I think by now you’re privy to the fact that we’re huge fans of Wentworth here at NoWhiteNoise. In fact, the cast of this Australian prison drama is home to a dozen of the nicest people I’ve ever had the opportunity to interview. Legit, I just want to wrangle them all up and have one giant hang out sesh with them. Despite my awkward sense of becoming a (self-appointed) honorary member of the Wentworth gang, these last few months I’ve highlighted the nitty, the gritty and the downright dirty throughout these series of cast interviews. From lady lovin’ to bitch-bashing– these gals (and a few guys) aren’t messing around. And neither are their non-fictional counterparts. The talent that outpours from this series is immeasurable.
Celia Ireland, who takes on the role of Liz Birdsworth, the “mother hen” to the rowdy bunch behind bars, had loads to say about the explosive third season of the critically acclaimed drama. Ireland, who has as much fun playing drunk as we do watching her each episode, brings a warmth yet heartbreaking tinge to an already loveable character. Ireland chatted with me at length, me sitting snug in my house in Connecticut, and her while lounging on a beautiful beach in Melbourne. We gossiped about drunk Liz, dove into her relationship with Franky, and even discussed comments from fans all around the world.
Ireland not only gave us an in-depth look into the wonderful (yet screwed up) world of Wentworth, she also provided us with a behind-the-scenes look at what it was really like to sport that ghastly prosthetic eye after Liz took that Boomer-sized beating.
Read on for the dirt, but remember– you better not lag!
MCKENZIE MORRELL: Your character, Liz, is a beloved one, ever since the first episode of Season 1. Originally, the character was a mischief maker and a joker. What was your reaction when you learned that in the reimagining, Liz would be more of a serious mother figure to the girls and have darker story lines?
CELIA IRELAND: That’s a really good question. I only ever watched Prisoner intermittently, so I didn’t have a very strong connection to it as a series. Therefore, I didn’t really have any kind of expectation about what the reimagining would be like. So, in a sense, I was quite unburdened by being concerned about that. I had recently just finished a counseling course when I found out I had the role of Liz, which I found really interesting because, particularly in Series 1, Liz is a peer worker; she’s the go between, she’s the moderator. As you say, she’s sort of like the den mother, so I relished that, actually. I really enjoyed those characteristics and then, subsequently, delving into her darker side and the complexities of why and how she became to be in prison was really great to explore as well.
MM: Oh, definitely. She obviously went through her trials and tribulations and she was almost home free at the end of Season 2, but got sucked back into prison life by helping out Bea. Now, did you approach the character any differently knowing that she had this grand chance and kind of mucked up her life again?
CI: No. My policy, I suppose, as an actor is to never try and endgame where the character is going to end up or what’s about to happen to them. So, you kind of bite off little pieces of their journey at a time and that was really lovely to play. To go from being this very sort of together, solid woman and then her tipping over into her alcoholism and her other dilemmas— her low self-esteem and her lack of connection with her family and what that’s done to her. So yeah, as you go, you face each new sequence that your character’s going through as you go through it. So I don’t know that I was aware of any different approach. You play it as you go, probably.
MM: I think that’s a great way to look at it. She definitely has had her ups and downs and it must have been fun to play that. In Season 3, we see her daughter ends up behind bars for a similar reason to Liz’s. Do you think that’s what really set off your character on her drunken spiral, just knowing Soph was indirectly in there because of her actions?
CI: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. And I think statistically, it’s a really well proven point that people who have a childhood that is affected by alcoholism and violence tend to, not always, continue that pattern. So for Liz, it’s just an awful realization and I think at one stage she even says to Sophie, “It’s my fault.” And it really sits heavily for Liz and I think her previous attempts to remain sober, because in Series 2, she sort of got her act together and she ends up doing the unthinkable—lagging on the drugs, the Pink Dragon— before she gets out, which is kind of unthinkable in the law of the prison system itself. But I think in 3, I’ve said before, I think Series 3 for all the characters is much more subterranean and psychological, and I think all of them go through a kind of unraveling of sorts where they’ve really got to face their demons. Some do that more successfully than others. [laughs]
MM: Right? [laughs]
CI: What I think is amazing about the show is, it’s a really interesting marrying of quite theatrical plot lines— like quite intense full-on storylines of high violence, high intrigue, high drama— and it’s pitched against very naturalistic performances in a very naturalistic prison, the look of it is quite striking. I think that’s a really great thing that the producers and the creators have toyed with, is this idea of pretty intense, high gritty drama matched with these really very earthed, truthful performances. Even the likes of Ferguson, who’s the arch villain. In Series 3, we get a great insight into her head space, which isn’t a very pleasant place to be. [laughs] So it’s really interesting. It’s just been such a great ride to be part of.
MM: How do you juggle acting with family life?
CI: You know, I’ve got two daughters and a husband, we live in Sydney and I commute down to Melbourne to do the show because we film down there in a makeshift prison, which for all intents and purposes, after a long day of filming, you feel like you are walking out of prison. [laughs] Once you leave the premises and get in your car, you’re very relieved to get back to your little apartment. But it’s been a fantastic thing to be part of. You know, just the work ethic, we’ve done it for so long now that there’s such an incredible trust between all the women and the crew. It’s a really lovely vibe. It’s very supportive and fun. Remarkably, we have a lot of fun for quite a dark show. [laughs]
MM: [laughs] I would hope so! There’s a lot of taxing scenes, especially for your character. Did you find playing drunk to be difficult at all? How did you get in character for that?
CI: I didn’t find it difficult; it was really liberating. Doing drunk acting, for me —look, I’m not a big drinker. When I was younger, I probably had a few too many vinos, but yeah, so it would be difficult to tap into what that feels like in a physical sense. So it was really about loosening your body physically and changing your vocals, slurring. There’s this funny thing that goes around the acting traps, when you act drunk, you’ve got to try not to be drunk and I actually totally don’t agree. For Liz, I think she actually quite relishes being out of control. I think she clearly, by the point she’s made the decision to take the drink, beyond that, it’s mindlessness, which is kind of why she drinks. Which is probably true for most people who have a real issue with it. You’re beyond worrying about whether you’re in control or not. So for me, that was never a great directorial thing: Play straight, be drunk, but pretend you’re not. It’s like why? I’ve never known a drunk person who’s pretending to be not drunk. [laughs] So I relished, actually, the physical, the liberation in being sloppy and rude and what I was allowed to say free range, particularly in Series 3 and particularly with beautiful Katrina Milosevic who plays Boomer. We had great fun in doing the scenes where Liz tanked and she verbally abuses Boomer, and we played with that and had so much fun. So actually, it’s quite liberating to [laughs] be naughty. It’s like you get a permission pass, a hall pass to be really naughty and rude. I enjoyed it.
MM: Speaking of good old Boomer, Liz got pretty messed up at the hands of her as a result of lagging on her and the drug ring. How long did it take in makeup and when it was finally finished, were you like, “Oh my gosh, this looks like a bad beating”? [laughs]
CI: Look, it was full on. They took a cast of my face and then they used this amazing lightweight, kind of latex stuff. So basically my left eye, they had to stick my left eye down, which in itself felt really bizarre because you’re functioning on one eye so your peripheral vision is quite strange, your depth of perception shifts and yes, it did look remarkably grotesque. [laughs] I remember the first day I had it on, because I think it was about two weeks where I had it on and off and I was quite relieved when they finally ripped the last line off— well, they didn’t rip it off, they did it quite gently. But it was weird, because what was interesting was how people reacted, the other cast members and the crew. It was such a distasteful and really sick looking prosthetic that a lot of people couldn’t sit with me at lunch [laughs], it was quite strange. And people were very caring and concerned, and helping up and downs stairs. What I did do, which was interesting and I hadn’t predicted, was that, as Celia, I became a bit withdrawn and less interactive. So it was really good for the role because I think Liz feels incredibly fragile after that, she’s incredibly vulnerable and fragile, particularly in those first few episodes. And then, of course when her daughter arrives, it compounds that stage of fragility and fracturing that she’s already gone through. So, the prosthetic was amazing and they did an incredible job, but I’m relieved that, at this point anyway, I don’t think I have any major prosthetic coming up [laughs].
MM: It must be uncomfortable sporting that thing!
CI: It gets hot! Your face gets hot underneath it so they can only keep it on a maximum of five hours and then you’ve got to take it off and redo it. I came out of it lightly, considering there were three series and that’s the first time I’ve had a prosthetic. But it wasn’t nice and I know Katrina felt dreadful the first time she saw me fully made up with my post-bashing by Boomer face. She was really like, “Oh no, Cels! It’s shocking! I can’t believe I’ve done that to do.” And I think it was wonderful that the producers, you don’t see it, you don’t see the bashing. You know it’s happening and there’s a great sequence where the alarm goes off in the prison and the look on Bea’s face, she knows that Liz has copped it because she’s been put back into general population.
MM: Oh, that’s awesome. It came out great on screen and it was really just a wonderfully executed scene.
CI: Yeah, it shocked you, didn’t it?
MM: Oh, it did.
CI: I think some shows glamorize violence and crime and make it look fantastic, as though people are untouchable. But it’s not true. And I think the show is really committed to showing that, as hard as that can be to watch, I think it’s really devoted to making a quality drama that is heavily based in truth.
MM: Oh, yeah. From being in the states, I think that Orange is the New Black kind of almost makes it seem like hey, this is great, there’s no real consequences to going to jail. So I think Wentworth is the complete opposite where it’s gritty, down to earth and really shows you what it’s like.
CI: Yes, I think you’re right, McKenzie. Look, a lot people have compared them, which I think there’s not a lot of purpose in comparing them beyond the fact they’re both about women in prison. And I think you’re right, our show’s ugly. What I find most interesting about it is the power play. We had these women come to us, before we started filming Series 1, and the thing that resonates most for me from meeting these women who were all out on parole, they’d all been convicted. One was in for manslaughter and she’s since gone back in, a young woman who I know Nicole da Silva really was interested in because she kind of was like Franky. There was another woman who I was interested in, who was a bit more like the mother hen. One thing they did say was that there’s a hypervigilance, you are always looking over your shoulder. You’re always waiting for someone to either try and scam your possessions off you, try to intimidate you so you will do things for them or that you will join their group. I just thought that was a really telling phrase, that you’re hypervigilant. I thought, imagine that kind of stress all the time that you’re always watching. There are levels of behavior and clearly Liz and probably Doreen [Shareena Clanton], the two characters who’ve made a decision to exit on the periphery of the physical violence in the prison. But, you know, that can all shift at any point in time.
MM: In Season 3, Liz and Franky shared a tender moment towards the end. Things really came full circle and you can see that things might start getting back on track. How is it working with Nicole? Your scenes together were always some of my favorites.
CI: It is a gift. This job is a gift because Nicole, like the rest of the girls on the show— and blokes, but there’s less of them— is absolutely devoted to truth and I think Nicole was very strongly from a point of truth, and I’m a bit similar in my approach. So, we connected as people on that level. We’re good mates. She’s a really very wonderful young woman— incredibly bright and articulate and devoted to her craft. But beyond that, she’s just a great person. I think the friendship that we developed, very quickly too, probably because of the nature of the show— we’re all so tight because we’re all in this prison together. It was just a joy, even the difficult bits. One of my favorite scenes in [Series] 3 for Liz is the stuff with Franky, particularly at the end where she comes to her, really asking for forgiveness. It’s a really beautiful, healing mother-daughter thing in a way. And I think Liz has always felt a bit like a mother, particularly to Nicole’s character. She’s more on an even par with Bea, but I think with Franky, she’s always looked out for her and wanted the best for her, and being disappointed when she’s given into stuff. Liz is no idiot; she’s very aware of how the system works and that it’s so difficult for women to not be involved in the slightly darker parts of the prison system. But no, Nicole is a joy. She gives really beautiful performances, it’s so real. I think that’s one of the things, particularly with Nicole, it’s just real. What you see is what you get. It’s not like she’s playing a character. That is that woman. You just believe there is that Francesca Doyle in a prison somewhere. And that’s just the best compliment, I think, you can give any actor, is that never for a moment are you aware of the performer. You’re just totally absorbed in the character. From day one, Nicole’s had that down really beautifully. And all of them, really. I think everybody, even Katrina with Boomer, which was just a remarkable creation that came off the page. This sort of lumbering, funny, disrespectful, complex, thick. It’s a bit like Lenny in Of Mice and Men. Her heart is in the right place, she goes off half cocked and does really stupid things, but big hearted. Coming back and looking at Series 3 a year after finishing on it, that to me is one of the most stellar relationships of any show I’ve ever seen, the Boomer-Franky scene I think is beautiful. It does remind me of Of Mice and Men.
MM: Oh, yeah, that’s such a great comparison. I never really thought of it that way.
CI: Yeah, I think it’s a really beautiful, modern take. I don’t know if that was deliberate, and I think Katrina is exceptional. Her capacity to have taken what she was given and make it what she’s made it into has been really joyous to watch. It’s a gift of a job, McKenzie, that is one thing I’ve been really clear about saying, it is a gift. It’s kind of the role of a lifetime to be to be drunk and disorderly and then wretchedly unhappy and then the den mother. I think for all of us, we’ve been blessed with really great opportunities to exercise our acting muscle to its full extent. [laughs] That’s been a blessing. And Nicole, along with everybody, just brings such truth and depth and realism. I’m always really interested when the crew make a comment because they watch so much stuff. Not just on show, but they work all the time and they’re watching people do this stuff all the time. And we’d often have them say, “wow that was beautiful” or “wow, that gave me goose pimples,” so it was great to get that feedback. It’s not like doing live theatre where you’re there with the audience, so I’m always really impressed when the crew have a relationship to what you’re doing. It’s a great job. We’re very, very lucky, really.
MM: That’s so great to hear. The whole cast is not only a pleasure to talk with, but they are also very talented. If you could describe the cast dynamic to a stranger with only one word, what would you say?
CI: Well, I would probably say…wow, that’s a really good question. Nurturing.
MM: That’s a great word. That’s amazing.
CI: There’s a huge amount of support with the cast and the dynamic: Nurturing, very caring for each other, even with the difficult bits. But nurturing would be the core, I think, the care for each other.
MM: Now, I’m not getting much info about Series 4 from you guys, and rightfully so, but everyone is eagerly awaiting the next chapter of the story. Are you surprised that the show has become so popular, especially in other countries?
CI: Yes. I think in Australia, it’s such a small industry, you never feel completely confident in anything you do, that it’s going to go beyond what the current contract is. And I’m not sure if that’s something that affects all actors universally, but I think we were all so grateful for the work, for the job and for trying to create a really truthful impression of life in a contemporary women’s prison in Australia. I don’t think any of us really thought about it, but if we had, I don’t think we could have anticipated. No, I don’t think we anticipated that it would have sold around the world, that it would have sold to Netflix in the States and developed a real following, which is just wonderful. I don’t think any of us would have anticipated how successful it’s been. I think we may have hoped. Not after the first series, maybe after the second, we were thinking, “Wow, the numbers are up, this is going really well, it’s been sold throughout Europe and a lot of African countries.” We were starting to get an idea of the popularity then, and then certainly by the time we were filming 3, we knew that it was pretty likely they’d go to 4.
MM: That’s awesome. The fans were sending me so many questions on Twitter regarding you and your character. They absolutely adore you. Now, have you toyed with the idea of using social media at all? I know it can be quite overwhelming.
CI: Look [laughs], I’m old. I’m nearly 50, I keep saying that. I’ve got to stop saying that! I have a Facebook page that’s just in my normal name, Celia Ireland, and if people want to talk to me… I’ve had a number of people who’ve said “I really love your work” and I try and respond back directly. I don’t have a manager, some of the girls on the show have managers who manage those sites for them. I’m not an enormous fan of Twitter and Instagram. I tend to be a little bit lazy as well [laughs] but if anyone wants to send me a line, my Facebook page is up and available. I’m happy to get feedback, I really enjoy that. I always try to respond personally. But no, I don’t do Twitter. For me, Twitter feels a little bit like an abbreviation. I’d rather a comment that I can then comment to that isn’t necessarily seen by everybody else. That’s the other thing. It’s quite a personal thing. I have had some comments from people who watch the show and they’ve revealed things to me that are really quite private and meaningful for them, so I have a bit of a thing of the ethicacy of responding randomly to tweets. I just find Facebook easier. It’s probably more my speed. [laughs]
MM: [laughs] And rightfully so, that’s fine. But I wanted to let you know that we did get a lot of feedback and everybody was really hyped to send you questions.
CI: Aw, that is so lovely to hear. Please pass on that. Look, if anyone wants to contact me on Facebook, please feel free. But I’m a bit of an old dinosaur and it just isn’t my speed. But it’s very humbling to have that following and that interest. It’s beautiful. That’s what you do what you do for. To have that feedback, it makes it worth it, you know?
MM: Oh, yeah. And lastly to wrap things up, if you were sitting in a room with all of the Wentworth fans, what would you say to them?
CI: Thank you! Thank you for tuning in, thank you for investing in the women’s lives, thank you for watching. Thank you for watching so much that it’s made us allowed to do the work we love to do. It’s really a big thanks. And then let them ask me questions. [laughs] I trained as an elementary teacher, or we call it primary teacher in Australia, so I’m good with questions. [laughs] I like question and answer. But yeah, it would be a big thanks, really, because it’s an investment. When people hook into a series and really love it, and love it so much that want to comment or they want to contact the person, or they want to know about them, that’s a really big thing. It would just be humbly saying thanks. And thank you to you, McKenzie, for being the person to make that all happen as well.
MM: Oh, you’re welcome! It’s been a pleasure talking to all of you guys. Obviously, I’m just one person in the United States, but I really love the work that you guys do and I want to spread it to everybody else.
CI: That’s fantastic. Thank you so much. I don’t know if the other girls said this, but I think we’re all open for coming over to any of those big fan conferences.
MM: Oh my gosh! We would love that! I think that that’s something that needs to be done for sure. I don’t know how we would do it, but maybe I’ll put my head together with all you guys.
CI: For sure. Yeah! We’d love it. It would just be a blast for us. I think that’s what happens when you’re on telly. I caught a plane from Melbourne to Sydney the other day and a few people came up to me on the plane and wanted a photo, and that was all fine. You don’t realize that people are in their lounge rooms, really stressed, really excited, really saddened, really turned on, really angered the same way we are. Like, you forget that that is going into people’s lounge rooms every week, around the world. And that makes a big impact. It certainly impacted us as we were doing it so it’s great to know it’s landed where it was meant to land.
MM: Oh yes. [laughs]
CI: [laughs] Lovely to talk to you, darling.
MM: It was lovely talking to you, too!