Wentworth: Back on the chain gang

In her latest projects Danielle Cormack has faced acting challenges head on, especially in back-to-back seasons of prison drama Wentworth.

Danielle Cormack has loved sinking in to the role of Bea Smith in Wentworth.
Danielle Cormack has loved sinking in to the role of Bea Smith in Wentworth.

If she's feeling a little wrung out after filming two seasons of Wentworth almost back to back, Danielle Cormack sure isn't showing it. She's performed in scenes where she's been violently assaulted, nearly drowned, dreamed about the death of her daughter, woozy on sedatives -- playing Bea Smith in the Australian prison drama ain't exactly a picnic, but Cormack is glowing and effusive as she chats about the show on a brief visit home this month.

Wentworth is a contemporary reimagining of the 1980s drama Prisoner, and received critical acclaim and strong ratings when the first series aired last year, but as Cormack explains, the death of Bea Smith's daughter, Bea's murder of fellow prisoner Jacs Holt, and her subsequent meltdown have put a new spin on things for season two -- and that's before you even consider the introduction of a new governor: Joan "The Freak" Ferguson.

"I do feel a bit dead after all Bea has been through, but no, she's still going. And the introduction of Joan Ferguson, who is played by the most incredible actress, Pamela Rabe, [has] really taken the show to a whole new level in terms of the tone, especially what her presence does to the inmates."

Of course there's still plenty of power-playing going on between the prisoners -- Frankie Doyle, played by Nicole da Silva, is still very keen to stay top dog, but Ferguson's arrival definitely shakes everyone up.

"Watch closely," Cormack advises, "because there are clues and hints dotted all the way through, about revelations that occur at the end of the series."

Historically Bea Smith was the top dog character in Prisoner, but Cormack and the Wentworth writers have steered away from directly following the path laid out by that series.

"Yes, maybe Bea becomes top dog, but maybe not in the same way she was played in Prisoner, and maybe not by the same means. I think it's good to keep it fresh."

And if you think you've seen the worst of Bea, wait until you see what's coming next, Cormack says with a grin.

"Season two is where we see Bea take on a new lease of life, because she manages to find that great motivator to get out of bed in the morning -- vengeance. She has been having a very rough time, it's not surprising that she's in a state of complete disarray. But there is an inciting moment, where she takes on a new drive, and that's what pushes her to make certain choices. It's absolutely going to deliver on its promise of high drama and cliffhanger TV. It's incredibly dynamic."

And it's been a wonderful role to sink in to, offering plenty in the way of acting challenges, while also being provocative in opening up public debate about the prison system.

"It's such great drama to play with, to play a character who has had all their rights stripped away, and how they deal with that.

I have a great amount of empathy for women in this kind of situation, because a lot of them are dealing with addiction issues and domestic violence, and a difficult string of choices that have led to their incarceration. But then you have the other side where people have knowingly manipulated people, hurt people, and really affected other people's lives, and it's difficult to know how much support and understanding do you give those people who have caused such great harm.

"It opens up all sorts of philosophical discussions about how we treat each other, and how we care and love people who are challenging to our values."

While she's thrilled with the way the show has turned out, from a professional perspective, she does admit that it's a heavy subject to delve into week after week.

"Pulling people in with the drama, and the storytelling, that's our job, but the sad reality is that there are people living that life every day, and what has happened to them in their lives before that point that's lead them to that place, it's really sobering.

"The personal investigation I went through with myself to understand Bea was really interesting. What made her stay in the abusive relationship, what made her break. It's great to expose these characters -- they can be heroes with vulnerabilities and chinks in their armour.

"And it's important that in amongst the violence and manipulation there can be great friendships, and joy, and tenderness, because these women are human, not just good or bad."

The show has gone to some lengths to create an accurate portrayal of a women's prison -- one of the guards in the show is an ex-prison officer, and the governor of the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre [a women's prison] in Melbourne visited the set. Cormack also spent time talking to a psych nurse from Dame Phyllis, and several inmates and ex-inmates.

"There's always debates and discussions between the writers and producers and actors about staying true to form, and I accept that we're not making a documentary, but I think the feedback has been very positive."

Cormack doesn't get back to New Zealand much these days -- Bea Smith is the third major role she's had in Australia, following Scarlet Meagher in Rake, and Kate Leigh in Underbelly: Razor, which has seen her mostly based there in the last four years, but she wouldn't say no to returning home.

"I would love to do something else in New Zealand again, if you guys would have me! But I'm happy in Australia. I'm really chuffed that I've been part of three really great shows that have put me on firm footing over there. And they've been three very tonally different shows, and very different characters too, so I'm going to ride this craze for as long as it will go."

There is a possibility of a fourth season of Wentworth (season three has been filmed, and will most likely screen here next year), but apart from that she's got her eye on a few things, and is enjoying getting into more directing, writing, and general creativity.

"I'm exploring lots of different things. I have a project coming up in March next year, that I actually can't talk about yet, but I'm really, really excited about that. I have a few of my own projects that I'm hoping to get up -- I've created another show, and we're waiting to hear back from one of the networks about it, fingers are crossed."

In the meantime, she's very excited for audiences to see episode 11 and 12 of season two of Wentworth in particular.

"I had the opportunity of working on the last block of the season very closely with the director, and I did some directing as well, and got involved in all of the character arcs and intersecting storylines, which was so valuable. I can't wait for everyone to see them."

Who: Danielle Cormack
What: Season two of Wentworth
Where and when: TV2, Monday, 8.30pm

- TimeOut

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