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From beachside Rhonda to the darkest of secrets

MANDY McELHINNEY is moving through shadows. The actor, best known as smiling beachside Rhonda on a car insurance ad (''kiss me, Ketut''), has now become suburban swinger Paula Anderson who, with husband Gary, kills a wealthy property developer who's come to have sex with them in Duncan Graham's Dreams in White.

The Griffin Theatre production is based on the story of slain Melbourne millionaire Herman Rockefeller, who disappeared after arranging to meet Bernadette Denny and Mario Schembri for a sexual tryst in 2010. Denny and Schembri are now serving sentences for Rockefeller's manslaughter.

McElhinney says the appeal of the play was Duncan Graham's writing, which avoids demonising characters, including McElhinney's Paula, who is partly responsible for the property developer's ''inadvertent'' demise.

''We can judge people from the outside, but we all carry our own little shames we try to overcome,'' McElhinney says. ''We all have a public and private persona that we're trying to negotiate.''

In April, McElhinney will appear on stage in a second Australian premiere. In Tom Holloway's Forget Me Not at Belvoir, she will play the daughter of a British-born man who's almost 60 and still dealing with being lied to that he was an orphan, one of 3000 such children sent to Australia, some of whom ended up abused in institutions. Colin Moody will play her father.

This could be the year that McElhinney convinces the wider public that she's more than Rhonda. In April, the ABC will screen Paper Giants: Magazine Wars, in which McElhinney portrays magazine queen Nene King. Rachel Griffiths plays her editorial nemesis, Dulcie Boling.

The show follows King's rise and fall over a decade, when she brought celebrity culture to Australian journalism - Sarah Ferguson sucking toes; Princess Diana snapped surreptitiously in a gymnasium - taking Woman's Day to a circulation of 1.4 million and forcing New Idea to follow it downmarket with the Charles and Camilla tapes. It will also dramatise the period in 1996 when King's husband, Pat Bowring, disappeared while scuba diving. ''I got to meet [King] and talk to people who knew her: she's got a great capacity for love and trust and passion,'' says McElhinney. ''Some people have taken advantage of that.''

McElhinney has family in Los Angeles, and is intending at some point to try her hand at an acting career in the US. Meanwhile, she doesn't mind being known as Rhonda. She says she doesn't know if she'll be asked to do another, but drops a hint about the on-screen future she shares with Ketut: ''It seems to me it's an ongoing serial, and people need some closure with it.''

Dreams in White is at the Griffin Theatre until March 23.