How Melanie Zanetti helped Bluey’s Chilli Heeler become the beloved matriarch of Australian TV’s royal family

Clare Rigden
The Nightly
9 Min Read
Bluey Credit: supplied

You probably won’t recognise Melanie Zanetti, even though she features on one of the most popular Australian TV shows ever made.

Even if you heard her speak, chances are you wouldn’t pick the character; so far, no one has ever heard her voice and said, “wait a second, aren’t you . . .?”

But if you have kids of a certain age, and you’re reading this anytime around 8am on Sunday April 7, you’re probably listening to Zanetti’s dulcet tones right now.

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The 39-year-old actor is the voice of Chilli Heeler in Bluey — matriarch of the adorable canine family, perennially patient mum to daughters Bluey and Bingo, wife of beloved rascal Bandit and, since the ABC series became a bona fide global phenomenon watched by millions, an international cartoon megastar.

Such is the draw of Bluey, the ABC’s most watched show ever, that new episodes garner fever-pitch anticipation at the best of times. So when the broadcaster announced a bumper 28-minute episode, to air on April 14, it became a legitimate TV event.

Today a regular episode of Bluey, titled Ghostbasket, will premiere, with a cliffhanger ending that hints at what is likely to be explored in the extended episode, dubbed The Sign.

Details are being closely guarded, but suffice to say it’s going to be big.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, one of the things you will know — especially if you have young children at home counting the days — is that it will feature a wedding of two of the show’s much-loved characters.

Zanetti, who is chatting to STM on a video call from her home in Los Angeles, is working hard not to give anything away, but we are one of a lucky few to have seen the episode. It’s fair to say viewers everywhere will be talking about it for weeks to come.

“It is really lovely,” says Zanetti. “What I love is that it is like such a classic dramatic comedy. At the end of every Shakespearean comedy, there is always a wedding — and there’s one in this, too.

“There’s something really epic and ‘of the canon’ about it, which I totally loved.”

There are also hidden Easter eggs for die-hard fans and clap-backs to previous episodes. It sees the return of several beloved characters — Patrick Brammall as Uncle Rad, Megan Washington as Calypso, Claudia O’Doherty as Frisky, Myf Warhurst as Trixie and Rose Byrne as Brandy — plus some newbies, including Rove McManus, Deborah Mailman, Brendan Williams and Joel Edgerton.

Some Bluey mysteries are solved and it’s a rollercoaster of emotions. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry — and given The Sign is four times longer than a regular Bluey episode, you’ll be worried sick that it might signal the end of a show that has come to mean so much to millions right across the world.

The girls dress as 'The Grannies' in an up-coming episode of Bluey titled 'Ghostbasket'.
The girls dress as The Grannies in an upcoming episode of Bluey titled Ghostbasket. Credit: Supplied/TheWest

Zanetti, who has voiced Chilli since the show started in 2018, was every bit as heart-in-mouth when recording the special.

“I got given the scripts in four parts, piece by piece, which meant I was discovering what was happening through the episode, and I went through a massive range of emotions,” she says.

“Because I was like, ‘Is this happening?’ And then all the feelings that would come up for the character were coming up for me — I was really feeling all the things.

“I was like, ‘This is a beautiful storyline’ (then) ‘I am feeling distressed’. And then there was a real coming to peace with everything, an ‘OK, this is where we’re headed’. I had that whole journey.”

Wait — this is sounding ominous. Just how emotional will this episode be for fans?

“The best thing I can compare it to is . . . have you seen Toy Story 3? When they are in the incinerator, and they are joining hands and just kind of accepting their fate?” she says, determinedly not revealing a thing, but making our heart race nonetheless.

“That’s how I felt.”

Bluey’s 28-minute ep will see a Heeler wedding take place...and it looks like Rad and Frisky tie the knot!
Bluey’s 28-minute ep sees Chilli Heeler front and centre of the action. Credit: Supplied/ABC

Brace yourselves fans: this is sounding intense.

Regardless of what plays out, Zanetti says she’s pleased we’ll get to see the action unfold over a longer episode, giving us plenty of opportunity to fully immerse ourselves in what transpires.

“Joe (Brumm), the creator, does it masterfully,” she says of his ability to convey so much in just seven minutes, through the medium of short-form animation.

“But I think when you’ve got the 28 minutes, there’s just more room for nuance, and more on a theme that you can really dig into and investigate. I think that really happens with The Sign, and that’s what I’m really excited for everyone to see.”

It’s not an understatement to say this adored children’s cartoon, created by Brumm and made by Brisbane-based animation company Ludo Studio, has had a seismic impact, not only on the raising of a generation of kids, but also on Zanetti’s own professional trajectory.

When she began voicing her part five years ago, life looked very different for the jobbing actor and voice-over artist.

Reading those Bluey scripts for the first time, as it masterfully captured the magic of imaginative play, family dynamics and the joys and challenges of being a kid (and a parent), Zanetti remembers having an inkling it was a cut above. But she had no idea just how resonant it would become.

Screen Grabs from the TV Show Bluey. Episode titled Baby Race
The episode Baby Race is poignant for many parents. Credit: Bluey/ABC

“I don’t think anyone could have predicted it would be this big,” she says.

“But I knew it was special. I knew that it felt fresh and new and truthful in a way that I hadn’t seen in children’s TV before.

“It wasn’t like I was waiting for it to blow up; it was more that I was just so excited to be part of something that I thought was so good.”

Audiences in Australia embraced it and in the years since, the series has been sold to 60 countries and dubbed in 20 languages.

In January it topped America’s Nielsen Ratings, a system which ranks TV and streaming services, which showed that Bluey, airing on Disney Plus in the US, had been viewed for an astonishing 1.5 billion minutes in one week. It also tops the ratings both here and in the UK, where it streams on the BBC.

Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes are diehard Bluey fans. Billy Joel threw his daughter a Bluey-themed birthday party. Oscar winner Natalie Portman loves the show so much, she recorded a voice part, narrating a whale doco. Other voice cameos have included Mendes, Robert Irwin, Layne Beachley, Anthony Field and Hamilton creator Lin Manuel Miranda.

But at the heart of it all is the Heeler family. The curious, resourceful, always loveable Bluey, her energetic giggle-pot little sister Bingo, archaeologist and professional play-master Bandit and Chilli, the hockey-loving, wise, deeply kind rock for them all.

Living the dream!
The Heeler family. Credit: Supplied

For Zanetti, the years she’s spent with Chilli have been formative ones, where she too has learned and transformed.

“Oh gosh, it makes me really quite emotional to think about it,” she says.

“It’s been a wonderful period. I’ve done a lot of growing, and a lot of things have changed in my life, mostly in really wonderful ways.

“Bluey has been, so far, a really refreshing time of things coming to fruition for me.”

Zanetti has other projects, including one that she can’t yet talk about, but it will see her stateside for some time.

“But what is so great about Bluey is that I can do it anywhere: around Australia, Latvia, Florence, upstate New York. I’ve done it from all over the place,” she explains.

And while actors who appear on cult TV shows often risk being typecast, Zanetti can do it all while continuing to fly under the radar.

She and Dave McCormack, who voices Bandit, have recorded their parts separately for years; when they appeared on Jimmy Fallon together last year, they had only met in person two days earlier.

Dave McCormack and Melanie Zanetti met just two days before starring on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon.
Dave McCormack and Melanie Zanetti met just two days before starring on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon. Credit: YouTube

McCormack is more irrevocably tied to his cartoon dog persona, but Zanetti has, thus far, been able to continue with other work relatively unbothered.

Back in 2021, when STM spoke to the ex-Custard frontman, he admitted small children were often horrified when they heard him speak.

“Sometimes they ask me if I’ve eaten Bandit because his voice is coming from inside of me,” he said. “And sometimes they just cry, because their brains can’t compute it; it’s just too much.”

Blessedly, this does not happen to Zanetti.

“Honestly, it’s wonderful,” Zanetti says of her relative anonymity.

“Because you are not pigeonholed by the work you do. You are not ‘someone who does children’s TV’ — that is completely not an issue — and, vocally, I have actually never been recognised.”

Wait, not even while talking to someone in a call centre or at a checkout at Coles?

“No,” Zanetti insists, with a laugh.

“Dave has such a distinct voice, and even energetically and the way he looks — he just is Bandit, right?

“Whereas my voice is a bit more neutral, and I lean in a bit with my ‘Chilli the cartoon dog mum’ voice.

“So people say, ‘Oh, you’re not exactly what I had in mind’ and I am like, ‘Did you have a red heeler in mind?’”

Zanetti is content to voice Chilli for as long as she can, wherever she may be in the world.

Although she is not at risk of ageing out of the role, there has been discussion on how the show will evolve as the young voice actors who play Bluey and Bingo grow up.

Brumm famously does not speak about the small stars who voice the younger Heeler parts, and right from the start has had a strict rule about not revealing their identities.

Bluey’s 28-minute ep will see a Heeler wedding take place...and it looks like Rad and Frisky tie the knot!
Bluey’s 28-minute ep will see a Heeler wedding take place . . . and it looks like Rad and Frisky tie the knot! Credit: ABC

In The Sign, there are glimpses of Bluey leaving some childlike notions behind, as though she’s growing up in real time over the episode as the ramifications of events begin to hit home.

It makes for poignant viewing, and Zanetti loves the fact that the longer run-time allows us to spend more time on this character evolution.

“We see the divide between the age of Bluey and Bingo (in The Sign), with Bingo not quite getting the context of what is going to happen for a lot of the episode,” she explains.

“I thought that was so beautifully displayed; the different comments about how the ages of the girls start to affect their understanding of the world, and how children start to understand your vulnerability as a parent.

“I remember that happening to me . . . where I was like, ‘Oh, my parents are people?’ It’s wild.”

Revealing anything more about this plot point would spoil it for viewers; suffice to say it makes for emotional viewing, made all the more poignant for Zanetti’s heartfelt portrayal of Chilli.

Though she feels separate from her cartoon incarnation, Chilli is as intrinsically tied to Zanetti as McCormack is to Bandit.

“I love Chilli. It’s funny, playing her character — she really is aspirational. She’s an aspirational canine,” Zanetti laughs.

Though not a parent herself, Zanetti is one of six kids and well versed in the love, noise and chaos of family life. When getting into a Chilli headspace, “I think about my mum a lot,” she says.

Zanetti says she’d happily go on voicing her beloved role for many years to come.

“The best thing about being part of this show (is) the fact we are putting genuine good out into the world,” she says.

“There are so few things I feel like you can say that about. And that is such a joy. “

Bluey’s Ghostbasket episode airs today, April 7, at 8am on ABC and iView. The Sign will premiere at 8am on Sunday April 14.

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