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Playing Janet King taught me a lot

09 May 2016

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Australian actor Marta Dusseldorp (above far right in ABC TV's Janet King) made some important decisions at 14. Having danced every day from the age of four she chose to hang up her slippers and continue with school rather than trying out for the Australian Ballet. She also asked to be sent away to board to escape the commotion of her younger twin brothers, known fondly as Search and Destroy, at home.

While she has reportedly said she hated boarding she did find drama at school and went on to study it at the University of New South Wales and Victorian College of the Arts before landing a role in the Bruce Beresford film Paradise Road. Her career, however, has been dominated by the stage and TV screen. She has most recently been working in series such as the ABC’s Janet King and Jack Irish, as well as the Channel Seven drama A Place to Call Home. In August, she will return to the stage at Sydney’s Griffin theatre.

“TV needs to twist and turn for people to stay interested. Cinema on the other hand is concentrated. It is what I’d call a still life, a forensic examination of one experience,” says Marta, who’s ringing from Camden in Sydney’s southwest and apologising ahead of time for the possibility that if she moves too much our connection could be lost.

Another difference she sees between film and TV is in audience reach. According to Marta, well over a million Australians watch her each week in Janet King.

"A film might be lucky to get 100,000 people in the door,” she notes.

What has her work taught her about herself and her influence?

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“When I landed the role as Sarah Adams (above) in A Place to Call Home, the producers sat us down to tell us we would become household names and that we’d be helped in how to deal with being recognisable.

“I thought, oh, don’t be ridiculous. No one is ever going to know who I am. But it does happen and it has changed me. Not that I make a habit of it, but you really can never be rude in public, because sure enough the one time you succumb to road rage or whatever, you’ll be photographed and  you’ll see the look on the face of the person you’ve just abused and it will say, Sarah Adams just screamed at me. I am calm in public and I try and stay under the radar.”

As for her Janet King role, where she plays a “sharp shooting, straight talking” Senior Crown Prosecutor, Marta says Janet has taught her to be a little bit stronger in stating the facts and keeping it real and true.

“Her [Janet’s] character’s taught me that if you’re good at your job and know what you are talking about, then let people know it. If you really have something to say, say it.”

Nominated for her role as Janet King in this year’s Logies, Marta looks forward to TV’s night of celebration - although a little apprehensively.

The Logies she believes are the coming together of all genres of TV: “Every person in the room is doing the same thing - trying to feed this insatiable box that people turn on in their homes at about 5pm and turn off at who knows what hour. There’s great community in TV, but nights like the Logies are hard because they can be long.”

This August’s return to the stage in Benedict Andrew’s Gloria has Marta feeling nervous. It’s been a while since she’s ‘trod the boards’.

“It’s an old fashioned idea but in theatre you are a part of a bigger thing - you serve the play. That is the way I come at any job. I have to know the whole story because then I can serve it the best. I am not interested in standing out but standing in the story.”

An analogy for the process from her old dance days comes to mind: “It is a humiliation to kick too high.”

“Theatre,” she continues, “also teaches you that sometimes you can be in a play and might not like the way the direction is going and that’s just bad luck. I learned early on that if you try and push something to where you think it should be, well, you better watch out. I think that’s the way TV works as well. You play your note. You work in and on it and with the team.”

Actors function under the same norms the rest of us experience in our working lives. In fact, according to Marta, “That’s our job to capture people and their reactions. We are the norms. In anything you do you need to turn up, know your lines, work really hard and push boundaries here and there. I don’t know a job that doesn’t involve these things. Acting might occasionally be different in that you might have to cry for a dead lover you don’t even have, or make love to a lover you don’t know. That’s the fun bit. The rest of it is maintaining the status quo.”