They are two giants of Australian show business, both revered for their gutsy choices and prodigious acting chops, and yet when Rachel Griffiths and Deborah Mailman came together for the first time to star in the ABC’s Total Control in 2019 they were a quaking mess. Not only were they terrified to be carrying the weight of this bold political drama on their shoulders, but they desperately wanted to do each other justice.
“I just think she’s the bees’ knees and I had to get over my fan-girling at the beginning because – s***, I’m working with Rachel Griffiths, I’ve got to step up, I’ve got to bring my A game in!” Deborah explains, still tingling from finishing series two which, as we speak, is mid-editing and she has yet to see.
When I tell her Rachel felt exactly the same about her, she collapses into giggles – which I soon discover is a regular state for Deb, that and a wide smile that breaks out uncontrollably and makes her eyes literally twinkle.
“I worship the ground she walks on,” Rachel tells me separately. “I remember being sooo nervous on the first day that I was on with Deb. Then Deb’s saying, ‘I’m really nervous’ and I said, ‘so am I, darling’. She replied, ‘what are you nervous for?’”
It sounds like a line from an Absolutely Fabulous script but having hung out with these two offset and on, there’s nothing fake about their boundless admiration for each other’s work, the friendship that immediately sparked or their grounded, no airs and graces Aussie-ness.
It’s simple. “She gets me and I get her,” explains Deb. “I’ve loved her work ever since she debuted with Muriel’s Wedding. Just a powerhouse performance. I love how she’s really mapped out the sort of choices she’s made for herself as an actor, and now she’s producing and directing I just think she’s amazing. She’s a good person, too. She’s a fun girl. As crazy as the rest of us.”
“We did have quite a few moments where we’d just lose it, especially I think because we are being these grown-up, serious women,” confesses Rachel. “Deb’s such a gorgeous giggler and I always get the afternoon sillies, after 4pm when the snakes come around. If anyone gives me more than two red snakes within 15 minutes I just can’t keep it together.”
“I was corpsing all the time. Rachel’s right, I am a stupid giggler,” says Deb, suppressing a chortle. “Some actors know how to stay in the moment. I’m the opposite. If anything distracts me or I find funny, I go there, which is a terrible thing to do when the camera’s rolling.”
They did keep it together, though, and having managed a sneak peek of the rough cuts, I can exclusively reveal this second series is even more powerful than the first, and has a finale that will shock Australia.
The concept for the whole show actually came from Rachel, who went to TV production company Blackfella Films with an outline for a drama with a First Nations political activist at its heart. It was something that had been swirling around her head for decades but she put on ice while she was pursuing her career in America.
Now properly settled with her artist husband, Andrew Taylor, and their three children – Banjo, Clementine and Adelaide – back on Australian soil and eager to expand to work behind the camera as well, Rachel harnessed her thoughts into a dynamic pitch.
“I pitched them this quite operatic idea that was really about the intersection of race and gender in Australian politics,” she recalls. “I first had the idea in my 20s, watching [former Australian Senators] Natasha Stott Despoja and women like Nova Peris and Cheryl Kernot, who I grew up with, and being really aware that women in Australian politics always seem to end up thrown under a bus, even if they were competent and experienced and very well-liked. Somehow, they either ended up holding the bag or being really gendered out and very much copping – particularly if they were young women – a very sexualised form of abuse and trolling. My idea was about an Indigenous woman who is helicoptered into government, having had deep community service experiences. She’s not a political staffer with all that trained university politics, that treadmill that we all hear about. She comes in very left of field and brings down a government.”
Having studied politics at university herself before becoming an actor, Rachel confesses at heart she’s a political junkie. “When I was 19 I thought ‘I’ll be a Democrat senator and hold the balance of power’. But they were just the narcissistic dreams of a young girl craving power and influence, having felt that she had none,” she laughs. That said, I suspect Rachel reignited a few of those dreams in this production and then set them on fire with a healthy dose of realism.
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