“Vinegar Tits” is in the house! Or should I say prison? Vera Bennett, who was once seen as the compassionate (and often gullible) guard at Wentworth Correctional Centre, has drastically changed over the course of Wentworth‘s three seasons. The former deputy governor has not only been poked, belittled and brought awfully close to her breaking point at the hands of colleagues, convicts and killers, but has too often been manipulated by her psychopathic superior, Governor Joan “The Freak” Ferguson (Pamela Rabe). Okay, it’s not as bad as I’m making it seem– but the truth remains, girl has had a rough stint behind bars… and she’s not even the one doing the time.
Vera, who is played by polar opposite Kate Atkinson, is one of those characters you’re rooting for, but secretly questioning their motives the entire time. Is she friend or foe? Can she get the job done in a prison full of conniving and often violent women? That answer remains to be seen. One thing is for sure, Atkinson plays this character oh so very well, and it’s often hard to believe that these two share practically nothing in common, except that they look an awfully lot like each other.
Atkinson was thrilled to chat with me about her character on the hit Foxtel series, as well as her upcoming theatre role. During our conversation, she not only shared with me some behind the scenes scoop, but set the record straight once and for all about her rocky relationship with social media. Spoiler alert: she doesn’t even have a Facebook. Nonetheless, we spoke at length about what’s on the horizon for Vera, if she can redeem herself, or if she’ll be getting her hands dirtier in the highly anticipate fourth season. Oh, and don’t worry, I made sure to teach her what “ship name” meant and even shared with her the fans ship name for Vera and Joan.
Let’s get freaky! 😉
MCKENZIE MORRELL: It’s been fascinating to watch your character’s transformation over the years. Since Season 1, she has changed dramatically. Do you think the change has been for the best?
KATE ATKINSON: Well, that’s kind of subjective, I guess, in terms of whether or not you think she’s become a better person and what that means to you. I mean, I can only answer from the perspective of an actor in the sense that it’s been better for me because those kind of evolutions are just fascinating to play. So I don’t know whether she’s becoming a better person, but what I like playing about Vera is that her flaws and her weaknesses are some of the most interesting things to play. As an actor, you’re in a position where you don’t… you’re in the skin of that character, so you think you’re doing the right thing when you’re walking in their shoes. If you step outside their shoes, your judgement starts to take hold and then you get into a dangerous area. Look, as an actor, it’s definitely been for the best. Having a character that transforms and changes and, you know, is challenged is fantastic. But yeah, we’ve yet to see whether or not you could say Vera is a good person. I think in many ways she tries to be. [laughs] But that’s a human challenge, I guess.
MM: Oh, yeah. Speaking of challenges, what is the most challenging aspect of playing your character on Wentworth?
KA: I suppose it’s that resistance to judging her. You know, when I first played Vera, particularly in the first couple of series, there was a tendency to kind of look at a scene and go, “What are you doing? Why would someone do that?” And so that’s been a challenge. I would like to think that Vera has some good qualities. I’d also like to think that I’m very, very different to her so there’s been scenes where I’ve had to do things that I would go, “Oh, I’d never in a month of Sundays do this.” But that’s the wonderful thing about all the characters in Wentworth. You know, very often in television, people don’t get stretched that much. I do a bit of theatre as well and you get to play lots of really diverse characters, and there’s sometimes been a tendency in Australian TV, particularly in serial television, people just kind of play themselves or a version of themselves. In our show, well, Vera anyway, is very outside my life experience. I’ve never done that kind of job, I’ve never lived in that kind of environment, I certainly didn’t have a mother like that [laughs]. So I’ve really, really had to use my imagination and that’s a challenge, but it’s also a real privilege to be asked to play someone who is so unlike yourself. I was really chuffed when I was given the role because it was quite different to some of the roles I’ve been offered in the past. Challenge is often the greatest gift, so I love playing her.
MM: And I think she’s so dynamic. I know as a viewer, I felt like I went through so many phases of loving Vera and then being like, “No, you’re being an ass. Stop it!” [laughs]
KA: [laughs] Exactly!
MM: So I thought it was really great to be able to see you do those two different sides of being like, “We love you but we hate you, stop!”
KA: Yes! Which is so great to play. I think what you do, how you kind of reconcile that in terms of the human experience is… what will happen, particularly for someone like Vera is, often if one thing isn’t working for you, if one way of doing things isn’t working for you— particularly if you come under the influence of someone like [Joan] Ferguson— that you’ll leap to the other extreme to see where that takes you. And I guess what happens with Vera’s journey is that she leaps from one extreme to the next. Particularly if you’re bullied or traumatized, you kind of go, “Well, this area’s not safe for me so I’m going to leap into this other area,” and then the journey is to kind of find a middle ground. It feels to me that’s a very universal human experience.
MM: Yeah. And I mean, Vera has been through a lot. From dealing with her mother, to the Vinegar Tits incident and then some, do you think in Season 4 she’ll finally catch a break? We want to see her happy!
KA: [laughs] But there’s no drama in that!
MM: No, but we can have a little bit of happiness. I mean, come on!
KA: It would be nice! It would be nice! It would be nice! Well, I can’t give too much away about Season 4, but I can say that, you know, the journey certainly continues. And look, it’s never going to be a smooth journey for Vera; I think that’s fair to say. But she has certainly learned from her experiences and sometimes the tougher the experience, the bigger the learning curve. The lovely thing about Vera is, when I arrived on the set for Season 4, the same as every previous season, I’m coming from a different platform. Like, I’m always coming from a different launching pad. So when you come back for Season 4, yes, she will be slightly changed yet again. But no, it’s not going to be an easy road. [laughs] I’m sorry! [laughs]
MM: Aw, great! [laughs]
KA: [laughs] There’ll be some light in there. I can assure you there will be some light in the darkness!
MM: Back in Season 1, Vera tried her hand at being governor and she wasn’t really up for the task. Do you think she has grown enough to be able to handle that role again or do you think she even wants that job?
KA: I think it’s inherent in the writing of Vera that she wants that job. There’s a lot of things that people want that either circumstances conspire against them, and in Vera’s case, I think the biggest obstacle to her acquisition of that role is her own tendency to self-sabotage or self-doubt or to self-undermine her own abilities. But I do think she’s definitely closer, much closer than she was in Season 1. It would be also fair to say that sometimes people in authority, well certainly someone like Vera, there’ll be some things she’s really confident with. They’ll be other things that it’s a bit of a “fake it til you make it” syndrome, to kind of have to wear the mask and go through the motions and hope that you’re convincing people even though you might still feel a little inadequate. One of the directors that we work with on Wentworth, Kevin Carlin, he said to me, “I feel like Vera is plagued by the Impostor Syndrome,” like she’ll want the job, but even if she gets it, she’ll feel like maybe she doesn’t quite deserve it. And I think that’s also a very human quality. But I definitely think she has acquired strength and qualities that would make her better suited to the governorship than she was in Season 1. Yeah, she’s changed a lot.
MM: I mean, we all were kind of surprised at what she did to her mom and there’s been, you know, a lot of talk amongst the viewers of what Joan whispered to Vera’s mother. As an actor, what do you think she said to her?
KA: Oh my gosh, that’s a really good question! Can I just say that that idea was Pamela Rabe’s idea. That was not initially in the script.
MM: Oh, wow! It was awesome.
KA: And do you know what? This is going to sound really unsatisfying, but I have no idea. [laughs] I don’t know! Maybe I’m too much like Vera, but I honestly— obviously she was in the room and she saw that— it was a complete mystery to me. And I didn’t ask Pam and I didn’t ask Lynette [Curran], who played my mum. I just stood there in the skin of Vera going, “Oh my God, that woman has an effect on my mother that I, you know, in the 30 plus years of my life never had and that’s what I want.”
MM: That’s awesome!
KA: I honestly don’t know the words. That’s very unsatisfying, sorry. [laughs]
MM: No worries. You know, your character’s moral compass seems a bit out of whack. Perhaps she’s just really messed up from her mother’s constant emotional abuse, I mean, that’s got to take a toll. Do you want her to stay on the high ground or do you want to see her get her hands a bit dirtier?
KA: That’s also a really good question. I think, obviously there’s the effect of her domestic history and her childhood and her mother, but also you have to remember that she works in a prison. And she works with all those women who also have deeply questionable moral codes. So it would be fair to say that she’d be incredibly naive and incredibly incapable in her position if she wasn’t at least observant of all the moral codes swirling around her. So, you’ve got to think that ultimately she’s going to absorb some of that and how she decides to use it is the question. As an actor, I don’t always want to play the person with the neat but moral compass; I’ve done that a lot. I think it might sound unsavory and make me sound a bit off, but [laughs] sometimes the villains are the most fun to play and you really, really have to detach your own judgement from what it is you’re doing and go, “What would make a person do that? What kind of ambition, or damage, or vengeance, or passion would make someone do something like that?” I love that Vera struggles with that. So I do like to see her get her hands dirty and I like to see her make mistakes and I like to see her do things that transgress her moral code because what’s interesting about her is how much she struggles with it. So, she’s not a psycho. Unlike Ferguson, the distinction between the two of them is that Ferguson has her own very, very distinct moral code. She doesn’t struggle with it. She doesn’t struggle with some of the completely villainess things that she does. Vera does, so that’s the distinction. So I do like to see her make mistakes and, you know, do horrible things because one would think that in a prison environment, that might happen. And that’s how she’s learned. But what’s interesting is how she struggles with it.
MM: Yeah, I think that makes her more human and more relatable in terms of she’s not really this or that. It’s pretty gray area.
KA: Yes, exactly. But there are some things where your stomach turns or you just kind of shut your eyes as you’re reading the script and go, “Really? Oh gosh. OK. I’ll see if I can make that work.” [laughs]
KA: Yes, that was a really tough thing to do. Partly because it takes us about five months to shoot a season. It’s a really long, arduous shoot. But we also have a very good time and we have such a lovely crew. And we shot that scene on the very last day of the shoot, so it’s a day where everyone’s just kind of dragging themselves to the finishing line and we have a big party the next day, and you just want to get through the day. It was a really traumatic thing to have to do on the last day, so it was pretty tough. But I kind of played it with the sense that she never intended to push her down the stairs. She just wanted to vent her anger and exercise her power over this woman who was obviously completely incapacitated. So she was serious and bitter and wanted to exercise that, but I always played it like she never really intended to push her down the stairs.
MM: No, she looked super surprised when it actually happened.
KA: Yeah. But I’m glad people liked the scene of Lucy taking a spill. [laughs]
MM: [laughs] Now, speaking of tricky things to film, you know the scene where Joan kind of loses it and slaps Vera? How many takes did that take and were there any real slaps taken?
KA: No. I mean, I should say that every shoot with Pamela is easy because we love working together and there’s always tricky things, but we always have a great time. Those kind of stuff aren’t tricky at all because we screen-dumped; there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors. So it’s kind of about the angle of the camera and where I’m standing and where Pam’s hands are, so she never slapped me. Her hand never went anywhere near my face.
MM: Wow! That’s awesome.
KA: That’s the beauty of the illusion of television. So yes, I had to fake it. I had to fake the look, so really not hard at all, no.
MM: That’s great! Now, if you could spend a day in the life of one of the prisoners of Wentworth, who would it be and why?
KA: [gasp] Oh, gosh! Oh my goodness, that’s an excellent question! Oh, gosh. Look, I’m thinking on my feet here. Probably an hour from now after you’ve hung up I’ll think of something really brilliant to say, but [laughs] I think maybe Franky because she’s just, you know, she’s just outrageous and fun. Maybe Franky on a good day, not Franky on a bad day when she’s got drugs in her stomach, you know, not that. Franky on a good day, only because I spend so much of my time playing Vera, to walk in the skin of a person who’s so sassy and kind of her own person, and Vera’s so mixed up and I think maybe Franky would be fun.
MM: That would be an excellent choice! Are there any plans to come over here to the states? You have a lot of fans that would love to see you at some sort of meet and greet event.
KA: Oh gosh, I would love that! I haven’t been to the United States for a really long time. Funnily enough many, many years ago, I was an exchange student there, if you can believe it, and I went to school for a year in New Mexico.
MM: Oh, wow!
KA: Yeah! I saw quite a bit of the states while I was there. I also have a lot of friends who live in New York and a few friends who live in L.A. I’ve never really done the L.A. thing like some of my friends, but I would certainly love to come visit. I might get a bit of a break next year, but yes, nothing in stone. If I do manage something, I’m sure I could make it a bit of a meet and greet visit as well.
MM: That would be awesome. It’s my mission to get all of you over to New York City and have huge party, so this is my mission for the next year, so just a heads up!
KA: I applaud your mission and I fully support it! We’d all love to come to New York City. [laughs]
MM: I know, it would be amazing! So obviously I spoke with Pamela not too long ago, and in our interview together, she mentioned that on some deep level she’s shipping Joan and Vera together. What do you think about that and the fans that see this instant chemistry and a budding romance between yours and her character?
KA: I think that’s hilarious and we often joke about it, but I think [laughs]… and, you know, we play up to it because it’s destiny. And look, off screen, I completely adore her, so maybe that just shines through, I don’t know. I always figured that— I don’t want to ruin it for people— but in my mind when I’m playing Vera, I felt like Ferguson actually became more of a substitute mother figure, so she kind of influenced me in that way. But yeah, I also guess I thought Vera saw her as a friend, so when their relationship obviously turned sour, it’s not obviously just a professional disappointment; it’s a massive personal grieving that she goes through because she thinks this woman is, yeah, obviously more than her boss. I don’t know if um… I think Vera would be terrified if Ferguson put the moves on her! [laughs] She’d be terrified!
MM: And I think that’s kind of the greatest thing about it, how Pamela mentioned it was, in Ferguson’s mind, she might have this idea of Vera and where the relationship should go. And then Vera thinks the complete opposite, it’s even better that you both aren’t on the same page in terms of that.
KA: Oh, absolutely! I mean once you find out someone is a psychopath, you know, the romantic possibilities become a little bit limited.
MM: Yeah, of course. [laughs]
KA: So, you know… [laughs] Look, she can keep dreaming if she wants, but [laughs] I don’t think it’s going to happen. But I have to say, in terms of the way we play together, if there’s that subliminal kind of reading, I think that’s brilliant. I think that’s fantastic.
MM: Yeah! And the fans wanted me to mention what your ship name is, so, are you ready for this?
KA: My what name?
MM: Ship name. They kind of like put together your character’s and Joan’s name, but kind of an abstract look at it, so it’s interesting. Here we go. They call you guys “Freakytits.”
KA: Oh my [laughs] that’s fantastic!
MM: [laughs] Yup!
KA: That is fantastic! I feel very honored that Pam and I get kind of connected so often, I think it’s… I’m glad people enjoy it.
MM: Yes, it’s great! Now, do you ever find yourself just laughing during a serious scene? Are there any good Season 3 bloopers you can tell us about?
KA: I can tell you about one, which was so much fun. Pam and I laugh a lot on set. In fact, we all do. But look, part from when people make unintentional mistakes, everyone is incredibly professional. We work to a very tight schedule, so we’re very good at keeping each other amused and making sure the atmosphere on set is fun and supportive. But when it comes down to doing incredibly serious scenes, everyone knows what their line is and we all get down and we do the job. My scenes with Pam, I’m no different. We know when to make each other laugh and play and stretch the scene, you know, all that kind of stuff. But we also know when to go right to get it done. Every now and then we’ll get around to a little bit of a prank, and there was one last season in which the makeup department and I conspired together. So obviously when Vera became negative, she went from wearing her rather pretty French bun to wearing a very tight Ferguson-esque bun. Oh, sorry, she had a French roll and then it became a little bun, and Ferguson has this rather big, statuesque bun. Anyway, the makeup department decided that they would make me this enormous bun that would sit on the back of my head— it was huge, like it was the size of my head and slightly bigger. But we didn’t tell Pam, so we were going to film this scene and I’m going to walk into her office with this. So, we used to joke about the size of our buns and that when I became governor, my bun would be much bigger than hers, all of this kind of stuff. We’d make a lot of bun jokes. So anyway, we’re actually filming this scene, so I walk into the office and Pam of course is not expecting it, and she turns around and I’ve got this ridiculously massive bun on the back of my head. And this is the funny thing, she actually tried to play the scene without laughing. So she actually kept playing the scene while I’ve got this ridiculous thing on my head, and then of course she completely lost it and we’ve got it all on camera. So yeah, we do have a little bit of fun. In fact, we have a lot of fun. Perhaps a little too much fun for such a serious show.
MM: No, you have to have fun. You have to have fun! To kind of to talk about social media for a second, you sort of stepped back from the whole Twitter thing. It can be overwhelming and people are a little crazy sometimes, but I will say from all the questions I received for you, the fans really do miss you and hope that you pop back on. Did there come a point where you were just like, I need to not partake in this right now?
KA: Look, I think the first thing people should know is that I’m bad at all social media. This is going to freak people out, but I’m not even on Facebook. I’m not on Facebook, I went on Twitter when it was kind of suggested to me by my agent because people use it as a professional tool these days, and so it’s a really, really personal thing. I don’t feel like I need Facebook, I probably miss it a little bit for my overseas friends, but I actually have an incredibly active social life beyond the parameters of my computer screen and people find it incredibly ironic that I’m not on Facebook because I’m a very social person— I just do it kind of out in the streets and out and about. I have great communications with all of my friends, I just do it the old-fashioned way. And Twitter, I feel a little bit mean because I absolutely love that the fans take such an interest. Like obviously, the show doesn’t exist without their support, so I really, really take an interest in the way they follow the show and the passion they have for these characters, but I’m just incredibly lazy at participating. I’m terrible. So I feel a bit apologetic, and it’s not that I have such a crazy bad experience with social media, it’s just a very, very personal choice. The people who use social media well and with restraint, I think that’s fantastic. I’m not a particularly restrained personality, so I think if I got involved with social media, I’d just be attached to all the time, which would be very bad for me. So I’ve just made a very personal decision to keep it at arm’s length, but I do follow some of the Twitter feeds and I’m really thoroughly flattered and obviously very thankful that people support the show so much.
KA: Yeah, I’m really looking forward to it. I mean, they’re very, very different disciplines, so I love doing TV and I love the people that I’m working with. The show that I’m doing next year at the Melbourne Theatre Company is a fantastic role, but it’s a real acting challenge; it’s just two actors on a stage. I’m going to be sharing the stage with a friend of mine, Bert LaBonté, who’s a friend but someone I’ve never worked with before. He is just a complete dream of an actor and I’m feeling incredibly lucky that we’re going to be doing it together. But it’s a lot of work and it’s quite scary doing live theatre, but you know, in a different way. It’s incredibly satisfying, so I feel very lucky that I do both [TV and film] because I love them both in different ways. You know, when you get a little bit sick of the tight scheduling of TV and the waiting around and all the other stuff, the bells and whistles that go with TV, you get back to theatre and it’s the purity of just the stage and the people and the audience and a lot of rehearsal time, so it’s a very different process, but I like them both.
MM: That’s awesome, I wish I could be out there but unfortunately, I’m stuck in America. Boo. [laughs]
KA: [laughs] Oh, it’s not so bad. Not so bad.
MM: [laughs] And the last question I have is, what are three things that the fans might not know about you?
KA: Oh gosh! Well, I guess they didn’t know I was an exchange student in New Mexico for a year.
MM: Nope, that’s one.
KA: What do they not know about me? I’m half British, so I have a British passport. My mum’s from England. I’m originally from the West Coast of Australia, a town called Perth, but I’ve lived in Melbourne for a very long time, so Melbourne’s kind of my adult home. What else? I moved to London for three years because of my British citizenship, I moved to London for a few years and worked there, which was great! Is that three?
MM: I think that is three and that was all the questions I had, and I obviously wanted to thank you so much. It’s been wonderful talking to all of you, you guys are amazing and I appreciate you chatting!
KA: It’s been lovely talking to you!