On Wentworth she was a caged tiger, unpredictable, tattooed, abused and abusive.
But playing a violent criminal for five seasons of television took it out of Australian actress Nicole da Silva.
After playing the thuggish inmate Franky Doyle on the prison drama, da Silva needed a break.
For her next role, she chose a character at the opposite end of the spectrum.
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On Doctor Doctor, da Silva plays the bubbly, quirky and “effervescent” schoolteacher Charlie.
If Franky was a tiger, Charlie is a butterfly.
After years plumbing the darker corners of her psyche, da Silva jumped at the chance to do something lighter.
“It came at the perfect time after having done a few seasons in Wentworth to do something that really contrasted the role of Franky,” she says.
Doctor Doctor is based around Hugh Knight, a high-flying heart surgeon played by Roger Corser – incidentally a “long time friend” of da Silva’s and her co-star on police drama Rush.
After an incident at work, Hugh is sent to a kind of surgical purgatory. He is forced to spend a year as a GP in his hometown, the small-time country town of Whyhope.
Whyhope has changed since Hugh left for the bright lights of Sydney. His mum’s a local politician, and his brother, Matt, has married Hugh’s ex-girlfriend Charlie.
Da Silva’s character finds herself at the middle of a brotherly love triangle.
Doctor Doctor treads a line between comedy and drama, and da Silva found the lighter tone a welcome change.
“For me the biggest thing coming into Charlie was moving into a world of comedy, where everything needed to be lighter and quirkier, whereas Wentworth requires everything in me that’s dark and intense.”
Both characters are strong women, but their strength manifests in different ways, da Silva says.
“I think Franky has a level of volatility to her because of her past. I think the nature of Wentworth being what it is, there’s an edginess to her that people are attracted to, because you just don’t know which way she’s going to go from one second to the next.
“Charlie’s strength is more an internalised, low, steady strength. She can be quite flitty, but underneath it all she’s more grounded. There’s nothing aggressive about her.”
Thinking about the background of characters is an important part of da Silva’s acting process.
“Each role requires you to think outside the box, think outside what has come before. So I approach it from the perspective of their background and how that would psychologically influence them, and then it comes down to things like what they wear, how they present themselves in the world, where they carry their body, where their voice is.”
“I wanted there to be a real effervescence to Charlie, I think that’s part of her appeal. I wanted there to be a little bit of looseness in her physicality,” da Silva says.
Doctor Doctor also allowed da Silva to escape the city and spent some time living closer to nature. Filming was mostly in the small town of Mudgee in New South Wales.
“It was really wonderful, we had a really warm reception in Mudgee. It’s always great for me to come home to New South Wales and be able to work here, and then getting the bonus of going up to Mudgee and exploring the surrounds was really great. And the locals were really welcoming, it was gorgeous.
“When you’re on the road with cast and crew there’s a tendency to become a big travelling family, so you all have dinner together at the end of the day, and you catch up and you go and see sights together. That’s always a really lovely bonding experience.”
Towns like Mudgee are familiar to the series’ writer, Tony MacNamara, who grew up in a similar situation. McNamara based the plot and characters of the show partly on his own experiences.
Da Silva thinks having that legitimate experience in the writing team helps make the show – and her own role – more convincing.
“I think if you look at the context of a show on paper, it would be understandable to think ‘Oh, this is something we’ve seen before.’
“But the fact of the matter is, this show is not like anything we’ve seen before, and it’s a real fresh take on what country life is like, and it’s a more realistic take on country life and who are the characters you might expect to find there.
“I think in days past country characters would have been presented in a really traditional, bland, vanilla kind of way, but Doctor Doctor subverts that completely, and I think that’s what’s wonderful about it.”
But will Kiwi audiences recognise the authentic rural lifestyle she’s talking about? Can we relate to the show?
“I think at the end of the day, regardless of the context or setting for a story, at the end of the day we’re presenting complex and flawed, funny humans. I would always hope that that transcends borders, and New Zealanders love it just as much as Australians.”
The show has been a big hit in Australia, where it’s been renewed for a second season. It’s far from da Silva’s first hit, though. Wentworth became one of the most significant series to come out of Australia in recent years.
Da Silva says she wasn’t always confident it would find an audience.
“I’m sure when we first started out the producers and directors and writers had a vision, I know that we had the vision for the show. But that’s not something we as the actors really understood until we were part way through filming the first season and then watched a few of the episode to really get what kind of world we were living in.
“And I remember when we did watch those first few episodes, because we had never seen anything like it, we weren’t really sure how it would be received. And you don’t really know, because there’s so may cases of really great shows or movies being made that don’t hit at the time that they’re released, because it’s also about political environmental context, what’s going on at the time, and what people are craving.
“It’s always a gamble and that was the same for Wentworth as it was the same for Doctor Doctor, you never know quite what’s going to hit because there are so many variables.”
Doctor Doctor starts May 3 at 8.30pm on TVNZ 1.