The art of authenticity

Zoe Terakes at a Stonewall Live event in Sydney, April 2020. Photo: Ann-Marie Calilhanna.

Zoe Terakes is well on their way to becoming a big star. And the actor is doing it their way, on their terms, writes Clare Hennesy, who interviewed Terakes exclusively for the Sentinel.

Somewhere in Byron Bay, actor Zoe Terakes is one of the lucky few who have landed on a set amidst the global pandemic, and is feeling incredibly grateful. “I’m really sympathetic to the rest of the community … I’m just so in awe of how adaptable our community is,” they explain to me. 

Terakes’ work on screen is starting to boom, but they’ve been working steadily across stage and screen since the age of 16. The role that launched them into the public consciousness is arguably ‘Reb’ in seasons eight and nine of the iconic Australian prison drama, Wentworth

The role is remarkable in multiple ways. A contemporary re-imagining of the ’80s show Prisoner, Wentworth has been praised not only for telling the story of a trans man in a female prison – but for the casting of Terakes, a transmasculine actor, to play that role.

When the audition came to Terakes, they knew it was a role to fight for: “I’d never seen a character so close to me before”.

After months of waiting for the outcome, they sent an email to the casting directors to thank them for the opportunity, explaining that their passion for the role was linked to their own experience as a transmasculine person. 

A week later, they got the job.

Zoe Terakes as Rebel ‘Reb’ Keane in Wentworth. Photo: Zoe Terakes/Instagram.

But coming out as a queer and non-binary actor in the Australian industry was daunting; ‘out’, openly LGBTQ+ actors still face deeply entrenched stigma in casting rooms.

“I was given some really yucky advice [not to come out],” Terakes admits, “but it was mostly from people of an older generation, who are just products of their time.” 

The person who ultimately catalysed their embracing of authenticity in the public eye was actor Kate Box – who, incidentally, plays Reb’s lover and fellow inmate ‘Lou’ on Wentworth

“I was having a queer crisis,” Terakes says, describing an intense anxiety around how they identified not only personally but professionally, “and then I saw Kate in Cloud Nine (Sydney Theatre Company, 2017). Here was this amazing person, who was out, and whose identity informed their performance, but it was still incredibly nuanced.” 

The friends then came “full circle” several years later when they were serendipitously cast alongside each other in Wentworth

“She said, I’ll be that guide for you. Now it’s your turn to be that for other people.” 

And that’s exactly what Terakes has done, advocating for greater inclusivity in the industry. 

Zoe Terakes (right) as ‘Reb’ in a scene from Wentworth with on-screen lover Lou Kelly (Kate Box). Photo: Zoe Terakes/Instagram.

Many critics of the idea of only trans actors playing trans roles seem to argue that it’s a kind of essentialism that takes away from the ‘play-pretend’ element that seems native to the concept of acting. 

But Terakes has a different take. 

“Someone’s said it before way more succinctly than me, but basically it’s like, until you have trans actors playing cisgender roles, then that statement about ‘anyone being able to play anything’ actually doesn’t ring true.”

And at the end of the day, while it may not be clear to someone who doesn’t identify as part of the LGBTQIA+ community, the power of representation has demonstrably positive impacts on the people for whom it resonates.

Not only do they fight for inclusion in front of the camera, but Terakes also believes it needs to happen behind the camera too.

“The industry uses our stories now, but it’s still not safe for us in the actual industry,” they say, envisioning an environment that’s of benefit for everyone, “so (that) when this person comes on set, they don’t have to explain what binding or packing is, or pronouns … or even how to costume and do hair and makeup for anything other than white skin and hair.”

It’s clear Terakes has a commitment to their community in the way they choose their work, and many of their roles in the past have aligned with some kind of cathartic exploration of their own life. But not everything has to be heavy or traumatic.

“I’m not even acting in Ellie & Abbie,” Terakes laughs, talking of their latest project, which opened this year’s Queer Screen Mardi Gras Film Festival.

The offbeat comedy rom-com film – full title Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt) – will open in November across Australia in a wider theatrical release (visit www.ellieandabbie.com.au to find a screening near you).

Theatrical trailer for Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt). Video: Arcadia/YouTube.

The reality is that despite a growing eagerness to embrace untold stories and previously erased minorities, young trailblazers are often unceremoniously pigeonholed, forgotten in insincere cycles that treat minorities as ‘trends’, or held to an incredibly high standard of scrutiny.

But Terakes doesn’t sound too fazed – as for their future, they don’t have much of a concrete plan other than trying to be a great partner, a great actor and to be “average-to-okay at a lot of skills, like skateboarding”. 

“I just so firmly believe that the universe rewards you for living your truth. I trust that whatever is coming is going to be the right thing. The universe hasn’t let me down yet.” 

It’s clear that with Terakes’ life experience and their uncanny artistry, approaching their abilities from a place of labels would be disastrous for not only them – but for us, the audience.

Zoe Terakes appears in the new film Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt), the Fox Showcase/Sky Atlantic TV series The End, and the upcoming web series Bondi Slayer

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