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Characters and casting… The Road to Sonnigsburg, Part 5

Ann Truong, auditioning for the part of Savannah in Sonnigsburg
We wanted to create Australia’s first supernatural drama. Back when we started work on Sonnigsburg, there really hadn’t been any prime time supernatural shows on Australian television. Since then, we’ve seen the first season of Glitch and the premiere of The Kettering Incident. Instead of being first, our show is joining the zeitgeist. Rural towns haunted by their pasts.

There was another key element that drove us to make some decisions early on – we didn’t want our cast to look like the rest of Australian television. We wanted to make sure we didn’t cast only white actors. We didn’t want all our characters to be straight.

When you make a decision like this early on, it informs the creative process. You write characters that reflect a wider Australian experience. You tell stories that look new and feel different.

Writers never want to feel like their characters or stories are ticking boxes, though. You want story to be paramount; but you also know that television doesn’t reflect the faces or the sexualities you see in your own life.

Making your lead character a woman isn’t particularly revolutionary in Australia; we’ve done pretty well in the decades since Prisoner. We’ve got the Miss Fisher Mysteries, Janet King, The Wrong Girl and The Kettering Incident. And over the past few years, there seems to be a push to put women front and centre on television worldwide; it’s in Hollywood feature films where the lack of gender diversity is most stark.

Then we decided to make her gay. Was there a gay lead female character on Australian television before we started work on Sonnigsburg? I don’t think so. Janet King existed on Crownies and then got her own show in 2014. Australian television was changing.

There’s been a lot of discussion in the last few years about diversity on stage and on screen. #OscarsSoWhite was the most prominent; tackling the lack of diversity in Academy Award nominations. Both Hollywood and our local industry have done surveys on diversity in front of and behind the camera and it’s staggeringly one-sided.

There’s arguments made about having to train up the next generation, but the Sonnigsburg writers room felt like – as least as far as casting was concerned, the answer was colour-blind. We would audition people from any background for our lead roles. And though, in one case, we wrote a Sri Lankan character into our script, we were still open to changing his ethnicity, if it came down to it.

Much of our casting process was driven by one other factor; we wanted to work with actors we’d never worked with before. We weren’t saying no or never to casting actors from previous projects, but making the choice to broaden our horizons was important for us creatively. It’s very easy to work with the same people over and over; looking to bring in new voices is important.

When we started the process of casting, we took a kind of surgical approach; we didn’t cast a wide net by posting audition notices. We approached some actors we knew but hadn’t worked with and invited them to audition. We also looked at casting websites to find actors we’d never met and never heard of.

As with any casting, some decisions are easily made and some are much tougher.

The first audition we held was with Dushan Philips, for the role of Ashan. It was held in our writers’ room, which was at an office in Port Melbourne in an industrial area. Dushan must have wondered what he was getting himself into, venturing to that place at night. We’re so glad he made the trip, because he made a great impression on us. It was such a relief to start the audition process with a win.

Dushan Philips auditions for Ashan on Sonnigsburg
Sonnigsburg has a big cast. We wrote the role of Alfred for Don Bridges, a legendary Australian character actor. We invited Ian Stenlake (Sea Patrol, Stingers) to take part as Frank.

But at the forefront of our minds, as it would be, was casting the lead role of Savannah and her ex-girlfriend Jade. We knew what their characters were like, but not what they looked like. They weren’t fixed in our minds yet.

We auditioned lots of women; some for both roles. After a couple of weeks, we had some tough choices to make. We had a lot of great actors to choose from. We narrowed down our lists and had “second round” auditions to test chemistry. We needed a Savannah and Jade that worked together. We needed a Savannah who would feel like good friends with our Ashan.

In the end, we cast Ann Truong as Savannah Haskin. She impressed us from the first moment we saw her, finding the right mix of emotions for a character who is sometimes hard to read. And we were so lucky to find her; she is amazing in the role and, not surprisingly, she’s worked on a lot of other projects during the long production of our show.

Sonnigsburg may not be Australia’s first supernatural drama or the first with a gay female lead character. But it was important for us to make these decisions early; to help us tell the story we wanted to tell and reflect the diversity we see in our everyday lives.

Petra Elliott auditions for the role of Savannah before being cast as Jade
Soren Jensen, auditioning for the role of Norman in Sonnigsburg
Subscribe to the Sonnigsburg YouTube Channel, where it premieres worldwide on November 15.

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