It’s an odd thing for her to say, but Wentworth star Tammy MacIntosh felt out of place in prison. You might think four years on the tough-as-nails TV drama would equip you, to some degree, to deal with life behind bars. It didn’t. (Watch the Season 7 trailer below.)
“I had this instinctive feeling it was just wrong to walk into the real world of these women who have committed crimes and are paying the price without their families,” MacIntosh, 49, tells WHO. “It was invasive.”
It was research. The actress, who plays snarling Top Dog Karen ‘Kaz’ Proctor, is speaking to us from the relative safety of Governor Vera Bennett’s (Kate Atkinson) office on the Melbourne set of Wentworth, ahead of the show’s seventh season (airs Tue., 8.30pm; Fox Showcase). Keen to get an insight into the lives of real-life women in lock-up, MacIntosh, a familiar face on TV screens since her days in popular drama All Saints, visited a Melbourne prison – an eye-opening experience, to be sure.
“There were a group of girls who were mainly drug addicts – they’d been on and off ice from a very young age,” MacIntosh says. “They said they could get stuff they wanted, but they were trying to support and lift each other. There were a group of Top Dogs – two or three of them – and they were extremely violent. The tools they used were savage.”
She’s done other research, too – the kind of stuff, she says, which has taken her into the “heart of darkness”. Like watching YouTube video investigations of child trafficking. “It really helps you to know the truth, because it affects and informs the gravity of your performance,” she says. “It opens a wound inside you that is awful to live through. Everyone does their research and brings that to the set every day. But this job is so amazing because of that commitment.”
While there have been other shows that centre on women in prisons – the series on which it is based, Prisoner, for instance, and the US drama Orange is the New Black – none aims as high as Wentworth.
“I was talking to someone the other day, saying, in terms of the epic nature of the storylines – and it sounds like a really random comparison – but I was thinking of Game of Thrones,” Celia Ireland, 53, who plays Lizzie Birdsworth, says. “We have murder, torture, rape, love, although not necessarily incest, but we have all these themes and they exist inside the four walls of this prison.”
In Season 7, we find Liz, who was diagnosed with dementia in Season 6, struggling to remember her way around the prison. And yet, Ireland says, there is a “glimmer” of acceptance by Liz of her condition. What we see is the deepening of the symptoms of dementia for Liz, in terms of memory loss and paranoia, and “how she manages all of that”.
Liz was initially imprisoned for running over her mother-in-law in a tractor while drunk. After all her character has been through, Ireland concedes she wasn’t thrilled at the thought of her character getting dementia. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, but that means she’s completely diminished,’” she recalls. “But I realised that that’s not the case and there’s a lot to explore within that diagnosis and within the restricted world. But it also, really cleverly, gives the other characters a relationship to Liz and her disease.”
Dementia is obviously a crippling and, in many ways, tragic disease. In preparing for her scenes, Ireland says she spoke to a man with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, who told her he has moments of confusion, where “there is nothing familiar” and there is a “fear of feeling rudderless”. “And then the moment will pass, and someone will come along and scoop him up and there will be an identifying thing,” she says.
Oh, and while we’re talking about emotional journeys, there’s no denying it’s going to be a hell of a ride this season for Vera, who is pregnant with Jake’s (Bernard Curry) child. Atkinson is adamant about what it was like to wear a prosthetic belly. “It was horrible!” the actress laughs. “It was really uncomfortable, and I couldn’t wait to get the damn thing off. I really feel for women who have carried a baby.”
As much as fans might like to see Vera have her baby and finally, for once, enjoy a semblance of happiness, this is, after all, Wentworth. This show has a nasty habit of offering hope, only to cruelly snatch it away. “Happy endings are few and far between for poor old Vera, so who knows what could happen. But she is definitely carrying a fair-sized belly,” Atkinson says.
For more of our coverage of Wentworth Season 7, check out this week's issue of WHO.