She’s more than a New Zealand icon – she’s a New Zealand star. Sam Brooks talks to Danielle Cormack about her role as Lulu in Fresh Eggs
Danielle Cormack is, straight up, one of our most successful actresses, by whatever yardstick you choose to use to measure it. Gloss, Shortland Street, Topless Women Talk About Their Lives, Rake, Wentworth, Secret City. She’s won awards here and across the ditch for her performances in the above, and she returns to New Zealand television – don’t call it a comeback – as the riotous, villainous Lulu in Fresh Eggs, TVNZ’s black comedy about two Aucklanders who move to a small rural town.
It’s the kind of performance that would confirm her as a star if she wasn’t already well-confirmed as one, everything is firing on all cylinders, the show seems to shift energy around her to make room for both character and performance.
Lulu is hilarious, but the humour is rooted in a deeply authentic and human place. She bullies, but never for the sake of bullying. And even though she looks ridiculous, almost to the point of caricature, she looks like a hundred women I’ve met in my life. Lulu’s the kind of character you could build an entire television show, six seasons and a movie, around. Cormack turns in a performance that is more than worthy of the character, heightening all of the above while never tipping over into caricature, and making the world of Fresh Eggs a more complex, compelling place.
A while ago, I got the chance to talk to Danielle Cormack about coming back home to make Fresh Eggs, her process in finding Lulu, and weirdly, about nail art!
Sam Brooks: What’s it like shooting back home?
Danielle Cormack: I was waiting to come back to NZ to shoot something back here because I’d been working overseas for so long and it’s always been exciting to see what stories have been written, what stories have been told and who’s telling the stories now!
There’s different cinematographers coming up and having worked in the industry from a really young age, I’m seeing people that used to work as runners who are now being the DOPs and like head of departments.
We are in an incredible time of change with how we view content, and how we produce content around the world. We’re so pioneering in New Zealand but we’re a really small young country, and there’s always a struggle because we seem to be measured up against big internationals.
So, for me I’m always really interested to see how we come together to make these productions. They do actually measure up, they’ve got a really strong voice. There’s this constant investigation into our national identity, our national psyche, and it’s nice to see storytellers who are busting open these myths as well.
Which brings me to Fresh Eggs, because the show has such a specific voice and it’s not like anything I’ve ever seen here before. I grew up in a South Auckland – and it’s not the South Auckland that the media ever talks about – but I know all the kinds of people you see in Fresh Eggs. There’s a very specific, very authentic sense of humour, and I wanted to ask how you find that specific voice as an actor, and bring that into your own craft.
With a character like Lulu, it’s about finding the tone of the project and being very clear with the creatives and what they’re trying to create. I got to read the first episode of Fresh Eggs and I loved it. I met with [creators] Kim Harrop and Nick Ward, we had a discussion around the character of Lulu and I loved what their idea of her was. So I walked away with that in mind, and applied the heightened nature of her to the script.
But now I’m thinking that’s kind of wrong because I watched the show last night, and I think it’s more… well, when you meet these people, people like Lulu… if I was to mimic them perfectly and put them onscreen, you’d think I was overacting.
But it’s not at all!
I think with someone like Lulu, it’s not necessarily about the imitation of the character but about essentially where she comes from. So with Lulu, it’s imperative to her that she’s heard, so she’s loud.
And she always has been, from a very young age. And we see this come up in in a show, that she lacks any kind of empathy – it’s bordering on sociopathy. So I look into why, why is she like that, what has helped form that lack of empathy, and all that stuff is important for me to know. The audience doesn’t have to know that, but it’s strange, like there’s no magic to me. With some roles I put in a lot of work and research a lot, I think it’s important to know things about the world of the project, the character’s world.
But I think I do what I do because I channel – god, I sound like some weird soothsayer –
You don’t, you’re good!
My job is to access all the characters that I have in me, and I’ve just been a great observer – as I think we all are, whether we’re conscious of it or not, we absorb a lot – some people might not be able to act that or re-enact it, but they recognise it. When you watch something on television you’ll recognise a particular character and you do that because you know that person, maybe not from your own family, but you’ve witnessed that person on the street.
And for me, I just happen to re-enact all the different ideas of human beings, all the tones and sides of our characters, through my observation. I’m not afraid of identifying with everyone in the world. I think it’s important! You have to as an actor, you know.
That’s really hard, whether you’re an actor or not. You have to be able to understand someone you might actually hate, their own damage, their own stories, and see them as a person.
Absolutely, when you look at a character like Lulu, whose behaviour is abhorrent, there’s nothing that she does from the outside that is altruistic or caring or safe – yet from the inside it is those things. For her, she’s absolutely looking after her family.
She strikes me as someone who is so full of love, she has so much love for her husband, for her son – but she’s hardened. And she can say in her own head that she’s so full of love, but from the outside it just looks hateful. It’s a really hard thing to think but as a viewer, because of your performance, I can see the huge amount of love in her, and it feels so awesome.
Love comes in different forms. And what your idea of love might be and how someone else translates it is very different. We’ve got this idea of a pure love which is, well, probably the love that I would aspire to, but other characters, their idea of love is giving their kids Coca-Cola every day and giving them a good hiding when they run out into traffic. But that’s their way of loving, and it’s important to realise that all of these ways of loving are different facts of how we are as human beings.
For me, it’s important to realise that I can explore those through my characters, and that’s why I love what I do! Thank god. Because if I didn’t do what I do, I would hate to see what kind of human being I would be. I’d be locked up.
Honestly, same here with what I do –
I’m just looking at your nails, hold on a second, what is going on here? They’re amazing.
I was actually about to ask your nails, because I spotted them in the show!
It’s really funny, because I went in there and was like, they have to look badly done, but not so super bad – I don’t want them to be a cliche. I think she was mortified, here was this incredible nail artist who was mortified that she has to make something that looked bad!
But for me, helping build a character is all in the details. It wasn’t necessarily just about the nails, the French manicure, but about those little bits of silver glitter I had at the end of my thumbs, on the nails, but I don’t know if anyone would notice.
I have a nail art obsession.
So did Tanya do those nails?
Yeah, she’s an absolute artist.
So that was one thing for me – working with Stef Knight, who was my makeup artist – he was the other massive part in me finding my character. We worked together tirelessly to find that look too. When I first read the script, I wondered if I was physically right to play Lulu, I’m not sure whether she was written for someone of my stature. I think they imagined her quite differently.
So I was trying to find the idea of someone who lives in the middle of the country, who is going off and getting fake tans every day, who does probably aspire to be a sort of Pamela Anderson-esque baby doll, someone who does have a lot of self-love and self-care, but that might not translate to everyone as being particularly hot!
Stef and I worked really hard together, I love the mince and cheese hair, with the darker roots and blonde hair, which I actually kept in for the duration of shooting, was hilarious. It was… an offer. It was certainly an offer. And there was the fake tan – so many layers of fake tan. The mottled skin, the bleached-out eyebrows, all those little details which help marry the internal world of the character.
So while she does feel heightened, I’ve seen her a thousand times. I’ve seen that hair, I’ve seen those nails, I’ve seen that tan. It’s really great to see an actor not take the easy way out and play the joke. She’s funny, but it’s not at her expense.
Thank you for saying that, because it’s such a fine line to walk. I was not playing Lulu as a commentary on the type of character that she is, I was absolutely coming from her is. She’s heightened, she’s grotesque, she’s funny.
But one of the beautiful hooks I had for her was that I, in the script, tried to find something different to say every time she was abusive towards someone. I had this really long list on my phone of these abusive catchphrases I just made up.
So I went to the producers and said, “Do you mind if it comes up, if I see there’s a repetition?” and they were beautiful and really collaborative about it. It was about trying to find new ways to keep building on that, because you don’t want that repetition. Even though we know Lulu’s behaviour, every time we see her, we want to see her doing something new, we want her to shock us more. That’s the beauty of characters like that – how can we invent a new spin on their wheel?
Finally, you have lots of roles that aren’t ‘the wife’ or ‘the friend’, they’re fully-formed people. How does that feel?
I think there’s been a call to arms in the last few years, and thankfully some of my beautiful contemporaries and people have stood up in a public forum and spoken about female roles and how they’ve been written – or how they haven’t been written.
For me now, I look for projects that I can collaborate on. I don’t necessarily get a script now and look at it and go, “I’m going to say all those lines.” or I’m going to do exactly what that character said. Some writers might be really fucked off at that, but most writers I work with, they’re like, “Great! If you can see something else that you can add on, something that I’ve missed.” It’s not messing with the story, but adding breath and width, putting some flesh on the character.
With Lulu, and the directors, the writers, the creatives, it was fun to sit down and just add layers of everything. We’ve all got different points of view, so if I can bring something that I can see is going to enhance my character, and people are welcoming to that, I want to work with those people. So that’s how I approach my work now.
I’m happy to say that most of the characters I’ve been playing recently are extremely dynamic – very complex, very colourful. There’s lots of different nuances to excite me – that’s mostly due to fantastic writers, but then also them allowing me to bring my own spin to characters.
It’s such a joy to work with people like that.
The two part finale of Fresh Eggs airs tonight on TVNZ2 at 8:35PM.