Janet King Goes Undercover
Janet, Bianca and crew are back, and we spoke to Marta Dusseldorp to get the lowdown.
It’s no secret how excited this particular writer has been about the arrival of the latest series of Janet King, the critically acclaimed law drama and political thriller with the lesbian lead character. And so, it was my very great pleasure to enjoy a long chat and discuss all things Janet, with the warm and friendly star of the show, Marta Dusseldorp.
There’s a lot more lightness to this series, the third instalment so far. Series 2 had Janet mourning the loss of Ash, her partner and co-parent to their twins. Now, it’s four years into the future and Janet is in a much happier and healthier place. “She’s had 4 years in Fiji working, and I just went to Fiji and there’s definitely a “Fiji time” that exists,” laughs Dusseldorp. “So it was important to show that. She’s in a really great relationship with Bianca. She’s in love. She feels that the kids are doing really well, and she’s been invited back into a really important position, but one that is out of the public spotlight, which is something she really needed.”
The ‘position’ is to run a reference for the National Crime Commission, a secret organisation run by the government –something of a combination of police investigation and law court, with powers to investigate and question people, answerable to no one except themselves. Janet’s old friend Tony is running the reference, with the investigation looking for links between gambling, match fixing and corruption in sport. This secrecy frees Janet to not only do her job, but also manage her home life - kids and a relationship with Inspector Bianca Grieve (Anita Hegh). “We now have someone who’s been burnt but has fully repaired, and is happy to run something undercover –and she can just get on with the work. But Janet being Janet, she gets too involved and ends up jeopardising her own happiness,” she chuckles. “But I think people who work in that world do – they forget to take care of their own patch because they’re seeing people who are in serious trouble. It’s a beautiful journey for Janet this time, I think, and having Tony and Richard and Owen all back together in different roles in the community helps to expose different elements of her.”
So how much does Dusseldorp know about sport? Because it is clear from the first few moments of episode one that Janet knows next to nothing, an element of this series which provides previously unseen humour. “Me? None,” she almost monotones. “So I thought it was important for Janet not to either. So we watch her learn, like I learnt. And it’s not really about understanding sport as such, because her concern is what is happening to the athletes across many sports, and what is the underlying epidemic of drug cheating or guinea pigging or how a family is affected. That’s really her concern. So we started off making it clear that she doesn’t really know about it, and then she gets involved with the individuals, and that’s where the human stories start opening up.” Dusseldorp pauses in thought. “And we were able to do that, because she wasn’t mourning the loss of her partner, or worried her children were being taken away from her, so we were able to bring it back to the human and the silliness of being human… For someone who’s supposed to know everything, to finally not know something, I thought, ‘What a relief for everyone… me particularly!’” she laughs.
There are a number of new characters, and Janet’s interaction with the new analyst in the office, bouncy, confident millennial, Bonnie Mahesh (Geraldine Viswanathan), is quite hilarious. Bonnie forces Janet to deal with a dynamic that she’s not quite used to in a professional setting; being treated as an equal by someone younger than herself. Her former roles at the DPP and as Royal Commissioner saw her junior colleagues all bow in deference – almost fear – but Bonnie just goes about her business, almost making jokes at Janet’s expense. After two seasons where the main narratives dealt with child pornography, PTSD and other mental health issues, loss and grief, it almost feels wrong to be laughing at Janet and her discomfort in this way. Dusseldorp is adamant, “No, we want you to laugh! We need people to start laughing because last season was tough. We’re all aware of that, and we want it to be entertainment, so there’s definitely a lot more levity now. We’re able to shake off that season of despair, and there’s a lot of hope in the show now as well.”
Another intriguing dynamic that is set to be explored in this series is that of Janet’s relationship with her father, hinted at in the trailer. “Part of what we’re doing in this series is exposing just how deep and corrupt people become in this environment, and why are they corrupt? And a lot of the time it’s to do with their own lives, and the fear for their own families and they’ve gotten in too deep and they made a mistake and they can’t go back. That’s a huge part of it. There’s no finger-pointing; there’s an examination of why we do what we do, and the base of that is Janet meeting her father,” Dusseldorp explains. “She is having to face her maker and what that’s done to her in her life, and why she is who she is; why she walks through a room and couldn’t care less what happens to the people behind her. But she does this as a woman and she’s had to because if you don’t, then you become mulch…and she doesn’t want to be mulch, she wants to be the oak tree.”
Given we have seen Janet through so much since her Crownies days, this is the final frontier for her as Dusseldorp reveals. “He’s never been mentioned. Why? Where was he? And what is he to her? Because when you look at a woman who is as powerful as Janet - and we’ve met her mother, and she’s lovely but a bit narcissistic and insipid – so where did she come from? What if we meet the person that she came from? And what happens when you put them in a room together?” she laughs, indicating that there may be fireworks when that eventuates. “But what does that then do to Bianca, who is the closest thing to family for Janet, because she doesn’t get on with her mum, and now she’s learnt to love again, and so when the old family comes in and says ‘You’re mine… and these children are mine,’ what does that do to the new family that’s been created?”
And what of Dusseldorp’s own family during the extraordinarily long and demanding hours of shooting Janet King – how does she cope seeing so little of her husband and two daughters? “The thing about Janet is that I’m in pretty much every scene, and I’m there from the very beginning, when the seed is pushed into the earth. So I’m eating, sleeping, dreaming her for a very long time, and I very rarely leave the set, so it’s my life, it’s everything. And I’m working on lines every Saturday and Sunday for at least 6 hours, so there’s a commitment and a total absorption. It’s a bit like being a monk – you live in a cave and you can’t see anyone and you can’t do anything and you just live, breathe, eat, and go to the bathroom with that,” she says. “But you can never put family aside, as you know. My daughters go, “Oh, it’s Janet King now, is it?” she laughs. “But it’s just the understanding, we just do, and that’s what Janet does. I go out of my way to try and balance the love, and I’ve got an amazing supportive husband who does everything so that they don’t feel like they don’t have parents! We do sacrifice for that time, but I think it’s worth it because I think the show is unique, and – without sounding too earnest – I do think it’s important. I think what we talk about is what’s happening and it’s Australian and it’s our culture and it’s what’s happening here.”
And of course, another thing that is happening here that we don’t see enough on our televisions is the lesbian visibility that this show provides us with. The pride and importance in seeing yourself represented on the screen, as a part of a minority group can not be under-estimated, and Janet King is a true pioneer in showing our people and our relationships in an open and non-judgemental way, with no hysteria or hyperbole attached. So much so, that there’s no skirting around the issue – Janet and Bianca just ‘are’. The series opens and they are not only clearly in love, but they are put straight into the bath together! Dusseldorp laughs heartily, “I can’t believe they put the bath scene on the promo!”
The decision to begin with their relationship so open, when they could have made some mileage in the “are they, aren’t they?” question, was largely due to listening to the audience and working with what they were responding to. “Part of our duty is to listen to people because we make it for you - we don’t make it for us. The feedback was, ‘We love it, and we love them! And we love how they love.’ And there was certainly chemistry! Anita’s just divine,” she enthuses. “Season 2 was more than any of us could have hoped for. There was renewal. So for this season it was not even a question. It was just like, ‘So they’re working together…’ The biggest question was, ‘Have they moved in together?’ So, watch this space…”
But it’s not all smooth sailing. “There’s a gorgeous scene right towards the end where Janet makes the biggest mistake in the relationship, and you think, ‘Don’t… No! Can’t you see what you’re…? No!’ Her blindness comes back – she’s in love, so she takes for granted the rest and not everyone works that way,” Dusseldorp laughs. “But having said that, they’re incredibly close and she needs Bianca, which I really love – we’ve not seen that before, and there are lots of really lovely little moments that I hope people enjoy as much as we enjoyed playing them.”
Dusseldorp then effervesces, “And yeah, put ‘em in the bath! Because that’s what we do when we’re in love – you get nude and get in the water! They’ve got a hotel room in Melbourne for the first time! Because that’s a side we haven’t really seen of Janet – that healthy sexual side. Ash and I were always fighting, we had these 9 month olds, you know, it was complicated.”
And her final thoughts on playing a role such as Janet, one that has become such an representative for the LGBTI community – is this something that is important to Marta Dusseldorp, the individual. “Well yes, of course. I think all people need to be able to love who they want, and be married and live in peace for who they are and what they want to do. I mean any creative person understands that because we have imagination so we have compassion. It’s a basic human right.”