Chauvel Award winner Sigrid Thornton reflects on her career and returning to ‘SeaChange’

Sigrid Thornton.

Sigrid Thornton will be presented with the Chauvel Award tonight at a screen industry gala event held as part of the Gold Coast Film Festival.

The award recognises the prolific actress’ significant contribution to the Australian screen industry. Her long career includes films such The Man From Snowy River and The Lighthorsemen, and TV series SeaChange, All The Rivers Run, Prisoner and recently, The Code and Wentworth. Established in 1992, previous winners of the Chauvel Award include Fred Schepisi, Gillian Armstrong, George Miller, Jan Chapman, Heath Ledger and Deborah Mailman.

“This recognition is a wonderful and very humbling acknowledgement of essentially what’s been a lot of hard work,” Thornton tells IF.

“It’s a career that’s been full, rich and enormously joyful, but it’s also had a lot of ups and downs as well.”

Thronton will soon return to one of her most notable roles, that of Laura Gibson, in Seachange: Paradise Reclaimed (working title) for the Nine Network, about to enter pre-production.

An ITV Studios Australia and Every Cloud Productions series, the eight-parter will see Laura return to Pearl Bay 20 years on to attend the birth of her estranged daughter’s baby, and rising seas levels, community coverups and some very stormy weather will conspire to convince her this town now needs her as much as she needs it.

Thornton is also working on the series as an executive producer, together with Fiona Eagger, Deb Cox and David Mott, and will be re-joined by fellow castmate John Howard, who was mayor Bob Jelly in the original.

She believes the original SeaChange, which aired on the ABC in the late ’90s, has a “heartfelt legacy in the Australian consciousness”, and is excited to see it how it re-enters the zeitgeist.

“It’s an unusual thing to come back to the same role almost 20 years later and to be able to tell the story of the same character in a changed world.

“Pearl Bay has not been completely protected from a rapidly shifting generational change. So she’s entered a new generation, and has things to say about that and things to experience in the context of that.”

Thornton also has a small role in the upcoming Foxtel/Lingo Picture’s comedy drama Lambs of God, which recently had its world premiere at France’s Series Mania.

“I really wanted to be a part of this production. I’d worked with Foxtel previously on Wentworth and I knew it was coming down the pike. It was just so exciting and I love Jeffrey Walker’s work. I knew that it was going to be a very unusual piece, and I suppose I just wanted to have peek in.”

Having worked in the Aussie screen industry since the ’70s, appearing in Crawford Productions series like Homicide and Division 4, Thornton has watched the Australian film and television industry grow. She is proud to have had opportunity over her career to work to strengthen the industry more broadly, serving on various boards such as that of AACTA, AFI, NIDA and Film Victoria. She has advocated for the industry on a number of occasions, including recently as part of the guilds’ Make It Australian campaign.

Thornton regards the industry as presently in a “tricky state of transition”, with both government and the industry having to play ‘catch up’ to the world of streaming. In particular, she mourns consistent financial cuts to the ABC, arguing its role as the “flagship Australian storyteller” is somewhat diminished and constrained at present. She sees SBS as being in a similar financial tight-spot, and observes the free-to-air networks are also presently having to make swift adjustments to compete with new market entrants.

“On the one hand, everybody’s talking about the enormous amount of content that is required to fill this seemingly bottomless pit of need by audiences for screen stories. But the flipside of that is that the Australian industry continues to be pretty tight; there’s never quite enough finance, there’s never quite enough time.

“We are in a period of quite important transition and we need to be very vigilant and we need to be very resilient and responsive.”

However, she is buoyed by the industry’s movements towards greater gender parity and diversity. “We are starting to include more women and redressing the imbalance between male and female practitioners. We are also starting to embrace the telling of our wealth of Indigenous stories by our First Australians.”

Overall, Thornton feels incredibly fortunate to have sustained a career in Australia. “One of the reasons it keeps me coming back is that I’m continuing to learn, and it keeps me open, it keeps me on my toes.

“It’s constantly shifting; the environment in which I work is never the same, the people, the teams with which I’m working with are never the same… so it is always interesting. Even when it’s challenging it’s interesting. I’m definitely open to that – that’s one of the things I enjoy most, that you can never really second guess this work.”