Underbelly: articles

Danielle Cormack plays 'sly grog' queen and drug dealer Kate Leigh in 'Underbelly: Razor.'

'Underbelly: Razor' star is a cut above

Meaty female roles are few and far between so Danielle Cormack jumped at the chance to play a tough-as-old-boots crim in 1920s Australia. She talks to Scott Kara.

A bloody feud between Sydney's two most powerful women - who between them pretty much ran the city back in the late 1920s and into the 30s - started over a dog. A fluffy little pomeranian pooch to be exact.

In 1927, all hell broke loose when brothel owner Tilly Devine stole "sly grog" queen Kate Leigh's beloved mutt.

"Some people might see it as a very trivial way for a feud to start," ponders Kiwi actress Danielle Cormack, who plays Leigh in the latest Underbelly series entitled Razor, "but I guess it's a matter of how you view your pets," she laughs.

Of course, there was more to it than just the dog, because Devine, played by fellow New Zealand actress, Chelsie Preston Crayford, was already muscling in on Leigh's patch and biffo between the two was inevitable.

"These two women were never going to be in competition with each other because Tilly was running brothels and Kate groggeries, and they could have worked hand in hand together very very successfully," says Cormack, "but there was just something about this one up-womanship where the personal jealousy and obsession took over."

These Aussie crime queens and their gangs, and other ruthless crims from this heady era of illegal booze and drugs, prostitution and gambling, are the focus of Underbelly: Razor (starting September 28 at 8.30pm on TV3).

It was a hell of a time to be a crook; with police cracking down on guns, the weapons of choice became razors - hence the razor gangs label - and many people were maimed, disabled, or killed as they tried to cash in on the illicit trades in the Sydney suburbs of Darlinghurst (aka Razorhurst), Surry Hills and Kings Cross.

The underbelly was ruthless: be it Tilly trawling the unmarried mums' ward at the hospital for potential new prostitutes, or the brutal bashings dished out by Melbourne heavy Norman Bruhn who was on his own personal mission to get to the top of the heap in "Pussy Town".

For Cormack, who has had major parts in everything from Hercules, Xena and Shortland Street, to films like Topless Women Talk About Their Lives and The Price of Milk, playing Kate Leigh is a unique role.

"You don't get to play a woman who's running a gang of guys - and also running a section of a city - very often. She is unashamedly in control. But Kate is still a mother, a homemaker, and she really enjoys a lot of the aspects of being a woman. She's very sexual."

Cormack's right. Leigh is saucy, strong and uncompromising.

"She was also the most amazingly generous woman. She threw Christmas parties for orphans, she threw presents off her balcony at Christmas time, so she was this incredibly altruistic woman. But then, the polar opposite, she was one of nastiest, most dreadful, scary woman in Sydney."

The real-life Leigh had a tough upbringing, was in trouble from a very young age, and fended for herself from the age of 12 which gave her a fearlessness and toughness.

In her mid-teens she moved to Sydney and became a prostitute and thief, and in her 20s spent seven years in jail after committing perjury while trying to stick up for a former lover.

But as Razor starts she is a 35-year-old hard-nut queen bee of Sydney leading a fleet of thieves, drug pushers, and running a chain of sly groggeries where punters can drink after hours.

"By the time that we meet her in Underbelly there has been a lot going on for Kate - she was a tough cookie," says Cormack.

She also had many quirks, such as peeling her vegetables in court (much to the disdain of the judges) and her obsession with baking, to avid gun collecting and being teetotal despite booze and drugs being her main business.

"Even though she peddled cocaine, stolen goods, and ran several groggeries, she never drank, never smoked, never did cocaine.

"She hated the smell of cigarettes, she hated booze, and from my point of view of playing her I just think she saw those things as a weakness. She saw how it made people behave and people became weaker when they were out of control.

"So when other people might go to the pub and drink, or snort lots of cocaine, or snow as they called it back then, Kate would go and bake. She was an incurable baker and there was always something happening in her kitchen."

The series is based on the book Razor by author Larry Writer, and the makers of Underbelly took a graphic novel approach to shooting the series - making it an odd but intriguing mix of vintage style and raw glamour.

"It's so fast-paced, and quite contrary to the style you'd think would be adopted for this particular era. So the Underbelly DNA is fully intact in this series and I think if you watch it with that graphic novel view then you will understand it," says Cormack.

She moved to Australia 18 months ago to star in Australian comedy drama Rake, then Underbelly came up.

"It's going better for me over here than in New Zealand," she says.

"I'm getting more work. And what I've found is when you do work over here, and the more work you do, the more people want to work with you."

The Underbelly producers invited Cormack to audition for the show though initially she didn't have any interest in the fourth series of the popular franchise. But then she heard it was for a 1920s and 30s-era Underbelly and that they wanted her for the role of Leigh.

"I jumped at it because of the magnitude of the story, and also the complexity of the character and also the opportunity to play one of the lead roles in a major TV series who is an amazing, strong, and driven female. She was a fearless woman.

"I know I sound like a broken record but those roles come along so seldomly and there are many actresses out there who would testify to that."

By Scott Kara
September 15, 2011
New Zealand Herald