Asher Keddie as Ita Buttrose in Paper Giants.
''CAN we do that one more time?'' Asher Keddie asks. She's in the middle of shooting a scene from the third season of Channel Ten's dramedy Offspring, in which her character, Nina Proudman, is having a tiff with beau Patrick on her hands-free phone. The scene hinges on Keddie's physical comedy talents - while attempting to pull her handbag over her head mid-argument, she gets the handle caught up in her headphone cords and sunglasses in typical flustered-Nina fashion.
The director is laughing approvingly as he yells ''Cut!'' but Keddie's not satisfied. ''I'm not getting tangled up enough!'' she says, exasperated. Like Nina, Keddie is clearly a perfectionist. And that's a trait that has served her well.
"I understand feeling confident one day and waking up the next feeling vulnerable." - Asher Keddie
In 2006, Keddie was nominated for a best actress AFI playing the highly strung Julia Jackson in Foxtel's Love My Way. In 2010 she won approval from critics, as well as Bob and Blanche, for her portrayal of Blanche D'Alpuget in Ten's telemovie, Hawke. Yet it was as Ita Buttrose, complete with perfected lisp in Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo, that her abilities were highlighted.
Keddie with Dan Wyllie in Love My Way.
Although Keddie's talent has long been recognised among her peers, her work on Paper Giants and particularly Offspring, which enjoyed something of a breakout year in its second season, has introduced her to a larger audience. It also led to a surprise Logie win for most popular actress.
Now Offspring has returned for its third season and playing the thirtysomething obstetrician, Nina, has encouraged Keddie to explore her lighter side. In between delivering babies and dealing with family calamities, Nina's love life has provided constant drama, aided by the character's neuroses.
While Keddie is clearly the star, it's very much an ensemble piece. Nina's unconventional family, eccentric colleagues and lovers are all carefully drawn and winningly performed. By the end of season two, sister Billie (Kat Stewart), a brazen, often brutally honest real estate agent, had married easygoing gardener-muso Mick (Eddie Perfect). Immature younger brother Jimmy (Richard Davies) was expecting a baby and Nina was in the most unlikely of positions - happy and in love.
Clearly that won't last.
At the end of season two, we also discovered that the Proudman patriarch Darcy (John Waters) is not Nina's biological father. This revelation served as a tumultuous reset button for season three.
''The challenge when you go into the third season of a relationship show is how to keep it surprising but feel true to the series,'' creator Debra Oswald says. ''I guess people can expect the same kind of juicy mix of funny and serious and playful and sexy, but I think we've tried to make it surprising.''
The element of surprise that runs through Offspring helps it counter other family-based dramedies, such as Channel Seven's more conventional (and higher-rating) Packed to the Rafters. It also attracted much of the cast.
''If I was going to do a TV series, I wanted it to have a point of difference,'' Keddie says. Producer John Edwards, whom Keddie previously worked with on Love My Way and Rush, first told her the concept for Offspring, knowing Keddie was searching for a vehicle of her own. ''I wanted it to be challenging in a way that we hadn't seen before, so we had discussions about how it might manifest,'' she says.
There was another criterion: it had to be funny.
''I'd been exploring humour on the stage for some years and had a taste for it in a strange kind of way in Love My Way,'' Keddie says. ''I know with Julia people were laughing at her, not with her, but I really enjoyed pushing the blacker side.''
Offspring is a much lighter show than Love My Way, but the laughs are balanced with serious themes, often from the operating room or within the Proudmans' complicated family dynamic.
''All the relationships, though often antagonistic, are grounded in love, so there's a great heart to the show,'' says Stewart, who has also worked with Edwards, along with co-producer Imogen Banks, on the Foxtel drama Tangle. ''I signed on before the pilot was even written; I had such confidence in John and Imogen,'' she says.
Anyone familiar with Edwards' productions would recognise some familiar faces in the Offspring cast, from the leading roles to the bit players.
It's a common theme in his work. For instance, his upcoming Ten drama series Puberty Blues stars Claudia Karvan, Dan Wyllie and Susie Porter, all from Love My Way, as well as Rodger Corser from Rush.
A new addition to the Edwards-Banks stable of actors is Garry McDonald, in his first TV role in 17 years. McDonald says the strong cast and whimsicality of the show were the incentives that lured him back to television.
''The way Nina sort of goes off and has this imaginary life as well - she catastrophises in her head - I think it's something I can identify with quite well,'' he says. The ''imaginary life'' is the realm of Nina's hopes and anxieties, played out in the form of some fabulous fantasy sequences.
''It's no coincidence that quite a few writers on the show have come from theatre; there's a theatricality to some of the storytelling,'' says Oswald, who won the New South Wales Premier's Literary Award for the script for Offspring last year. ''It's a way of telling the story of what really happens in moments between people; everyone's got this stuff running through their head.''
Keddie says she can relate to Nina - an excellent obstetrician immensely successful in her professional life but racked with self-doubt in her personal life.
''I understand her need to fix things, I understand her desire to control her environment to make it feel like she's standing on solid ground,'' she says. ''I understand feeling confident one day and waking up the next and feeling vulnerable. It motivates me; I think it motivates her, too, so I think there's a similarity there.''
It is important to Keddie that the third season finds Nina still in a relationship. ''I was confident she could still be as mad and as full of foibles if she was going into a relationship,'' Keddie says. ''I feel like we're achieving that.''
Critics were almost unanimous that Offspring made a strong creative leap from season one to two. Oswald concurs, to a point. ''People can get that impression but they now know the characters they met in season one and the whole thing feels richer; you now know the history of these characters,'' she says. ''But if the second season is a better experience, it's because of the first.''
When Green Guide visited the Offspring set earlier this year, the cast and crew were in their final week of shooting. It later emerged that Keddie would not take part in Howzat, the sequel to Paper Giants. Instead, she plans to take a break and indulge in some travel.
Asked if there will be a fourth season of Offspring, she demurs.
''I have no idea, actors are the last to know,'' she says. ''But if it does come back, I think we'd all be thrilled. I think there's still plenty of great material to mine in the Proudman family.''
Offspring is on Wednesdays at 8.30pm on Channel Ten.