Deborah Mailman in ‘Total Control’.

Deborah Mailman is feeling anxious in the lead up to the Australian premiere of Blackfella Films’ Total Control on the ABC next month.

Despite being a staple on Australian screens for more than 20 years, Total Control sees Mailman in her first ever lead role, playing Senator Alex Irving, a blazing Indigenous female politician coerced into taking a role in Canberra for the greater good but used by others for political expediency.

“I am feeling the weight of it. Most [of my] work does feel ensemble and there are always other characters to carry the stories through. But the fact that I’m driving Alex’s story from beginning to end, that’s enormous pressure,” Mailman tells IF.

However, standing ovations at the series premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and rhapsodising reviews should placate Mailman’s fears. Ultimately, the actress relished the role of Senator Irving for her level of emotional intensity and extremes.

“Alex is so unhinged, so unapologetic. She’s deeply flawed and full of contradictions. I love that she has no bullshit around her, is highly ambitious and yet filled with so much self-doubt. She is one of the most complex characters I have played and I loved her.”

A character that is a maverick and outlier, but also female, Indigenous, outspoken and in a newly-discovered seat of power is perhaps a different one for Australian television.

Deborah Mailman and Rachel Griffiths in ‘Total Control’.

Total Control’s co-creator and writer Stuart Page agrees that the weight is on Mailman’s worthy shoulders to deliver a defiant, female, anti-hero who will strike a chord with Australian audiences that have been used to more congenial female leads.

“It is the tradition of network television that we have to like the character and that they need to be relatable. As a consequence we tend to take out all the rough edges and that really hampers the development of characters. It makes for bland characters and for passive characters,” Page says.

“Deb has personified this character, she has nailed it and she has brought so much to the role that I really hope that people will love her and be just transfixed by her.”

Page hopes that the Australian television industry that has finally come of age, or at least turned a significant corner in divining characters of emotional and cultural depth and complexity.

“The real battle is with the gatekeepers of our industry; those who define and determine what characters we see and how we see them. They are uniformly conservative, mostly male and all white. As writers we tend to police that; we are the front line and it’s something we need to deal with.”

Page says production found a great ally in the ABC, who proved they were not risk averse. The project also received major production investment from Screen Australia and finance support from Create NSW, Screen Queensland and Screen Canberra.

“The project was such a risk to take on and they were extremely supportive of the show and would provide rigorous interrogation through the process, which is what you want when putting a show together. Everyone involved had high expectations of it and that rigour was applied to script and story.”

Total Control started to take shape in late 2017 when co-creator, executive producer and star Rachel Griffiths joined forces with the brains trust at BlackFella Films. Griffiths, who plays Prime Minister Rachel Anderson, had had an idea for a show about an Indigenous woman helicoptered into a political party in Canberra for 20 years. By coincidence, producers Darren Dale, Miranda Dear and director Rachel Perkins were developing a political drama with the same basic idea.

Page was brought on by the Blackfella Films team, and while immediately captivated by the premise, he had reservations about what the ‘white guy’ could bring to the project.

“I feel very strongly that Indigenous filmmakers should lead the way in telling their stories and that means deciding who they want to work with. It was reassuring being invited to join this extraordinary, diverse strong team.”

Mailman, who made her screen debut in Perkins’ 1998 film Radiance, says: “That’s what Blackfella stands for and they are so ambitious and they create a lot of conversations around the stories that they tell. Rachel Perkins’ ambition has always been to make create great Indigenous content and enable Indigenous filmmakers to make high-end work that speaks to a broad audience.”

Mailman attributes the fruition of Total Control to the 25 years of work put in by Screen Australia’s Indigenous Department in supporting Indigenous filmmakers to gain the power to tell their own stories.

“This can’t be ignored now. We still can’t afford to ignore the gap [in diversity] that is happening in our screen culture and we have a lot of loud voices stating that. We still have a ways to go but I think we are moving in the right direction.”

She adds that initiatives that have been put in place by Screen Australia like Gender Matters are ushering in the way for more representation across gender, disability and race. “We are just at the beginning of that process. In the next ten years we will see a lot more diverse stories being told by a whole range of under-represented voices and hopefully truly representing the world we bloody live in.”

Such content not only connects with Australian but international audiences, with Mailman describing the Toronto response as visceral. She was impressed at the clear resonance for Alex’s story.

“You often find international audiences are more interested and fascinated by our culture and far more engaged in our stories than locally,” she says, referencing her experiences with The Sapphires and Cleverman.

For Page, streaming platforms have helped to drive a shift in the stories we see on TV. “The streamers and their investment in high-end drama forced the hand of Australian network television to move away from lowest common denominator narratives. It really started to affect the TV we were writing here even before they were commissioning shows here. Audience appetite redefined the idea of the kind of shows we should be creating and it raised the bar for us.”

Mailman adds: “We can never underestimate our audience. We can and have created sophisticated work for an Australian audience. Let’s keep raising the bar and go in with those ideas. Certainly for these high-end dramas that is where we want to be, in that quality area that people watch and expect in international shows.”

Such a provocative lead role on Australian screen is something Mailman could not have anticipated at the start of her career.

“I did not expect to play a role like this on network TV in Australia; there is a lot of work that I couldn’t have imagined working on that I have through my career. When I started, I just wanted to be an actor with longevity in this profession without much definition on what that would look like and to be given the diversity of work that I have now, I would have never dreamt it. I could not have written this script.”

The ABC has yet to greenlight season two of Total Control but development funding has allowed Page to put the finishing touches on the story bible for the second series and work is ahead to plot the next two episodes.

Total Control will screen on the ABC from October 13. Keshet International is handling international sales while Endeavor Content reps US rights.

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