Nothing could have prepared Anna Lindner for, in very quick succession, the death of one parent and the illness of the other. They were a vibrant Barossa couple who were childhood sweethearts and had barely spent a night apart. It brought Lindner, an actress living and working in the United States, back to the place she had fled almost immediately after school.
While her father was dying, she kept a journal in which she noted the sad and sometimes hilarious things the family went through. Later, after her mother’s cancer diagnosis and her decision to stay in the Barossa to be by her side, it inspired her to write the funny, sad and quirky series for SBS Digital Original. A beginner’s guide to grief.
Filmed in the Adelaide Hills around Hahndorf, Nairne and Uraidla, the six 10-minute episodes feature Lindner with Glynn Nicholas, Carlo Ritchie and Caitlin McDougall.
The free-wheeling, part-autobiographical story of a young woman losing a father and a mother is crossed by an anarchic spirit – think the cannabis brownies in the wake – some, but not all, of which were taken from life. . It also contains some truths about death and loss experienced by Lindner, and an underlying message about how we are ill-equipped to deal with death and dying.
Half the people in the supermarket see you and dodge their carts the other way
Lindner’s father was Carl Lindner, a fifth-generation Barossa winemaker whose lineage traces back to God-fearing Silesian settlers who fled halfway around the world to escape religious persecution. He had a reputation for being larger than life, and Linder now believes this was part of the reason she wanted to leave her home at St Hallett’s winery, near Tanunda.
“Admittedly, by the time I was a teenager, I wasn’t sold on the idea of living in a small country town,” says Lindner, who plays the fictional daughter, Harry. “But I think it had an impact, growing up on the earth and not having anyone your age to play with; this leads to a vivid imagination quite quickly.
She almost ran from the school gates to Edinburgh, where she got into acting and acting. Later, she traveled to New York, where she studied at the Atlantic Theater Company, an ensemble and theater school formed in the 1980s by David Mamet and William H Macy.
“It changed my understanding of acting and storytelling. I had never been exposed to anything like this before,” Lindner says. “It really set me on the right track.”
She worked in theater in New York, then moved to Los Angeles to continue acting on screen with a preference for comedy, but was beginning to bristle at the scripts offered to her.
“I could feel torn because I really wanted to show up and give my best, but the material I was given as a woman was limiting, frustrating and two-dimensional. I wasn’t even the girlfriend – I wasn’t skinny enough or attractive enough for that – I was always the most eccentric.
Lindner tried to kiss her but felt stuck, starving for roles and thinking it was justified because she was playing alongside her comedy heroes like Zooey Deschanel (new girl), TJ Miller (Dead Pool) and Martin Starr (freaks and geeks).
On a trip back to Adelaide for a friend’s wedding, her father was diagnosed with cancer and she realized very quickly that she wanted to stay close to him and her mother as they faced her end. .
“He was a pretty incredible Barossa gentleman; her heart beat for the community and that was her driving force, to make the Barossa the best place to live, and a place no one wants to leave,” she says.
As he became more fragile, she began to write things down that she didn’t want to forget. “It was just little visuals that I witnessed or little things that I heard from him,” she says.
Incredibly, 48 hours before his father died and two months before Christmas in 2017, his mother was diagnosed with cancer. At the time, it was so terrifying that Lindner could barely comprehend it.
“I felt like the ground was opening up. I didn’t know how to survive that. All I could think about was keeping mum alive.
It all sounds heartbreaking, when A beginner’s guide to grief focuses on the poignancy of the loss, but also the inappropriateness and sheer madness of the behavior around death within an extended family. A Screen Australia writers project with SBS, Digital Originals, seemed like the best form for a story that included a fictional arsonist foster sister, a perverted cousin and plenty of ardent Lutherans arguing over cremation (the preference of his father) or burial.
“The big observation I made around the time Dad died was that people didn’t know how to talk about death, how to make room for grief,” she says. “Half the people in the supermarket see you and dodge their carts the other way.”
Lindner is now happily reconciled to life in the Barossa, where her real mother is alive and in remission, though she still feels like an outsider after so long abroad. She does theater and writing and has ongoing projects. She was also honored this year to accept the role of ambassador for Dying to Know Day, a national campaign to encourage conversations and reflection around death.
She auditions for roles but also lives where she grew up and enjoys the house in a very different light.
“Coming back as an adult, you see very quickly how good you had it,” she says. “You come back to a place like this and you really feel its exquisite beauty and connection to nature. I don’t take that for granted at all now.
A Beginner’s Guide to Grief airs Sunday, September 4 at 9:20 p.m. on SBS VICELAND and on SBS On Demand.
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