Yvonne Strahovski plays Sofie, a sacked airline hostess whose life collides at a detention centre with other characters including Jai Courtney’s financially strapped father of three and Asher Keddie’s bureaucrat.
Sofie is on the run from the GOPA sect headed by Cate Blanchett who gives an OTT performance (at one point, singing in pink and gold lame and sporting caked-on make-up) in the first episode.
As a co-creator of the series, Berlin-loving Blanchett, a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Refugee Agency since 2016, has been tub-thumping the series that will release internationally via Netflix.
Here is the on-stage discussion.
What was the inception of the project?
ELISE MCCREDIE: Cate and I have known each other a very long time and we’ve often talked about doing something together. In 2014, we were in Cate’s kitchen in Sydney tossing around some ideas for a television project. Something we both felt very passionately about was immigration/detention, so we talked about how as artists we could explore that. There were a few stories that inspired us that were related to immigration/detention so we went away and researched, and got Tony Ayres as a producer. We started to look at stories, and as the research developed, the characters bubbled to the surface. The structure found itself and we were off and away over a long development period.
Living in a very dangerous world, what is your biggest fear? Are you still an optimistic person with everything happening in the world?
CATE BLANCHETT: There’s the old adage: there’s nothing to fear but fear itself. I think we’re living in a very xenophobic time, and the challenge, I think for us as a species, is not to give into that, to look into the face of fear. The refugees that I’ve met through my work with UNHCR show incredible resilience and display incredible hope in the face of what they are experiencing, and that gives me courage. I think when we act out of fear, and I think you’ve all experienced that in Germany recently, we have to challenge racist language and racist behaviour and show compassion and humanity in the face of xenophobic policies. We’re at risk of losing our humanity and if you do that, I don’t really understand the point of being alive.
Are you able to detach from the process?
TONY AYRES: For me, I hadn’t seen the mix and the music before this. I hadn’t seen it since the editing stage, so I was able to watch it as an audience. I found it incredibly moving and inspiring to see the lives of refugees as human beings. It made me realise how rarely we see representations of those people on our screens.
Why is it important to do the story as a TV series?
ELISE MCCREDIE: It is the golden age of television, and so many of us are streaming series at home. So, for us as the creators, television was the natural place we went to because we feel like television is a platform that can speak to hearts and minds.
JAI COURTNEY: I think it’s great when you’ve got time to show something over six hours. You get to explore a lot more of the details. Certainly, coming from an acting perspective, I found it such a gift. I haven’t worked in television for a few years, so it was quite amazing. You were given so much meat on the bone to chomp away at as an actor, and with the time you get to live with those characters it becomes a more immersive experience. I think audiences will respond to that.
How much on screen is true to reality?
ELISE MCCREDIE: It’s very hard to quantify, but I’d say 80 per cent is based on true stories. Also, the production design is so true to the centres. The series is set in the early 2000s and the production design and the characters in the camps are based on many years of interviews with guards who worked in the camps, with people who worked in the immigration department, and of course with detainees. The background artists were all former detainees and spoke of their experience to the cast.
YVONNE STRAHOVSKI: It was different to anything I’d ever been in because our background artists all had some experience to some degree in detention or a family member. So, we’d hear about families losing their family to the Taliban and trying to get to a country and then taking forever. It was very moving because it did feel very real and we had a group of people working with us who were authentically responding to the scenarios we were portraying. It didn’t really feel like acting at that point, but that we were witnessing a small piece of what it really would have been like for these people.
ASHER KEDDIE: I would concur. My first scene was where Claire arrives and is swamped by the refugees, who were desperate to have a meeting and talk about their visa and she doesn’t have any answers at that point. I remember walking onto the set feeling prepared and reasonably confident and losing that completely, because I saw a couple of kids sitting under the swingset with no swings and it just really hit me like a train what we were doing. The authenticity was something else. It was very difficult to push your emotions down in those early days.
How can we stand together as a global society and defeat that major issue?
CATE BLANCHETT: You can vote if you live in a democracy. I think on a base level it’s about language. I think language is a very, very powerful thing. When we think of the world’s most vulnerable people who are asylum seekers and refugees, who under the declaration of human rights have the human right to seek protection, and we start talking about them as economic migrants or migrants or immigrants rather than what they are – they’re asylum seekers and refugees. When we did the series, there was a very pernicious change in language in Australia where people who were not criminals became criminalised and were described as unlawful non-citizens, which is not saying they are criminals or illegal, but they’re unlawful. Then the next stage is referring to them as illegal immigrants, when in fact they do have the right to seek asylum. I think we have to use the right words in the right place. It sounds very banal and prosaic but it’s a step from there to hate speech and racism. It’s a very simple thing we can do in our daily live – like stop using plastic!
When Sofie goes to GOPA from a middle class family and then to the detention centre, did you choose that story from real life?
ELISE MCCREDIE: It was inspired by a real story. [In an interview with The Guardian, Blanchett admits it was based on the true story of Cornelia Rau, a German citizen and Australian resident who in 2004 was put in restraints and transported to South Australia’s Baxter detention centre against her will. She suffered from a mental illness.]
We were interested in leading the audience into a story about immigration/detention, which was the hardest sell. So, in a way, that was the Trojan horse to get you in. Audiences might say that’s not what I was prepared for but I’m there now and I’m in. GOPA doesn’t disappear from the series; it only looks like it from the first two episodes you saw. The loss of identity is what Sofie goes through in that first episode that starts to develop into a kind of madness that all the characters start to experience from losing so much of their identity. GOPA becomes symbolic of systems that break you down and break you apart and then you drift without support and without mental support.