of Diane Keaton’s character in the 2014 movie 5 Flights Up. Last year she played Marina Nagle in the thriller series Game of Silence and Alison Eastwood, daughter of Clint, directed her in the recently released movie Battlecreek.
: Bianca Spender “Sylph” dress, $895, biancaspender.com; Tony Bianco “Klay” mules, $170, tonybianco.com.au. Jan Logan diamond bracelet, and onyx and diamond “Bianca” ring, janlogan.com Photo: Hugh Stewart
It has taken eight years of slog in Los Angeles to accumulate these roles and the hard search for acting work continues.
Sitting across from Claire in a cafe in Sydney’s Centennial Park a few days later, I learn what has shaped her: the nurturing of her wider family back home in Western Australia; her idyllic yet hard-scrabble childhood; her parents’ separation when she was a teenager; an unexpected death which sparked a determination to live well.
Claire says she was a fairly shy child, but also one who trusted others easily. Enrolling in dance class at three helped her sociability, and her mother remembers her as easily given to cuddling. Later, she would become interested in psychology, trying to get inside people’s heads. “I remain close to those who come into my heart,” Claire says, by way of understanding herself.
Nostalgia tinges her memories of growing up in the 1980s and ’90s in a shack just a sand dune away from Cable Beach, Broome, a childhood she describes as “very basic and earthy”. A short dirt track led straight to the famous white sand, and their neighbours were the regulars and visitors of the caravan park next door. Her parents would often give hitchhiking backpackers a ride into town and her days were filled with outdoor games, some instigated by her father and his wild imagination.
Dress by Carla Zampatti, shoes by Tony Bianco, earrings by Jan Logan. This page: dress by Alice McCall. Photo: Hugh Stewart
Pieter van der Boom was a Dutch merchant-navy engineer turned pearl diver and her mother, Judy Evans, a nurse with a community health agency who travelled to remote areas to give vaccinations and treat diabetes.
“My early memories are of being thrown in the car at dawn, so Mum could do her rounds, and then she would drop us at school, which was across the road from the hospital, where she would do her shift,” she says.
“Dad was away a bit, working on the luggers as a pearl diver, and then he worked on the wharf. He’s a big union guy. He throws his shoe at the television and gets all fired up about politics still.”
Until she was six, Claire slept on a canvas camp bed next to her mother, though when she was scared by thunder and lightning during the wet season, she’d crawl into bed with Judy. Her brother PJ, for Pieter James, slept in a converted part of the laundry and Claire wore his hand-me-down pyjamas once he’d outgrown them.
The family was completed by a dingo cross called Pixie, adopted from an Indigenous community. “My parents were definitely scraping by at times,” she says. “But I never knew that as a kid When she was 13, a teacher handed Claire a monologue from Nick Enright’s play On the Wallaby so she could read the part of the mother of a Depression-era family in the slums. The acting seed was sown. “I immediately had compassion for the character who was in hardship, and I was curious to understand it. I had a baby [doll] in my arms the whole time. “As a young teenager, I was getting my head around what was to come – possibilities,” she laughs, “and the fact it was an Australian history piece.”
At about this time, Claire’s parents separated and she went to live with her mother in Perth. She found it difficult to adjust to city life. “There are family lines in Broome I’m still connected to,” she explains. “I have a complex family. Some are ‘Broome mix’; my half-sister’s got Indigenous-Chinese blood. I feel very connected to that land.
“I’ve been very protective of the family dynamic but I’m actually very proud and close to them all. My mum’s been remarried for a long time, so I have three step-siblings. I also have two half-siblings – an older brother and an older sister – but we all have different mums. And then my beautiful brother, who passed away in 2000.
PJ died in an accident weeks before his 20th birthday. “I haven’t talked about him a lot in the past,” she says, “I think because it is so huge. We were extremely close. We had sibling rivalry at times. Just a shock accident. Overnight, you learn about grief.”
What impact did this loss have on her? “He had a very vibrant, cheeky-monkey spirit, so I remember to take that with me in my life. I’m aware that every day is a gift.”
At 18, Claire enrolled at Sydney’s National Institute of Dramatic Art. Actor friend Dan Wyllie took her to see a play, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, in which he was performing at Belvoir Street Theatre. “I was beside myself with excitement: I felt I had landed in the most creative, wonderful, juicy world.”
After graduating from NIDA in 2005, one of Claire’s first jobs was at a Sydney casino. Dressed as Dusty Springfield in a big, blonde, beehive wig, she’d sing Son of a Preacher Man to players at the poker machines, handing out flyers to try to convince them to buy tickets to a tribute show. “You do all sorts of stuff to pay the rent.”
Recurring roles as Billie in Love My Way and Grace Barry in Rush followed. Then, in 2009, Claire decided to chance her hand in the US after winning a Green Card in the government lottery. During her first year in Los Angeles, she spent nine months looking after babies in a drug rehabilitation centre for $12 an hour. “All of the good jobs and bad jobs you have on the side as an actor, you end up using them [as inspiration],” she says. “I have.”
Initially, she lived in a large share house in Beachwood Canyon with other Australian creatives. “There were nine or 10 people at one point. There was someone in a cupboard for a while – they had a bed in the cupboard.”
After Pulse, Claire will be seen in the indie drama American Exit, but has no further work arranged. No matter: she keeps herself level by volunteering – making meals for the homeless and reading to schoolchildren.
While there is hope Pulse will return for a second season, LA is home to Claire and her partner, American actor Drew Fuller. I mention a Facebook post from Fuller, who has appeared in the TV series Charmed and Army Wives, which features a photo of him and a smiling Claire and is captioned: “To the moon, and beyond.”
“He’s a really wonderful man. We met five years ago, and we were buddies for a few years.” She likes his “playfulness”. “I can be quite heady and intense. He shakes that up. He’s incredibly active: ‘Let’s go for a surf!’ ‘Let’s go rockclimbing!’ That’s been a great joy
Zimmerman Maples Temperance dress, $3950, zimmermannwear.com; Tony Bianco Kalipso heels, $200, tonybianco.com.au; Jan Logan pink morganite, onyx and diamond Courtney earrings, worn throughout, janlogan.com. Photo: Hugh Stewart
I read her a quote from a 2011 interview in which she calls herself an “Aussie bogan” and says, “You can take the girl out of Broome, but you can’t take Broome out of the girl. I talk about body parts, bowel functions and I really like swearing.” Claire laughs. The interviewer was a “naughty” friend, she says, adding, “I think he got me on a morning when I was hungover.”
Has she changed in LA, where that sort of self-deprecating Australian humour is so often misunderstood? “Ah, yes,” she nods. “Yes! I’ve had to learn to be more positive in the States because there’s a lot of…
“I’m quite jaded when I hear” – she puts on a US accent – ” ‘Oh my god, it’s so amazing.’ Because everything’s ‘awesome’ and ‘You’re great, you’re gonna be a star.’ That rattles me any time I hear it. It’s often unfounded, or strange, or untrue, so I was sceptical for so long.”
She pauses. “But I’ve had to let that go, because it’s not coming from a bad place. I’ve had to soften my jaded sensibility over there a little bit. That’s probably my Australianness.”