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Wentworth star Leah’s new role that made her feel ‘so strong’

The Aussie acting legend talks love, leeches, lifting weights and her new series High Country
Leah Purcell in a yellow top in front of a black background

On the set of any TV drama, it’s up to the lead actor to set the tone. On High Country, that was Leah Purcell. So when cast and crew started “freaking out” about leeches falling on them from the trees just a couple of days into filming in the rugged mountains north of Melbourne, the star remained calm.

“Leeches have a heat radar, so they actually feel you out and zoom down,” she explains. “They were coming from above and below. People would take off their masks and there’d be leeches under them, but I thought, ‘I’m just going to be cool and calm everyone down.’”

Then, as Leah, 53, was stepping over a log, she felt something squash against her thigh.

“I swore loudly and crudely, running out of the bush, telling all the boys, ‘Turn around! I’ve got a leech in a place you don’t want to see!’ Mate, they’re mongrel little things.”

Leah wasn’t expecting the leeches when she signed on for High Country. But she did know that filming the eight-part mystery thriller – “the biggest moment in my career, number one on the call sheet, the show written for me” – would be a challenge.

Leah plays Sergeant Andie Whitford, who moves to Victoria’s High Country with her partner – former artist Helen Hartley, played by Kiwi actress Sara Wiseman – and their teenage daughter. Andie finds herself investigating a string of disappearances and deaths, while unravelling the mystery of her own identity.

As sergeant Andie in High Country.

Not only is Leah the star of High Country, but she’s also executive producer and cultural consultant. “I wore a few hats,” she says. “It was hard work, but I loved it because that’s where I am right now in my career. 38 years in, you want that challenge.”

For the role of a horse-riding country police officer, she had to be at peak fitness. But that wasn’t a problem for Leah. She’s thrown herself into physical roles before, including the part of Rita Connors in Aussie classic Wentworth.

Growing up in the small Queensland town of Murgon, Leah was always sporty. She knew she’d either be an actress or “an athlete of some sort”. She remembers, “Netball was my big thing and I made a Queensland indigenous representative side when I was about 15. In the ’80s, I was an aerobics instructor at the Murgon sporting complex, doing a bit of Jane Fonda in my leotard!”

She’s a trained boxer from a family of pugilists and her partner Bain Stewart is a former kickboxer. “I’ve always been around that training aspect,” she says. “My body craves it.”

As inmate Rita in prison drama Wentworth.

Leah feels that training is good for her mental and physical health, and she’s a big fan of lifting weights. She says, “When the anxiety was peaking the Sunday before I went to work on High Country, I did 100 kettlebell swings. It calmed my nerves. It pushed down the adrenaline. Walking on to the set, I felt strong.”

It’s hard to believe that before the role of Rita in Wentworth came along, Leah had decided to retire from acting to focus on writing and directing. She has no plans to retire now.

“Yeah, nah,” she laughs. “The calibre of work and the diversity of roles now, and stories such as [2023 miniseries] The Lost Flowers Of Alice Hart… When stories come along where you’re sharing the frame with Sigourney Weaver, they’re hard to pass up!”

Even though Wentworth finished in 2021, Leah is still loyal to the show’s “amazing” fans. She recently attended a fan convention in Melbourne. Believe it or not, she says, she actually first auditioned for the role of Joan “The Freak” Ferguson, which ended up going to Pamela Rabe.

Leah with Sigourney, her co-star in The Lost Flowers Of Alice Hart.

Leah’s next project is Koa Kid, an action-adventure family film set in outback Queensland. She’ll direct it and she says there might be “a little part” in there for her. Her partner Bain will produce.

“He’s my man, mate and manager,” she says. “We’ve been together for 32 or 33 years now. It’s not all roses. Now and then we take things out on each other when we get frustrated workwise, but we pull our heads in pretty quick, apologise and get on with it. I love seeing him work. Bain is passionate about our stories.”

But as successful as Leah’s career has been, she admits there are still times she feels like the showbiz world is too “tough”.

“It’s taxing,” she admits. “Sometimes you go, ‘Mate, I just might go start my toilet-cleaning business.’ But I know I’m blessed and fortunate to be in an industry where I’m doing something I love.”

High Country is streaming on ThreeNow.

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