Danielle Cormack: Tough act to follow
When Danielle Cormack wrapped filming on the last season of her prison drama, she jumped on her motorbike and rode. It was 14 hours straight, from Melbourne to Sydney - it probably could have been less but she took her time, letting the road slide past the wheels of her Kawasaki V-star.
In her Sydney apartment she unpacked, re-packed, then boarded a flight for New Zealand with her 4-year-old son, Te Ahi Ka.
Here she is now in a room at Auckland's SkyCity hotel, all kick-ass leather pants and boots and curly red hair; Ahi is lying upside down on the bed watching cartoons.
"I've been in prison for the last 10 months, I feel shattered," she says, flopping down on a couch before getting up again almost immediately. "Do you want a drink? There's a minibar . . . but I don't drink. I mean I do drink, but I don't drink-drink. How about an instant coffee? Should we go crazy?"
Coffee would be great, I say. She brings it over. "What did you do with Danielle Cormack?' ‘Oh we sat around and drank instant coffee, it was wild'," she jokes.
Drinks aside, it kind of is. If this is Cormack tired, the thought of her at the top of her game is enough to leave anyone exhausted.
But if she's running on adrenaline, it's understandable. Wentworth, the Australian television drama in which she plays the leading role, is rating through the roof. A remake of the iconic 1980s series Prisoner, it is set in a women's prison and stars Cormack as Bea Smith, a former hairdresser who has been jailed for the attempted murder of her abusive husband.
Premiering on Foxtel in 2013, the first episode was the most-watched non sports programme ever on Australian pay-per-view television. It won most outstanding drama at this year's Astra awards, with Cormack picking up a Logie nomination for most outstanding actor. In New Zealand, the show is doing so well TV2 is pulling the second season into an earlier 8.30pm timeslot for its premiere on August 25.
For Cormack, 43, it's the culmination of a few years of extremely hard work - recognition that has come from playing a series of tough female roles while juggling being a mum to Ahi and her older son Ethan, 18.
Let's rewind for a moment. Cormack is already well-known to most Kiwis, making her debut on New Zealand screens as a purple-eyeshadowed teenager in Gloss in 1987. We next knew her as nurse Alison Raynor in Shortland Street before film roles in Topless Women talk about their Lives and quirky farm fairytale The Price of Milk.
Cormack first moved to Australia in 2007, working in the Melbourne Theatre Company before heading back to New Zealand to star in The Cult. The short-lived series lasted just long enough for her to pick up Best Actress at the 2010 NZ Film and TV Awards, before heading back across the ditch.
"I guess I just felt like I wanted a change of scene. I'd been working here for a long time, I wanted to live in a different city and be around different people," Cormack says.
"I felt like I wanted a bit of a shake up really, I wanted to displace myself and was ready for a new adventure, but I didn't want to go too far away and get lost in a saturated market. That gamble has paid off, I think."
In Australia, her star began to rise with her role as vicious real-life crime lord Kate Leigh in Underbelly: Razor in 2011. That in turn led to her being cast in Rake as Scarlett, the foil to Richard Roxburgh's self-destructive barrister Cleaver Greene.
When she heard about Wentworth, she wanted in.
"Along with every other actress in Australia I was very keen to read the scripts and see if they were interested in me auditioning and they were, thanks I think in part to my role in Underbelly, and the producers had seen some of my work in Rake as well."
The role of Bea has not been easy. A victim of domestic violence, she has to learn how to survive in the toxic atmosphere of a women's prison. Season one ends with the murder of her daughter, Debbie, orchestrated by one of the other criminals.
For research, Cormack visited inmates at the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre in Victoria. They told of the power struggles, the manipulation and the dynamics on the inside.
Up to 80 per cent of female prisoners are on medication, Cormack says, a "sad indictment," on why they might be in there. Once inside, they're just trying to cope. "I think that's what this show explores, what personal lines do you cross to survive."
Part of the reason Cormack bought a motorbike, which she is working on customising in her spare time, was to get the horrors she was re-creating every day out of her head.
"Wentworth is an incredibly violent show, Bea's journey was incredibly stressful and distressing, and so I just needed to have 10 minutes at the end of every day just to defrag," she says.
"In the weekends I needed to divorce myself from the scripts, and I find it very hard just to sit down and do nothing. I love taking things apart and rebuilding them - sort of like construction. I like the architecture of things, like fashion, I used to like sewing my own clothes and building things, I've done renovations on my house. So I've found a great joy in riding motorcycles."
And alcohol is no longer an option. Why not? "I had to stop drinking, it wasn't suiting my life anymore," is all she'll say.
Despite the difficulties, she has loved playing Bea. She's one of a trio of clever, wily women Cormack has bought to life, alongside Kate in Underbelly and Scarlett in Rake.
Cormack is all too aware of the stereotyped role of women in TV drama, and is happy she is in a place where she doesn't have to play the token housewife or the love interest.
"It's amazing to play characters who are kind of heroes, and you don't see strong women on TV a lot who become heroes, who are standing up and fighting for their beliefs. I like being able to play women who are independent and really strong and not there to necessitate a male character."
How has she found ageing in an industry where so much currency is placed on looks?
"I feel like at this point, any relationship to vanity on screen has gone out the window because I have such great characters to play I don't have to rely on how they look, and the external machinations of these characters are so much more important to me," Cormack says.
She finds that she doesn't worry about her looks as much as she once did. "I am easing up on myself, not being as hard on myself as I used to be. You have to be, we're in this world of HD [high definition] and that is not kind to anyone. I'm surprised there's not actors and actresses out there running around committing hari kari because it's mortifying seeing yourself up there."
But television drama is a better place for females than at the beginning of her career, she says. Shows like Homeland, The Good Wife, The Bridge, and Orange is the new Black (yes, they are constantly being compared to the Netflix prison drama, though Cormack says they are completely different shows) all have strong, imperfect female characters.
"The industry is becoming more balanced now, there are more places and stories being told about women by women and I think there is still so much to come. It's a source that's just starting to be tapped, thankfully."
In Wentworth she's been behind the camera helping to direct the last two episodes of season three. During breaks in filming last year she took a directorial course at Sydney's National Institute of Dramatic Art, and hopes to do more.
"It was so much fun, and I felt like it was the right time for me to explore that side of my profession. I realised over the years I've worked you just observe so much, and I thought I'd be really scared and feel out of my depth but I didn't," she says.
"I don't necessarily see it as transitioning from acting, it's more like exploring another creative annex of my work. I mean I like taking photographs, I like wardrobe, I like telling stories . . . I think when you work in a creative context it shouldn't be limited to just one field."
With that, Ahi's had enough. "Mu...um." he says, jumping up on the bed. There's a brief interlude while Cormack orders him some fish and chips, and straightens his Spiderman top.
It is Cormack's second entrance into motherhood, with her first son Ethan now 18. Ahi is her son with Boy actor Pana Hema-Taylor, 24, a relationship with an age gap big enough to get the women's mags knocking back in 2010.
The pair are no longer together, and Cormack has a new partner. "No I'm not single, I'm in a really fantastic relationship right now . . . ahhhh . . . yeah," she says, trailing off.
"I'm surprised [the breakup] is not something that has been reported on before."
By giving interviews to women's magazines while she was with Hema-Taylor, Cormack found she had opened the floodgates. She now tries to keep her personal life that way.
"I guess for me there were some pretty challenging times and you know, I ended up selling a story or two and it was a really interesting time for me to do that. It was unlike me, it was uncharacteristic so then the byproduct of that is that people become really intrigued in your personal life and you can't have one, and the choices that I made were heavily scrutinised."
Cormack still finds it difficult to walk the line between being open and guarded, and even after more than two decades in the industry, she doesn't think she will ever be immune to a spiteful story.
"Never. There's always something that comes and blindsides you. It's hard not to take it personally. Yes of course you have to adopt a certain amount of . . . savvy? What is it, savviness? Savvy? To deal with media and the interest in your life and your work, but not so much that it robs you of your authenticity."
But social media has opened up a whole new channel between actors and their audience, one that allows them to communicate directly. She grabs her phone, where on Instagram a fan has created a picture that splices an image of Lorde saying "You can call me Queen Bea," and an image of a stern-looking Cormack as Bea Smith saying: "No."
Cormack is cracking up. "I just love it, I love it."
For young performers, like Lorde, social media has also given them a voice and allowed them to construct their own image, she says.
"I'm just thankful that there are these young heroines that are actually going against the grain, it's so refreshing. There was a section of time there that it seemed like for women to get any attention they had to objectify themselves, and the media was all for that.
"As a parent, I mean I've got two sons but if I had two daughters I would be absolutely plastering their walls with young women like that. ‘Sorry, take down the Paris Hilton poster and whack up Lorde there please.' People like Natalie Portman, she's got a degree, she's never been at the centre of any scandal or have to propagate any behaviour to get attention."
Is she a feminist?
"Yes. It's a really interesting time to be a feminist and to allow yourself to be able to be feminine as well. The idea of being a feminist is still really blurred out there. You don't have to be female to be a feminist, you don't have to be a man hater or gay to be a feminist.
"It's just about taking those strong ideas that our fore-sisters had all those years ago and contemporising them, rounding off some of those edges. I'm very aware of females being reduced, there is a reductive culture out there and it's calling people on that."
Ahi's finished his fish and chips, or rather, all the tomato sauce. It's almost bedtime. He'll get to see two sets of grandparents in Auckland before they jet back across the ditch.
For now, Cormack says Australia is home.
"I feel permanently over there now, I'd love to come back and live in New Zealand but there's just no work here for me. I don't know why that is, maybe after 20 years of seeing me on TV people are just sick of me," she laughs.
"Australia for me has been supportive of where I want to go and what I'm interested in. I love coming back here, but at the moment I would prefer to invest my time over there work-wise because there's more remuneration."
Cormack, Mum, Bea, Kate, Scarlett, Nurse Alison Raynor. She's been through a lot of incantations over the years, and Cormack does feel like she's changed.
"I should hope so. I feel like every experience that I've had . . . shifting home, selling up here, having another child, travelling . . . I hope that I'm continally adapting and learning and adjusting to whatever is happening presently, that is important to me.
"It's a necessity to survival for me, just part of growing up."