Wentworth’s Sigrid Thornton reveals she’s been behind bars in real life

Rebelling against authority is in Sigrid's blood.

Sigrid Thornton flits sparrow-like from stall to 
stall, chatting with friends and growers; picking 
up sunflowers, pears, carrots, a loaf of crusty sourdough. It’s a grey Tuesday morning in Melbourne but the Queen Victoria Market is alive with colour. This is Sigrid’s community. These are her people. Everywhere we go she is greeted by locals, admirers and supporters of her efforts to save the market from the developer’s wrecking ball.

The fight to save this market feels somehow emblematic 
of the things that are most important in Sigrid’s life: a 
sense of community and connection to place and people, justice, compassion, a fair go. Family is also close to the 59-year-old actor’s heart, and the ease with which she yarns with the farmers here and the emphasis she places on “really knowing where your food comes from” are reminders that there’s a little bit of country in her blood.

Her father, Neil, was raised on a dairy farm and Sigrid has happy memories of childhood holidays, “riding on the milk truck and going down to the dairy on my grandfather’s farm. Everything was done by hand in those days, and that was great to experience.”

She has lived for most of her adult life just a stone’s throw from the centre of Melbourne but, Sigrid says, “I’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot of time in the country and one of the great joys of my life has been exploring regional Australia through my roles as well. I feel 
proud to have been able to tell Australian stories.”

Indeed, her film credits can be read almost as signposts along the way 
to Australia’s film and television industry’s coming of age: The 
Getting of Wisdom, The Man from Snowy River, All the Rivers Run, 
The Lighthorseman, Prisoner, SeaChange, Underbelly.

The role of Jessica Harrison in The Man from Snowy River opened doors for Sigrid.

Sigrid in The 
Getting of Wisdom.

Sigrid’s own coming of age was 
in Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s repressive
late 1970s to early 80s Brisbane. She grew up in a family of thinkers and rebels and has been protesting injustice for as long as she can remember.

Her parents met in a poetry class at the Workers Educational Association and both were students at The University of Sydney (Neil read philosophy; Merle studied arts). They were active in the Libertarian Society, which was part 
of the high-thinking, hard-drinking, notoriously bohemian Sydney Push intellectual subculture.

In the early 1960s, Neil’s academic work saw them transferred to Brisbane and Merle became a local feminist hero when she and her friend, Ro Bogner, chained themselves to the bar of the Regatta Hotel, demanding the right for women to drink there alongside men (women weren’t granted the right to drink in Queensland’s public bars until 1970).

Sigrid’s mother Merle Thornton (right) and Ro Bogner at the bar of the Regatta Hotel in Brisbane, after chaining themselves to the foot rail to protest women’s rights in 1965.

BELOW: Sigrid and Merle return to the bar in 2004.

Merle set her sights on other injustices, too.

“My mother was an only child and I think that had something to do with her later tendency to stick her head above the parapet in search of equal opportunities,” says Sigrid.

That first protest in the bar, “wasn’t about women wanting more beer. It was about women being excluded from a central focus of men’s networking conversations. A lot of business was done in pubs and women were denied access to that.” Merle also lobbied for women’s right to keep working in the public service after marriage and she introduced the first Women’s Studies course at The University of Queensland.

“I grew up in an environment of social activism, not just in terms of women’s liberation but in terms of socially conscious activity,” says Sigrid. “That was the topic of conversation around the dinner table.”

Political demonstrations were Thornton family outings. They were famously all arrested together at a Vietnam Moratorium rally when Sigrid was 13.

“There was a sit-down demonstration in the main street of Brisbane,” she recalls. “They arrested my mother, my father, my brother who was 16, and me. I was scared that people were being hurt.”

She was frightened when her father was roughed up by the notorious Queensland police.

“But I never imagined, in my naivety, that I was in any danger. I was an optimistic teenager and I had my mother by my side – they gave my mother and me a separate cell. I think I saw it as an interesting adventure.”

Sigrid says she remembers occasional bouts of teenage angst and “there was a little bit of Saffy [Ab Fab] going on”. She recalls wanting to wear a bra when her mother was in favour of burning them.

“I was thinking, where will I hide this? But in general terms I was right on side.”

When she was younger, the family had spent some time in the UK and Sigrid had been bullied at school. Acting lessons, which she began in London at age seven, helped rekindle her confidence. Back in Brisbane, she was enrolled in a Lutheran high school where she instigated drama classes, and she landed her first professional role at 13.

In her late teens, Sigrid spent 
time with a cohort of free spirits. 
”I was one of those people who 
was regularly stopped by the police because the driver of the car had long hair – that sort of stuff,” which was common in Joh’s Queensland. “I was too young for the 60s counterculture but I imagined myself to be a bit of a hippy,” she muses.

Encouraged by her parents to 
follow her passions, Sigrid helped 
her maths tutor establish a local alternative school but ultimately she returned to the Lutherans and even enrolled herself in boarding school – and paid her own fees – to avoid the sort of distractions that might interfere with studying for her final exams.

By 23, Sigrid had moved south to Melbourne and built an impressive résumé of film and television work, when the role of Jessica Harrison in The Man from Snowy River changed her life. That role made Sigrid a household name. A demographer even used the phrase “the Sigrid factor” to describe the economic upturn that occurred in country towns after a movie was made there.

More importantly, though, The Man from Snowy River offered Sigrid the opportunity to pick and choose her roles. Since then, she has played an immense diversity of women, including Judy Garland in Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door, Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, lawyer Laura Gibson in SeaChange and, over the years, more than one feisty woman behind bars (in both Wentworth and Prisoner).

Sigrid played lawyer Laura Gibson in SeaChange.

She has revelled in the opportunity to play strong, flawed, gifted, interesting women and hopes that, as roles for older women multiply, there are decades brimful 
of opportunities still to come.

“I chose an area of work where I could do my very best without anyone telling me not to,” she says, and that early feminist training has “given me a sense of purpose which is reflected in the kinds of roles I’ve chosen, the way in which I’ve chosen to play them, and the way that I’ve moved through my life.”

Back at home, Sigrid unloads her bags of produce, and her affable husband, film producer Tom Burstall, brews tea for The Australian Women’s Weekly‘s crew, while fielding media enquiries on a significant victory that’s been won today in the battle to save the market. It’s a cause to which the whole family, and more than a few friends and neighbours, have been enlisted.

Sigrid and Tom have two adult children, Jaz (26) and Ben (33). Sigrid likes to think she took the best bits of her own childhood and tried to pass them on to her kids.

“There are parts of the way that one is parented that one chooses specifically to take forward and things one doesn’t,” she smiles cryptically. “That’s part of everyone’s journey. 
One of the things that I’ve chosen to take forward is just having an openness. We’ve tried to share our hopes, aspirations, ideas and values. That’s the way in which I have tried to parent. You’re not living your children’s lives – they are. More’s the pity sometimes. Sometimes you would like to make their mistakes on their behalf to save them pain but you can’t do that… 
If you can raise a child with enough self-love and empathy to move forward with strength and resilience, then you’ve done okay, I think… Certainly, having children has been the greatest joy of my life.”

Sigrid’s father died four years 
ago, but her mother is still going strong. The Regatta Hotel has named a bar after her and she is writing 
a book.

“Relationships change as people age,” Sigrid says thoughtfully. “My mother is a very strong personality. I have learned a great deal from her and she is, touch-wood and thankfully, pretty chirpy for her age and still brimful of ideas. So there are a great number of deep and important conversations we can still have. I think it’s important, with any life, to try to relish and cherish the moment, and that’s felt more keenly when people are getting older. So I feel that with my mother. There’s no doubt about it.”

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