Melanie Zanetti isn't a mom. When she's not working and leaning into her "Aussie vowels," the actress considers her voice to be "pretty neutral." And until this month, she had never actually been in the same room as Dave McCormack, the musician turned voice actor who plays her on-screen spouse (and the world's best-loved cartoon dad), Bandit Heeler.
Zanetti has never been recognized in public, but anyone with a kid under the age of 8 will no doubt be accustomed to hearing her voice day in and day out. As the voice of Chilli Heeler on Bluey, the wildly popular Australian animated series that is now in its third series, Zanetti's canine alter ego is the loving and wry mom of two daughters, the titular Bluey and kid sister Bingo. The actress, who grew up in a family of six kids, looked to her own mother to guide her performance of a parent who's frequently praised for her empathy, patience and life lessons.
"If you have a mum who you really love, and she's had six kids, she's a patient woman," Zanetti laughs. "Honestly, she was really, I think, sort of ahead of her time. ... There's a real understanding of conscious parenting now, and I think in my generation it was more "the kids are there and you get along," but there wasn't this sort of [movement]. She, like, really tuned into us."
Like Chilli, Zanetti's mom was a pro at smoothing over hurt feelings and resolving family drama, even with six kids.
"She never compared any of us to each other," Zanetti says. "She really focused on making sure that we worked through any arguments together. It was very focused on creating a community of people who could really love each other and spend time together in harmony. "
Chilli is typically depicted as the more sensible parent, but she knows how to let loose with her family, too (see: "Dance Mode"). Does Zanetti feel like she gets short shrift compared to the universal love thrown Bandit's way as the fun dad?
"Bandit did get a lot of kudos because he was a dad who was playing with his kids and using his imagination," she says. "We see less of that from men in media. And a lot of young dads I've talked to have said, 'I feel so grateful that there was a depiction of a dad just not being a bumbling fool.' In my age group, dads want to be good dads; they want to be there for their kids. It's a generation where there were a lot of fathers who weren't there or they don't have a strong emotional connection to them because they didn't have that closeness. And I think millennials and Gen Zs particularly really want be those [more involved] parents. "
She also attributes the focus on McCormack's playful Bandit — seen in early episodes playing "statues" with his girls while Chilli heads to work, or making a pool day magical but forgetting sunscreen — to creator Joe Brumm initially writing the show from his point of view as a dad. Over time, Chilli's own "quick wit and dry sense of humor" have started to shine through, so she's no longer stuck in "responsible mom" mode.
"I think there was excitement about seeing a dad who was, like, really there for his kids," Zanetti says. "But I think it's always tricky for women because it's like, yeah, they're already doing this. They're already doing so much of the labor that is the glue that holds the world together, really, and is not paid and is thankless. So I do like that we get to see more of Chilli's, playful, fun side."
Zanetti calls Bluey a "distinctly Australian" show with a "universal" appeal; as a friend once told her, it's "the only show that doesn't make me want to bleed out my eyes when I have to watch it for the hundred-thousandth time." And while there's a considerable lag between when episodes air in its native Australia and when they end up on Disney+ in the United States, American kids certainly don't seem to mind. Many have even picked up some of the Aussie lingo, much to the delight of Zanetti, who admits cheering "when I hear that these American kids are saying 'mate' and 'sport' and 'rubbish' and 'dunny.'"
Last week, a Bluey balloon appeared in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. November also marked the launch of the American leg of Bluey's Big Play, a live stage show snaking its away across the U.S. It was at the New York City premiere that Zanetti finally met the Bandit to her Chilli, Dave McCormack.
"We've talked on the phone a number of times, but it was just this weird thing where you're meeting someone you know, like, so well, but then have never met and don't know at all," she says. "Yeah, it was wild. We were actually sitting next to each other watching the show and Dave's like, 'This is so weird. Like, I know it's your voice and seeing it coming out of Chili's mouth makes me think it's your voice, but then you're next to me and it's your voice.' It was a little bit discombobulating. But he's such a legend. He's such a great guy, so it was really lovely."
Zanetti isn't only a voice actress; she recently shot the thriller Head Count in Kansas City, Mo. It helps that her voice isn't quite like Chilli's in real life, not that she ever gets recognized for the role. ("I've had a few people say to me ... 'You aren't what I had in my mind for Chilli, so I have a disconnect," she says.) Even her own young niece couldn't quite figure it out when she was told "Auntie Mel is Chilli."
"She was just like, 'I don't know what you mean,'" Zanetti laughs. "And one day ... [her parents] saw it click, and she was just in shock for, like, 10 seconds and then started screaming because she was, like, computing. And the next time I saw her, she was very strange with me. She was sort of weird and starstruck."
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