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Why Katherine Langford had to tell an Australian story with Savage River

Katherine Langford might have hit the big time overseas before gaining recognition in her homeland, but she’s very clear that she still calls Australia home.The Perth-born actor had only appeared in a handful of low-budget, low-profile, mostly-amateur projects in her homeland (and turned down a spot at the prestigious Western Australian Academy of the Performing Arts) when she landed the lead role in the controversial US teen suicide drama, 13 Reasons Why, and ended up with a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Drama.

She followed that up with movies including Love, Simon and Knives Out, as well as taking the lead role in the big-budget Netflix fantasy-drama Cursed. But all the while as she was filming around the world in the US, Canada and the UK, she was thinking about how she could get back home to work.Not only did she miss her friends, family and cat, she also had a burning desire to tell Australian-made stories about Australians. Savage River, the new six-part ABC drama, shot in regional Victoria by veteran Oscar-nominated cinematographer Don McAlpine (Moulin Rouge!, Predator, Patriot Games) and directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse (Proof, The Dressmaker), finally gave her the chance to do it.“I have such a strong connection to home so, when I am away, I miss it bitterly,” she says on the phone from New York, “but it makes coming back even more special every time.“I always wanted to tell stories back home and so this was just a really fresh opportunity to be a part of something that felt very authentically Australian, and I am really grateful for the opportunity to be a part of it.”

Langford plays the lead role of Miki Anderson, a 20-something woman who returns to her small home town after being jailed for 10 years for killing her best friend. Unsurprisingly, she comes back after a decade behind bars a very different person, and the reception from some of the residents in a place where everyone knows everyone else’s business is decidedly frosty. After plying much of her trade to date in TV shows and films aimed at teens and young adults, the 26-year-old was attracted to playing an adult woman around her own age, and a character unlike any she’d played before.

Langford and Moorhouse discussed and researched the psychological impact that incarceration could have for someone in their formative years – and how they might try to make up for lost time once they were released. Miki can defend herself and sense danger, but she has no clue about how to drive a car or go on a date, so the first day she gets back to Savage River, she dives right in by getting her ears pierced, getting hammered at the pub and going home with a stranger.“Ten years is a long time, and that was something that Jocelyn and I spoke about in depth, was that her story is so unique but it’s also so pivotal,” Langford says. “Because not only does she serve time, which is such a defining experience for so many people, but it also happened at such a defining moment in her life. She goes away to prison at 16 and comes back after 10 years.“So, when you first see her, she has had her 18th birthday and her 21st birthday in prison and she hasn’t done all the things that other people have been able to do, and there is a lot of catching up that she has to do. We had a lot of fun shooting those scenes.”

Although Savage River is first and foremost a murder mystery and thriller – a murder in the town makes her a suspect all over again and starts to unravel some shady business and political goings-on – it plays out against the background of issues that affect many country Australian towns. There’s an ongoing tension between environmental activists and various commercial concerns, and the refugee community that helps service the local abattoir is constantly guarding against exploitation and marginalisation.

“Jocelyn did such an incredible job in weaving scenes into the show in a really subtle but poignant way,” says Langford. “One of the things we touched on was the refugees, and I think that’s something that feels very prevalent … but also feels very organic. We really wanted to create a portrait of an Australian rural community. So, we shot in rural communities and everything is shot to feel like a piece of life.”

As successful as Langford’s career has been in the five short years since she starred in 13 Reasons Why, there have been a few speed bumps along the way. Her breakout show, in which she starred in flashback as a teenager who had taken her own life, was initially criticised by some for sensationalising mental health as a plot device, but the passing years have shown it to be a valuable outlet for discussing previously taboo issues.“I am so proud of being able to be a part of that show,” Langford says. “Mental health is something I have advocated for the past couple of years and it’s something that was very important to me and to a lot of people. Being able to be on a show like that was such a gift and it’s a role that I am really proud of.” Then there were the false starts of having her cameo as Tony Stark’s adult daughter cut from Avengers: Endgame, and the cancellation of Cursed (on a cliffhanger, no less) after just one season. Langford accepts that it’s all part of the rough and tumble of showbiz, but wants the world to know that she’s up for another go around as the sword-swinging Lady of the Lake, Nimue, should anyone be of a mind to bring Cursed back for another season.

“Unfortunately, it was one of the many downfalls of Covid and how it affected the industry and the world – we just weren’t able to go back,” she laments. “But again, it’s something that I am really proud of – I loved everyone on it and if they ever wanted to revive it in some way in the future then I wouldn’t say no.”

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