The Sigrid Factor

6 August 2019 Amy Hetherington

The Sigrid Factor

Photo by Nine Network

Sigrid Thornton talks being in trouble with the law – on screen and off.

My childhood was quite nomadic. I was born in Canberra, moved to Brisbane as a baby and then spent some time in the UK and New Zealand, and then ended up back in Brisbane. I’ve met a lot of actors who have had cross-cultural experiences as children.

Feeling like an outsider is something that draws people to performance work because it’s a way to understand how best to fit into an environment where one feels alien. I’m not suggesting that it necessarily works, but I think it draws the child to seek methods of dealing with new situations. Also, living in a different environment where there are different accents and a different culture compared to one’s own home turf, I think that probably sparks the imagination.

I started my acting career very young. I had done a lot of my training with a theatre called The Twelfth Night Theatre in Brisbane, which in those days held quite sophisticated drama workshops for children. I say that because they weren’t tap dancing classes – not that there’s anything wrong with that! I actually wish I could!

I finished school at 16, and was about to start at university. I started acting at 13, so by the time university rolled around, despite the fact that I had academic parents, I was pretty determined that my acting career was going to come first. I enrolled in Queensland University part-time, and in the middle of the first year I dropped out – I got an acting job in Melbourne.I decided to learn in the field, and that’s what I did.

My teenage self was full of life. I moved away from home at 17 – so quite young. I think I took on a lot of responsibility at a young age and that is something I wouldn’t trade, it was a very unusual thing to do given my background. I didn’t expect, for example, that I would enter a marriage-style relationship at such a young age given the free-wheeling world that I’d grown up in – not free-wheeling, but I grew up with a radical feminist mother, who really was at the forefront of feminism in Australia. She was probably very pleased that I was able to find a career in which the pursuit of excellence among the female gender is encouraged. I think having a radical feminist mother has actually informed many of the choices that I have made.

The question whether actors have the right to speak out about politics or important social issues often comes up in all sorts of different circles. I’ve always thought that this was something I would do regardless of the career I have chosen – and it’s critically important.

I was arrested at 13, along with my family. We were all involved in a Vietnam Moratorium demonstration, against the Vietnam War; a sit-in in the middle of the city. It was an interesting time to be living in Queensland under Joh Bjelke-Petersen – some have referred to it as like a police state. The culture of the police force was very obviously tuned to defend the status quo, and so they had extraordinary powers. I do remember being very relaxed about [the arrest], much more relaxed that my adult counterparts. But when my father was carted off, [it was] a very distressing thing. They put us in a cell in the city watch house. For a teenage child it was pretty exciting. It was like an adventure. We were bailed out some hours later.

The Man from Snowy River was a breakout role for me, but it was also a breakout experience. It was such an extraordinary bit of growth and development as an actor. I learned so much about the Australian bush and the Australian landscape, which I believe in all sorts of ways is the leading character in the film. We were able to ride with horse masters in the Alpine region; they took us up the mountain and we rode for a couple of weeks and got very saddle sore. It’s one of the most breathtaking things that a person can ever do. It was a really beautiful, moving experience, but none of us expected it would be so successful. So that was a bit of a wild ride.

I was actually working on Prisoner when I auditioned for the role of Kate Kelly in a mini-series about Ned Kelly and that led to Snowy. It’s the old adage that work begets work, so I was on a bit of a roll. Prisoner was ground-breaking, it was incredibly edgy material and something that hadn’t ever been tackled; very interesting actors choosing to work in television who wouldn’t necessarily have gotten a look in. And to some extent that still remains today, with Wentworth. We’ve come so far in terms of our society, we are far more sophisticated audiences, and so Wentworth can deal with all sorts of issues in more sophisticated, more realistic ways than Prisoner was able to do. We are still saying that Wentworth is groundbreaking, and indeed it is, but it still speaks to the dearth of interesting and challenging female roles in television. To some extent we haven’t come as far as one would have expected.

Working on SeaChange was just pure joy. We all felt it was something really special and very unusual, but we had no idea it was going to strike the chord that it did. It was one of the happiest working experiences of my career, no question. In some ways it gave me the opportunity to reinvent myself as an actor.

It was a very unusual role for the time; she was the heroine of the piece. I loved the fact that she was so neurotic and so flawed and had so many foibles; she wasn’t a traditional heroine, she had a good brain and a moral compass as flawed as most peoples actually is. It was extremely sophisticated writing from Andrew Knight and Deb Cox, and that was a huge relief for me.

I think my 16-year-old self would be pleased with how things have panned out; for the most part I’ve been able to follow my instincts. I think she’d be surprised and chuffed that I’ve managed to make an actual living out of something that I love so much, and also that I was able to combine that with a loving family. Which is the fundamental basis of my life.
Love is everything. It’s been fundamental to my world, to my life, to my development.

I’ve been very fortunate as a person with a peripatetic life, I’ve managed to find a partner who was able to walk the line with me. It has been a solid home base and for me that has been important because it has given me that golden opportunity. My family has mentored me more than any other person, including my children – although they are younger, I think they can direct you also. They create greater learning.