Celebrity News

EXCLUSIVE: Marta Dusseldorp explains how moving to Tasmania inspired new series Bay of Fires

The actor also talks motherhood and her days on A Place to Call Home
Loading the player...

After our long day with Marta Dusseldorp has ended and the tape recorder is turned off, the actress tucks her legs under herself on the soft white banquette and continues to talk about work, life, acting, and the wicked paradox of raising fearless young women – wanting to protect her daughters from having to go through what she went through, while understanding that adversity builds resilience.

A flickering fire warms our backs, and to our left, a two-storey window looks out onto Tasmania’s Mount Hazard underneath a sky that sparkles like thousands of tiny diamonds spilled on a sheet of midnight-blue velvet.

Marta speaks eloquently and thoughtfully about these big subjects, and the responsibility she feels to the industry that has shaped and fulfilled her. “I want to continue to perform, but also create and nurture and mentor. I see my role as that now. As a 50-year-old woman, I’m ready to do what was done for me, which is identify and support and encourage young women,” she says.

The Weekly‘s photoshoot lasted all day against the chilled beauty of Tasmania’s Coles Bay. With daughters Grace, 16, and Maggie, 13, in tow, Marta gamely clambered over pink granite, swished through tall grass, and posed on the rocks turned orange by lichen.

I’ve cried, triggered by Marta talking about being separated from her girls while filming amid COVID, Marta has cried, speaking about the woman who helped her forge her career, and she’s let our team glimpse the close bond she shares with her daughters, of whom she is prodigiously proud.

Now, her voice is hoarse, but she’s eager to talk more. She’s on the cusp of a new grand adventure. She is about to launch Bay of Fires, a drama she stars in, produced and co-created from scratch with Jack Irish collaborator Andrew Knight and AFI-winning screenwriter Max Dann.

“I rang [Andrew] up during the pandemic and said, ‘Hey, how about you and I create a story together. I’m living in the most beautiful place in the world. I think there’s the potential for something really special’,” she says.

Andrew introduced Marta to Max, who lives “in the north in a forest”, and together they set about building something quintessentially Australian, but like nothing that had ever been made here before.

“We really pushed each other. We really tried to dive and play dangerously,” Marta says. “It’s a love letter to Tasmania and it’s a love letter to television.” The theatre is Marta’s first love and she adores film, but she appreciates how television allows you to take “a really lovely amble” through a story.

“Then it picks up speed and it never lets up,” Marta says, laughing. She estimates she has made 150 hours of television over her career, most notably starring in Janet King, Jack Irish and A Place to Call Home. Now, she has seized the means of production, inspired by the women “banging down the door overseas” like Reese Witherspoon and Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag), as well as local creators Claudia Karvan and Leah Purcell.

“It’s important as Australians, I think, that we recognise our own women … because it’s not an easy road. We all know it because we’re all walking it and we’re standing together. I take a lot of strength from those women,” Marta says.

Women supporting women is a theme she returns to again and again, and when Maggie and Grace join us in the lounge at Saffire Freycinet, hungry for dinner, Marta explains they played a part in her show’s creation, too. They appear on screen, but their influence runs deeper. Marta trusts and values their opinions.

“[Grace] gave us script notes on Bay of Fires because there’s a young person in it, so I was saying, well what do you think? Plus, my daughter in the show, Iris, is based on my youngest, Maggie. A lot of her behaviours and attitude come from Maggie, so she’s very present as well.

“I’m interested in what they think,” Marta adds. “Grace has been a big reader her whole life, so she understands story, and they consume it at an outrageous pace. I have an enormous amount of respect for their instincts.”

Earlier, posing with Maggie and Grace, Marta was loving and playful, but there’s also a marked respect in the way she addresses her daughters. Grace, in particular, has inherited her mother’s yearning to perform and has a few lines in the show.

“Grace has already written a play. She has written a novella and was shortlisted in a comp. I’m encouraging her not to write a series based on our family,” Marta laughs. “I’m not sure I’ll win that battle.”

Whatever Grace chooses to do, she will have her mother’s support. Marta is a woman of determination and discipline but she’s also full of gratitude for those who lifted her up. Now, she is eager to pay that forward.

Marta’s innate elegance makes her a compelling presence as she poses on the rocks at Muirs Beach. Her grace and professionalism give the impression her success was predestined.

But her confidence came slowly, and when she was growing up, her acting ambition was discouraged. “I’d been a ballet dancer my whole life and I knew I couldn’t sustain it, and I didn’t want to. I didn’t know why and then I found my voice and I went, ‘Ah, it’s your voice and your body’,” she says.

Marta left her Sydney home for Melbourne to study at the Victorian College of the Arts, where her Shakespeare teacher, actor June Jago, recognised her talent and taught her how to wield it.

“She pulled me aside one day and she said, ‘My Darling, you are an actor’,” Marta’s voice wavers ever so slightly. “And now I’m going to cry because it was so meaningful at that moment in my life, and I believed her. Everyone was going, ‘Oh God, you don’t want to be an actor.’ And I kept thinking, but I do. I do.”

June not only gave Marta faith in her ability, and permission to pursue this most mercurial of vocations, but she also gave Marta her time, offering to meet her on weekends and teach her the craft. Marta eagerly accepted, and each weekend they would work.

“Me on the floor and her finessing me and drilling me,” Marta says. “I already had discipline from being a ballet dancer, so I didn’t need that, but I did need technique and craft and she gave that to me.”

Other early mentors or influences include theatre director Barrie Kosky and Cate Blanchett, who Marta met on the set of World War II film Paradise Road but got to know when they were both cast in the eight-hour stage production, The War of the Roses.

“I shared a dressing room with her and [Wentworth star] Pamela Rabe. I just learnt so much,” Marta says. Whenever Cate was appearing on stage, Marta would be sure to watch. “She speaks for herself but what a mighty, mighty woman. What a great presence in the world and we’re richer for her,” she says.

“If I was lost in my life, I’d just go and talk to her, and she would say such sensible things and was never grand – just so human and true and supportive. These pillars in your life [who] you meet and walk through with are very important.”

Marta was part of The Sydney Theatre Company’s Actors’ Company, which included Deborah Mailman and employed actors full-time. Her vocation led her to her husband, theatre director and actor Ben Winspear, who was captivated by her performance as Mistress Marwood in The Way of the World at the Sydney Opera House.

Marta was riding a golden carousel in a black corset and voluminous green skirt that swirled around her, when Ben was struck by what he has described as “a jolt of recognition”. “She was fearless, unpredictable, passionate. At the time, I had no idea these were not only character choices but the essence of Marta herself,” he wrote for The Weekly in 2014.

They formed a bond through their shared devotion to the theatre and were married in February 2006. Theirs is a special partnership that is both creative and romantic. “And then you have children,” Marta says. “As a mother, as a woman, you’re warned: ‘It will make you unavailable. It will make you unreliable. It will make you less.’ I found the opposite. I became much better because I concentrated, but I didn’t obsess.”

Warnings are a recurring theme in the conversation with Marta. She was warned against pursuing acting, and then once she had built a body of work, she was warned against motherhood. Having Grace at age 33 was “just the beginning”, she says. Her two small daughters brought her “a beautiful balance” and Grace and Maggie became “a touchstone of reality that was more important than what I was doing”.

Motherhood also influenced the creative choices she made. “I thought, do I want my daughters to see this? It gives you a really great line in the sand.” When they were old enough, Marta brought Grace and Maggie on set, explaining, “There’s no point going to work and them not understanding what you’re actually doing. Weirdly, I always thought that translated to, ‘You don’t want to be with me’, so if they knew where I was going and what I was doing, and that they were welcome and could be a part of it, then that makes sense to me.”

They both made appearances in A Place to Call Home, the post-World War II series Marta starred in as Sarah Adams. During this time, Marta’s character, Janet King, from Crownies, was given her own spin-off series and she was suddenly leading two hit dramas at the same time.

Marta has previously spoken about feeling intimidated by headlining Janet King. “In the unconscious prejudice that had been thrown at me in my life, I always felt like I was there to serve a man’s story and to be there in relation to a man as well,” she told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2017.

Five short years later she has earned accolades, legions of fans, a swag of Logie nominations and an AACTA award for her work. “I’ve really had such a beautiful career and I’ve been very lucky to work with some incredible people who have always said to me, ‘When you work for the right reasons, it just will be. Keep going.’ And so I have, for better or worse.”

While Marta was taking over Australian prime-time television, Ben (who had been the resident director at the Sydney Theatre Company) began to yearn to return to Tasmania, where he grew up. So, in 2018, he, Maggie and Grace put down roots in Hobart, while Marta commuted to complete A Place to Call Home.

She and Ben also created a production company, Archipelago, and threw themselves into the task of telling Australian stories and fostering Tasmanian talent. Their productions have included The Bleeding Tree and Women of Troy.

“Right now it’s a very small team, in that it’s just Ben and I,” Marta says. “But the beauty of developing and producing with your husband is the respect is innate. It’s within. And the safety of the risk is already embedded in the love and the mutual care.”

Marta was never tempted to try her luck in Los Angeles, or on the West End, and she laughs as she describes how, during the days of lockdown and homeschooling, she became outraged at hearing that so much of the material Grace and Maggie were using was American.

“I rang up the school! I read some books for them because I saw what they were being sent to read and it was all American, and I thought, this is dreadful,” she says with a peal of laughter. “So the heartfelt motivation was there. I became very insistent on developing Australian works. That was another motivation for Bay of Fires. I just want to use my time I have left on the earth to make stuff.”

Which brings us to Marta’s femaleled story set in the wilds of Tasmania. In Bay of Fires, she plays the affluent Anika Van Cleef, who manages a multimillion-dollar corporation, and must disappear with her two children when a betrayal threatens their lives.

The explosive opening episode quickly shifts tone into something dark and mysterious. Shot on location in west Tasmania, Marta is joined on screen by Stephen Curry, Yael Stone (Orange Is the New Black) and her old dressing room companion Pamela Rabe.

“When the cameras turned over for the first time, I actually couldn’t believe it. It was like an out-of-body experience and I heard the word ‘action’. I just felt this overwhelming sense of calmness. It was odd. You think I’d have the opposite. It just felt ready. The team really are the best of the best. It was like watching everyone at the top of their game punching this into existence and I just thought: Let’s go!”

The most stressful time was when crew members began testing positive for COVID, meaning Maggie and Grace were forced to leave the set. It resulted in Marta being separated from her girls for the longest stretch any of them had ever endured.

“That was difficult,” she says, “but I understand that this is the age we’re in and everyone has had these experiences. Some have had to let go of people without saying goodbye. So, comparatively it’s okay. I always say to my kids, ‘you have to be in the life you’re in’. It’s important that you feel all your feels but it’s also really good to say: it could be so much worse, and we need to be responsible for our humility.”

When the final scene was complete, Marta let out a giant sigh of relief. As producer, she had been responsible for 150 lives. “We were so close by the end, we were like a carny travelling circus,” she says. “I love our industry and our people. We really have the best in the world and now they’re family, so that’s nice.”

As we sit in a salubrious hotel lounge in Marta’s beloved new home state, the hardest part of her job is over, and all that is left is for her to release her creation into the world. “I’m nervous, I’m relieved, I’m proud,” she says. “There’s an enormous amount of goodwill in it and I really don’t want to let anyone down.”

In her future lies a passion project that is “enormous and complex”, and there’s watching and walking with Maggie and Grace as they make their way in the world. Both get occasional screen tests and Grace is preparing to appear in a production of Oedipus Rex for a friend’s high school assignment.

Her face lights up when she talks about it, and if she chooses to pursue acting, Marta will be by her side. “I would encourage it,” Marta says. “I’m not one of those show mums, but I help them. We’ve worked on techniques together. As long as they’re happy and strong and feel listened to, I think that’s the only thing with kids, isn’t it?”

As she warmly says goodnight and walks away with an arm around Maggie and an arm around Grace, Marta emanates excitement for the possibilities that lie ahead. She has pulled off a mighty feat, and now she’s empowered, determined, and ready for her next challenge.

Bay of Fires premieres on Sunday July 16 at 8.30pm on ABC TV and ABC iview.

Related stories

Unwind and relax with your favourite magazine!

Huge savings plus FREE home delivery