When Stateless gets its world premiere at Berlinale on Wednesday, it will be the culmination of a seven-year journey for Cate Blanchett. The two-time Oscar winner first conceived of the drama in her kitchen in 2013. A conversation about immigration with writer Elise McCredie sparked an ambition to thread together stories about people caught up in the Australian border control system. It’s a subject that has particular personal resonance for Blanchett, who is an ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
After extensive research, they eventually alighted on four different narratives that would form the backbone of Stateless: an airline hostess (Yvonne Strahovski) escaping a suburban cult, an Afghan refugee (Fayssal Bazzi) fleeing persecution, an Australian father (Jai Courtney) moving on from a dead-end job, and a bureaucrat (Asher Keddie) entangled in a national scandal. Their paths ultimately converge at a detention center in the Australian desert.
The question then was how best to bring this story to the screen. They explored telling the story in different ways, but Blanchett ultimately felt that television was the right medium. She told Deadline she wanted the show’s themes to reach people in their homes, in the hope that they will spark a conversation about immigration, much like the one she had in her kitchen seven years ago.
And so, Stateless became Blanchett’s first high-end television show. She features in a non-lead role and the project is housed out of her production company Dirty Films and NBCUniversal’s Australian outfit Matchbox Pictures. It was originally commissioned by Australian broadcaster ABC, where it premieres March 1, and NBCUniversal has just sold global rights to Netflix, with the series set to premiere later this year. The Netflix deal was agreed to prior to Berlinale.
Blanchett and co-creator Tony Ayres spoke to Deadline about the six-part series before heading to Berlin. We also caught up with Matchbox managing director Alastair McKinnon separately. The interviews are weaved together below, and edited for length and clarity.
DEADLINE: What was the starting point for the series? It has been reported Cornelia Rau was some inspiration after she was unlawfully detained in Australia.
BLANCHETT: The conversation began not with any particular story, but with the immigration detention stories and the transformation of public conversation around that. That was the backdrop and the atmosphere in which we began wanting to work together. It’s not based on any one person’s experience; there’s been a painstaking amount of research, including scores of people that she [writer Elise McCredie] spoke to and my experience with the UNHCR.
AYRES: We wanted to talk about a whole system, rather than just a single experience, but did gather a whole range of stories including stories of guards, bureaucrats, journalists, and from there we started weaving together the patchwork quilt that became the show.
DEADLINE: Cate, has your work with the UN given this project additional resonance?
BLANCHETT: Yes, we started talking in 2013 and I started working for UNHCR in 2014. I started working with them on the issue of statelessness. The title of the series refers to statelessness in a more poetic sense, not in a legal, physical sense. It’s more about identity and the loss of people’s identity when they are faced with long-term detention, when they become a number, when they are dislocated from markers in their life like home and culture, and separated from their families. That’s something I very viscerally felt speaking to stateless people and refugees in the field.
And so, in the series, we extrapolate out that sense of statelessness to a poetic reality. Anyone who comes into contact with an immigration system at the moment, whether it’s in Australia or Europe, or the rhetoric around building a wall in America, it is slightly maddening. The series started to crystalize for us because of the obvious traumas of people in long-term detentions and people fleeing from trauma when there are no safe, legal pathways to do so.
What was perhaps more hidden for us was the experience of the bureaucrats and the guards who also come in contact with that system, who experience PTSD and dislocation from their sense of humanity. It’s when we start to fold those experiences into the story that it really came to life.
In a literal sense, a stateless person is someone who doesn’t have a nationality in any country in the world. They don’t have a legal identity, which has obvious consequences on their ability to enjoy basic human rights. What we’re talking about is people who are poetically dislocated from their identity and therefore, their humanity.
DEADLINE: With the conversation in America around Donald Trump’s border controls and similar themes in Europe, have these issues ever been so profound?
BLANCHETT: It’s profound and it’s prevalent. Globally I get the sense of border protection, and those who are nationals, and nationhood. All governments are employing that rhetoric, but yet we’ve never had a higher number of displaced people who are fleeing incredible trauma. We’re more connected and more disconnected than ever.
AYRES: It took us a while to pull the project together, to work out how to tell the story. One of Cate and I’s recurring comments to each other was that this wasn’t a story that was going to go away. It just became more relevant as we were developing and filming it.
DEADLINE: Cate, how have you found the experience of working on your first high-end TV project? And why was TV right for Stateless?
BLANCHETT: Not by design but by happy default, I was involved in two limited television series quite simultaneously: Mrs. America and Stateless. There’s so much out there. It’s finding the right form to tell a story. A story will tell you which way it needs to be told if you’re alive to it.
You could have made a film about this, but it somehow felt durational. The longer you spend with the characters and set of circumstances, you connect with it in a very different way and so originally it has four characters, it was going to be four parts, but then we needed duration and the story was too big.
There’s also something about reaching people in their homes with the story. It wasn’t about, “Oh, I want to make a piece of television,” it was more about this was the right form to tell the story.
AYRES: We did discuss the possibility of different forms in those early days and it struck us then that the purpose of this show is to try and start a conversation. And I think television works very well because it is in people’s homes, it gives people the opportunity to participate in that conversation.
We’re experiencing a world that is very foreign to most people in Australia and most places in the world. These are people you don’t know. What we were trying to do was bring these people to life in a fully-fleshed way. TV goes into people’s living rooms and we share our lives with these strangers and the longer we spend, the less strange they become.
DEADLINE: I’m speaking to you from London, where there has been an explosion in demand for projects from UK creators. Is Australia going to tread a similar path?
BLANCHETT: The wonderful benefit of streaming and streaming internationally is that stories that are made in one particular territory have a global reach, and that was something that was very important to us that we weren’t making a culturally hermetically sealed piece of work. Even though it takes place in Australia, the resonance is global. It’s the perfect platform for it to be launching in Berlin.
AYRES: Audiences are responding to the breadth of choice they are getting through these streaming services, and non-English-language films are winning Oscars. The world is changing. Hopefully, our show can be part of that.
McKINNON: Because of the explosion in demand, particularly out of the U.S. but also the UK, a lot of our best writers and directors are working very successfully overseas. That’s a wonderful thing, but then you’re in a situation where you’re trying to lure them back to Australia or follow them to where they might be. A talent drain, in some respects, but also a talent arms race. You are constantly in a bidding war for the best people.
DEADLINE: Would this have happened without the support of a public service broadcaster like [Australia’s] ABC?
AYRES: Definitely not. The ABC have been tremendous partners. Given that it is difficult subject matter, they have been very courageous and they’ve been great allies in terms of financing, but also on the creative side.
McKINNON: I was actually working at the ABC when they originally came into talk about it and at that stage, it was four parts. Of course, we were very interested when Cate Blanchett comes and talks to you about a project. Then before it went into production, through totally unrelated circumstances, I was appointed as the managing director of Matchbox.
The ABC was critical. Sometimes, with material like this, it’s hard for people to get past what they see as a worthy social issue piece. In some cases, it’s almost taken people watching the show to realize that actually it is an entertaining, gripping drama at its heart and that the rest of the story is told in a way that is never didactic or worthy. It’s not a tough slog where you feel like you’re being preached to. Without the ABC and its public service purpose, it would have been hard to convince a commercial operator to come on board.
BLANCHETT: It’s a difficult subject when you’re pitching, but it’s not difficult to watch. Once we began to make it, those concerns kind of evaporated quite quickly.
DEADLINE: Have you discussed the idea of making a second series, or is this a one-time thing?
AYRES: We’ve never discussed it.
BLANCHETT: It was definitely conceived that way [as a one off]. What’s happened since 2013 is the problematic nature of the situation has only deepened and become more enmeshed and politicized. In that way, the series does feel open-ended. What’s more important to us — rather than going on and making another series, even though there are so many more stories to tell in this vein — is scaffolding a conversation around it.
DEADLINE: You’re entering a competitive market for audiences. What do you watch when you’re not working and how do you consume television?
BLANCHETT: I have a very eclectic taste, not least because I have children ranging from the age of 4 to 18. I love to sit down and watch things in a block, so in that sense, my sense of story is still more connected to the way things will be told in cinema. Once it’s all dropped, I would watch it.
There is so much fiction out there, I don’t want to lose touch with what’s going on in the real world. There are so many world events where I think: “Why is nobody talking about this, or why have we stopped talking about this?”
AYRES: There is a real audience growing of people who want to see serious engagement with the real world. Look at shows like When They See Us or Chernobyl — no one expected them to be hits.
BLANCHETT: Chernobyl is a very different series, but in a similar way going back into recent history, it’s somehow easier to reflect on the present than describing a situation as it’s happening right now. You realize how little humans learn from recent history, we repeat history far more quickly in the past 50 years than.
DEADLINE: Do you worry about Stateless standing out in this market, and does that enter your thinking during the production process?
BLANCHETT: Personally I don’t, it can lead to lead to fashionable decisions or cynical ways to grab an audience. If you find an exciting story to tell, and the right way to tell it, then you hope that your partners will find the right way to release it. Whether an audience views it this week, next week, or next year, you want to make a series that stands the test of time.