September 24, 2019


Fighting power: ‘Total Control’

By Steve Dow

Deborah Mailman as Senator Alex Irving in Total Control. ABC TV / Blackfella Films

Deborah Mailman on her fearless role in the political drama that tackles racism and sexism head-on

Australia’s newest senator is a straight talker yet to be schooled in the poker-faced way in which Canberra politics is played. “I know you fought my appointment, you two-faced slimy fuck,” she tells a political foe. “Let me tell you, mate, the average Australian would rather a used condom as prime minister than you, so you can fuck right off, you fuckin’ hypocrite.”

Deborah Mailman claps and tilts her head back in laughter when I repeat her jaw-dropping dialogue from the new series controversially titled Black Bitch for its premiere screening at Toronto International Film Festival in September, but which will be called Total Control when it airs locally on ABC TV in October. In the six-episode series, Mailman plays Senator Alex Irving, who is feted by Prime Minister Rachel Anderson (Rachel Griffiths) into a sudden career in national politics. A second season is on the cards.

“Oh my god, she is fun to play,” says Mailman. “That’s a perfect example of who Alex is: she doesn’t give a f---,” Mailman mouths the f-word, “she doesn’t give a shit who she’s talking to. It’s like, ‘Nah mate, I’m gonna pull you right down back to Earth now; I’m gonna tell you the actual honest truth around this’. She’s so gutsy in that way. She’s unapologetic in the way she does things and talks to people. It’s such an unfiltered way of being, and I love that.”

Mailman says television can change hearts and minds in “profound” ways. In creating this role of a black female politician, Mailman hopes her work might prompt positive discussion about incarceration rates, land rights and constitutional recognition of Indigenous people. “It would be great if it moved the conversation quicker than it has been. The fact that nothing has moved, or [that so much] still seems to be unchanged – this is the conversation we can have as artists, bring the narrative to a wider audience.”

What does she think about a treaty? “It has to be done, but what is more important is it’s got to be done with our contribution to it. That’s always been the frustrating thing. We get a lot of decisions made on our behalf rather than by ourselves. That’s what we’ve been crying out for, for so long: treaty, constitutional change. It’s very complicated, and that’s important to say; everyone has a different idea around it. Everyone’s got to be on board.”

Astonishingly, it is the first time a television series has been built around Mailman as the star, despite her popularity with viewers. She received an Australian Film Institute award (now the Australian Academy of Cinema Television Arts) for her 1998 feature film debut in Radiance, directed by Rachel Perkins – who directs and is a co-writer on Total Control – but it was Mailman’s work in the St Kilda-based ensemble series The Secret Life of Us (2001–06) that brought her to the attention of television viewers and garnered her two outstanding actress Logies.

Mailman’s award tally now includes five AACTAs, including one for her role in the television adaptation of Mystery Road (2018), as well as five Logies. In my opinion, Mailman also deserved the AACTA for which she was nominated in 2015 for her devastatingly fine performance as Lorraine in the Redfern Now feature-length series finale “Promise Me”, an unflinching account of sexual violence against Indigenous women.

Again, it was Perkins, founder of Blackfella Films, who directed her in “Promise Me”. “We always keep coming back to each other, because we have a mutual respect,” says Mailman, who is 47. “We have developed that close relationship of more than 20 years. There’s comfortability around how we work with each other. She just gets better and better as a director.”

The idea for Black Bitch was seeded by Rachel Griffiths. Keen to branch into creating a series, Griffiths’ ideas began forming more than two decades ago, when she saw how women in politics were being treated in their quest for equality, particularly Cheryl Kernot and Victoria's Joan Kirner. Griffiths then became aware of a young Indigenous woman who had been involved in a traditional land rights claim in the 1990s and who was called a “black bitch” by her opponents. Also feeding into the narrative was Julia Gillard’s removal as prime minister in 2013 and the treatment of Indigenous former senator Nova Peris in 2016 – the same year Donald Trump won the US election that Hillary Clinton had been widely expected to win. 

Griffiths realised that this idea of a series about a woman of colour in politics was not hers to make, and took it to Darren Dale, Perkins’s colleague at Blackfella Films, where, Griffiths tells me, it “fell on fertile ground”. Up until August this year, the ABC’s promotional materials called the project “Black Bitch (working title)” but when a trailer for the series’ debut at Toronto was released under this title, a social media storm broke out, with some angrily protesting that this was a slur that could not be reclaimed.

The ABC then announced the series would be known as Total Control in Australia. Indigenous academic Marcia Langton wrote on Twitter that she loved the original title and that “the title change in Australia is designed to accommodate the sensitivities of snowflakes”. Rachel Perkins tells me that “actually it was always going to be called Total Control in Australia”.

Mailman says she loved the original title. “I loved it because it was in context of the story we were telling. It was always a working title. But certainly as a creative team, we had the privilege to understand why it was called that, because it is part of a story. It was deeply considered. It wasn’t something that the team thought, ‘Oh, we’re just going to call it this for controversy’s sake.’ The fact is the show isn’t there yet, so people can’t really see it in context or understand why it was called that originally.

“Look, I loved it as a title but also love this one [Total Control] equally so, because both of them really speak to what story we’re telling.” Total control in what sense? “She’s in total control of who she is as a person – not just Alex, but when you look at Rachel Griffiths’ character, Rachel Anderson, being in total control as prime minister; but also as a woman in that world, I think from a female perspective it is trying to be in control, taking control of something that often isn’t in your control.”

Did Mailman view as misogynistic the treatment that Julia Gillard received as PM? “No doubt, when you look at the commentary around her leadership, that was never there with male prime ministers. Absolutely there was a double standard. I mean, that awful campaign – what were those placards? Like, the ‘witch’ thing. That’s as ugly as it gets. Have we ever seen that language come up to our male politicians, particularly our prime ministers? No. So that’s a perfect example of how ugly it got for her.”

Can Mailman foresee a time when there might be an Indigenous prime minister, perhaps female? “Oh yeah, absolutely. There’s some great women. We’ve always had a history of strong leadership in our communities. The fact that we’ve got senators and MPs in position, absolutely, there will be a time.” Who does Mailman admire in politics? “Oh look, I’ve got a girl-crush on Penny Wong,” she laughs. Would Wong make a good prime minister? “Yeah. I love her. I really admire her. Oh look, I love Sarah Hanson-Young as well. I’m quite inspired by her as a person. As much as it’s easy to diss and throw mud at politicians, I take my hat off to them, because I wouldn’t do it.”

Born in the mining town Mount Isa in 1972, Mailman says the only subjects she connected with in high school were drama and English. Her late father, Wally, a Bidjara man, was a rodeo rider who instilled a love of storytelling in Mailman. He had met her Māori mother, Jane, in New Zealand. “Mum worked equally hard,” says Mailman. “She was the rock for all of us. As much as Dad was out in the workforce working hard, mum was quietly doing the same thing [at home]. You don’t really get to know how hard that is until either you become a parent yourself or you become mature enough to know what that work is about.”

Today Mailman and her husband are raising their two boys on the New South Wales South Coast. The eldest, who is 12, is “a gentle soul coming into his own with a real confidence, such a considerate big brother”, while the youngest, who is 9, is “a bit of a firecracker. He’s a random kid, but he’s becoming far more understanding of other people.” What would she say if the boys wanted to become politicians later on? “Yeah, go for it. Get me a holiday house.” Mailman bursts into raucous laughter.

What if they want to become actors? Mailman suddenly looks serious. “Of course I’d never discourage anything they wanted to do, but I would not sugar-coat it for them. It’s a rough industry. They’re seeing it first hand, seeing me walk out the door, what that looks like, what the reality is when you’re in employment, out of employment. You know what I mean? It’s a tough gig.”


Total Control airs on ABC TV from October 13.

Steve Dow

Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley arts journalism award recipient.


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