“Oh, she’s always challenging me.”
Deborah Mailman is reflecting on playing Senator Alex Irving, her in character Total Control – the most complex role she believes she’s had in a more than 20 year career.
The Blackfella Films political drama is set to return for a second season tonight on the ABC, and for Mailman, the emotional stakes this time around are higher again.
In the AACTA Award-winning first season, Irving engineered a coup to dethrone Prime Minister Rachel Anderson (Rachel Griffiths), who appointed her to the Senate.
Now, she must face the reality of the alliance she’s made with the Opposition Leader Laurie Martin (William McInnes), taking orders from him and his offsider, enigmatic Indigenous politician Paul Murphy (Wayne Blair).
“In season two, the writers took Alex pretty much to breaking point,” Mailman tells IF.
“The emotional energy that was required for some of those moments was exhausting.
“The flipside to that is that we still see the same Alex in terms of her determination. We’re seeing a bit more of her negotiation skills now in the party rooms, and a political savviness this time around. She knows that she has to play a long game, and that she has to create friends within parliament.
“It’s a nice evolution of her, in that sense.”
Guiding Mailman in hitting the right notes was one of her long-time collaborators, Blair, who in addition to playing Murphy took the over the director’s chair this season.
“Oh, I love that man,” she says.
“It was so great just having one of my dearest and oldest friends be in the driver’s seat. I just love him as a director. There’s an easiness that comes with the way that we work together. It felt like we were always on the same page. It was effortless, to be able to work with Wayney again.”
New faces also include Steph Tisdell, Harry Greenwood, Alex Dimitriades and Rob Carlton, Colin Friels and Daniella Farinacci.
“I loved working with each and every one of them, and they’re just so much fun as people in general. To have that on set and then to be able to work with that skill level as well, has been brilliant,” Mailman says.
Alex is a challenge, but playing a character pushed to emotional extremes is a joy for Mailman.
“It’s really, really delicious to be able to sink my teeth in that way. Often I don’t know where I’m going. There’s an instinct around it on the day.”
At this point in her career, Mailman is more choosy around the roles she takes on, particularly so as to find a balance between work and family.
“It’s got to be about the idea, it’s about the experience that I want, it’s about the team that surrounds it. It’s hard to know until it’s right in front of me whether I want to be a part of it or not.
“I’m a little bit at the mercy of those opportunities coming to me. But that’s how my life has always been, really. It doesn’t change in that respect.”
One thing she has fallen in love with in recent years, however, is voice acting. Mailman can be heard in Little J and Big Cuz, Combat Wombat and the upcoming Ark: The Animated. Her home recording studio and commercial voiceover work tied her over during COVID-19.
“It is an absolute skill to be able to convey what you need to just through the voice alone. I love that challenge.”
In Ark, based on the popular video game Ark: Survival Evolved, Mailman is a part of a star-studded cast that includes Elliot Page, Gerard Butler, Vin Diesel, Russell Crowe, Jeffrey Wright, Michelle Yeoh, and fellow Aussie Madeleine Madden. She admits she didn’t realise just how big that project was when she signed on, as she was unfamiliar with the game.
“I had to do a little bit of research around it to go ‘What is Ark?’ It’s massive!”
While Mailman has been a staple of Australian screens for decades, by quirk of the world of streaming, some of her early work is also finding a new audience, particularly the now 20-year-old The Secret Life of Us on Netflix.
“It’s always wonderful for any Australian drama to have a second life and garner a whole new audience,” she says.
“What the writers and the producers really tapped into beautifully was that journey of being in your twenties and the intensity of what that can feel like sometimes – starting out in your career, trying to find a relationship, trying to really find your feet in the world. That doesn’t change throughout generations.”
Mailman’s first ever role, Nona in Rachel Perkins’ 1998 debut Radiance, is also screening in retrospective at Sydney Film Festival.
Reflecting on her career, Mailman believes First Nations storytellers are now in a strong position within the industry, thanks to the work of organisations like Screen Australia. She is enthused by the “incredible pool” of talent out there.
“Representation has been very important to me,” she says.
“The opportunities where we can tell our stories – that world’s opened up a hell of a lot more than it used to be. It’s been great to see that shift happen and it’s I think it’s only going to get stronger.”
Over the last few years, Mailman has also been working with friends Shari Sebbens and Paige Rattray to create a mulit-form work based on her cousin, Keelen Mailman, one of the first Indigenous female cattle ranchers in Queensland. Based on her autobiography Power of the Bones, the team have enlisted Bidjara artists to respond to the story across various artforms.
“We almost see ourselves as curators, because essentially it’ll be the artists themselves, the Bidjara artists, who will come in and respond to Keelen’s story,” she says.
“I don’t really have any desire to actually put pen to paper or direct in any way… I just love bouncing ideas. It’s really great to be in a room full of friends and like-minded people and just go like, ‘Okay, what do we want to do? And let’s let’s create some ideas around this.’ That’s exciting to me.”
As for now, Mailman’s focus is on Total Control.
“We hope we’ve done our job in creating something really special with the second series. Something that’s that’s emotional, that’s challenging, that’s compelling, that creates discussion; all that. That matters to me in the work that I do. Fingers crossed!”