Interview: Marta Dusseldorp

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Image courtesy of Nicholas Wilson / Foxtel.

Here’s a note for anyone researching Marta Dusseldorp’s career: Regardless of what her IMDb filmography tells you, Marta did not star in 52 episodes of children’s animated television series, Sea Princesses.

“I didn’t ever do that show,” Dusseldorp laughs down the phone from her home in Tasmania. “I think I maybe did one episode, but I don’t know why it’s listed on IMDb.”

What I do know for sure is that Marta has been a regular on Australian television ever since her onscreen acting debut on the award-winning ABC series, G.P. 

Since then, Dusseldorp has gone on to become a small-screen favourite appearing in a handful of incredibly successful TV shows including BlackJack alongside Colin Friels and Jack Irish with Guy Pearce as well as Crownies spinoff Janet King and A Place to Call Home.

Here, Marta gives us a deeper insight into her admirable career including her new role in nature documentary, Whale Super Highway, and her excitement for this year’s CinefestOZ.

“The funding bodies need to understand that introducing actors who aren’t normally gracing our film screens isn’t a bad idea and that it can create an enormous reinvigoration of interest.” 

Interview by Matthew Eeles

Which television shows did you enjoy growing up?
As a young girl, I actually really enjoyed watching Prisoner. I loved it. My mum had a tiny black and white television and the screen was the size of a sandwich. I used to sneak down into the spare room with it tucked under my arm. I’d plug it in and I’d have to tune in for it which was interesting. [Laughs]. I think I enjoyed seeing a whole lot of women on screen. I don’t think I necessarily understood a lot of the violence or sexual innuendos. I think it was more that these women were living in this world and surviving. They’d done bad things but they were going to come out being better. I also loved Doctor Who. We had an open house and you could hear every layer of every floor. When I got scared I would run downstairs and hide in the kitchen so I could still hear it, but I couldn’t see the Darleks. I really loved Dot and the Kangaroo and Annie, the musical. I used to watch that on loop. I had a VHS of that and I would sing my heart out. I remember my sister finally coming in and telling me to stop singing. [Laughs].

You started your screen career with a role on the very popular ABC series G.P.
[Laughs]. I did.

Was that a satisfying introduction to the world of acting for you?
It was a very realistic introduction. I remember being thrown into it. I had no idea what I was doing. They were shooting very quickly and I had to remember this long speech. I was supposed to be giving some lecture but I was a very young girl and I remember thinking I wasn’t the right age for this. I remember being cast too old when I was young and I had to do this speech about rooting through a bag of horse manure to find the diamond. [Laughs]. I was a pyramid seller I remember. They dressed me in a suit and I was saying things I didn’t understand and it was all very quick. My character was the corruptor in a sense, which ended up being an ongoing role for me throughout theatre. [Laughs]. In television there’s not enough money and there’s not enough time. When you’re a guest star you’re often thrown in without any floaties. When I started leading shows, I tried to make guest stars feel as welcome as possible and them to climatise on set. 

Almost every Australian actor on the planet had a role in that show from Abe Forsythe to Cate Blanchett and even Jennifer Kent.
The sad thing about that is, what it shows you is that there really was a place for you to cut your teeth as a young actor. There were these ongoing shows which ran for 48 weeks of the year like G.P. All Saints, Blue Heelers. As a young actor coming out of drama school you could walk onto a set pretty quickly. These days there are a lot of short order TV shows with maybe six or eight episodes and you’re lucky to get a gig. The stakes are so much higher. And that’s not just the actors. You’re also talking about writers, directors, cinematographers. It’s a really tough environment now for anyone to get a chance which means a lot of people are leaving to go overseas to sit in America for long periods of time. 

One more TV series later and you earned your first feature film role in Bruce Beresford’s Paradise Road. What are your memories of working on that film?
Pure wonder. Maybe it was my Prisoner. We were a group of women from my age, nineteen, all the way up to Elizabeth Spriggs who would have been in her 60s or 70s who passed not long after that film sadly. There was Glenn Close who I had watched and learnt from as a young woman in The World According to Garp and Fatal Attraction, of course. It was Cate Blanchett’s first film, so I met her on that. Jennifer Ehle had done Pride and Prejudice, so I had seen her work. Julianna Margulies was the lead of E.R. and Susie Porter who we all know and love. And of course Fran McDormand who was like my surrogate mother on set. Fran had her young boy there who I became close with and we’re still very close today, as are me and Cate. It was a bevy of extraordinary women who also happened to be actors. And then there was Bruce Beresford who was a superstar to me. He was a beautiful and kind man to work with. The story was so important to me and I was playing a Dutch girl. My father was Dutch so it was a very special experience. It felt like all my Christmases had come at once.

By the year 2000 you had worked on more television including All Saints and another feature film, Praise, with Peter Fenton, Sacha Horler and Joel Edgerton. Did you have a preference for TV or film by then, or were you happy with whatever came next?
I think as an actor you’re always happy with what comes next. I have to say that between that I was also doing theatre. I was doing co-ops like everyone else down in the Cross. I was working for nothing, I was directing plays, I was writing films and I was trying to do it all to see where it fell for me. Everyone wanted to do film because that’s just the way it was. Television was good but it was a bread and butter kind of thing. It wasn’t seen as being prestigious which has changed exponentially now. [Laughs]. That’s an interesting lifetime observation. I only wanted to do film, but they were pretty thin on the ground. They tended to, and they still do, cast the same people in every film because the distributors and the financiers insist on a particular group of people because they believe it creates box office. 

That must be frustrating for you as an actor.
Of course it is, and everyone will say that. I wasn’t going to wait, it is a vocation for me. I started going for theatre when I got back to back plays. I still did a bit of television after After the Deluge and Hell Has Harbour Views. That’s where I met and worked with Andrew Knight and Ian Collie the producer. Jack Irish came not long after that.

I’ve just been thinking about what you’ve said about this constant recasting of the same actors over and over.
Well I can’t comment too much on that. The funding bodies need to understand that introducing actors who aren’t normally gracing our film screens isn’t a bad idea and that it can create an enormous reinvigoration of interest. 

You went on to portray some incredible and inspiring women on television including Sam Lawson, Janet King, Linda Hillier and of course Sarah Adams in A Place to Call Home. What has attracted you to these roles?
I needed a job. [Laughs]. I auditioned for all of them. Several times actually. I formed a beautiful relationship with Sam Lawson in BlackJack. Peter Andrikidis cast me in that. I was cast straight away for that. I only auditioned once. Peter went on to direct most of Janet King. I remember being in that room and Peter just seeing me. That often happens with another creative when they just see you and they get what you can do and they want to take you further and they want to build you and nurture you. That was a beautiful thing to come out of that for me. What I think happened was that the characters created me as a performer and I embodied them and gave them their strengths. Together, hopefully all those women were very different but wherever I was in my life I was trying to buck the stereotypes. I was always looking to give these characters an extra edge. All of these characters became beautiful women to work with because I never felt like they boxed me in.

Image courtesy of Nicholas Wilson / Foxtel.

Has there ever been a character you’ve had second thoughts about playing who has surprised you in their longevity?
Not really. Of course we had the shock cancellation of A Place to Call Home, which really threw me. Of course now we realise in historical hindsight that was tight at the point where people really wanted to start watching On Demand, and this was not something that a commercial network had ever come up against. Our numbers were extraordinary. 1.1 million we were cancelled on. [Laughs]. These days you’d be lucky to get 500,000. It was just one of those earthquake moments in the industry but lucky Foxtel picked it up. Bevan Lee had always seen it as a six part series and he pitched that to me originally. The longevity of Jack Irish doesn’t surprise me because it’s so elastic and dynamic and funny and deeply, deeply Melbourne. Guy is obviously such a wonderful player and the team around him is equally as successful as him in Australia. It’s so much fun to do. Janet King had an amazing run for a spinoff series. For me she was my baby because let’s face it, Janet needed a hug didn’t she? [Laughs]. I just loved Janet’s point of difference for television at that time. She was very Prime Suspect for me. I watched all of Helen Miren’s work on that and I just loved that she was unlikable at times. Janet’s social justice was always very exciting for me. 

Did your previous voiceover work prepare you enough for you narration work on Whale Super Highway?
I’ve been doing voice overs for years. Certainly before I did the back-to-back television because it was a great way to pay the bills. I always really enjoyed it because you can turn up in your pyjamas pretty much. You just have such a great relationship with the client and the recordist. I’ve always been told I have such a great voice so I really enjoyed playing around with different tones. I’m not good at hard sells but I love telling stories. I also did another documentary called Life On Us which is all about the plankton inside of our bodies which was pretty challenging. I’ve also done audio books.

Whale Super Highway is an interesting concept for a documentary in terms of how it’s being presented to audiences. Can you tell us about that?
So it’s being presented in this amazing dome. This dome can go from place to place which is incredible. When they invited me to be the voice I fell in love with the script. It’s amazing to watch these whales travel and how they give birth and where they feed. It’s all very Australian-centric and you get to see these rarely seen places in Australian waters. It was a delight. I recorded it in one day, which was awesome. I’ve learnt from David Attenborough never to talk at an audience but to invite them into your kitchens, if you like. You try to make it funny and warm and enjoyable for kids and adults. Having two children myself, I’ve been through all the animations over the last twelve years you could possibly imagine, so that taught me a bit too.

It must be an honour to join the CinefestOZ film prize jury again. This is Australia’s richest film prize, so the pressure is huge.
I was on the first ever Jury with Bruse Beresford and Sue Miliken who also produced Paradise Road. Margaret Pomeranz who is obviously a legend was also on that jury. It was so much fun. I think the strange thing as an actor is that you give it to someone and not someone else, so you may lose a job from the director or producer you don’t give the money to. [Laughs]. It can reflect on your career. [Laughs]. Everyone is into it with the spirit in which it’s intended which is to celebrate Australian films which we rarely get a chance to do. And then to give an enormous prize. When Paper Planes won, that meant they could fly all of the kids over to the opening they were doing overseas. It made a huge difference to them. I loved that film so much. I think we’re aching for our children to have stories told in our voices. That’s why I’m trying to get those kind of shows off the ground here. 

What are you going to be looking for in these five fantastic CinefestOZ film prize finalists that may influence you when it comes to casting your vote?
I think you want to be touched. That doesn’t have to be sad, it can also be happy. You want to be totally consumed so you forget about your addiction to your iPhone. You want to be moved and communicated to and changed in some way. Now that we have so much television that we can watch on trains, planes and sitting in the park that film for me now is so prestige. It’s so far at the top of its game. I need my movies to feel like a film and not like an episode of television. So that’s something else I’ll be looking for. And then, of course, performances that rip your heart out and take you by your hand and lead you somewhere you don’t expect to go. I can’t wait. 

Whale Super Highway will screen at CinefestOZ from Wednesday, 28 August 2019. Details here. A Place to Call Home is currently screening on Foxtel. Details here.

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