Career

Wentworth actress Danielle Cormack talks climate change, health and drinking

Wentworth star Danielle Cormack talks about career challenges and how hitting the road helps her unwind.

By: Sara Bunny

She might be well known for playing the role of violent characters in dark, emotional scenes, but for actress Danielle Cormack, it was a recent journey to Africa that really pulled on her heartstrings.

As a long-time sponsor at ChildFund, Danielle knew that travelling to Kenya and Uganda, countries ravaged by drought and food shortages, would be confronting. But it wasn't until she got back to her home in Australia that the realities truly sunk in.

"It was emotional, insightful, and the spirit of the people was incredibly humbling," she says thoughtfully. "Upon reflection, you can't help but look at all the little grumbles you might have and think, are they really that relevant?

"Of course it makes me think about all the children in my life, my own and my friends' kids, and how they were brought up with access to food and clean running water. It's so simple, we don't even think about it when we turn the tap on, but I've seen kids who are five or six years old drag a jerry can for 3km to bring water home."

When she isn't travelling to African villages, home for Danielle is in Sydney, where she splits her time between a raft of TV and theatre gigs, and various charitable projects.

On the day she catches up with Good Health, she's rushing between meetings, organising an auction for motorbike jackets, and is pondering two major roles she has coming up in Shakespearean plays.

As she talks about her work, she gestures animatedly with her hands, pausing often to punctuate her sentences with a vivacious laugh.

It's a fast-paced lifestyle that energises her, she says. But it's also given her a lesson in putting her health higher on the priority list, especially when she's acting the sort of emotionally intense roles that have helped to make her name.

"The challenge for me wasn't so much that I found playing characters like Bea Smith draining; what exhausted me more was not giving myself the time to come down off those days," she says.

With a relentless schedule of filming, where she inhabited the world of characters that had experienced everything from physical violence to the death of a child, Danielle says the intensity started weighing her down.

"When I was acting a scene, my brain was going 'this is so traumatic', and my logic was going 'this isn't real', but it's like my body wasn't getting the message.

"We know enough about psychology now to know that even if your brain is saying something, your body doesn't necessarily know it's not true. My cortisol levels became really high, and I went to see somebody who helped me to regroup and collect myself again. I've now learned how to put things in place to protect my mental and my physical health."

These days, Danielle is a big fan of meditation, which she practises for 20 minutes each morning and evening. There are also the sessions with a personal trainer three times a week, for a mixture of weight training, stretching and breathing exercises.

"It's not going out and smashing out a high-intensity training session where I leave feeling absolutely ruined," says Danielle, 46. "After all these years – I'm talking 25 years or longer of thrashing it out at the gym, and doing Bikram and what have you – I've actually found something that works for me."

She might be open to trying new things on the health front, but there's one exercise class she won't be joining anytime soon.

"I don't do yoga," she laughs. "I absolutely hate it! I've been told over and over again that I should do it, and I keep thinking I will try it again but no, I won't!"

For Danielle, who is mum to two sons aged seven and 21, hitting her 40s was a time to take stock and recognise what was working for her health, and what she could live without. And her recent experiment with giving up alcohol has been a revelation.

"I thought to myself, 'why am I still trying to drink like I did in my 20s, when I'm in my 40s?' My body was screaming at me that I couldn't do that anymore, so why was I putting myself through that? I started thinking about what I was drinking alcohol for, and the pros and cons of it. I stopped drinking about six months ago, and in terms of my overall health, fitness and energy levels, I've found it has made a huge difference for me."

With so much on her plate, the actress, who has starred in Xena: Warrior Princess and drama series Rake, has the tendency to live life at a mile-a-minute pace. She finds the meditation effective for minimising stress, as well as bouts of what she calls, 'manic housework'.

"I'm not quite as zen as I would like to say," she laughs.

"I have moments where I'll quickly do housework, for 10-15 minutes. The other day I took all the cushions off the couch, to really clean in the crevices, and I was whacking them to fluff them up a bit. Then suddenly I was hitting this cushion like it was a punching bag. So I now have this new form of stress relief; getting someone to hold up a cushion while I smash the hell out of it!"

A keen motorcyclist, Danielle also finds hitting the road helps to relax her mind. "It's incredibly therapeutic, because when I'm riding a bike I have to take on this whole mindset of live or die. It's a 'life on the edge' sort of thing! I have to only think about the road and watching the traffic, I can't think about my washing or what I'm doing next week, and the focus is like my meditation. I think the brain likes to focus on just one thing."

In today's selfie-obsessed world, where the cult of 'me' can do more harm than good, turning your attention outwards can be the best remedy for the soul. For Danielle, it's part of the reason why she gets such a kick from helping others.

"It's important to look after yourself and be selfish to a certain point, as that enables you to be selfless", she says.

"But there's a stage where I think we need to take it off ourselves, and say to other people, 'What can I do for you?' Some people say that when you're feeling the lowest, the best thing you can do is see if there is anyone who needs your help, as that takes you out of yourself."

Then there are her upcoming projects that will keep her occupied, which include a partnership with the youth organisation Bridge the Gap, where she's helping to raise funds to run workshops for disadvantaged kids.

Add to that a full schedule of theatre roles, and 2018 is shaping up to be as hectic as ever, but that's just the way she likes it. "I do a lot of things, but it's because I want to," she says.

"I'm a busy person, not that I like the word 'busy', and I know I need to look after myself so I can keep up with myself!"