Leading lady in control

When I speak with Deborah Mailman about her upcoming drama series Total Control, I’m finding it a little bit difficult to accept this is technically her first TV ‘lead role’.

Huh? With a 25 year career in series such as Redfern Now and Mabo, how is this possible? She even won Lead Actress gongs from the AACTAs for The Secret Life of Us, Radiance and The Sapphires.

But it’s not something Mailman spends much time mulling over.

“I never really approach roles that way because it always feels like ensemble work to me. Darren (Dale, producer) and everyone are adamant that in terms of being a lead character that carries a television series….. yes,” she confirms.

“But I’ve had so many great opportunities over the years I don’t really see them that way.”

In the series Mailman plays Alex Irving, a charismatic and contradictory Indigenous woman, thrust into
the national limelight after a horrific event and an invitation from an embattled Prime Minister
(Rachel Griffiths) to join her party.

“I love that she’s unhinged.”

“The writers are so great in creating such complexity in this character. I love that she’s unhinged. I love that she’s unapologetic. She’s no bullshit. She’s deeply flawed. She does some questionable things. She has that strong moral compass of wanting to make a difference for people. She’s such a well considered character,” she tells TV Tonight.

The six part drama from Blackfella Films is directed by Rachel Perkins and was originally conceived by Rachel Griffiths herself.

“She’s had this idea about a black female politician for some time, writing notes about it. I think she was inspired by a number of politicians over the years and she’s herself quite a political bast. She’s very interested in that world. I think she approached Darren about the idea and Blackfella Films loved it. So then they took it to the ABC and the ball got rolling really quickly on it,” Mailman explains.

“I love the moment she comes out to Winton and she’s got her RM’s and akubra on!”

“When Rachel approached Blackfella films she did not see herself in the role of prime minister. She was there within an executive producer capacity and it was actually Darren who said ‘Why shouldn’t you be playing this role? There’s no better person to play the prime minister than you.’

“I think she’s taken a lot of references from a number of women, I think. I love the moment she comes out to Winton and she’s got her RM’s and akubra on!”

Filming took place in Winton Queensland plus Canberra in both ‘new’ and old Parliament Houses. Locals in Winton also take on extras roles.

“They’re very welcoming of film shoots up there and they really get involved. They’re incredibly supportive. The locals up there. The indigenous mob drove for three or four hours to come and join us and film on the weekends,” she continues.

“We were really well supported up there and I can’t thank them enough.

“We’re saying that Alex is from Winton. So they could trust us with the story.”

“Judy Davis actually helped me out at the beginning.”

While Griffiths drew some inspiration for the idea from abuse levelled at former politician Nova Perris, Mailman says her character is not based on any single politician. In fact she had some unexpected coaching from an industry legend.

“Judy Davis actually helped me out at the beginning. She put her hand up and said ‘Do you need anything?'” she reveals.

“I said ‘Could you help me getting into this character and figure out who she is?’ At this time the scripts were early drafts.

“She’s just an incredible, beautiful, generous person. She loves Rachel, Darren and Blackfella films.

“I jumped at the opportunity. It was pretty amazing for Judy to actually offer her time and brain and helping me with this. I think it’s pretty amazing. I would have paid thousands of dollars for that!”

But the project has also attracted attention from switching its title from the original Black B*tch.

“I wasn’t across a lot of the decisions but Black B*tch was always a working title. I loved it. It aligned beautifully with the story and Alex’s journey and how she’s sort perceived and spoken about,” she observes.

“I guess it was the ABC not wanting to make the conversation about the title. It’s about the show and I think people were coming to the title without any context and that was creating conversation away from the show.

“We certainly weren’t using the title for controversy or for offence”

“I think it was just a safer title to work with, not alienating audiences in any way. We certainly weren’t using the title for controversy or for offence.

“But some people could have taken it as offensive.”

Total Control also features Harry Richardson (Poldark, Dr Thorne), William McInnes (Deep Water, Rake), Aaron Pedersen (Mystery Road, Jack Irish), Rob Collins (Secret City: Under The Eagle, Cleverman), Anthony Hayes (The Light Between Oceans, The Slap), Celia Ireland (Wentworth), Trisha Morton-Thomas (Redfern Now, 8MMM), English actor Huw Higginson (Secret City, Janet King) and introduces Shantae Barnes Cowan.

“It’s shining a light on some of the issues that do affect us as Indigenous people”

Title controversies aside, Mailman remains immensely proud of the series and the issues raised.

“It’s about these two women who are fighting tooth and nail to sort of stay in control,” she says.

“They’re both in quite a male-dominated profession. So it is about Alex in particular just being absolutely in control of this journey that she’s decided to take.

“It’s shining a light on some of the issues that do affect us as Indigenous people, particularly with the young Indigenous girl who escaped from detention and deaths in custody. It’s also looking at women in politics.

“In the end I just hope we’ve made a really good drama that people are entertained by.”

Total Control airs 8:30pm Sunday on ABC.


  1. I’m not sure they should have changed the shows original title, the photo above (don’t remove it please) of Deborah standing next to a graffiti covered car tells a story all by itself, there seems to be to many controlling influences nowadays (mostly socialist academics) trying to tell fully grown adults how to think and behave, there is a judiciary and laws to do that job.

  2. I can’t believe it’s Deb’s first lead role either ! She has been in so many shows and shined in each and every one of them, such a huge and diverse body of work. Looking forward to Total Control because I love Rachel Griffiths too, and politics. And once again, an awesome interview David, very enjoyable read, thank you ?

  3. daveinprogress

    Deb oozes star quality. Always has. From the first time seeing her in Radiance I knew she would be a big star. And what a career so far. Every medium, genre and type of role . Looking forward to this.

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