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Jessica Mauboy is back: The Secret Daughter

Jessica Mauboy and producer Karl Zwicky on how the Channel Seven series came about – and why it’s a big moment for diversity.

The initial concept for The Secret Daughter couldn’t have been clearer: let’s build a show around Jessica Mauboy.

Producer Karl Zwicky says the idea came from Screentime CEO Rory Callaghan, who “saw in Jess an absolute major star and an opportunity to make a really unique vehicle” for her.

“Well, when the opportunity came to frame a drama around Jess Mauboy, you’d have to be mad not to go for it,” he says.

“She’s actually got a fantastic onscreen personality that people possibly haven’t seen as much of until they see this show.”

Many Australians would have first got to know Mauboy as one of the finalists on the 2006 series of Australian Idol. But it was her turn in Bran Nue Dae in 2009 and then in 2012 with The Sapphires, alongside Deborah Mailman, Miranda Tapsell and Shari Sebbens, that kicked off her acting career.

However with The Secret Daughter, Mauboy is making a return to the small screen – a move she didn’t consider lightly.

Mauboy says she had been concentrating on making music when the call came about The Secret Daughter.

“I ummed and ahhed about it,” she says. “But reading the story, it sounded exactly like my own personal journey and I wanted to share that.”

The script was half-written when Mauboy says she was brought into the scripting process to talk with the writing team, which included Greg Haddrick, Justin Monjo, Louise Bowes and Keith Thompson.

“Basically I came in the middle of it to express my journey and musical pathway. That was how it really evolved and became what it is now,” she says.

The Secret Daughter stars Mauboy as part-time country pub singer Billie Carter, whose chance meeting with a wealthy Sydney hotelier (played by Colin Friels) kicks off a series of life-changing events.

Zwicky says both Mauboy and set-up director Leah Purcell added an authenticity to The Secret Daughter that really took the six-part series to a new level.

Leah Purcell and Jessica Mauboy on the set of The Secret Daughter/Tony Mott

“Leah Purcell who obviously is a fine actor… but also an outstanding director who was brilliant at working with Jess Mauboy in terms of getting the script to speak to her tongue without sounding forced,” he says.

Purcell, who Zwicky says has been “absolutely integral” in setting up the story and style of the show, was also hugely important to Mauboy as she adjusted to the pace of television.

“I feel like I’ve known Leah forever, just watching her on stage and working in incredible shows and stories,” she says. “And working with her for the very first time, it was just like a breath of fresh air and learning from her as I went.”

For Mauboy, to be in something like The Secret Daughter, which is co-directed by an Indigenous woman and starring an Indigenous woman, is a big step forward.

“Definitely, it feels like a massive movement in terms of diversity and what we see on TV,” she says.

“These are really such powerful tools and they go a long way and I guess for me growing up I watched a lot of ABC and I saw a lot of diversity on that and for me that was everything.”

Mauboy says she can remember watching her Sapphires co-star Deborah Mailman as well as Purcell and “that was huge inspiration right there for me growing up watching TV”.

“Moving forward doing this show I wanted to help create that,” she says.

The 2002 study entitled Broadcast in Colour found that in 1992 there were no Indigenous Australians in sustaining roles on Australian TV. In 1999, there were two.

Now, Screen Australia’s report on diversity in Australian TV drama observed that from 2011 to 2015, 5% of main characters were Indigenous, despite making up 3% of the population.

The Secret Daughter, from a commercial broadcaster like Seven Network, is another positive step forward.

Zwicky says, “We’re not making a social issue show but of course, those are things that are still playing in the script and it’s great to bring them into mainstream entertainment.”

And there’s plenty of material for another season.

“The story in the first series is a set up for what challenges the character has,” Zwicky says. “There’s definitely opportunity and a wish for a second series because we can really expand where the characters can go.”

Mauboy says she would definitely return for round two, saying she felt like the three-month shoot flew by too quickly.

“For sure. That would be amazing,” she says.

“I haven’t heard anything yet but for me, having worked on this show for three months, I was quite sad (when it was) over.”

Mauboy can relive the magic all over again from October 3, when The Secret Daughter premieres on Seven Network after The X-Factor.