If there is any Australian show with an ensemble of strong women it has to be Wentworth.
Based on the ground-breaking Prisoner, the series is about to premiere its 6th season and is currently filming its 7th.
Kate Atkinson, who plays Governor Vera Bennett, has just been nominated for an Outstanding Actress in the Logie Awards -up against Pamela Rabe (Joan Ferguson) no less. But while the depth of Atkinson’s performance has finally been recognised, Vera’s inner strength was not always so evident.
“When I signed up to do it I thought ‘I don’t want to play a mouse for 3 or 4 seasons,'” she recalls.
“But it’s been part of the intrigue and the challenge to work how to escape from her lack of confidence and insecurities.
“She is someone who has been captive of her low self-esteem”
“I’ve always said Vera is emblematic of the kind of people who are prisoners in their lives. She can obviously walk out of prison at the end of the day but she is someone who has been a captive of her low self-esteem, a terrible family environment. So her journey has been a different kind of break-out, I suppose.
“She’d been doing it Ferguson’s way and she’d learned lessons from other Governors, been bullied by women, and emulating all these other methods of leadership that weren’t hers.
“So she’s trying to find her own way, but it’s taken her a long time to get there.”
Atkinson is giving little away about the scenes following the cliffhanger of Season 5 in which Joan Ferguson was buried alive and Franky escaped.
“So where is Franky? Is Ferguson dead, or is there any way she could have escaped? What will happen to Will? Will Vera find out?” she teases.
“It’s a prison in meltdown over recent escapes and Vera as Governor is under an inordinate amount of pressure.
“Season 6 has a lot of fallout over the escapes and what happened to Ferguson. But she’s Ferguson, she could rise from the dead! Who knows?”
If Pamela Rabe has indeed exited the series it will likely leave fans in turmoil. But it wouldn’t be the first time, with many who vowed to switch-off after Danielle Cormack departed at the end of Season 4.
“I hate to say this, because working with Pam has been one of the greatest joys of my working life, but I can barely survive without her!” she continues.
“I think I can say that in having 3 new cast members, one of the strengths of the show is that not only can we attract such amazing actors, but that it’s a prison…. people come and go, get paroled, break-out, die. So you can have a new intake.
“We survived Bea Smith’s death and we thought we wouldn’t.”
“You’d think it would be getting tired, but it just gets better”
The three new cast are Susie Porter, Leah Purcell and Rarriwuy Hick.
“I can’t believe I’m saying this but we’re shooting Season 7 and we’ve seen a few episodes cut together and you’d think it would be getting tired, but it just gets better. There are new characters, labyrinthine plotlines, and writers getting more ambitious,” Atkinson explains.
Yet in recognising strong women and the day to day practicalities of a set with high emotions, the changes impacted by the #metoo movement are hard to overlook.
Atkinson is confident of a safe workplace where respect and awareness are pivotal.
“We have an extraordinary cast / crew dynamic on our show. So we don’t anecdotally feel like we’ve had to change too much about the machinations on our set. Bullying isn’t tolerated, but obviously we’re aware of things that have happened worldwide and locally,” she acknowledges.
“We have talked about it, and we’ve all said we’ve been lucky that we haven’t had anything to be worried out. But if you ever feel something is inappropriate or makes your feel uncomfortable you are allowed to speak. Either directly to the person who might have offended you, or to management and you will be supported. And that’s where we’ve let ourselves down as an industry: some people have been deemed better than others and that’s just not acceptable.
“We do fights on our show, sex scenes, nudity, and often it’s those scenes where people are most protected.”
“We do fights on our show, sex scenes, nudity, and often it’s those scenes where people are most protected. The protocols are most stringent so that everyone feels protected. Sometimes it’s the ‘by-the-by’ stuff where comments build up, or jokes are made, where you just need to understand the line in the sand…. to be sensitive without walking around feeling terrified that we might offend someone.
“But we don’t want our set to become a place where people feel they can’t have fun or be affectionate. We’ve all known each other a long time, so we don’t want that to change. But we do want people to know that if their boundaries are different then they are very welcome to express that and we’ll respect it.”
Wentworth returns 8:30pm Tuesday on Showcase.