Well-known in the acting industry and across Australian televisions and cinema screens, Deborah Mailman has secured her first show as leading lady.

Known for her roles in The Secret Life of Us, Offspring, Rabbit Proof Fence, The Sapphires, Play School and Redfern Now among others, Ms Mailman is no stranger to the big and small screens.

An accomplished actress, Ms Mailman is now taking on a role that explores the intersections between Australian Government politics and Aboriginal politics.

From Blackfella Films, Total Control tells the story of Alex Irving, an Aboriginal woman from the regional Queensland town of Winton who is thrust into the spotlight after a devastating incident.

As a result, Alex gets handpicked by Prime Minister Rachel Anderson (played by Rachel Griffiths) for a newly available Senate seat.

Alex Irving takes the position in Canberra and flexes her newly found political muscles, much to the dismay of the government.

Speaking to NIT before the show’s release in October, Ms Mailman said she “can’t quite believe” that this is her first role as a leading lady.

“I’ve had an absolute ball playing Alex and getting into who she is as a character, and I’ve taken the role … with every sort of integrity and honesty I can give to her as a character,” Ms Mailman said.

Ms Mailman said she relates to her character in the way that she is still navigating her position in the industry.

“It’s still a hard landscape in terms of being an artist,” Ms Mailman said.

“[Like] Alex, it’s just trying to negotiate the best way you possibly can.”

One thing the actress said she loves about her character is that she’s an underdog.

“I understand Alex when you’re in a position where you have self-doubt, you have vulnerability, you’re not quite sure around what you’re doing. I certainly can relate to that,” Ms Mailman said.

Ms Mailman also said she has absolutely loved working with Rachel Griffiths and that she is “just brilliant.”

“It’s a masterclass in acting working with her,” Ms Mailman said.

“She has so much care and love for these characters and for this show … she’s intelligent, she’s passionate … I loved every second of working with her.”

Rachel Griffiths and Deborah Mailman in Total Control. Photo supplied by the ABC.

A new face will also appear on the small screen come October, as young actress Shantae Barnes Cowan makes her debut.

“Shantae is gorgeous … she’s a young woman from Whyalla, down in South Australia, and she does such a beautiful job,” Ms Mailman said.

“[Her character JC] has been given such an emotional rollercoaster in terms of what she has to deal with.”

Ms Mailman said the young actress played her character with “so much honesty and authenticity,” despite having her level of acting experience.

“She just steps in front of the camera and she says a lot without saying much, she just has that incredible charm and presence as a young actor,” Ms Mailman said.


Exploring First Nations experiences

The show explores many themes that affect First Nations people daily, including funding cuts for basic services, corruption, the Stolen Generation and deaths in custody.

“These are the issues that affect us [in our] Indigenous communities and these are our stories,” Ms Mailman said.

“I think what’s really important is that this story is being informed by a blackfella creative team. The writers are black, the directors are black.”

“We’re the best people to tell the story and I think it’s really important that as Indigenous people we get to see shows on our screens that reflect who we are as communities and what is important to us.”

Ms Mailman said she hopes to give wider audiences an understanding of the kinds of issues that are so prevalent in Indigenous lives.

Total Control also offers insight into Aboriginal politics and land council meetings, particularly the politics between different language groups concerning native title.

“I think it’s very rarely seen what a land council meeting is about, so I think it’s really important that in the story we introduce … the different families that make up the native title holders,” Ms Mailman said.

“I don’t know if the wider community often get an understanding of what that means and what the politics of that is in the community. It’s probably as complicated if not more complicated than [the] politics you get in Canberra.”

Ms Mailman said she felt it was important to show how personal it is working with community.

“There’s more that’s at stake when it comes to working with your own community and trying to make a difference in those communities,” Ms Mailman said.

“You don’t often see that on television, you don’t often see it in the complexity that [Total Control] shows.”

For Ms Mailman, the unique part about this new show is that it portrays a black female lead as a politician.

“I don’t think we’ve ever seen that yet … I think hopefully people will be compelled for that reason alone,” Ms Mailman said.

“We’re not shying away from the things that matter.”

Deborah Mailman as Alex Irving in Total Control. Photo supplied by the ABC.

Ms Mailman hopes the show can have a role in changing public opinion on issues affecting Indigenous Australians.

“I think what the arts and drama does so well is that it places quite hard conversations in an emotional context,” Ms Mailman said.

“People can come into it having a more visceral response to the story … you’re following characters, you’re following human emotions … that’s where television, film and the arts can draw people into quite complex stories and hard-hitting stories.”

When asked if Canberra needs a real-life Alex Irving, Ms Mailman was quick to champion the current and former women in politics.

“We’ve had many examples and not just black women, but let’s look at all our politicians over the years … many decades of [people] going into the corridors of Parliament and really taking a stand on behalf of our communities,” Ms Mailman said.

“The examples are there and they continue to be there … there are many politicians that are out there and there are many politicians to come who will be filling these seats in the Senate.”