04 Mar 2019 | BY Shelley Lee - @ShelleyLee_
Best known for her four-season stint as fiery haired ‘Red’ (Bea Smith) prison drama Wentworth’s top-dog, for which she won two Outstanding Actress Logies and ASTRA Award, Danielle Cormack has pink locks when we catch up.
The 48-year-old Kiwi actor is also sporting silver loafers, a dusty blue safari suit, neck scarf and a mischievous smile. It’s a look few could pull off, but she does.
Energetic in a way that invigorates rather than exhausts those around her Cormack always seems to have a forward momentum to her thoughts and movements. She gives the impression of a self-assured woman who knows herself and her style – but when told this she’s bemused “Really? Thank you!” she laughs, “I don’t know, I still think I’m on that journey. I feel more comfortable in my skin now than I ever have”, adding this confidence has increased with age.
Australians first tuned-in to Cormack’s talent in Rake, a role she auctioned for while pregnant and shot her first scenes weeks after giving birth to her eight-year-old son Te Ahi Ka (she also has a 23-year-old son Ethan). Since then she’s showcased her range by sinking her teeth into a series of screen performances boasting offered gritty, layered representations of women including in Wentworth , Jack Irish and Underbelly: Razor. She’s balanced her screen work with one stage production a year, most recently in 2018 as the titular character in Queensland Theatre Company’s Hedda.
Cormack’s next screen incarnation,will be as Independent MP Karen Koutoufides in the upcoming political thriller Secret City: Under the Eagle. “She’s fun. She’s an agitator” the actor grins and rubs her hands together with enthusiasm.
It’s a follow-up to Foxtel and Matchbox Pictures 2016’s mini-series Secret City, based best-selling novels The Marmalade Files and The Mandarin Code by Press Gallery journos Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis. The original was a Logie Award-winning hit, that gained a following globally via Netflix distribution after airing in Australia.
“The wonderful thing about Karen Koutoufides, what I loved about her character, because I related to it mostly, was she’s a working mother. She’s got two children, she’s a single mum, and she’s even still breastfeeding. She’s holding press conferences moments after she’s been expressing her milk in the car” something she’s sure plenty of working parents will identify with.
Refreshingly, Cormack says, there’s been an overdue shift in the number of scripts she receives that are more realistic as the types of experiences she’s had as a woman and mother. “It’s a joy now to open up scripts and see well-formed characters that have agency, that are complex and colourful and that embody the true human experience, female experience. And if I have any kind of inkling that that’s not on the page I don’t even finish the script.”
The star is also finding herself more discerning about other elements of the production. “What’s happening behind the camera and the stories, but also yeah, who’s telling the story? Am I telling a story, a female-driven story that’s been written by a man? Therefore, is it his right to tell a story which might be predominantly more salient towards something that’s only ever experienced by a woman?”.
Looking around sets to see the ratio of men to women and questioning the authenticity of how women are being portrayed, Cormack says is still very new to her. “I love it. I haven’t always looked at the world like that, because it was not taught to me to look at the world like that. I really love embracing it and I love sharing that whole ethos and to make sure that the young folk who are coming up, my children, and the younger folk that I work with, to really listen to them too because they seem to know a lot more than what I do.”
Koutoufides is a key narrative driver in Under the Eagle, it’s her passion that lures Harriet Dunkley (Anna Torv) back into the ‘Canberra bubble’, employing Dunkely as her media advisor. Cormack’s says she looked to the women of Australian politics to fine tune the character. “There was a lot of discussion about (former Senator) Jacqui Lambie being the character’s spirit guide” she reveals, adding she also looked to politicians around the world to get the tone right “None more so than Jacinda Ardern who’s the Prime Minister of New Zealand. Very different character than Karen Koutoufides, but nonetheless a female who has risen up through a hierarchy that has been predominantly patriarchal.”
With several high-profile women, most recently our first female Foreign Minister Julie Bishop retiring or resigning from Federal Politics in the last year, the scrutiny women face as elected officials compared to their male counterparts has been in the headlines again. The imbalance isn’t new or unique to Australia Cormack recalled headlines in New Zealand focused female earring size and skirt length as opposed to their politics and funnelled it all into her character. “So I just carried the weight of that for her, just inheriting all of those, the weight of years of being diminished and objectified. And it’s fun because it gave the character and it gave the place where I came from really good velocity and energy.”
While Bishop’s footwear was a regular focus during her time as a minister, it was Cormack’s lack of shoes that caused a commotion at one point during filming – kicking them off to ground herself, until she was busted barefoot padding about Parliament House. “I loved it. But I love anything that’s a little bit naughty!”
Of course working parents aren’t just in Canberra, and most aren’t on a politician’s salary, as Cormack herself knows as a working single mum. “Hard working women that I know that have, against the odds, still managed to step foot in the workplace and go home and still cook dinner and change their kid’s nappies.” says Cormack “They’re affecting societal change.”
Fusing kids and careers is always tough, particularly in the screen industry as highlighted by the Raising Films Australia Screen Industry Survey report – Honey, I Hid the Kids. Cormack never hid her kids, but that didn’t always go down well in the workplace she admits “I think it might have been my naivety and perhaps just selfishness, but when I first became a mum, I just took my child on set. I assumed the women and men on set would look after him because I assumed that’s what I would do if someone came to sit with their newborn child.”
“And I know that sounds completely ridiculous and people would be guffawing at that suggestion. But I really wasn’t aware that it was the wrong thing to do. So I learnt very swiftly that we work in an industry that hasn’t necessarily embraced the idea that there are a lot of working parents out there and you’re working for long, long hours.” She’s excited to see change slowly happening, she was supported to breastfeed her second child while filming Rake and now sees some productions welcoming families onto sets.
For the first time in a long time Cormack doesn’t know what her next gig will be. She’s taking some time to focus on her production company ‘Four One One’ founded with Wentworth co-star Nicole da Silva “So that’s exciting, that’s really exciting.” She says of their passion about telling women’s stories and providing opportunities to emerging talents. But with a whole year free she’s getting itchy feet, and concentrating on looking at overseas acting opportunities “I want to throw myself into foreign waters. See how the water tastes over there.” But she promises she’ll always come back and work in Australia.
It’s school pick-up time and Cormack needs to head off. The passionate Harley Davidson rider is probably not pulling up to the school gates on a hog, but that’s a question for another time.