A new Netflix show about Australia’s refugee crisis has a white heroine. We asked why

Yvonne Strahovski plays a white Australian who mistakenly winds up in an immigration detention center in "Stateless."

Debates over immigration and national identity dominate the political discourse in the Trump-era United States, but many Americans may be unaware that Australia has grappled with similar issues for decades.

That’s about to change with the debut of “Stateless,” a Netflix series co-created by Cate Blanchett that dives into her home country’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.

The drama is set during the mid-aughts, as wars in Iraq and Afghanistan sent thousands fleeing to other countries, including Australia, with the hopes of beginning a new life. The six-part series follows the unusual journey of Sofie (Yvonne Strahovski), an Australian flight attendant who gets involved in a cult, suffers a breakdown and mistakenly winds up in an immigration detention center, where she claims to be a German tourist who overstayed her visa.

At the center — in a parched, economically depressed corner of South Australia — she is held along with hundreds of so-called UNCs (or unlawful noncitizens). These refugees include Ameer (Fayssal Bazzi), an Afghan man hoping to reunite with his family after a traumatic separation. Outfitted in a silver wig and sequins gowns, Blanchett has a small role as Pat, the singing-and-dancing wife of a charismatic cult leader played by Dominic West.

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Anita Afshar, Setareh Naghoni, Amiralia Kianifar and Phoenix Raei in "Stateless."
Anita Afshar, Setareh Naghoni, Amiralia Kianifar and Phoenix Raei in “Stateless.”

As implausible as it may seem, Sofie’s story is partially inspired by the case of Cornelia Rau, a white Australian woman who was held in an onshore detention center for several months and helped bring attention to the country’s severe immigration policies.

Blanchett created the series with Tony Ayres and Elise McCredie. Though “Stateless” deals with subjects that remain deeply polarizing in the U.S. and Australia — and are explored in greater depth in an accompanying podcast called “Post Play: Stateless” — Blanchett insists the series is “not a piece of agitprop.”

“It’s human drama. It’s not just delivering some political message. It’s asking more questions than it answers,” says the two-time Oscar winner, who was also an executive producer on this spring’s politically charged miniseries, “Mrs. America.”

Blanchett and Ayres recently spoke via Zoom about the series and the difficult themes it explores.

What made you want to get involved behind the scenes on this series? Is producing satisfying in a way that performing isn’t?

Blanchett: The producers I truly admire are infinitely inventive. Some of them also happen to be performers or directors, as these skill sets are often interlinked. For me, it’s about balancing the pragmatic with the creative. Sometimes I am compelled to be involved in a project but know that to shoehorn myself artificially as an actor into that project would capsize or pervert the material. Then also knowing that if one is not in it, that certain financiers may not be willing to take a risk on the material. Some of the most fulfilling creative experiences I’ve had, the most fascinating conversations, have been in and around facilitating the work of others. It’s never been about what role I play, more the quality of the conversation.

The idea for this series originated with a kitchen-table conversation back in 2013. Can you tell me about that?

Blanchett: We were thinking about telling stories that were elephants in the room, so to speak — those stories that everybody needed to talk about. Drama is the most inclusive way to have those conversations. It’s the space for long-form empathetic examinations of quite complicated and confronting stories in any culture. Australia’s treatment of refugees over the last 20 years was one of those subjects that wasn’t being discussed. So we all wanted to find a way we could bring it back into the national conversation in a nonfear-based, inclusive way.

Can you talk about the inspiration for this series and how you decided on setting it in the recent past — rather than the present day?

Ayres: We decided that the best period to tell our story was looking at when Australia still had on-shore detention so that we could understand the current iteration. There were stories of Australian citizens that had been mistakenly put in detention, there were stories of people breaking out of detention, there were stories of Australian citizens who were standing up for refugees, and there were a lot of stories of trauma.

Blanchett: It took a long time to find partners who were brave enough to look at the human drama behind the obviously political patina. For us, it was almost too hot and polarizing and political to deal with what is still an ongoing situation in Australia and globally. So we decided to set it slightly back in time, almost as a prequel to offshore detention, when refugees were processed onshore, so that we could reverse-engineer how we’ve got here. There’s so much about Australia that I am deeply proud of. So many of our cultural and scientific and athletic exports. But it’s been a great source of shame for me to hear the rhetoric around the building of the wall, the rhetoric around Brexit. The DNA of that is absolutely born inside of Australia. This has massive international relevance and resonance. We need to sort that out in our own country, but that language has absolutely been exported overseas.

Cate Blanchett as Pat Masters in "Stateless."
Cate Blanchett as Pat Masters in “Stateless.”
(Courtesy of Netflix)

Why make Sofie one of the central characters? As a white Australian, she is not representative of the people who end up in detention.

Blanchett: I had been inspired by my work as a goodwill ambassador for the [U.N. High Commission for Refugees] to shine a light on the human stories. Whenever I went on a mission with UNHCR, I would speak to mothers, to daughters, to sisters. The profound takeaway I had is that this could be me in different circumstances. That was something we carried into the DNA of the series.

We wanted to find a window for people who hadn’t had interface with the refugee experience, to ask themselves, “What if it was my sister? What if it was me, what if it was my daughter who fell through the cracks as our character Sophie did in the mental health system, the judicial system and the immigration system and ended up by complete mistake inside one of these detention centers?” We felt like we could only create that through a middle-class, white Australian character. That was very deliberate.

Ayres: The choice to enter the story with a white Australian woman was a form of Trojan horse. It was strategic: Who can we give to an audience that they can connect to? I think that Yvonne in particular is so extraordinarily empathetic in her performance. She brings us into the story, but then we hopefully will experience other people’s dramas within that, and the dramas of people who are not white.

Soraya Heidari, Saajeda Samaa, Ilaha Rahemi and Fayssal Bazzi in "Stateless."
Soraya Heidari, Saajeda Samaa, Ilaha Rahemi and Fayssal Bazzi in “Stateless.”

How did you develop the cult storyline and the character of Pat?

Blanchett: I was happy to be involved as an actor in any way that would help the material, and Elise came up with the character where I got to sing and dance. The show is a lot about identity and what happens to the identity of citizens when they are separated from their humanity. Cult Behavior 101 is you separate yourself from your family, from your past, and your future is reinvented. It’s all about being a new you, a better you, a you that is separate from anything that you did in the past. That was kind of a metaphor to what we saw happening in Australia.

When Tony and Elise and I grew up, “Brand Australia” was built on multiculturalism [and] the welcoming embrace of refugees and asylum seekers. And we saw that atrophy and calcify and we use that metaphor of the cult to speak to that story.

Ayres: For us, the idea of a cult where you are made all these promises of what you could be felt a little bit like the experience for the refugees — the promise of what Australia was, that you could escape the past, all of those things. It’s not a direct parallel, but those two stories resonated against each other for us.

How conscious were you of trying to draw parallels between the situation in Australia and similar issues in the U.S. and Europe?

Blanchett: We’ve always been of the belief that if you make something deeply specific and true and accurate and well-researched, that it will have universal resonance. And that’s what we hoped the story would achieve. The only way to battle the pandemic is globally and yet we’re still laboring under this rhetoric of nation-building and how each country should deal with it in their own, individual way, but that’s not going to solve the problem. The global displacement crisis is not going to be solved by any one country, nor is climate change, nor is the pandemic.

Ayres: In Australia, we compare how we’re dealing with the pandemic to the charts we’re seeing from America. That’s the problem — when it’s not a global issue.


Where: Netflix

When: Any time

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)