There is always a sense of nervousness when beloved cast members leave a show. The dynamic of the series changes and, as a viewer, you need to suss out whether you are willing to accept any actors who come in to replace them. Enter, Charmaine Bingwa – a Zimbabwean–Australian actor who has just joined (and is about to disrupt) one of our favourite TV shows, The Good Fight. Know that by the end of her first episode, you’ll be cheering her on.
Bingwa plays new lawyer, Carmen Moyo. She’s tough, unsentimental, and believes that the law should represent everyone, even if you don’t like a person or their actions. The character serves as a contrast to the older lawyers on the show who have perhaps become too ingrained in the legal system, mistaking process for a system of justice.
Bingwa has huge shoes to fill. Last week, The Good Fight said farewell to two fan favourites, Lucca Quinn (Cush Jumbo) and Adrian Boseman (Delroy Lindo). Now all attention is on the newcomer. The great news is that she fits in perfectly.
Bingwa is just getting started, but it’s clear she’s on a trajectory to the big-time. She has a stage background, having appeared in a local production of the John Patrick Stanley play Doubt: A Parable, and was the 2018 recipient of the Heath Ledger Scholarship – the first woman of colour and openly gay person to receive it.
SBS was keen to get to know the new star of the show and spoke with her from New York where she was midway through filming an episode.
SBS: How familiar were you with The Good Fight before joining the cast?
CHARMAINE BINGWA: I was very familiar with it. I watched it and I loved the storylines, loved the writing, and loved the tone. And yeah, obviously when I got the call, I was super excited to be able to join it.
Just how fully formed was the character before you got the part? Did you get any input into the character? Into the wardrobe? How much do you get to actually play a role in those aspects?
That’s one of the things that thrills me about this show. I had input into the wardrobe. I had input into her hair and makeup and look and colour scheme and her props and what her house would look like, which is so delightful as an actor, that you get to form this character as a fully formed human being.
I feel like she was there and existed on the page. Her inscrutable nature means that she’s often saying a lot without words and a lot with her eyes. We gave a really beautiful rich backstory for her, which I developed in conjunction with the writers, which means you’re able to communicate so much more and give her a sense of gravitas.
Christine Baranski is known for having some amazing necklaces and other sorts of neckwear. In the very first episode you have really interesting neck attire going on. Is this sort of throwing the gauntlet down at Christine Baranski?
I don’t know if it’s a throw-down at Christine (laughs). Maybe there’s some sort of parallel that, you know, there might be an essence of a young Diane in there in regards to her strategy and decision-making. Our wonderful costume designer, Dan Lawson, has given Carmen some very beautiful and handsome wardrobe choices.
Was there any discussion at all about you keeping your Aussie accent?
No, I think for the show, she needs to be really well entrenched in the American, and particularly Chicago, sense of the law.
Tell us about getting the part – you submitted an audition video?
Yes, it was in the middle of the pandemic and I believe it was the day before or two days before Christmas. I submitted the video, then went on my holiday break and got some very beautiful phone calls on the other side of Christmas.
What did you actually have to do in the audition? Was it just a couple of line readings? Was it a bit more involved than that?
I think there were two key scenes. One of them was the scene that I ended up playing with the superb Audra McDonald (who plays Liz Reddick) when I’m testing her patience in her office.
When I was playing with it, I found that ambiguity and mystery, but with a sense of grounded-ness and powerfulness that is kind of uncommon in a first-year associate. I thought it was a really interesting blend and I think it really read on video.
Watching your character through the first few episodes of the season, it’s hard to get a lock on exactly who Carmen is. She’s distant, but likeable. She’s either a deer in headlights or she’s exceptionally guarded. How would you describe the character and who is she to you?
Good, good analysis. I like that. I would just say that she is probably just misunderstood and probably just very unique. I like to think that she plays chess while everyone else is playing checkers. I just think she’s incredibly intelligent. Not quite the deer in headlights, but I just think that she plays by a different set of rules. She didn’t come from Ivy league colleges and she has working class roots. And she’s a Black American and if you want to win in that system, you’ve got to play by different rules.
Season 5 asks one of the most interesting questions the show has posed so far – what is justice and does the legal system still support it? Where does your character, Carmen, figure in that?
Carmen is such an interesting character because she’s often referred to as morally ambiguous, but I think she’s just resourceful. And her storyline is really chief in imposing a rhetorical question that is: do we have a legal system or do we have a justice system? She’s able to bend the legal system and they are the laws that are in place. She’s not breaking any laws, she’s just using the law.
And then we have a justice system where, are we actually getting justice for people? And I think because she comes from a disenfranchised town where she’s used to representing disenfranchised people, she really poses the question: do wealth, the colour of your skin, your political leanings, influence how you are treated in terms of the law?
What is it like joining a show in its fifth season? Is it humming along like a well-oiled machine? Or have the COVID-19 protocols impacted the day-to-day production?
It’s definitely humming along like a well-oiled machine. Everyone in the group is truly not only talented, but are really fantastic people. They made it so welcoming to me.
The COVID protocols were strange. It’s very interesting to spend almost six months with people and not get to see their faces a lot of the time. I think we found ways to still maintain the intimacy between the cast and really work together well to create something great.
Were there any practical things you’ve had to learn being on a set that large?
I made a little tool for my mask so it looks like a little French masquerade Phantom of the Opera thing. It stops it messing up my makeup. That was probably my little creative COVID thing…
You came to the show with a stage background. That’s not dissimilar to a lot of the other cast members. Have you found that was something the showrunners were after – that you’d be someone who’d be a good cultural fit with the rest of the cast? And has that stage experience been helpful in matching the performance of everyone else in the show?
Absolutely. I think there’s something about theatre that gives you a level of craft that makes it easy to jump into this show. Firstly, it’s a legal show, so there’s a lot of language and I think dealing with the great plays as you do on stage really gives you that ability to do that and to make really bold choices. Also, I think preparation is obviously key – it’s not like film where you can just take it back again. So I think people come extremely well prepared to work and it makes for smooth sailing when shooting.
I know the Kings (series showrunners Robert and Michelle King) are often, pre-pandemic, at Broadway shows and they always make a note of actors that they see… I’m sure it helped.
Do you see much of the Kings day to day? I appreciate with COVID there’s fewer people on the set than there used to be.
Not as much, just due to protocols. Robert’s directing this episode, so I’m getting a lot of time with Robert. But otherwise it’s just bits and pieces here and there – a handful of times.
You’re a writer/director yourself. Are you keen to pursue that sort of work or have you been more interested in pursuing acting as your main focus?
Acting is such a joy for me, but I think my purpose as an artist is to be a storyteller in whichever shape or form. There is an absolute canon of work that I want to create and especially, being a diverse voice, I think it’s a real great time for us to be able to tell the stories that we wanted to tell. To tell the stories that are missing from the film canon right now. That is definitely something that I’m super passionate (about) and driven by.
A lot of long-running TV shows tend to have on-screen stars getting to do some work behind the camera. Are you dropping in conversational nuggets when talking with Robert and Michelle King, letting them know you have this interest?
I do have my Australian subtleties there, nothing too obvious (laughs), but it is very heartening to see that people who have acted on the show such as Emmy-winning Carrie Preston and Nikki James have also directed episodes this season. It’s so wonderful to see them nurture talent in that way and to see these guys do amazing work.
The Good Fight airs Thursday nights at 8:30pm on SBS, with episodes then available anytime at SBS On Demand. Stream episode 1 now.