She was living in LA, pursuing a dream of Hollywood success, when Kate Jenkinson found out she'd landed a role in Aussie drama Wentworth. It was a dream come true for the long-time fan of the series, who packed her bags and returned home for the part.
Fast forward five years, and the talented 37-year-old's profile has skyrocketed, both here and internationally.
Here, Kate opens up to TV WEEK Close Up about what it's really like playing her beloved character and how she'll juggle her time in the next few years between not one, but three of Australia's biggest TV dramas.
Do you wonder, "What on earth could happen next?" before reading your Wentworth scripts each week?
Absolutely! I just marvel at how the writers do it. Year after year, they seem to outdo themselves. It's inspiring to think that you can keep creating fresh and surprising storylines in a show that's gone on as long as this.
Wentworth certainly keeps reinventing itself...
Because of the way the show is structured, it makes so much sense that new characters are always coming in. And, of course, with every new character is a whole new storyline potential. I think that's what's kept the show alive and so engaging for so long. I can't wait to see what the writers do for series eight.
You have another 20 episodes to shoot after the current series. Were you hoping the show would continue?
We hoped it would. It was bittersweet to walk away thinking, "This could be the last time I get to play Ali." I actually got the phone call from Pino, our producer, on my birthday to say we were going ahead for more episodes. I thought he was calling to wish me a happy birthday, but he was calling with even better news: that the show was being picked up for 20 more episodes, which is unheard of in Australia. You get used to stepping off a set on your last day of shooting and really not knowing whether the show is going to go again. It's always the way. I think it's rare that you know if a show is going to continue.
Why do you think the show has continued to be so popular with audiences at home?
I think people love edge-of-the-seat viewing. Shows such as Game Of Thrones and The Walking Dead; it's like you're walking into a haunted house and you just don't know what's going to jump out at you. Wentworth is like that. Nobody is safe. Not even the viewer...
Ain't that the truth…
The audience get pulled in for the emotional ride as well. They certainly mourn the loss of the characters as well. But I think the themes of the show are so universal: survival, family, sisterhood...it makes for exciting television.
How does the cast feel when characters are killed off?
It's like a death in real life – you don't mourn just the death of a character, but also the actor who played that character. Selfishly, I want everyone to stay! I don't want any character to die. I want everyone to get a happy ending, because I love these women and men so much. But what I love more than anything in Wentworth is its ruthlessness. It's true to the circumstances, which is that the women are in a cut-throat prison, and people die. And no-one "plays nice", either. I love that it's a scary place.
What's it like to film those brutal scenes? Do you go home and have a stiff drink afterwards to shake it off?
That's what I do most days! But, actually, often those super-brutal scenes are really technical to film, especially if there's blood and gore involved. You have to stop and start often for the make-up team to come in. It's a lot trickier than it looks to put together. The brutality is very much broken up with the machinations of how we create the show.
Can we expect more of those scenes in series seven?
There's a sequence in season seven... I won't reveal too much about it, but a lot of it was shot as if it was happening in real life.
It was pretty brutal and terrifying. There are some new characters who come in and really shake things up, so that was pretty special to be a part of. Many drinks were had after filming on those days!
Poor Allie has been through the ringer these past few seasons. Please tell us she gets a break in season seven?
Allie is forced to stand on her own two feet – I don't think she'd ever do that willingly. She's been a character who shies away from conflict, but, through various circumstances, she finds herself having to stick up for herself, stand up for herself and find her own way.
Well, in the past she's always slightly ridden the coattails of other, stronger women. So I think we see her gaining a bit of confidence, and learning who she is, by herself – without the protection of anyone else. It's really interesting.
You've certainly had your share of intense storylines over the years. How do you keep it all in perspective?
It's often quite intense, but we somehow manage to keep it really light on set. You kind of have to, as an antidote to all the grim subject matter. It's so rare for Australian television to be this "high stakes" and to have constant drama. It's really kind of cut-throat TV – people drop left, right and centre and you never know if your character is going to be safe. It's incredibly wonderful to be part of intense drama on one level, but also on a personal level, it's such a joy of a job, because all the cast are so lovely.
You all genuinely get along?
We have such fun together, and it's all shot in one big location – this [former education] building [which acts as the prison] – so you feel like you're in this little cocoon of creativity and love.
Take us back to that first time you walked on to the Wentworth set – was it a nerve-racking experience for you?
Yes, because I was a fan of the show before I was on it – that's never happened to me before. It really was a bit of a trip to put on the teal outfit and walk into a set I recognised from having watched the show. I had to introduce myself to, and ingratiate myself with, all these characters I'd known and loved for years. Looking back, it was pretty wild, but I couldn't have asked for a warmer welcome. The cast are just divine.
One thing we love about Wentworth is it's fantastic at portraying diversity on screen. Your character is gay, but that's never been considered a big deal…
Yeah, as it should be. That's the key. Certainly with my character, anyway, it's never about her sexuality. It's not "a theme". It's not discussed. It's just who she is. And a lot of characters are just like that on the show. There's complete ownership of who they are. I think there needs to be more of that on television; just completely normalising what is normal.
You've had a busy couple of years, and you're about to begin filming Doctor Doctor.
I've just started filming. It feels like a nice antidote to this show. It's a lot of fun and I don't think my character has to cry at all, which is nice. So far. It's lovely. For my mental health, it's a nice holiday from Wentworth.
But you'll be back on Wentworth soon, yes?
I will. I've had a few months off since we finished filming Wentworth last year, and then I went on to work on [Network 10's new drama] Five Bedrooms.
Who do you play on that show?
Possibly the most hideous human being! [Laughs] Melanie is her name. I think her greatest aspiration in life is to be an Instagram influencer. She's selfish, self-absorbed and narcissistic, and glorious fun to play. So that was a real thrill to work on. And then getting to play in Doctor Doctor is going to be a great challenge too. But I'm looking forward to coming back to Wentworth...
It's been a big part of your life…
It's been my home for the past five years. It's been an amazing ride.
Wentworth airs Tuesday, 8.30pm (AEST), on FOX Showcase.
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