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Leah Purcell and Rarriwuy Hick in Wentworth. Courtesy Fremantle Pty Ltd.
Stories & Ideas

Fri 09 Oct 2020

Flipping the script: Wentworth’s game-changing representation

AustraliaInterviewPop cultureRepresentationTelevision
Maria Lewis
Maria Lewis

Assistant Film Curator

Wentworth star Rarriwuy Hick talks to Maria Lewis about working with longtime friend Leah Purcell, ensuring the show has a First Peoples voice and on-screen representation.

When Rarriwuy Hick wakes up in the morning, often her first thought is “I’m gonna bash someone today”. Of course, she’s talking about her character Ruby Mitchell from the television series Wentworth (2013–21), but ‘bashing’ is a big part of the territory when you’re one of the stars of a hit a prison drama. Ruby’s a boxer and someone more likely to punch her problems away than talk them through, yet that’s exactly why she has become a fan favourite since her introduction in season six.

Wentworth had the biggest debut in Foxtel history when it first aired in 2013, giving one of Australia’s most successful shows – Prisoner (1979–86) – a new lease on life with rebooted and refreshed versions of the iconic characters. There were all the classics like The Freak, Bea Smith, and Marie Winter, but the modern rendition had an option to do what the original series did not: introduce Indigenous main characters. With 34 per cent of women incarcerated in Australia being Indigenous – despite making up only two per cent of the outside population – Wentworth was able to simultaneously tackle a pressing social issue and inject their cast with game changing representation for the show’s legacy.

This meant reimagining a character from the original series with award-winning actress, playwright and director Leah Purcell stepping in as Rita Connors. Played by Glenda Linscott in the 80s during Prisoner’s original run, both versions of the character share the same back story as members of the Conquerors bikie gang. Yet Purcell’s Rita is positioned front and centre, not as a supporting character but as one of the new main players who reinvigorated Wentworth halfway through its 10-season run. She also came with the addition of Ruby Mitchell, her younger but just as tough sister played by long-time Purcell collaborator Hick.

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Rarriwuy Hick is Ruby in Wentworth (Fremantle Australia).

When dancer and actress Hick got a call from Fremantle Media and Foxtel about flying to Melbourne for a meeting, she tried to play it cool. As one of Australia’s foremost emerging Indigenous talents, they had seen her on television series such as Redfern Now (2012–13) and her breakthrough role as Latani on Cleverman (2016–17). They had something very specific in mind for her, something that was offered to the 29-year old actress without an audition. “They knew they were going to have Leah Purcell and they knew they were going to go with me,” she says. “They knew we were the two sisters that they wanted. They were also looking for actors who can box and who can do their own stunts which, as you know, I do all my own stunts.”

Purcell has been a presence in Hick’s life since she was a child, attending her birthday parties and even directing her in one of her first screen roles: short film She Say (2012). The idea of playing sisters on Wentworth wasn’t that much of a stretch given their history in the real world. “There’s definitely such a bond and you clearly see that on-screen,” says Hick. “Whenever we have to play scenes where we’re upset with each other, it’s really heartbreaking. Sometimes all we have to do is look at each other and we can just cry uncontrollably. You prep yourself for those scenes but as soon as it’s just me and Leah in the room, we can be emotional straight away.”

Purcell also directed Hick across the two seasons of Cleverman, yet “the dynamic has been completely different” on the set of Wentworth. “She has always been the director and I’ve always been the actor,” says Hick. “Writing, directing, producing, acting – she’s a queen who does it all! She’s older than me, she has been in the industry for a long time, she’s very experienced, she’s a huge inspiration in my life, and I admire everything about who she is and what she does.”

Coming off the back of something like Cleverman, which broke ground for Indigenous storytelling in the genre sphere not just locally but globally, one of the big draws for both Purcell and Hick was the opportunity to represent Indigenous women in an environment where they’re unfortunately very present (incarceration of Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal women has increased 148 per cent in the last two decades). “Obviously I think about my craft and how - myself as an actor - I want to be better at what I do,” says Hick. “That conversation comes in second to the question of how can I better represent my people? I’m always thinking about what I can do for the mob. If you see Ruby Mitchell’s cell in Wentworth, I just blacken it up – the flag is everywhere.”

Prisoner was one of the most successful shows in the world during its run, with an estimated two million viewers in the US alone each episode and being syndicated globally within six months of its original Australian premiere. In the decades since, its legacy has only grown with an active online fanbase and the re-emergence of the show’s themes with Wentworth: all things Hick was hyperaware of when deciding to take the part.

“There’s so many black faces out there, I want them to be seen,” she says. “It’s not just about Australia, but we have such a huge fanbase in the UK, Japan – it’s massive over in Japan – the States especially and Canada. You want them to see what’s here and there’s black people here – you know? … I do find that over in the states and Europe and England, we’re getting a lot more support. It’s so strange, even with Cleverman that got a lot of fans overseas and people watching the show over there. I know Redfern Now has been big (internationally) as well. The States are loving Indigenous Australian content and they want to hear our stories, they’re up for it.”

An integral part of that too, is voice: Rita Connors and Ruby Mitchell are sisters, yes, but they also represent different types of Indigenous women, their complexities, their nuances, their passions, and their generational differences. Having that represented arcuately was crucial to both Hick and Purcell. “I was always very aware of the accent I use or some of the Aboriginal slang that I put into Wentworth,” says Hick. “I have a deal with the writers on Wentworth where they write the script and Leah and I blacken it up, basically, which makes it authentic and it’s coming from our voice. Because they still have room for more improvement there: there’s a lot of female writers, but at some point, it would be great to have more Indigenous writers in the room and Asian writers and people from different backgrounds as well.”

Hick says “working together to create the show and create the characters” has been one of Wentworth’s biggest strengths, appealing to fans of the original Prisoner who relished its grittiness but also drawing in a whole new audience who are connecting with the show’s authenticity. There’s also the increased visibility, with Hick’s Ruby Mitchell and Purcell’s Rita Connors positioned as key figures in the show’s marketing: that means the faces of Indigenous women on billboards, on buses, on magazines and newspapers, on television and online ads, and walking red carpets.

“It was something that I thought about a lot and I still do,” says Hick, who notes that it’s not just the racial diversity but the age and sexual diversity on Wentworth that’s important. “The cast talk about it a lot at work. You know, women who are over their 40s and 50s who aren’t able to play those dirty, gritty roles where they can have sex on-screen. Usually they want the 20 years-olds doing all the sex scenes, whereas Wentworth doesn’t do that – they don’t care about that sort of stuff. Obviously diverse and strong female characters is something I think about a lot.”

– Maria Lewis

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