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EXCLUSIVE: Kate Atkinson reveals the toughest part of playing alleged conwoman Melissa Caddick on Underbelly: Vanishing Act

''Real people were hurt, financially and emotionally.''

By Helen Vnuk
Kate Atkinson is sounding happy. When she speaks to TV WEEK, she's in country Victoria, where she's been riding horses, but with the WA border finally open this month, she's getting set to hop on a plane,
"I will hotfoot it over there to see my mum," she says. "I did get there last year in May – there was a window that I managed to scrape in – but I haven't seen her since."
Even though COVID has kept Kate separated from her mother (she lost her father several years ago), she's not complaining. As far as work goes, she's been "one of the very lucky ones".
As far as work goes, Kate says she's been "one of the very lucky ones". (Image: TV WEEK)
She filmed the final season of Wentworth, where she played Vera Bennett, during lockdown in Melbourne in 2020, and then late last year, she shot Underbelly: Vanishing Act.
In it, she stars as Melissa Caddick, the Sydney financial adviser who allegedly defrauded investors of millions, spending the money on designer clothes, luxury cars and expensive holidays.
"There's a lot of satisfaction in getting to play someone who is so unlike yourself," Kate says. "But the flipside of this story is that real people were hurt, financially and emotionally."
It wasn't just the alleged fraud that Kate struggled to get her head around, it was her character's expensive tastes.
After many years spent playing "pretty frumpy" characters, or the "stitched-up" Vera, the lengthy costume fittings and the time in the makeup chair came as a shock.
Kate plays alleged fraudster Melissa Caddick on Underbelly: Vanishing Act. (Image: Nine)
"Our gorgeous wardrobe designer had no idea that she was going to get landed with an actress who did not know one designer label from another and could barely get out of overalls most days," she laughs.
"I don't wear makeup. Melissa Caddick is known for wearing very red lipstick. I eat that s--t off. I just can't keep it on my face."
Clearly, she didn't get into acting for the glamour.
"I like the work," she says. "I honestly would rather be on a set than a red carpet."
Kate's career has spanned more than two decades, and in that time, she's appeared in some of Australia's most-loved shows.
Making her name in SeaChange, where she played police officer Karen Miller ("I loved that character – she was just such a nut"), she went on to Offspring, Jack Irish and, of course, Wentworth.
"I always get great roles but I'm always a cog in a bigger machine," she says.
Underbelly: Vanishing Act is a different story. Playing a character based on such a well-known person, Kate became the target of paparazzi during the shoot, something she found "hilarious".
As the airdate gets closer, she's started to think about all the attention the show – and she – might get.
"I thought, 'Ooh, I'm actually not used to that.' So I don't know how I'm going to go."
Kate found fame on SeaChange, where she played police officer Karen Miller. (Image: ABC)
Kate is not someone who seeks out attention. Although she has a lot of "respect and affection" for Wentworth fans, she tends to avoid social media.
"I don't find the internet a particularly safe space for me," she says. "I find some of the ways conversations are conducted online a bit crushing."
Recently, Kate has been spending a lot of her spare time far away from screens, getting "very dirty".
"I was a very avid horse rider when I was a kid. I've really taken to it again, to the point where I do spend quite a bit of time in the country riding other people's horses. But I think my retirement plan will be to get my little plot and have my own beasts."
As a kid, Kate also loved putting on plays. But she never planned to become an actor. (Image: TV WEEK)
"To be honest, I've just turned 50 and I still don't know if I want to act!" she says with a laugh. "My friends will tell you that I will quite periodically go, 'Right, that's it, I'm done, I'm moving to the bush and raising animals!'"
In fact, when Wentworth came along, Kate was studying international politics at university and was planning on quitting acting.
As a kid, Kate also loved putting on plays. But she never planned to become an actor.
"An acting life can be quite a tough one, and there are different junctures where you feel more vulnerable than others," she says.
"I like the work. I honestly would rather be on a set than a red carpet." (Image: Instagram)
"And I think I've fallen into the trap of going, 'I will walk away from acting and get a different profession.' But actually, I am an actor and this is what I do, and all of those other life interests just inform my acting."
Acting has given Kate some of her closest friends. Shooting SeaChange, she made "some of my very formative Victorian friendships… Alice Garner and Tom Long [who passed away in 2020] and Georgie Naidu".
More recently, she had a "particularly good time" working with Pamela Rabe, who played Joan Ferguson, on Wentworth. The two have stayed in regular contact.
"Yeah, poor Pam is not going to get rid of me very easily! No, I adore Pam."
Kate played Deputy Governor Vera Bennett on Wentworth. (Image: Foxtel)
So could Wentworth fans see a spin-off with their two characters?
"Not yet! We need to let that rest for a bit. We would dearly love to work together again but maybe in a different incarnation."
For the moment, Kate is taking a "lovely break" from work. She doesn't have anything lined up for the later part of the year, but then, the Melissa Caddick role was one she didn't see coming.
"A role like that I did not think would land in my inbox," she admits. "I was really glad that they took a punt on me."

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