Szubanski's career started as a writer and performer of sketch comedy and has since progressed to production of TV, film acting, and musical theatre. She starred in Kath & Kim where she played Sharon Strzelecki, and in the films Babe (1995) and Babe: Pig in the City (1998) as Esme Hoggett.
She has twice been polled as Australia’s most recognized and trusted personality.
Szubanski was born 12 April 1961, in Liverpool, Merseyside, England. Her mother Margaret is Scottish-Irish and came from a poor family. Her father, Zbigniew Szubanski, came from a well-off Polish family and, as recorded in the Official Archives of the Warsaw Uprising Museum, was an assassin in a counter-intelligence branch of the Polish resistance movement in World War II. Her cousin is a Polish actress Magdalena Zawadzka. She attended high school at Siena College, Melbourne, and later studied fine arts and philosophy at the University of Melbourne.
In 1976, as a year 10 student, she captained a team on the television quiz It's Academic.
In 1985, while performing in a University of Melbourne Law Revue of Too Cool for Sandals, with Michael Veitch and Tom Gleisner, Szubanski was talent-spotted by producers from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation network, who convinced her to join up with some other university friends in creating a television sketch comedy show, The D-Generation.
Szubanski was part of the team that created the television sketch comedy Fast Forward for the Seven Network, in which she played various characters, including Pixie-Anne Wheatley, Chenille, Sharon Strzelecki, Chenille from the Institute de Beauté, Wee Mary MacGregor, Joan Kirner, Michelle Grogan and other characters. The character of Lynne Postlethwaite was first performed on the ABC’s The D-Generation. It was originally written by John Allsop and Andrew Knight, but from Fast Forward on Szubanski co-wrote the sketches.
In 1995, she and friends Gina Riley and Jane Turner wrote, performed and produced the first all-female Australian sketch comedy television program; Big Girl's Blouse. When Riley and Turner developed the sketch-characters they had created into the sitcom Kath & Kim, Szubanski joined them to play Sharon Strzelecki, a character she had previously created herself.
Her character Sharon ‘pashed’ and ‘married’ Australian cricketing legend Shane Warne. She also ‘pashed’ – Australian slang for vigorous kissing – the late Aussie actor Heath Ledger on the red carpet at the AFI awards in 2006 while in the role of Sharon, acting as an assistant stage manager.
In 1999, Szubanski created, wrote, co-produced and starred as Margaret O'Halloran in the Dogwoman series of TV films, a detective style show based on the idea an expert ‘dog-whisperer’ who, by treating problem dogs, inadvertently stumbles upon and solves human crimes.
In 2006, she hosted a five-part series on the Nine Network, called Magda's Funny Bits, which showed "never-before-seen" footage of some of her most famous characters from the comedy show Fast Forward. Branded as "no frills", it attracted insufficient ratings and did not continue. She had a similar short-lived result as host of the Network Ten clip show The Spearman Experiment in 2009.
In 2009, she appeared in Who Do You Think You Are? where she explored her father’s Polish Resistance activities as well as the story of her shell-shocked Irish grandfather and her sculptor ancestor Luigi Isepponi who assisted in making the Death mask for William Burke, half of the duo Burke and Hare, notorious grave robbers and serial killers.
She starred in the 1995 film Babe as Esme Hoggett. She reprised her role in the 1998 sequel, Babe: Pig in the City. She then teamed up again with director/producer George Miller to voice the role of Miss Viola in the animated films Happy Feet and Happy Feet Two
In 2007, she had a minor role as Mrs. Lonsdale, the housemaid in The Golden Compass to Lyra Belacqua.
In 2015, she released her memoir Reckoning. It “is not a celebrity memoir, it’s not a tell-all, it’s about family, history and love,” Szubanski told the Inner West Courier” Reckoning won the $40,000 in the 2016 Douglas Stewart Prize for Nonfiction, and "Book of the Year" and “Biography of the Year” at the Australian Book Industry Awards.
While the book is nominally an autobiography, it is in large part about her father Zbigniew Szubanski, who was an assassin working for the Polish Resistance during World War 2. Reckoning deals with the themes of intergenerational trauma, the possible genetic inheritance of traumatic memory and Szubanski’s struggles with her own sexuality in the shadow of this legacy.
Reviewer Peter craven in The Australian said it would “dazzle every kind of reader” and described it as “a riveting, overwhelmingly poignant autobiography by a woman of genius. It is a book about how someone might live with the idea of killing the thing they love. It is a story of love and death and redemption and a daughter’s love for her father. It is an extraordinary hymn to the tragic heroism at the heart of ordinary life and the soaring moral scrutiny of womankind. Every library should have it, every school should teach it.”
Richard Ferguson in The Sydney Morning Herald wrote, “This is documentary writing of the highest order and Szubanski has given life to an incredible war story…Reckoning, this tale of war and suburbia, sexuality and comedy, is likely to be the most popular Australian book of the year. Anyone who doesn't adore Magda Szubanski the clown will be awed by Szubanski the A-grade non-fiction writer. Let's hope the books keep on coming.”
Academy Award Winner and friend Geoffrey Rush launched her book and wrote in The Guardian: “I was absorbed in preparing for King Lear when I read the book. The classical stature of that particular father-daughter relationship didn’t go unnoticed. Magda grew up in the shadow of a difficult reckoning — the summation, the questioning, the Elizabethan sense of settling the bill with one’s parents. As she phrases it: her father needed to forget— she needed to remember. The only way forward was back. Her book riffs a major life in a reflective minor key. I’ve got lost in Joyce’s Dublin, Woolf’s Bloomsbury, the Bronte Sisters’ Yorkshire moors. Now I’m enthralled with Magda Szubanski’s Croydon, Australia’s own collective sub-conscious suburb, the architecture of which she deftly anoints as Bauhaus’s “bastard child”…Reckoning is really a non-fiction novel – and its invitation into Magda’s story is infectious.”
The Premier's Award judges described Reckoning as ‘warm, clear, wise, funny and deeply intelligent. The amplitude of Szubanski's writing is particularly impressive. Her voice has a light surety, while constantly giving narrative and moral weight to the larger themes of grief, family, migration and finding one's place in the world’.”
In 2007, Szubanski ventured into musical comedy, taking on the role of William Barfee in the Melbourne Theatre Company production of the hit Broadway musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
Variety said, “In the Melbourne Theater Company production, Barfee is played by popular Aussie TV comedienne Magda Szubanski (featured star of phenomenal small-screen hit “Kath and Kim” as well as the “Babe” movies), and she’s sensationally good. Hilariously entering the action rear-end first and then proceeding to cut everyone else with a self-satisfied “Yes, of course” or snitty “I know,” versatile Szubanski brings subtle depths and nuance to a potentially grotesque character. Barfee’s tentative, gradual humanization, especially during some flirtatious overtures to fellow competitor Olive Ostrovsky (a beamingly assured Natalie O’Donnell) is one of the show’s genuine triumphs.”
Australian Stage said,“There has been a fair degree of talk that the incomparable Magda Szubanski as the Eric Cartman-esque William Barfee steals the show, and although not wanting to take anything away from her brilliant performance, I think that the accolade does actually take something away from the other equally-talented actors, as it is very much an ensemble cast. One couldn’t help but feel that Szubanski’s contribution has been somewhat over-anticipated by her legion of Kath and Kim fans, as the spontaneous applause over her entrance may attest. Quite aside from all this, however, Szubanski herself deserves nothing but praise, making her grotesque schoolboy role actually quite textured and sympathetic, without resorting to mugging or buffoonery that would seem an easy temptation. To her considerable credit, she does not hog the limelight or attempt to dominate the stage with her quirky character.”
SMH said, “The mere sight of Magda Szubanski as a bespectacled schoolboy in short baggy pants is almost enough to make this feel-good musical by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin a winner. Director Simon Phillips's immensely likeable production rarely puts a foot wrong, notably the inspired casting of Szubanski as the know-all William Barfee, who has a mucous-membrane disorder. The comic actor deftly makes the pugnacious brat hilarious and endearing.”
In 2008, she again participated in some gender-blind casting, taking on the role of pint-sized gangster Big Jule in a major stage production of Guys and Dolls.
In 2010, she appeared in the first Indigenous Musical film Bran Nue Dae as Roadhouse Betty alongside Geoffrey Rush, Ernie Dingo, Missy Higgins and Deborah Mailman. The film was directed by Rachel Perkins, daughter of the Aboriginal activist Charlie Perkins.
In 2012, she again teamed with Rush to appear in the Steven Sondheim musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
Szubanski became a spokesperson for the dieting company Jenny Craig in November 2008. Szubanski joined Jenny Craig weighing 110 kg and had been diagnosed with sleep apnoea. By July 2009, she had lost 36 kg to weigh 85 kg. She later regained weight, then was dropped as a spokesperson for Jenny Craig. However, subsequent weight loss led to her being re-signed as their spokesperson. She was later again dropped from Jenny Craig. She was also featured in commercials for Telstra in 2014.
In her late teens, Szubanski volunteered as a worker in a Women’s Refuge in Melbourne’s North West region. She eventually became a paid worker.
She is Patron of Twenty/10.
On 14 February 2012, Szubanski came out, in a statement supporting same-sex marriage timed to coincide with Valentine's Day. Later that day, she stated that she "absolutely identifies as gay" in an interview on Australian TV current affairs program The Project. Szubanski also spoke at the 2012 Sydney Mardi Gras after party, wearing a shirt featuring her newly coined slogan "If there was a tablet that cured gayness… I wouldn’t take it."
She is single and during the last Australian Federal election she tweeted light-heartedly about the lack of policy catering for single people.Too Cool for Sandals (1985) - various
The Rise and Fall of Little Voice (1993) - Sadie
Grease: The Arena Spectacular (National Australia Tour) (2005) - Miss Lynch
The Madwoman of Chaillot – (2007) – Countess Aurelia
Guys and Dolls (2008) – Big Jule
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (2012) - Domina
ActingWon the 'Most Popular Comedy Personality' award at the 1991, 1992 and 1996 Logie awards
Won the Australian Film Institute's award 'Best Actress in a Supporting or Guest Role in a Television Drama' award in 2002
Nominated ‘Best Family Actress’ OFTA Film Awards 1999
Nominated for the 'Most Popular Actress' award at the 2005 Logie Awards, for her role in Kath & Kim
Nominated for 'Best Actress in a Supporting or Guest Role in a Television Drama or Comedy' award in 2003 at the AFI Awards
Nominated for 'Best Actress in a Supporting or Guest Role in a Television Drama or Comedy' award in 2004 at the AFI Awards
Nominated for the Silver Logie for 'Most Popular Actress' award at the 2005 Logie Awards, for her role in Kath & Kim
Nominated for ‘Best Female actor in a Musical’ at the 2006 Helpmann Awards for her role in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Nominated for ‘Female Actor in a Featured Role’ at the 2006 Green Room Awards for her role in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Nominated Silver Logie ‘Most Popular Actress’ in Kath & Kim 2008
Nominated for ‘Best Actress Supporting Role’ Film Critics Circle of Australia Awards 2014 for ‘Goddess’
WritingWinner – Awgie Award for sketch comedy BIG GIRL'S BLOUSE
Winner – Awgie Award FAST FORWARD Writing team best Comedy/Revue/Sketch, 1990, 1991
Winner, Nielsen BookData Booksellers Choice Award, 2016 award
Winner, Book of the Year, Australian Book Industry Awards, 2016 award
Winner, Biography of the Year, Australian Book Industry Awards, 2016 award
Winner, Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction, NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, 2016 award
Winner, Indie Award for Non-Fiction, 2016 award
Winner, Victorian Community History Award Judges’ Special Prize, 2016 award
Shortlisted, Matt Richell Award for New Writer of the Year, Australian Book Industry Awards, 2016 award
Shortlisted, Dobbie Literary Award, 2016 award
Shortlisted, National Biography Award, 2016