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Danielle Cormack: Riding high

Her successful career has taken her to Australia, but the Wentworth actress is still staunchly Kiwi. Danielle Cormack talks to Nicola Russell about her off-screen passions.

When award-winning actress Danielle Cormack enters a room, the tempo steps up a notch. She does things with an energised flurry – eyes, hair and laugh wild with activity. Her outfit matches the bustle – the protective layer of clothing worn for riding her Harley shed to reveal motorcycle leggings, colourful striped socks pulled to her knees, chunky boots – a tougher, cooler Pippi Longstocking.
Her enthusiasm and warmth immediately separate her from Bea Smith, her incarcerated character fighting for survival in Wentworth, season four of which is currently airing on New Zealand television and in more than 80 other countries around the world.
We are in Australia to shoot the Logie-winning actress, on the craggy-edged, golden beaches of Sydney, where the Kiwi performer made her home four years ago. The move came off the back of landing the meaty role of barrister Scarlett in quick-witted drama Rake.
She was eight and a half months pregnant when she auditioned, and her son Ahi less than two weeks old when she started filming. “I immediately fell in love with the project – I thought it was the most extraordinary thing I had read in a long time. I didn’t think I would land the role because I was so pregnant, and when I did I had a brief moment of, ‘Uh-oh, what am I going to do now?’” she says with a laugh.
She moved to Sydney, where her mother joined her initially to give Danielle support, and then the actress employed part-time help. “I can’t remember if it was really stressful or not,” she says.
“I just got on and did it. To any working parents or caregivers, hats off! For me, it’s about knowing what your threshold is – some people really need that time off and they should take it. I was comfortable with working straight after – it suited who I was. I went back to finish shooting Topless Women Talk about their Lives a week after I had my first son Ethan, so I was already familiar with the experience.”
It’s fair to say Danielle’s threshold is pretty high. She’s barely stopped for breath since hitting Sydney, and indeed well before that. The role of iconic criminal Kate Leigh in Underbelly, Razor came soon after Rake and led onto Wentworth.
Both Rake and Wentworth are now in their fourth seasons. She’s just wrapped filming for miniseries Deep Water and, in a nod to her theatre roots, has recently completed a co-op theatre show at a 70-seater venue in Kings Cross.
But everyone has limits. Filming Wentworth in an old industrial complex in Melbourne was a gruelling task, requiring 12 to 14-hour days on set, and it didn’t take Danielle long to realise the toll the high-intensity show was taking on her health.
“Bea Smith has been the most challenging role for me in terms of absorbing the daily grind and then having to go home and be a mum. I wasn’t cognitive of it until the end of season two – I wondered why I wasn’t sleeping very well and was feeling quite anxious.
“I saw an amazing woman who gave me some meditation techniques that are based around hypnotherapy. I’d give myself five minutes in bed at night just to deconstruct the day and be in my own body again – and to let go of the day’s filming.
My body didn’t know it wasn’t having the experience of Bea being physically and emotionally persecuted. My logical side knew it wasn’t real but my body didn’t, because I was responding to it on a visceral level.”
As well as meditation, Danielle sought out an activity that had nothing to do with work. “I am a very tactile person; I love building things and taking things apart, so I become part of a motorcycle community called The Kustom Kommune. You take your bike there and work on it.”
Attending the group intensified her existing passion for riding. “The thing about riding a motorbike is it is a solitary practice. Even if you are riding with people you are still alone on that bike; there is no one else you can talk to.
You have to be constantly engaged with the road. It took me away from anything else I had in my world – so it was my meditation. It allowed me to start at one point and end up in another, geographically as well as in my mind.”
And with a knack for making even meditation sound exhausting, it’s not surprising motorcycling is not her only hobby. The Auckland born and raised actor is also heavily into craft. “Crafty Cormack they call me,” she says. “I love sewing and I build – even in my tiny apartment I managed to build an outdoor table for my deck.
My grandmother (who passed away peacefully at the age of 93 last year) taught me to knit and be a handy-person. I spent a lot of time with her when I was growing up and my childhood had a constant soundtrack of needles clicking and the ZB races – gambling and knitting! She was very industrious, so it is in my DNA.”
She fills her inner-city pad with plants to feed her gardening habit. “I am aiming for the Wintergardens,” she says with a glint in her eye, referring to Auckland Domain’s natural wonderland.
In the breaks between roles, she has formed a production company, ‘4 One One’, with Wentworth star Nicole da Silva, and is also in a creative team with fellow Kiwi Claire Chitham – their goal to create more strong female roles.
Danielle says creating roles for women that show them as flawed and in a state of flux is a step forward for the industry – and for feminism.
“For an age we have seen male characters having their crises, their hero’s journey, but very seldom have we seen a female do the same without being attached to the male journey. We have so many stories to tell about women: Why is Homeland so popular? Why is Orange is the New Black so popular? Because they have amazing, complex, strong, messed-up, female protagonists. Thankfully they are hitting our screens now, but there’s always room for more!”
Danielle plays notoriously gritty roles. While Rake’s Scarlett is a less intensive character than Bea Smith, she is still complex – quick-witted and strong, but vulnerable and unsure of her place in her own life. Danielle says it’s an important factor in her choice of roles that the characters are real, flawed and human.
“Everyone has parts of them that aren’t fully formed, or that have been shattered, no matter where they come from, so let that inspire characters,” Danielle says. “It is good storytelling – it’s more interesting, as the character is always striving for something. There is nothing more boring than seeing a perfect human – it doesn’t exist.”
She admits to her own struggles in life – one being moderation. She goes through periods of abstinence from alcohol to regulate herself. “It is an ongoing challenge to try and regulate myself in any capacity. I guess I am an all or nothing kind of person and it’s a continual work in progress to find that moderation – in anything.
“I’m sure people would be able to relate to that; I’m pretty sure I don’t stand alone. I think the key is to not be so hard on yourself.” It’s a brave topic to speak about but Danielle brushes off this notion.
“Life isn’t all plain sailing, we all know it’s not! I think there is this misnomer that because a person is in the limelight or in a position of some kind of power, their world runs smoothly and is perfect. I don’t want to be a bullshit artist.”
It’s this understanding of the human condition that has led her to work with numerous charities. She has just visited Cambodia as ambassador for ChildFund and has been in New Zealand to work with at-risk youth in a mentoring role and as Patron to the Bridge the Gap Project. She also lends her time and profile to Shine for Kids, a charity supporting children of prisoners.
The latter is not a feel-good charity; in fact, she has received her fair share of criticism for her work with the organisation.
“There is a misconception that Shine for Kids is about helping people who have been incarcerated. It is, but it’s primarily about helping their children. They are the invisible victims, they can be marginalised and ostracised by their peers at school – we all know how cruel it can be on the playground. The rate of recidivism in children with parents who have been incarcerated is extremely high, so it’s about trying to break these cycles.
“Both BTG and Shine for Kids are not well known charities. I guess I tend towards organisations that don’t have much traction yet, but are doing amazing work.
“In my work with Shine for Kids I’ve learnt it’s important to spare a thought for the incarcerated and ask, ‘What were they like as children? What were their environments like?’ And have compassion for that.
Although we run education programmes for the incarcerated parents, it is not my job to try to save that person – but we can make sure their children do not follow the same path.”
Danielle’s childhood family was a colourful bunch. She grew up in Auckland with her parents and brother. Her dad was an engineer and her mother a professional bridge player.
“Our house was bursting with social activity and both my parents were incredibly generous, they were always helping people. We often had people living at our house. Isn’t that funny? I hadn’t thought about it until now,” she says, realising the influence her family has had on her desire to lend a hand to those in need.
Her own immediate family is a more complex structure. Her six-year-old son Ahi lives with her and her partner of three years, producer and director Adam Anthony, in an apartment in the hip, central-eastern suburb of Darlinghurst. Her 20-year-old son Ethan lives in Otago, where he is at university.
“Families these days are so different to what they were 50 years ago,” Danielle says. “There are so many different permutations. Ethan has grown up with two families because his dad remarried and has two daughters. I am very close to his other mum, so when we are back in New Zealand we all become one big extended modern family.
“I remember my eldest son’s first day at boarding school – we were all there and the family didn’t stop filing in, it was seven, eight, nine,” she reels off. “And we are all different colours and ages.
Not every family has a mum, a dad and two kids, and we need to change the language around that in our schools, our community, our reporting, and eventually in our storytelling. I had to work really hard at adopting a thick skin about people’s judgement of how a family should be.”
Danielle met her partner Adam through a fellow Wentworth actress, Leeanna Walsman. “It was one of those magical moments,” she says, smiling. “It was not expected, it wasn’t set up, we just happened to be at the same place at the same time. “He is a beautiful soul and a good human being. It’s been over three years and we are still trucking along.
“It’s really wonderful to find yourself in love with someone who shares the same values. We laugh a lot together and of course we fight, but we challenge each other in a really good way. I am happy,” she says.
And while her parents’ house was a social affair, Danielle prefers hers to be a sanctuary. “I have gone in the opposite direction; I am ashamed at how unsocial I am. I think it’s because I am always busy doing other things. And I think that as much as I loved being social for many years, I was a bit of a social-phobe. I actually felt quite anxious being around a lot of people, and I have moments when I still do – I am better in a small group.
“I have just come to accept it now rather than chastise myself about it, which is why I think a lot of my friendships are singular. I don’t have big groups of friends.”
Danielle’s key roles*
2010-16 Rake Wins Equity Award for Best Ensemble Cast (2011)
2013-16 Wentworth Wins Astra for Most Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor (2015) and Logie for Most Outstanding Actress (2015)
2012-13 The Hobbit II and III
2011 Underbelly: Razor
2009 The Cult Wins Qantas Film & Television Award for Best Performance by an Actress in General Television (2010)
2008-09 Legend of the Seeker
2008 The Strip
2007 Rude Awakenings
2005 Maddigan’s Quest
2000 The Price of Milk
1997-99 Hercules: The Legendary Journeys
1997 Topless Women Talk about their Lives Wins New Zealand Film & Television Award for Best Actress
1995-2001 Xena: Warrior Princess
1992-93 Shortland Street
1987 Gloss

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