After years of filming in Ireland as Vikings’ Queen Aslaug, actor and sought-after model Alyssa Sutherland was stoked to return to Australia to film SBS’s epic period drama New Gold Mountain, directed by Corrie Chen. “I really love what SBS produces and I’ve wanted to get my foot in that door for a little while,” she says of landing the role of accidental newspaper proprietor Belle Roberts.
Belle finds herself in charge after her abusive husband’s death of typhoid. While the show is focused on the contribution of Chinese immigrants during the infamously competitive Victorian gold rush, “which is, unfortunately, a new take on it because history has been so whitewashed,” Sutherland notes, it also makes room for intersecting pushes for fair play.
Belle is an intriguing character, determined to make the most of the newly emancipated situation and becoming something of a detective as the paper pursues answers in the case of the murder of an Irish immigrant. It’s safe to say that the various communities searching for gold, and the First Nations survivors who have escaped mass slaughters, jostle violently.
“What I loved about Belle was that she has had hardships and trauma in her life, but we follow her after she has moved on,” Sutherland says of her spirited character, holding her own in these troubled times. “It’s really a fight to survive. She’s in debt in a foreign country and the thinking of the time would be that the best thing for her to do would be to get back onto a boat to the UK and marry again. But instead she decides to use her intelligence and make a go of it. She’s quite the entrepreneur. I loved that, and there were female newspaper owners at the time.”
Searching for answers in the murder mystery that swirls around this hotbed of competing interests brings Belle into the path of Shing, the series’ cowboy hat-wearing central character, a community leader walking a fine line between looking out for the Chinese miners and currying favour with the British authorities. While there’s plenty of darkness in this meaty plot, there’s also an electric frisson between the pair.
“I loved that dynamic,” Sutherland says. “There’s definitely an attraction and something simmering underneath, but that’s not the focus. It’s nice to play a character that doesn’t have to be the female love interest.”
This dynamic is delightful when they go on an awkward date of sorts, dressing up for a night at the theatre. In reality, they are working sources to try and get to the bottom of the murder. Watching their team-up later made Sutherland chuckle. “That’s what I really love about the show,” she says. “It would have been really easy for this to be purely dramatic, but there are these wonderful moments of comedy.”
She also belly laughed at a scene she shares with The Letdown’s Alison Bell and Rake actor Rhys Muldoon as the town’s pompous commissioner and his frustrated gossip of a wife who loves to goad him. “I fangirl over Alison,” Sutherland confesses. “I think she is a genius, so to have a scene with her, and she’s so funny in it, was just one of those moments that was like, ‘I’m so grateful for what I do. This is really special.’ I got the giggles filming that.”
New Gold Mountain adeptly leaps from comic relief, to action, to tender emotional beats. “The writing is so clever,” Sutherland says. “Belle is really quite witty and sharp-tongued, and it’s really fun to play a character like that.”
Working alongside newcomer Mabel Li, as ruthless Chinese businesswoman Lei, was also a treat, both playing characters that are forging their own way to thrive in this unforgiving environment. “Mabel talked about how special the scene was in the Chinese festival, when she looked around and saw the set full of people that looked like her, and how important representation is. It made her quite emotional. Being able to be a part of something like that is meaningful for me as well, seeing how it can create change.”
Having managed to film New Gold Mountain uninterrupted late last year, Sutherland finds herself seven and a half weeks into lockdown across the ditch in New Zealand where production has been halted on horror movie Evil Dead Rise. “There are rumblings that we are going back to work very soon, which is great,” she says of the fun shoot, which has required her to get her fight on. “It has been so much fun, unlike anything I’ve ever done before, because I haven’t really done a lot of stunts.”
Throwing herself into Evil Dead Rise’s fight sequences has been a challenge, but one she relishes. “You’ve got to remember the choreography but then also act at the same time. It’s a bit like patting your head and rubbing your tummy.”
An actor who loves to rise to the occasion, the comic timing chops she picked up on New Gold Mountain were another welcome string to her bow. “I love how sassy Belle is. I haven’t really played a character like that before. It’s unusual for me to watch myself and laugh in a good way.”
New Gold Mountain premieres exclusively in Australia on SBS and SBS On Demand. Meet the cast and crew, and find out more about life on the goldfields, at the New Gold Mountain program page. See the four-part series on Wednesday and Thursday nights at 9.30pm over two big weeks, screening 13 October, 14 October then 20 October and 21 October. Watch the trailer here or start watching episode one:
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