The leading ladies of Wentworth have traded teal tracksuits and prison bars for activewear and a different kind of detention. In a case of life imitating art, Stellar’s plan to interview some of the long-running series’ celebrated actors in person was interrupted by an incarceration of the Covid kind: house arrest.
As the pandemic once again gripped NSW and then Melbourne, and lockdowns eventually spread to other parts of the country, Stellar considered several different scenarios for a photo shoot. Ultimately, a much-anticipated physical reunion had to be called off in favour of a virtual meet-up between Wentworth actors past and present Sigrid Thornton, Susie Porter, Jane Hall, Kate Atkinson, Pamela Rabe and our cover star Danielle Cormack. None of them are strangers to the vagaries prompted by Covid. The upcoming final season was filmed in Melbourne at the height of last year’s second wave, and there were strict protocols on set — weekly tests, socially distanced sets and mask-wearing all around — and after-work socialising could only take place virtually and online.
‘We were royally ripped off, actually,” Atkinson, who has starred as prison officer Vera Bennett since the show’s debut, tells Stellar bluntly. “We couldn’t do any of those little rituals [like a wrap party]. We couldn’t even go in for a hug.’
Still, all six women dearly agree that they were seeing off something very special. And in between swapping stories about vaccination appointments, homeschooling children and figuring out the most flattering lighting scheme for their online meet-ups, they happily reminisced with Stellar, and one another, about laughter over long lunches, the adrenaline rush of fight scenes and the surprising ways that Rabe killed time in between filming her many diabolical scenes.
Is this the first time you have all been “together” since filming wrapped?
Danielle Corrnack (DC): I6 hard when we’re in different states and not having industry events anymore, either. But I went to see Pam in a play. And Kate, did we get to work with each other very briefly on a TV show?
Kate Atkinson (KA): We both did Jack Irish, but we didn’t get to do a scene together.
DC: Yeah, that right. And Suse and I are little ‘hood rats. We live in the same ‘hood, so we bump into each other, of course with our masks on now. And I keep meaning to catch up with Siggie. For me that was the beauty of Wentworth, [forming] some fantastic friendships and some really strong creative relationships as well.
Sigrid Thornton (ST): You know, actors are peripatetic little creatures and while I was a Melbourne person, a lot of the Sydney actors went home. And we all go on to other things. That the nature of it. I’ve seen Kate more than anybody else because she’s a fellow [Melburnian] and we’ve worked together on different things.
Of course, Sigrid, Wentworth was somewhat of a mini SeaChange reunion for you and Kate. And on both occasions, she was playing an officer. Do you only agree to work together when she’s in uniform?
ST: [Laughs] I prefer it. Itk not essential, but it is part of my contract arrangements, generally speaking.
Kate and Danielle, you were there on the first day of shooting Wentworth, which is a reboot of the classic 1979-86 drama Prisoner. Can you recall the mood on set?
DC: Prisoner was such an iconic show. And we were stepping into the shoes of some of those iconic characters. Knowing that there was an anticipation around how this would roll out was a great responsibility. But I felt that with the cast that had been accrued, and just being on set seeing how they had formed the prison with the costume and the new scripts for me. it was about embodying the reimagining of the show.
KA: There was a certain amount of anxiety and a lot of trust involved in that first season. I always like drawing attention to the fact that they killed Catherine McClements (who played prison governor Meg Jackson] in the first episode. And it was like, well. what could happen next?
A lot more murders! Danielle, your character was stabbed. Sigrid, you were pushed off the roof of a building. And Pamela, you were buried alive, but later returned from the dead. It’s a badge of honour to be killed off from Wentworth. Do actors get a say in how their character meets their demise?
Pamela Rabe (PR): I have nine lives And I hinen’t had a say in any one of them.
Jane Hall (JH): Those death scenes are all spectacular. aren’t they? I have loved seeing how everyone dies. It’s been done so brilliantly. And you just don’t see it coming. I mean, when you went over the roof Sig. I loved it!
ST: Yes. that was a lot of fun.
The fanbase for Wentworth is nothing short of ardent. Why do you think that is?
DC: ism still getting messages from people and my character is dead and gone! This show has charged some amazing responses from people because were introducing themes and topics that inspire people to come forward with their stories. For me, its a beautiful thing. I feel very proud to be part of some work with these beautiful faces on-screen lin the virtual meeting’ and a whole lot who aren’t here today
KA: I don’t have an online presence. So I only meet the fans who have approached me on the street or who send me letters. It’s just really good entertainment. But I also think maybe people find themselves in the characters and they like characters who fight or fail time and time again, and keep trying.
The entertainment industry, particularly when it comes to women, tends to favour youth. Yet Wentworth shows women of all ethnicities, sex ualities, ages and sizes getting an equal crack. Do you think times are changing?
KA: I hope that it will become standard. I used to joke that what made Wentworth an aberration was that sure. it’s about women as central characters, but the audience only liked women as central characters if they were behind bars.
ST: The women’s movement is getting some real traction now, although it’s been held up by other global imperatives such as the pandemic and climate change. Nevertheless. I’ve often thought about this: the aberration of Prisoner versus the aberration of Wentworth. and the generation that took place in the years between, and how little had changed between those two phenomena It’s a cautionary tale. I think. What’s fascinating about Wentworth is it’s a story about women that points out how many millions of untold stories about groups of women there are still waiting to be seen and told. and how much of a thirst there actually is for !these stories’. So. we’ve opened a bit of a Pandora’s box, perhaps.
DC: I think it goes with the territory now that people in the industry who have carved a very successful name for themselves are using their position to be able to create shows and showcase more women.
And Danielle, you have a production company with Nicole da Silva, who played Franky on Wentworth.
PR: And (co-starl Leah Purcell is doing it, too.
DC: Yes. And I just hope that it starts to trickle down. Because there are some fantastic female directors, producers, cinematographers and photographers in this country. So. it’s not just about telling female stories, but actually looking at our crews and our cast, and working towards them being 50/50. I know that there were some organisations that were hoping for that to happen by 2020 but. like Sigrid said, with all the things that are happening around the world, things have slowed down.
In the past, shows that feature a cast of women have tended to be mired with rumours of behind-the-scenes catfighting. Wentworth has bucked that trend. Is it the exception to the rule or a sign we’ve moved beyond those stereotypes?
ST: The latter, probably. There’s always going to be some level of conflict in a creative situation. But the description of that conflict as catfighting? That’s the problem. Creative work requires abstraction, obstruction, breaking through barriers. a little bit of magic and some argie bargie from time to time, and that happens on the best work.
KA: But it wasn’t a slumber party, either, where we were a hunch of chicks sitting around plaiting each other’s hair.
You got to hash it all out on-screen, anyway. Surely it’s fun to film all of those action scenes?
Susie Porter (SP): Obviously, the original Prisoner was so ahead of its time in lots of ways. But so often as women we never get to do that stuff. The stereotypes have been upheld for so long, although that is changing. So, to get to be a mother and a murderer? Like, wow, who would have thunk it? Because guess what? That’s more real than always being the girlfriend, the wife, the mother, the perfect… you know. Yeah, we got to do certain male stuff. That was just such a great thing.
PR: Sometimes it went beyond gender stereotypes, where we were allowed to indulge in some almost Gothic animalistic stuff that went beyond male, female, normal behaviour. It was just life-and-death stakes. And to be given an opportunity to do that, particularly for me where I was out there kicking sh*t in that riot, and I am in my 50s. So, it’s about age, too, and just crashing through all those boundaries.
So what was it like on set in between all of the shivving, stabbing and suffocating?
PR: If I was going to take away a particular memory of how the whole thing worked, it would be the two days filming my character being hanged because it involved every department, and everybody in the cast and every extra. We were all thrown into that one scene and it required everybody to be at the top of their game. And it was very moving. And then the flip side would have to be (co-star) Robbie Magasiva in drag.
JH: I would second that Our producer used to joke that Robbie was a walking HR department. He was just great to be around.
SP: I loved all our lunches. Before the virus, obviously, we’d all sit down to have lunch together. We all sat in the same seat every lunch and when anyone had a birthday Robbie would spend the week getting ready for it From his costume to his drag show. Robbie was just the beautiful glue that brought everyone together.
Pamela, given that you in particular had to perform some pretty dark scenes, how did you unwind? What does one do after a day of being hanged or being buried alive?
PR: Have a drink! No, look, we’re all professionals, so we’re going home and looking at the script because there’ll be something equally extraordinary that we have to do the next day. It’s not just me – everybody, every character has been on the edge of expiry, and you have to go there. When you’re strangling, you have to slightly asphyxiate yourself. You’ve got safety harnesses and safe words and all that sort of stuff. But when you’re acting, you have to go there. So, there’s got to be some sort of wind down, and whether that’s having a cry, a hug, a drink or a laugh, whatever. You do it and then you get on with it
DC: I will never forget watching Pamela playing Joan Ferguson. I had to film a scene with her, and she was just terrifying. And then the next moment she’d go off to the corner… to play Candy Crush.
Wentworth: The Final Sentence premieres at 8.30pm on August 23 on Fox Showcase.
By Siobhan Duck