Brow Beat

I, Donna

Tonya Harding made Margot Robbie an Oscar nominee, but her role as an obsessive stalker on an Australian soap opera made her a star.

Margot Robbie in Neighbours and I, Tonya.
Margot Robbie in Neighbours and I, Tonya.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by ©FremantleMedia/REX and 30West.

Australian actress Margot Robbie is now an Oscar nominee, with the Academy recognizing her wounded, bitter, glorious performance as the star of the Tonya Harding biopic I, Tonya. Robbie has had an incredible run since her breakthrough role opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street. She went on to star with Will Smith in Focus, Tina Fey in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, and Alexander Skarsgård in the live action The Legend of Tarzan, and her turn as Suicide Squad’s psychopathic Harley Quinn was well-received in spite of the film’s negative reviews. Her Oscar-nominated rendering of Harding has been called “career-defining,” “a revelation,” and a “triple axel performance.”

But to me, Margot Robbie’s career-defining role will always be the obsessive, deluded stalker Donna Freedman on the Australian soap opera Neighbours. I don’t recall many of the storylines from Robbie’s Neighbours era (2008–2011), but Donna’s entrance was hard to forget.

Neighbours, a show many Australian millennials love on a less ironic level than we would care to admit, is the country’s longest-running soap. Though relatively unheard of in the U.S., Neighbours is one of Australia’s most successful cultural exports: It’s broadcast in 60 countries but is especially popular in the U.K. The suburban street on which its outdoor scenes are filmed is a popular tourist attraction for visiting Brits, much like going on a Sex and the City tour in New York City, only minus the sex, and the city.

As the country’s most well-known theme song reminds its viewers, “Everybody needs good neighbors,” and the 33-year old show—featuring an ever-changing cast of adults and teens residing in an outer-suburban, middle-class cul-de-sac—especially needs them. Since 1985, the friends, lovers, and villains of Ramsay Street have been going about their good-neighborly lives, hoping not to be wiped out in a motorbike/airplane/horse-riding accident. The storylines span generations, with four of its current cast members having served for more than 20 years. That much-derided Vanity Fair profile on Margot Robbie that declared Australia as a throwback nation (“which is why you go there for throwback people”)? The writer might have been trying to describe Neighbours.

In her 274 episodes, Robbie’s storylines ranged from cheating to cheerleading, from believing her new husband had forgotten their one-month anniversary (R.I.P. Ringo) to dealing with a vindictive, manipulative mother. In a span of less than three years, Robbie’s character stole her father’s police car, committed a hit-and-run, got caught on camera cheating on her boyfriend, stopped taking her birth control pills to attempt to trick her boyfriend, was slapped by her boss, delivered her teenage friend’s baby, dealt with that friend’s death, found her biological father, went to jail, was crushed by scaffolding, got married, and lost her husband in a motorbike accident.

Donna was one of Robbie’s earliest roles, and she started out playing her as needy, dramatic, and intense—fond of dark, pouty stares—yet also rather pitiable. Friendless Donna was neglected and lonely, which made her all the more desperate for the approval and attention of the Ramsay Street teens. Donna was only supposed to be a guest character, but Robbie proved so popular that she was soon promoted to regular cast member, and the writers transitioned her character from creepy stalker to misunderstood outsider to kooky, overzealous friend. The following year, Robbie was nominated for Most Popular New Female Talent at the Logie Awards, Australia’s equivalent of the Emmys. In 2011 she was nominated for Most Popular Actress, though she never did receive a nomination in any of the actual acting categories.

That said, no role could have better prepared Robbie for her Oscar-nominated turn as a mistreated, maladjusted misfit than Donna Freedman. Like Tonya, Donna was a young woman who lacked the wholesome family image of those around her, be they neighbors or competitors. It was when Donna’s estranged mother Cass, also known as Sass (no, seriously), entered the show in 2009 that it became clear how poorly Donna had been treated. Conniving Cass was a ruthless scammer who resented her eldest daughter, only showing up when she heard that Donna was living rent-free with rich Paul Robinson, one of the show’s original characters and an eligible bachelor. Cass wormed her way back into her daughter’s life eyeing an opportunity for profit, much like LaVona does when she shows up at Tonya’s house with a tape recorder in her pocket.

Like Tonya, Donna was much closer to her father, Matt (who by this stage had gone on the run to protect Donna after covering for her hit-and-run). But when Cass/Sass was eventually driven from the street, the vindictive mother used her exit to reveal that Matt wasn’t actually Donna’s real father.

Donna, like many Neighbours characters, was also a bit of a bogan, the Australian equivalent of a redneck. Looking back, you can hear the full strength of that slightly ocker Queensland accent, which Robbie has since learned to hide in film and downplay in interviews. Like Tonya, Donna got married very young, though her short-lived marriage lasted even less time than Tonya’s: Donna’s husband Ringo is run down by longtime character Steph Scully while Donna is at home watching a surprise DVD he has made for their one-month wedding anniversary. You can watch the three stages of Donna’s widowing below:

Robbie left Neighbours not long after her on-screen husband’s death, hoping to make it in Hollywood, though the show’s producers apparently battled to keep her. Robbie says she asked for her character to be killed off when her contract expired, but the writers refused, sending Donna—like Margot—off to America to pursue her dreams and leaving the door open for her to return should the Hollywood plan not pan out.

Robbie joins a range of Oscar-nominated actors who came out of soap operas: Julianne Moore started out on As The World Turns, as did Marisa Tomei, while Tommy Lee Jones spent four years playing Dr. Mark Toland on One Life to Live. Robbie’s Wolf of Wall Street costar, Leonardo DiCaprio, appeared on NBC’s Santa Barbara.

Though Robbie is the first former Neighbours regular to be nominated for an Academy Award, the show has turned out no shortage of famous Australians. Until recently, the most famous ex-neighbor was Kylie Minogue, the Neighbours darling of the 1980s, but Ramsay Street was also once populated by the likes of Guy Pearce, Alan Dale, Jesse Spencer, and two of the Hemsworths, Luke and Liam. (Chris had a brief 2002 cameo as a car-parts salesman.) Even Russell Crowe did a four-episode stint in 1987, as ex-con and pub scammer Kenny Larkin. But while the show has been a launching pad for a number of Australia’s most famous actors, the odds of leaving Neighbours and making it big in Hollywood are statistically slim—about as slim as the chances of Donna making it as a fashion designer in New York, which is what the writers decided her character was leaving to do.

Looks like Donna made it big in America after all.