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The primary reason we’re sitting in The Old Clare Hotel’s front bar, is to discuss the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) play she stars in from February 4, a drama written by revered stage and screenwriter Terence Rattigan called The Deep Blue Sea. Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston starred in the 2011 movie version—which, for the record, Dusseldorp won’t watch—recalling the story of a woman who walks away from everything in the ’50s (wealth, status, her high court-judge husband) after falling in love with a hapless, and eventually disappointing, fighter pilot.
“We have this amazing creative team and cast of some of my favourite performers—oh my God, I’m so excited—and so who knows what will happen through the season. That’s why I come back to theatre again and again. When you’re out on that stage together it’s so live, so raw, so real. You rely on each other so completely, the bonds formed are life affirming.”
Dusseldorp would certainly know, given the amount of time she’s spent treading the boards. Most Australians would recognise her from television hits including A Place to Call Home, All Saints and Janet King, but the 46-year-old has been a theatre regular since graduating from the Victorian College of the Arts in her twenties. One of those plays was War of the Roses alongside friend and repeat collaborator Cate Blanchett in 2009. “The first time I met her was when we did [1997 Bruce Beresford movie] Paradise Road. But we became firm friends on War,” she said of the epic eight-hour play performed in four two-hour acts.
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Dusseldorp laughs when I tell her I’ve read that she would watch Blanchett on stage multiple times during a play’s season to study her performance’s evolution. “Yeah, you’d be mad not to, but I’d just go at the beginning and the end [of the season] though—I wasn’t a stalker! The thing that really strikes me with Cate is her ability to clown and be relatable to an audience. I treasure that knowledge and when I go on stage I equally want to connect. That’s the beauty of theatre—[you’re sharing] an incredibly special moment in time.”
Dusseldorp recently joined forces again with Blanchett, who is co-creator and executive producer of hotly anticipated television series Stateless, coming to ABC TV and iview in early 2020. Its synopsis calls it an urgent and compelling drama about four people whose lives collide at an immigration detention centre in the middle of the Australian desert. Its cast is formidable too: Blanchett and Dusseldorp appear with The Handmaid’s Tale star Yvonne Strahovski, Asher Keddie, Jai Courtney, Dominic West and more. Dusseldorp plays Margot, sister to Strahovski’s character Sofie, an airline hostess who’s on the run from a cult and finds herself detained.
Like Blanchett, Dusseldorp’s passion for telling the stories of displaced people runs long and deep. In her early twenties while at university in Sydney, she would visit Villawood Detention Centre to deliver care packages for refugee families housed there. Today, she’s a Special Representative for Australia for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and has visited camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Africa to witness the plight of displaced families firsthand. “I remember going to my first registration centre in Jordan and being so overwhelmed by what I saw: families, babies, grandparents, pregnant women—just waiting for hours, days, weeks—from nowhere, going nowhere, knowing nothing, with nothing, lost everything, and everyone’s getting retina scanned for the cash assistance program, which is important but looks really dehumanising as well. At one point I had to go behind a wall and cry. What we’ve got to remember is that we are so lucky in Australia.
“I’ve always cared about displaced people, and there’s more now than ever before—more than [during] World War II. It’s only going to get worse, so we have to be prepared and open our hearts. With imagination, you have compassion and can understand this could be your family. I think we need to stick to the pure sentiment that no-one should be separated from their families. No-one should be incarcerated when they’re actually stateless, and people should be supported so they can get back on their feet. All of the refugees I met in Jordan and Lebanon said ‘I just want to go home,’ but they can’t. That’s what people need to understand. Being [stateless] is not a choice.”
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As talk loops back around to the theatre, Dusseldorp tells me of the new production company she and actor-director husband Benjamin Winspear have set up in Hobart, where they relocated to almost two years ago. Called Archipelago, it will open the studio space part of the new $96 million Hedberg Creative Arts Centre with a play called The Bleeding Tree, which centres on the topic of domestic violence. He will direct, she will star and Annabel Crabb will host a panel discussion on the topic of domestic abuse to spark conversation.
“The audiences in Tasmania are really smart. MONA is on the world stage,” she says of the southern island state that’s carving a niche for itself as an arts capital. It also happens to be Winspear’s home city, which he’s hankered to return to since the couple started dating 15 years ago. “Ben and I met when he was a resident director at the STC. I remember seeing him walk around the hallways with a beanie on the whole time, which I’ve now realised is because his hair is out of control and he couldn’t afford a haircut. I remember thinking he’s such a mysterious guy and so unassuming, then I saw his work…and I was like ‘who is this soul?’ We complement each other but we’re so completely different. That’s why it works.”
Hobart may have a slower pace for their daughters Maggie, nine, and Grace, 12, but the actor has no intention of slowing down. Along with The Bleeding Tree, she will appear in Wentworth in 2020 and is in talks with Fremantle Australia to get local television projects off the ground.
I suggest she might just be the Taika Waititi of Australia—referencing the Oscar-nominated New Zealand filmmaker and Jojo Rabbit director whose tongue-in-cheek public service announcement two years ago on YouTube “promoting” racism won him a legion of fans worldwide. Like Dusseldorp, he’s a brilliant actor and creative using his craft, particularly comedy, to get the world talking about serious humanitarian issues. She leans back in awe and laughs. “Taika is a phenomenon, so you absolutely cannot compare me to him. He is a genius and a cultural beacon on a whole other level. He’ll change the world that guy—and I want to be in the world that he creates.” I can vouch for the fact that’s a sentiment anyone who’s met Dusseldorp tends to feel, too.
Dusseldorp stars in The Deep Blue Sea, Sydney Theatre Company, February 4–March 7; sydneytheatre.com.au
Photographed by Stephen Ward. Styled by Lucy Wood. This story originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of InStyle.