It shouldn’t come as a complete surprise that we’re massive fans of Wentworth here at NoWhiteNoise. The prison drama has gained a tremendous amount of popularity globally in the last year or so and when given the opportunity to talk with one of our favorite inmates at good old Wentworth Correctional Centre, we hopped on the chance like a monkey on a cupcake. But all kidding aside, this show isn’t screwing around– it continues to captivate audiences for a reason: it’s exciting, emotional and sometimes even downright dirty.
Meet Socratis Otto, who plays Maxine Conway, a transgender character who in spite of having undergone gender reassignment surgery prior to her incarceration still looks unequivocally male. Even while exhibiting her true self, wearing a wig and make-up, our beloved Maxine often experiences transphobia, misogyny and unthinkable hardships by inmates and officers just because of her powerful build and height. They can take away her wig, but they can’t take away her determination to survive behind bars. Despite Maxine’s rocky start, she quickly navigates through the often unfair prison world and aligns herself with Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack), an inmate known for her distaste of drugs and who SPOILER ALERT ultimately becomes top-dog in the prison. This new alliance with Bea, sets Maxine on an enlightening path of acceptance and self-discovery, all while kicking some serious inmate ass.
Otto took the time to chat with me all the way from Australia, where he’s set to make his first appearance for The Melbourne Theatre Company in Birdland. We delved into the often misunderstood world of trans people, chatting about Otto’s undertaking of portraying a transgender character, and I even tried to get him to spill some secrets from the final few episodes of Wentworth season three.
So, grab some chocolate (preferably dark, since that’s his favorite) and get to know this amazingly kindhearted and talented fellow from overseas.
MCKENZIE MORRELL: So let’s talk Wentworth. It has become one of my favorite shows—and I watch a lot of TV! Did you expect the show to generate such a huge, global response?
SOCRATIS OTTO: No. No, I didn’t. I don’t think the other girls did, either. We had no idea, really. I know that when I started in season two, it had a cult following in the UK, and they had begun doing some international versions. But we had no clue that Netflix would pick it up and just explode in America. So: not at all, no.
SO: [Laughs.] It’s funny, though. It’s funny because you’re working these crazy days—I would usually get up at 4 a.m. for makeup call and leave very late at night, but also working in a prison, so the outside world doesn’t exist. So we had no clue what was happening with the show. And it was back-to-back series, series two and series three. We actually had no idea what was happening.
MM: At least it’s an unexpected response, but a good response.
SO: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely!
MM: When you landed the role of Maxine, you had just finished up on Carlotta. Do you think working on that project helped you prepare for this part?
SO: Absolutely it did. Yes, fundamentally. It was quite serendipitous, really. I was kind of—not clueless—but not sure about the intricacies of what being a transgender person meant. We haven’t gotten too much information from the media about what being transgender meant. And Carlotta herself was one of the first transgender, male to female transition, [persons] back in the very early days of the ‘50s and ‘60s in Australia. So she told me that people within the gay and lesbian community just didn’t understand what she was trying to do. So even back then she was definitely an outcast in her community. And people still don’t understand what it means to be transgender. They kind of think it’s a cross-dresser, and still people think—actually, I don’t think they know what it means. You can still be transgender without having genital reconstructive surgery. It’s very complicated. There are so many intricacies. And it seems to me that everyone wants to define the un-definable. These days there’s so many labels on social media; we need to know everything, and we need to know everything specifically, so we can box everything, despite the amount of information these days thanks to all these programs and all these stories coming out about people transitioning. People are kind of treating it like it’s a fantastical thing that they don’t really understand. So to go back to your question—sorry about that—to me, I kind of got all that information, and I went, “Whoa! I can imagine Carlotta back in the days, back in the ’60, feeling so incredibly lonely.” And to me, I thought the character breakdown for Maxine showed such a gentle soul and gentle heart. She’s trying to show off in a world telling her that she mustn’t, she can’t. Basically, I just kept that in mind, preserving her heart in these worlds she’s lived in, the outside world and the inside world.
MM: Do you think seeing characters like yours or like the character Laverne Cox plays in Orange Is the New Black has helped people approach their own stereotypes about this community?
SO: Yeah, I do think so. I do think it’s different that we have them. Even with the series Transparent, which I think is incredible, all around, all those characters, I think they’re so familiar. It is wonderful because you’re seeing such a range of male-to-female or female-to-male transitions on our screens and on our media these days. And I think that discussion and language is so crucial and so fundamental for the people who don’t have a voice. And you can get someone as youthful as Laverne Cox. Or an older gentleman like [Transparent lead actor Jeffrey Tambor], a late transition process, so bone structure and voice stays the same. Hormone therapy, all that, taking place later in life is obviously going to affect your appearance. So people can start going, “Oh, my idea of what a male to female or female to male transition should look like isn’t just the stereotype I see.” Someone like [Caitlyn Jenner] is transitioning now, who is a multimillionaire, but the ordinary person doesn’t have that amount of money and is hidden. It’s amazing that all these faces are coming up to stimulate that discussion.
MM: It’s definitely a pivotal time for the LGBTQ community. Did you feel any of that added pressure representing a trans character?
SO: Oddly enough, when I met people who transitioned, they were very—not pressuring in any respect—but they were very keen to the truth about their stories and not being misrepresented into a stereotype. So much of the pressure I think came from people who didn’t understand what it meant. For them, they would just take it at face value. “The character should look like this,” or be a certain way, or behave a certain way. So I felt that kind of pressure. Within the LGBTQ community, no, not at all. They’re far more in-tune to looking beneath the surface and recognizing heart and the struggle within, as opposed to what someone looks like.
MM: I think Maxine is such a great character. Do you have a favorite aspect about playing this role?
SO: I don’t know. She kind of surprises me. I didn’t really know where she would go in season three. Have you guys gotten season three yet in the States?
MM: We do not officially have season three in the States, but I am aware of what is going on. [Laughs.]
SO: [Laughs.] Of course! Of course! No, I just liked her being completely embraced by the women, and not looked at as a freak, so to speak, anymore. And she’s proven herself to be loyal, and sassy, and she’s so intelligent, and everywoman. She’s kind of well rounded. She represents the ideal woman more than some of the others in the show.
MM: Definitely. Now, Wentworth can be a very dark show. How do you guys on set deal with all that heavy material? Are you able to joke around at all?
SO: McKenzie, that is the icing. The scenes are quite dark and hard; we just laugh. If they demand even more pain and suffering; we laugh harder. It’s a very, very weird hybrid of a brother-sister relationship we have, even with the boys Aaron [Jeffery] and Robbie [Magasiva]. It’s like a dysfunctional Brady Bunch. We’re all sort of locked together. It’s an incredible bond we share, and I know that the girls and the guys in the first series, they had it. Like I said, series two and three were filmed back to back, so it just brought us all together. We were there for one another and so supportive for each other like I haven’t ever experienced before working on a project. I was amazed. It felt like a family with these people. We could laugh, and cry, and not judge. It was such an amazing experience. I think that’s what translates on screen and for audiences, absolutely.
MM: Oh, yes. The chemistry is immeasurable. It is just amazing to watch you guys on screen. In a recent episode of Wentworth, Boomer presents an offer that Maxine can most definitely refuse. She wants to have a baby with her. Will we see more development of this storyline as the season progresses with Boomer hounding Maxine for the good stuff?
SO: Maxine isn’t really the type to ostracize someone who she recognizes in herself. Basically, Boomer being an outcast, doesn’t belong, and just wants to be loved. So she’s not going to totally abandon Boomer’s logic. But she needs to sort of process how to deal with this, and there are three episodes left.
MM: I know! There’s so much that needs to happen!
SO: But you know what? There is a lot that is going to happen. Let’s just say that Boomer is not going to completely surrender to the fact that it’s not going to happen. [Laughs.] I haven’t actually seen all the episodes, so I don’t know if it made the cut, but I believe there is one last attempt for Boomer to sort of get Maxine. [Laughs.]
MM: Oh, boy!
SO: I’m sorry. I’m sorry! I can’t give anything away.
MM: I can hardly wait! Kind of going into hypothetical situations, what do you think it means for your character if Bea relinquishes her top-dog status within the prison? Do you think Maxine would be able to stand on her own two feet? Would she have a target on her back?
SO: Wow. That’s really interesting. I haven’t thought of that, and that’s fantastic. I haven’t thought of it because Maxine represents loyalty, absolute loyalty. So I think she so regardless. However, how interesting would it if Maxine thinks, “My god, I kind of have to protect myself, Bea has taught me that. I have to stand on my own two feet, and I have to do things that aren’t inherently good in order to survive in this world and in this prison.” That’s very interesting. And I’m certainly not opposed to think about that or if it comes, in terms of the script, it could certainly light a fire because that’s what we do as humans. Those loyalties they do kind of get challenged. But Maxine has learned an incredible amount from Bea, to learn to love yourself, and stand up to anyone, despite feeling very lonely. So that’s why I think, hopefully, she’ll always stand by Bea’s side. Fantastic question, though.
MM: Thank you. What has been the most surprising comment or piece of feedback you’ve gotten regarding playing this character? Have the fans been supporting on social media, have you gotten any nasty comments?
SO: There’s been a few who don’t understand why it’s not a real male to female transgender actor, of course. But not as much as I thought. And my response to that, and I think some other people on social media’s response to that, have been that most—not necessarily actors—but most people who want to transition don’t really want to be known for being transgender. They just want to live as they were meant to be. Making a spectacle of them only furthers the bigotry against trans people. There’s a big debate there. I certainly did believe the casting did try to find transgender folk, and some of them weren’t physically right for the role because in the initial breakdown the character had to be unambiguously male. The facial surgery hasn’t happened; that’s why she still looks very masculine. And the whole process takes about three to five years. However, to answer your question, most people have been absolutely embracing. And that really kind of blew me away because I thought there would be a bit more criticism. It’s been beautiful, and I think they absolutely love what Maxine represents and the loyalty she shares with Bea. And they’re loving her more and more because they’re actually showing her now being accepted and being able to relax in her own skin. Absolutely. The support has been incredible. Incredible for the whole show, really, now.
MM: I’m sure it’s been a great ride for you guys. So now that we’ve covered Wentworth, let’s move on to Birdland! Can you tell us about Johnny, the character you’re playing in this production?
SO: You’re fantastic! How do you know all of this stuff?
MM: [Laughs.] I’m psychic actually. Just kidding.
SO: You are psychic! I’m so impressed, actually, let me ask, the NoWhiteNoise website, is that you on your own?
MM: That’s actually me and one of my friends, Michael. He lives in Florida, and I live in Connecticut. We’ve kind of started this website a couple years ago, and just recently it’s really kind of taken off. It’s a passion project. I have another job that I do. I’m actually in PR for books. I’ve got a little dual life going on.
SO: Wow. I’m so impressed. I’m so impressed, to be honest, the undertaking you’ve taken with the website. Because it’s fantastic. Your interviews are fantastic, in great detail.
MM: Thank you so much. I appreciate that.
SO: Oh, my pleasure, my pleasure. This is also the reason I took this role because usually in the past I’ve played these extreme characters. They’re characters from classic dramas or people who are, like, demons, or transgender. I’ve never really played in 15 years anybody who is quite contemporary and close to myself. So it’s kind of ironic and surreal, but this guy Johnny is a very normal fella. And he just so happens to be in one of the most famous bands on the planet. They’re a duo, along the lines of Radiohead and Coldplay-type music. Johnny’s the guitarist, and at the end of this 15-month world tour. Birdland, it’s a recent play in the UK, by a guy named Simon Stephens. It really talks about celebrity culture and how we kind of desire these celebrities to go to extremes, or do the things that we really want to do, but know they will be victimized for it or punished, and yet we want them to, say, fuck up. We’re fascinated by that, and we just want to push them and see how far they go before they crumble. And it’s that sort of obsession that we have for these famous people and what that does to the famous people themselves behind closed doors. Paul, who is the lead singer, gets this kind of downward spiral that’s out of control and he can’t save himself because he hasn’t been taught to. It’s really fascinating. It’s really explosive.
MM: It sounds so amazing. I might have to hop on a plane and come on down there!
SO: Oh! Have you ever been to Australia?
MM: I have not. I have not! I would love to come to Australia one day.
SO: Oh, you’d love it. You’d love it. I’m telling you, it’s such a wonderful country. It’s very easy living, despite our government, not having marriage equality…
MM: Yeah, that’s a downfall for sure. So now, are there any plans to maybe take on the U.S.? Maybe do theater in New York City, or venture out to Hollywood?
SO: I’ve been living in the States, well I was living in the States for about three years, back and forth to Australia. Ironically again, I came to live in Los Angeles and picked up a film there with Amanda Seyfried. I did a film called Gone, however, the final edit was very different from the director’s edit, and they changed the premise. Anyway, it wasn’t responding well. But I landed a lot of jobs back in Australia. So it’s going back and forth, and that’s what usually happens when people sort of get up and go. The Australia film industry goes, “Oh, come back!” It’s weird. But I did. Say, within three years, I was there for 16 months. I landed a fantastic job, actually, training with Bruce Lee’s god-daughter Diana Lee Inosanto. And then with Aaron Eckhart. We were training for I, Frankenstein. And that wasn’t received well at all. I did learn martial arts techniques in Hollywood, but we filmed it in Melbourne [laughs]. We filmed it in Australia! You know what I love about America, though? In my time there, I did about three road trips across the country, the deep South, and up to Chicago—I have been to New York before, but not this time—across the guts of America, up to Portland, down to San Fran and Santa Barbara. And I love it. I love it so much. I would come back in a heartbeat. I really would. It’s such an incredible country. Oh, my God. Yeah.
MM: Yeah, you definitely have to come back. I have two random questions for you before we start wrapping up. Would you prefer a zombie apocalypse or an alien invasion, and you have to tell me why chose that?
SO: [Laughs.] Aren’t we living in one of the others right now? I’m sure I’ve seen aliens and zombies all the time. Oh, my God. Well, you know what, that’s a great question for a debate. I think I’m going to say alien invasion because it’s an ambiguity as to what sort of alien we’ll have, as opposed to a zombie apocalypse, you sort of know the zombies just want you for your blood, and they’ll kill you. But the aliens, they could actually come and learn from us and we could co-exist. So alien invasion for me.
MM: There might be a chance of living if the aliens come. So now, what is your go-to snack and movie?
SO: Go-to snack has to be dark chocolate. Anything that’s dark chocolate, absolutely. I’m addicted. I’m a choco-holic. And a go-to movie? Oh, my goodness. I don’t really have one. I don’t know. If I’ve got some sort of chocolate in my hand, I’ll watch anything. It’s the same with music, I will give anything a go because there’s hidden treasures in—there’s potential hidden treasures. I listen to anything I see. So I don’t really have, say, a favorite type of movie or type of music. But I’m so open to receiving alien signals from these platforms. I don’t have a specific one. I’m sorry!
MM: Lastly, besides Wentworth and Birdland, is there anything else coming up that we can look out for?
SO: Well, Wentworth season four is coming up!
SO: It’s terrific! Because we had no promise of that, no guarantee that was going to happen. In fact, it was quite likely that it was not going to happen, so somehow, some miraculous alien, something made it happen, and we’re doing it! So that’s coming up. That starts two weeks after I finish this play, so it’s all great in the timing. I think that goes till December. After that, I’m not sure. I was living in Europe for the last six months prior to this play, so I may need another trip. I don’t know. I don’t know.
MM: We’re really looking forward to it. I was actually chatting with Nicole da Silva last week, and we both agree that we need to sync us up, so that the U.S. and Australia are watching at the same time, so that we’re not behind. Hopefully that happens for season four.
SO: Oh, my God. Absolutely. Well, it is happening. It is happening with people who need that fix. They’ll watch it however they can. I agree with you. God, it would be wonderful if the world was on the same time.
MM: I would definitely, for sure love it. Thank you so much. This has been wonderful. Thank you for taking the time. I know you’re very busy.
SO: My pleasure, McKenzie. I’m really excited. Thank you, thank you. I really appreciate your thought behind the website and your passion for this show.
MM: Of course. I love it, and I love your work. You can let everybody know that America loves it.
Follow Socratis Otto on Twitter: @SocratisOtto