“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

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - Photograph­y TIM HUNTER In­ter­view ALICE WASLEY

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...

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