Susie Porter: ‘I would do things differently now’
It's hard to imagine anyone taking advantage of East West 101's steely police inspector Patricia Wright. Or to consider a time when Wentworth's Machiavellian crime matriarch, Marie Winter, might relinquish her power. But Susie Porter was in her mid-30s before she finally got the hang of saying "no".
"When I was first starting out, and it might be naïve to say this, but I wasn't aware that you could," the actor, now 49, tells Stellar. "It's not that I was bullied or coerced, but I really didn't feel like I had a choice back then. And that's the difference."
After graduating from NIDA in 1995, Porter made three successive films that required what was, for her, an uncomfortable level of onscreen nudity. In 1999, she starred in artist-turned-filmmaker Davida Allen's feature debut, Feeling Sexy. Next came Better Than Sex, an intelligently lusty romcom co-starring David Wenham that opened the 2000 Sydney Film Festival. Then, in Samantha Lang's detective thriller The Monkey's Mask, Porter played a lesbian detective who falls for one of her suspects (Kelly McGillis).
Accolades notwithstanding, and she earned plenty from critics around the world, those experiences left a particular mark on Porter. "Incredibly vulnerable" is how she describes it, adding: "It's funny. I don't mind being emotionally vulnerable. I actually prefer to be far more emotional on screen than I do in my real life. I'm fine to go to those existential crises within the work. But I think that kind of sexual stuff and nudity It's not that I regret it - let's face it, it's up there - but I would do things differently now."
Crunch time for Porter came while on the set of 2006's small-town drama The Caterpillar Wish, for which she won an AFI Award for Best Supporting Actress in her role as a feisty single mum. During filming, she tried to talk her way out of her character's topless scene, but director Sandra Sciberras felt it was integral to the storyline and Porter reluctantly acquiesced.
That experience cost her.
"Don't get me wrong," she begins. "It's not like I woke up in the middle of the night going, 'Oh my god, I went topless!' Because there are far worse things. I suppose it's a process of maturing through your time in the industry. But now I would feel completely confident to say, 'No. If you want to get somebody else, that's fine, but I'm not interested.'"
That's exactly what Porter did when it came to her next audition - even though it left her staring down the barrel of unemployment. Not long after, she landed the role of career policewoman Wright in SBS's drama East West 101. "For me," she says, "it was a great exploration of a woman in a man's world."
And she's been mixing it up ever since - in period movies such as Bruce Beresford's Ladies In Black and tough low-budget dramas such as Hounds Of Love. Porter even had a small part as a waitress in Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones. There's also the occasional theatre role including Death And The Maiden and Summer Of The Seventeenth Doll.
But it is on the small screen that Porter has best been able to explore the depth and breadth of her range as an actor - in roles as diverse as a free-spirited mum on Puberty Blues, Janet King's fast-talking sports agent, or the wife of Comancheros president Jock Ross in Bikie Wars: Brothers In Arms. Last year, she was nominated for a Logie for her performance as the devious muse to Rachael Blake's dark writer in thriller The Second.
There's been the odd sex scene "here and there", she acknowledges. But they've been on her terms. Looking back, the advice Porter would give to her younger self is clear: "You don't have to do anything you don't want to - and don't ever be pressured into thinking that you do."
Recent changes in the industry as a result of the #MeToo movement support her stance. "It would be completely fine for a young woman to say, 'I don't want to be topless,' in the current environment," says Porter. "Absolutely. And there's nothing wrong if they choose to do it, either. I'm certainly not taking some moral high ground. It's so wonderful to have the choice. A lot of the time, as an actor, you're frightened of making the wrong decision or being blacklisted. And I'm not frightened of that anymore."
At this point in her career, Porter can even feel good about the teal tracksuit she has worn for the past three years while filming Foxtel's acclaimed prison drama Wentworth. "For one, it's very comfortable," she says, hooting with laughter. "What I love about it is that it can be individualised. Each character has a different neckline, a different length, a different cut."
In fact, Porter has become so attached to the uniform she wears on the popular drama, she admits to being temporarily thrown when the costume department told her some minor changes would need to be made for the upcoming eighth season - her calculating character winds up in the protection unit, where the uniform is a darker shade of green.
Porter says the monstrously manipulative sex trafficker, who has been sentenced to 15 years for manslaughter and assault, might well represent her first proper bad girl. "Marie is not overly likeable on the surface. Using people, manipulating people in the last season and planting evidence in people's rooms… all of that is really fun to play."
According to Wentworth's executive producer Jo Porter (no relation), the actor's chameleon-like quality made her a perfect fit for the role. "The enigma of Susie is the thing that makes all her choices so interesting," she says. "There's some sort of magnetism that Susie brings to the character - you don't question for a minute why people would be drawn to her. She finds things in the character she can offer each person. It's quite remarkable. She's super strong, but there's also a stillness to her strength. Her performance is so exciting to watch, because it feels fuelled by truth."
Porter admits she had to dig deep for the latest season, the filming of which has been temporarily interrupted by the COVID-19 restrictions. "After I come back into prison, I don't have a hell of a lot of power left and that's the beginning of a redemption arc, which has been a really great challenge," she reveals.
While Porter is drawn to complex characters in her work, she says she tries to keep her own life simple, currently sharing an apartment in the eastern Sydney suburb of Elizabeth Bay with Christopher Mordue, her husband of 10 years. "I suppose I had great freedom in my life, getting married later," Porter says.
"It was always something I wanted to do, but I was kind of like… I will push that as far as I can. It meant I could live in London and have all the trials and tribulations [that went with that] and experience my life without having to look after x, y and z. Plus, I felt like I had a lot of maturing to do. Would I even have survived a marriage if I had got married at 25 or 30? I don't know."
Porter pared her life back even further during the recent lockdown. "I've walked for kilometre upon kilometre, seen parts of Sydney I've never seen before, finding little stairwells and little secret gardens and noticing different architecture," the actor says. "A lot of people were going: 'Don't waste this time.' And I'm like, 'I don't know, why not just stop? Imagine doing nothing, achieving nothing.' Then you are left with your own self. And how do you deal with that?"
She says having the security of a long-running television show to fall back upon allowed her to pursue that existential experiment. "I've just reduced it down to very basic living. So much so that I'm wondering about moving out of the city," she muses. "If you think about it, you might be dead at 80, so you might as well have a number of different life experiences."
Places like Byron Bay or Austinmer (on the NSW south coast) appeal to her sensibilities, but that doesn't mean she's made up her mind about the move. "More than anything the pandemic has shown me that, whatever grand plans I might have after finishing Wentworth, I have no idea what's around the corner."
Wentworth returns to Foxtel for an eighth season on Tuesday, July 28.
Originally published as Susie Porter: 'I would do things differently now'