Interview with Socratis Otto (Wentworth)

This last week I was given the great pleasure of interviewing fellow Australian and actor, Socratis Otto, cast member of nationally and internationally acclaimed prison drama Wentworth. Socratis spoke with me about what it has been like portraying the first ever transgender character on Australian television, the responsibility he felt in authentically illustrating his characters story and the importance of having LGBTQ representations throughout the media. Season 4 has seen his character – Maxine Conway – experience one of life’s hardest challenges, and he also talks about how it has been to inhabit that storyline. See below for the full interview, and be prepared to be deeply inspired and moved; Socratis, his work, in combination with creative team behind Wentworth, has smashed through the glass ceiling this season, changing the face of Australian drama in the process. I and the entire TV Series Hub team extend our warmest thanks to Socratis for his time, openness and generosity.

What was the audition process like for Wentworth? Were you specifically approached for the role, or did you go through the audition process like everyone else?

I had auditioned for a role in CARLOTTA (biopic based on one of the original Les Girls entertainers and the first to undergo gender reassignment surgery in Aus). The casting agents were involved in casting Wentworth and suggested I audition for Maxine.

What about the character of Maxine, back at the beginning, really spoke to you? And has that changed as she has evolved throughout her time at Wentworth?

The brief specifically referred to Maxine as a non-violent person, a woman who was softly spoken, vulnerable, and deeply emotional – traits not often applied to male roles offered in the industry. Maxine struggled with the rules of the prison (well rules in general) but alongside Bea she soon realised in order to survive in this type of confinement she had to confront fears within. Notions of herself she didn’t like or know she could tap into – violence, authority, leadership. Both Bea and Maxine are very intelligent women with extreme depth and usually it’s the battle between heart and mind that often sees individuals struggle the most and we’ve predominantly witnessed these two characters wrestle with how to ‘survive’ across seasons.

Was there anything in particular you did to prepare for the role of Maxine (e.g. research, conversations with transgender individuals)?

I did a fair amount of research on the science of gender reassignment surgery, hormones and how they both alter and don’t alter a body and age range of Maxine’s description. The inner life was easier to tap into as we’ve all at some point in our lives felt wrong, unseen, desperate, often misunderstood. I altered my diet, worked with a speech therapist, and was introduced to an amazing range of skin and hair products that don’t just do wonders for women!

In regards to Australia television, Maxine is one, if not the only transgendered character we see; how important do you feel it is to have all members of the LGBTQ community represented? And personally, for you how has it been being able to represent the Trans community?

The response has totally reinforced how fundamental it is to have more stories, more representations of the LGBTQ community represented across our screens and all media. There are still so many people that place this community in one box and don’t understand the differences involved even in the term ‘trans’. There is still so much stigma attached to the entire community and stereotypes still prevail. It boils down to education and I am so honoured to have portrayed Maxine in such a powerful and positive light for those so long silenced or without a voice, that now feel supported, that see their struggle for acceptance and integration into wider society doesn’t have to mean it be a hopeless situation. They can rise to it, be supported, be seen, heard, understood and accepted for their true selves.

What has been the most challenging part of playing Maxine, and why?

I have said this previously but it still remains the biggest challenge – continuing to portray Maxine with as much authenticity as I can being a man and not being part of the trans community. This season with Maxine’s breast cancer diagnosis, I was aware that her story was going to affect many people that think they are unable to identify with Maxine as she’s often labelled ’trans’. The wondrous thing about this season is that with Maxine facing breast cancer audiences are learning that her conflict is a universal one and her dilemma isn’t so foreign.  Again, we’re breaking stereotypes and furthering education that is crucial in eliminating stigma and prejudice still aimed toward the LGBTQ community.

Since arriving at Wentworth, what has been your favourite/hardest/fun scene to do?

May I refer to seasons instead Alex? Season 2 was difficult as Maxi was horribly scrutinised, bullied, and all humiliation she grew up facing was hurled at her once again. S3 lighter as she earned a respect amongst the women having educated and changed their perceptions. We saw her relax, be more confident, her wit and sass flourished, she felt at home with her new family. But it’s S4 that has been the hardest and most rewarding – we finally meet and see how she still pines for Gary, and the scenes between Bea, Boomer, & Maxine explore a deeper dimension to what true friendship means – true love in fact, and involve such sacrifice that in order to make the story resonate, we knew we had some heavy emotions to work with. 

Do you have a ritual on set before you start shooting? Music you listen to? I’m sure the make-up, hair and costume play a part in the preparation.

Ha yes. Tess our hair and make up guru is an 80’s music fan like myself. Being the first one in the chair each morning (usually 4:30 am) we’ve got the iPod streaming our fave 80’s tunes – we have a penchant for soul/r’n’b. Make-up specifically is something that gets me over the line. I grew my hair between S3 and S4 (S2 & S3 were shot back to back without a break) so by S4 most of Maxine’s hair was mine own. When we established her look in S2 it took up to 2.5 hrs in the chair. By S4 we got it down to an hour.

Maxine’s cancer diagnosis is heartbreaking, and another issue that is rarely depicted in television. What was your reaction when you found out her story was going in this direction? How has it been inhabiting that this season?

It proves how daring the Wentworth team are and to trust me with such a story was a real testament. As actors you always look for projects and characters that will help you raise the bar. It really is a once in a lifetime role if you think about it – then to have the cancer thread this season – that combination is something I have never seen on screens before. Furthermore across four seasons it’s the first character we’ve seen in conflict with an issue totally independent from the relationships and happenings within the prison. It’s another first for Wentworth. I’m very blessed and proud as a male actor in a show predominantly about women to have had that amount of responsibility.  The production team is so collaborative and I suggested some scenes/moments which i thought were crucial in the telling of her story that thankfully made it to screen in Ep7. Most of us have an affiliation with someone that has struggled with the disease. Who are we in the face of a life and death diagnosis? What do our loved ones reveal about us in these moments? How does that then change our identity and what then do we understand our lives to really mean? Maxine I’m sure in all this dilemma has wrestled with the idea that she can finally claim herself a ‘woman’ being diagnosed with what for so long has been considered a ‘woman’s disease’ and therefore die proudly. What’s been rather unexpected is after the episode aired I had numerous responses from straight women very shaken up who were not facing breast cancer – women simply teased all their lives for having large or small breasts thus quite indifferent or shamed by them that were now able to for the first time re-think about the relevance of what their breasts meant to them, what it would mean to lose them and therefore re-establish a perception of themselves they had never considered before. As a man to have that kind of reach is both surreal and very fulfilling.

Bea and Maxine have such a deeply loyal friendship, one that knows no boundaries. How has it been exploring that dynamic with Danielle (Cormack)?

To work alongside such a selfless intelligent goddess as such is Danielle and to explore such a bond between these characters was serendipitous. It’s an incredible friendship and the world has accepted these two as more than an alliance. We never questioned the dynamic – it just felt right. Their lives and hearts are in sync, they understand each others rhythms and fears – they share so much in common. Dan remains one of the most committed and invigorated performers I’ve ever been gifted to work opposite. And I bow to her. What you see on screen between us is real.

With that said, this season has already seen a crack in their bond. Maxine has this tendency to put everyone’s needs above her own, but is she starting to realize that maybe it’s time for a bit of self-love?

You’d hope so! But it’s inherent in her – she always felt like she was second best and everyone else was primary. Easy to imagine really with how trans folk were and are still being stigmatised. On the outside she was a carer for the disabled/disadvantaged so it’s something that she can’t help prioritise – ensuring everyone’s best interests and safety. But then it’s also just her soul. It’s the type of heart she has. The noblest act of all was sacrificing the drug trial that may have been able to starve the tumours and have her remain on her hormones yet she chose to honour Bea’s request and keep an eye on the women whilst Bea was in the slot. And of course there’s no arguing that this decision also distracted Maxine from facing her own reality but we all know Maxi by now, she struggles to prioritise herself. However after seeing Bea’s and Boomer’s anguish over losing her is able to look at herself and realise her worth as a human being far outweighs her gender. So perhaps a new awakening lies ahead.

You have a background in theatre, how would you compare working in theatre to working in television?

Polar ends of the spectrum. The live thrill of theatre is always fascinating – anything could happen at any moment and I don’t mean a delayed lighting cue, or someone in the audience yelling out something inappropriate haha. Deep into week 3 you may say a line and the response comes back at you differently and the story may suddenly shift and the play move into a new direction and you start to explore uncharted layers. In television you don’t ever quite get the chance to explore that. You may have the luxury to rehearse a scene a few times but it moves so rapidly that most of the acting work is discussed between the technical setting up of shots and sometimes you work with actors who prefer not to rehearse and perform the scene once the camera rolls. There’s a thrill in that as well. With this particular Wentworth team, there was such inherent care and respect for the show, we all felt we were operating as one machine.  

This season is really delving into the psychology of the characters, what can you tease going forward with Maxine (without giving anything away that is)?

I’m glad the psychology has been explored alongside the action – I think that’s why the season has been embraced more so than any previous ones. Audiences are getting their expected thrills alongside learning and seeing more of the characters’ inner lives. I’m sorry I can’t tease anything further. But Alex you know Wentworth, just when you think it’s going one way….

What has been the most rewarding part of this experience, being part of Wentworth?

So much has been rewarding. Working alongside such actors and creatives, the groundbreaking character and her story, reaching a global audience – the fandom is gobsmacking in their appreciation and love. It’s all been rewarding Alex. Ultimately though, it’s having even just helped one soul out there struggling similarly to Maxine, able to identify with her and feel less alone in the world.

Who is your favourite character on the show (apart from your own) and why?

I’m torn between Bea and Boomer. And maybe it’s coz I’ve had the most to do with them. Both have massive hearts yet their minds tick at different paces – and Maxine has such deep devotion to both. She sees the little girl within reflected in both these women.

I imagine the cast being really fun in between takes to lighten the mood, does this happen?

Often. So often. The outtakes look as though we’re filming a sketch comedy show. There is much camaraderie between cast and crew – we’re all imprisoned in the one facility – everyone, from producers, to editors, to admin, art department, cast. One big dysfunctional family I call it. How can there not be laughter amongst the tears? It’s quite an inexplicable bond this one.