“It has changed me forever” After starring in a string of small-screen hits, Wentworth’s Danielle Cormack has embarked on a life-changing journey to Uganda.
Actor Danielle Cormack could have rested on her laurels after starring in a string of television hits. Instead, she chose to embark on a life-changing charity trip to Africa
few months ago, actor Danielle Cormack embarked on a lifechanging trip to Uganda. When she arrived in the Amuda region, located in the northern part of the country, an old friend was waiting to greet her, face-to-face, for the first time.
“I don’t think that I have felt that much anticipation for a long time,” Cormack says, as she recalls an account of the meet-up now she has returned to Australia. Her excitement was reasonable – Cormack was about to meet Akullu Lona, a 19-year-old woman she had been exchanging letters with since Akullu was six. That was when Cormack first became her sponsor through the international development organisation Childfund. Upon arriving, Cormack received an unexpectedly elaborate, loved-up version of hello.
“I was extremely overwhelmed by the family’s welcome, the women all ululating and waving branches,” Cormack explains. “When I finally spotted Akullu through all the faces, we couldn’t stop laughing and hugging and crying. She showed me around her family’s land and huts, and we eventually just sat with each other and shared stories as we perused all our letters. At times, we weren’t saying anything – I think we were just taking in the moment, finally being in the same place.” It was, she tells Stellar, “one of the more rare and unique connections in my life”.
The New Zealand-born actor is best known for her roles in Wentworth and Rake, two critically acclaimed television series that each boasts a legion of fans. She no longer stars in either; her characters met famously grisly ends that shocked viewers. On the upside, finishing those jobs allowed Cormack, 46, to focus on a different task: her role as Childfund’s ambassador for Australia and New Zealand, which she’s held now for four years. She’s visited Cambodia and Vietnam to see their work firsthand, and her recent Ugandan trip included a stop in Kenya, too.
“I was drawn to the organisation, as the work they do is based on what the communities need; they initiate programs and training where self-dependence and sustainable development goals are paramount,” she says. “Unless there is an emergency and immediate relief is needed, like in the parts of Kenya I visited, there’s an anti hand-out approach – it’s based more on [a] hand- up. I have visited communities that are completely self-sustaining after working with Childfund. So the model works.”
Her longtime penpal Akullu is studying to become a nurse and lives with her grandparents; in the area, family dwellings tend to be grassthatched houses with wattle and mud walls, surrounded by a landscape dominated by savanna grassland and swamps. Most residents, like Akulla’s family, are peasant farmers. In her community, Childfund focuses on the lack of clean water and nutritious food, improving health facilities, school infrastructure, agriculture, and developing an immunisation program.
When Cormack visited, the region had recently received rain, so things were a bit more prosperous than in other drought-stricken areas, where an immediate focus is on getting food to undernourished locals. “They’re living hand to mouth,” Cormack says. “The early childhood development centres – think our preschools – have now been designated [as] feeding centres. People turn up there every day to be fed, and to feed their kids. And that’s probably the only nutritious meal some of those kids will get that day.”
The United Nations calls Africa’s current food disaster the worst humanitarian crisis since the UN was created following World War II. At present, more than 80 million people in 13 countries urgently need food. Around half those affected are children, and it is estimated that 2.5 million kids are at risk of death due to starvation.
Cormack has two children – Ethan, 21, and Ahi, seven. What she saw in Africa hit close to home, but she had to avoid becoming overwhelmed. “When you’re there it’s, ‘Let’s get these children fed, first and foremost,’” she says. “And then, at the moment there’s not just a lack of food [but] a lack of morale. It’s about playing games with them and singing songs. They loved to sing and dance and play, and would just repeat everything I said. I spent hours playing with kids! A lot of the adults said, ‘It’s great to see our kids having fun.’”
Cormack was joined on her trip by her partner Adam Anthony, a director, producer and editor. Together they filmed content for Childfund to use in its awareness campaigns. “It’s great because we were able to decompress with each other and debrief, and then talk about it and get that coverage, which is really important,” she says.
Childfund Australia CEO Nigel Spence says Cormack’s empathy makes her the perfect publicly recognised ally. “With her genuine commitment to improving the lives of children living in poverty, as well as a strong interest in global issues and human rights, Danielle is a compassionate and articulate spokesperson for Childfund Australia and New Zealand,” he says. “Danielle understands the complex environments organisations like Childfund work in. She has also experienced and seen personally the enormous difference that international aid programs can make.”
EYE-OPENING TRIPS like Cormack’s tend to prompt reflection, and now that she’s home in Sydney, the gravity of the situation in Africa has taken hold. “To step off the plane, into a home that has clean running water, a stocked fridge, and my child has access to quality education and so forth?” she asks. “I’m not in the game of feeling guilty about that, but I’ll do whatever I can to help others that don’t have access to these things. I think I’m still taking stock – and frankly won’t ever stop.”
Still, Cormack has never been too good at staying away from her primary passion. An original cast member of New Zealand’s long-running soap Shortland Street, Cormack fell in love with acting from a young age, and recalls “skiving off school” to audition for roles and appear as an extra in films. “My mum’s got stories of production companies ringing her up, saying, ‘Hi, Danielle’s due at her wardrobe call,’” she remembers with a laugh. “And she had no idea what I was up to!”
Following a busy career in New Zealand, Cormack landed the lifechanging role of Scarlet in Rake which, she says, “enabled me to be introduced to the industry here… so I guess I hold it in a special place. Because people love the show. It’s wonderful.” Rake led to Underbelly: Razor (playing Sydney crime queen Kate Leigh was, she says, “pretty special”) and the “iconic character” of Bea Smith in Foxtel’s Wentworth. “I’ve had an extraordinary run.”
Cormack’s primary training was onstage, so she admits to being “superexcited” about her next two jobs. Next year, she’ll take the title role in Hedda, in Queensland Theatre’s riff on the Henrik Ibsen classic Hedda Gabler, set in the seedy Gold Coast underworld. She will also front Sydney’s Bell Shakespeare and Griffin Theatre Company’s coproduction, an adaptation of Molière’s The Misanthrope, a role traditionally played by a male. “Two theatrical world premieres!” she says. “These are roles I have always hoped would cross my path. I think it’s thrilling that Australian writers are taking classic plays and spinning them on their heads – messing with gender and identity.”
She’s slotting back into the rhythms of her life as an actor, but Cormack remains changed by her African trip. “I always remember the old line: ‘Eat all your dinner because there are so many people in the world that are starving,’ and I always promised myself I would never say that to my own children,” she admits. “But it sort of floats around in the back of my mind.” One day, she tells Stellar, she’s hoping her son Ahi can accompany her on a similar trip.
“The privilege of being in the company of different levels of human resilience is an amazing gift,” she says. “It’s made me reflect on my own experience; it’s just a matter of environment and circumstance. It has certainly increased my levels of empathy. Without a doubt.”
“I’m not in the game of feeling guilty, but I’ll do whatever I can to help others. I won’t stop”
JOURNEY WOMAN (clockwise from left) Danielle Cormack as Bea in Wentworth; with Matt Day in Rake; visiting Turkana, Kenya, where “the kids loved to see themselves on the phone screen and loved doing selfies with me"; meeting akullu Lona, “I was...
HELPINGtop) Cormack HAND wearing (from belts made by the Maka Emali craft group, which Childfund are helping to upskill so they can sell their goods online locally and overseas; with Childfund interpreters and the “grandmother” of the Maasai tribe...