In Australia and New Zealand, Danielle Cormack is well known for her stage and screen work. Her roles in the Australian TV series Underbelly: Razor and Rake won her great acclaim in her homeland.
Cormack first experienced international fame when she played Ephiny in the cult classic Xena: Warrior Princess. “It still surprises me that Ephiny garnered such a huge fan base,” she told me in a recent interview via email.
These days, Cormack can be seen on the hit Netflix series Wentworth, where she stars as the strong-willed prison inmate Bea Smith. The show originally aired in Australia prior to finding a home on Netflix. Now in its second season on the streaming site, the show and its star have garnered critical and popular acclaim. Cormack is proud of the series. “The international attention it’s receiving is testament to the fact our stories are relevant around the globe and that’s certainly encouraging.”
In our conversation, Cormack talks about Wentworth, her craft, her ambassadorship to the Australian prison charity Shine for Kids, and what’s next in her very busy career.
Where are you from originally?
Auckland, Aotearoa. (New Zealand)
How did you get into acting?
I don’t remember ever getting “into” acting. It has always been part of me. Role playing from a really young age, writing plays at primary school, subjecting friends to acting them out, attending youth theatre from the age of nine, its all progressed to this point. At the risk of sounding like an asshole – I think it chose me.
The roles you’ve played have been quite diverse: from Amazon Ephiny in Xena: Warrior Princess to the underworld figure Kate Leigh in Underbelly: Razor, and now Bea Smith in Wentworth. Do you enjoy the challenge of playing an array of characters and have you found you enjoy one type of role over another?
I’m lucky that people see me in different lights and employ me to play different characters. Playing the same types of roles would be my idea of hell. Of course, there are projects/characters that aren’t as dynamic or as complex as others, but I always take something away from every character experience.
Your role in Xena must have brought you attention from that particular fandom. Did you (or do you still) attend fan conferences such as Comic-Con? Are you still recognized for the role of Ephiny?
I have just returned from one in Los Angeles. [It was] my first convention in about 10 years. It still surprises me that Ephiny garnered such a huge fan base. Most of those fans stay up to date with my recent projects, they all seem to know and love Wentworth, and I am always thankful for their support.
Your role as Bea Smith in Wentworth has brought you international critical and popular acclaim. What first attracted you to the role?
Not so much the role that attracted me but the show itself. It is a re-imagining of an iconic Australian drama called Prisoner, which I used to watch as a young kid (shh, don’t tell mum) and that world was and still is intriguing to me. The fact that it’s a drama with a predominately female cast featuring stories about women in today’s world was a massive draw card.
Are you surprised by the attention the show has received?
Yes and no. I knew it would get attention because of Prisoner’s popularity, but I wasn’t sure which way it would swing. Thankfully, it’s been received with open arms! The international attention it’s receiving is testament to the fact our stories are relevant around the globe and that’s certainly encouraging.
Series about prison life seem to fascinate viewers. Why do you think that is?
So many complicated, damaged, vulnerable, funny souls in one area. Dramatically, prison is an incredibly rich environment; it is a world unto its own. Even under strict surveillance it still operates with its own set of laws dictated by inmates. The hierarchy dictates there is always someone at the top and someone at the bottom and the threat that can change at any given moment creates great tension. People love to observe those that have stepped outside the law. The renegades, the lawbreakers, the folk who give the establishment the middle finger, they all reflect a part of us that occurs naturally in certain moments, but not everyone acts on those impulses. It’s intriguing to watch those that have.
Did you do any special research for the role, such as visiting prisons and talking with inmates?
I did both. The whole cast was blessed with a forum with some ex-inmates and half way through the series I visited a correctional center for the day. It was the most valuable resource not only for the project but also as a personal insight into some of the challenges that women face in society. Mental health issues, domestic violence, drug addiction to name a few. The world is not black and white. Sometimes good people just make bad choices.
Are there any particular challenges filming a series like Wentworth?
Filming stories that are set in a high stakes / volatile environment did start to get to me by the end of filming series 3, but that’s probably because we filmed series 2 & 3 back to back without much break. I had to have a moment to myself at the end of every day to de-frag.
Bea’s story and the stories of her prison mates are often tragic yet there are moments of humor and positivity. Do the emotional, highly charged storylines occasionally take their toll on the cast?
It’s important to reflect life as it can be. You can find the blackest of humour in the most emotionally charged moments, the old tragedy/comedy duo. To keep the tone of the show tempered you need to have these moments. It is also a truism that people in this situation still have a laugh every now and then, they joke and play pranks – it helps pass the time. In regards to the cast – I think everyone had moments when they needed to take a deeper breath.
Do you have a favorite episode?
I love 11&12 of season two, probably because I had the opportunity to be Directors attachment on them and consequently was a bigger of the creative/editing process so, naturally, I formed a closer bond with those episodes. I also like the fact that the story takes us out of the prison.
Do you like the idea of Netflix streaming all the episodes at once?
I hold dearly the tradition of “whats going to happen next week?!”, but the way we view TV has changed immensely in the last few years. Now, I love getting lost in other worlds for hours and showing all episodes together is a completely immersive experience. So we are able to commit to the journey as a whole instead of it being interrupted. Television today is an incredibly exciting medium to be involved in.
Have you started filming Season Three? Can you give us a hint of what is to come?
Season 3 is in the can and goes to air in Australia on April 7th. Bea Smith is ‘Top Dog’ now so that makes for a different set of rules.
You’re the ambassador for Shine For Kids. Please tell us about the organization and how you became involved with it.
Shine for Kids is an organization dedicated to supporting and mentoring children whose parents are in prison. Making sure they have someone who can mentor them and make sure they are not alone at a time where there is the possibility of being ostracized or marginalized because of a bad choice that someone close to them made. It’s about reinforcing a positive sense of self to help break cycles. Not only in the children but programs to educate the parents themselves. I was invited to become an ambassador, after I donated a portrait of Bea Smith for their charity. (Visit www.shineforkids.org.au for more information.)
Do you have any particular plans for the future, either personally or professionally?
YES! I am about to perform in a Sydney Theatre Company production, then hopefully heading to Uganda on a field trip with CHILDFUND (another organization that I am ambassador for). I am currently developing a TV show with Kevin Carlin (director from Wentworth) so hopefully we will see that up next year. I am part of a show called Rake that is filming at the end of this year as well for ABC network. I’m fitting all this in between being a mum and trying not to drive my family crazy in the process.