Brendan Cowell has never been called up for jury duty before, but having just spent almost half a year watching a murder case unfold in the new drama The Twelve, he thinks he’s done his time.
I’ve definitely done it now, he says laughing. And that’s what I’ll be saying if I ever get the letter. I’ll be like, ‘I did five months [of jury duty] in 2021-22. Sam Neill was the lawyer and so was the lady from Janet King.
It’s late March and Cowell is on his lunch break. They are in the middle of the shoot for The Twelve and he’s been spending his time sitting in a wooden box built in the middle of a sound stage in Sydney’s Artarmon.
It’s a room at the (fictional) Parramatta Supreme Court, where the actors – judge, jury, accused, lawyers and spectators – and camera crew sit on the inside, while on the outside are the sound and make-up crew, who are perched on chairs with make-up kits slung around their waists.
They are watching Marta Dusseldorp, who is playing prosecutor Lucy Bloom, on the monitor, as she delivers another flawless take. And while the camera is focused firmly on Dusseldorp, over her shoulder you can see Cowell and 13 other actors sitting quietly: sometimes their heads nod, sometimes they write something down. They are the jury of The Twelve, tasked with determining the fate of Kate Lawson (Kate Mulvany), an artist who is accused of killing her 14-year-old niece Claire.
Based on a Belgian drama, the 10-episode series focuses as much on the stories of the men and women of the jury as it does on the case. How will their lives determine the fate of Kate Lawson? They will judge her not only on the evidence, but on the way she looks, appears and behaves. Even her shade of lipstick will come under scrutiny.
As Neill’s smooth defence barrister, Brett Colby, warns: The jury is everything.
(If you are wondering why there are 14 jurors when the show is called The Twelve, it’s because 12 is the number of people on a standard jury, with two extras empanelled as back-ups in case the trial goes longer than three months. )
The show begins on the first day of the trial, as the 14 jurors are chosen. They are a mixed bag – a widower, a devout Catholic, a woman who believes horoscopes may determine the case, an indigenous student, a wealthy heiress, an alpha-male businessman and an Uber driver from Iraq, among others. All jostle for position in the jury room, all look each other up and down.
Cowell plays Garry, whose I-love-the-dog-track dress sense and down-at-heel circumstances come from a gambling addiction that makes him an easy mark for outside influences on the case. And even though the murder trial is fictional, what struck Cowell was the enormity of situation.
I remember coming to [director] Dan Nettheim on the first day with the jury – and this is just a really stupid actor comment – and saying this would be incredibly overwhelming walking into this murder case of this young girl, says Cowell.
And going on Garry – I live in that shitty little flat in Glebe, I’ve got two greyhounds – and I have to decide who killed this person? And suddenly, I kind of took a breath in, and I spoke about it to the whole cast. Like, when we’ve just found out what the case is, let’s all take a breath when we enter the jury room because it’s not a traffic fine, you know, and it’s going to affect lives.
Early on, Garry is dismissed by some of his fellow jurors, who mistake his friendliness for nosiness. And that’s Garry’s greatest trick, says Cowell, he is not who he appears to be.
I’m not putting Garry into a familiar dead-shit archetype, says Cowell. He’s a very emotionally intelligent man. He’s a very capable man. He’s a wise fella. He’s just got a disease. And when there’s a green light, he goes 100 miles an hour with everything.
He doesn’t comprehend balance. And it’s a very topical question in society: If you do bad things, does that make you bad? Or can you still be good and do bad things?
Joining Cowell in the juror’s box is Brooke Satchwell, who plays Georgina, a mother-of-three who tries to dodge jury duty and whose unstable home life brings to bear on the case, too.
She’s in different states of fragility and vulnerability, says Satchwell of Georgina. So questions of integrity, particularly when it comes to the care of a child, deeply affect her. And anything of a more volatile nature is starting to creep into her understanding of her own situation.
So there is quite an emotional aspect, as someone who potentially, until this point, has kept all of their emotions very strongly compressed and, and suppressed in a way that they can’t be used against her.
And that means during the various testimonies throughout the court case, some of her responses perhaps aren’t as rational, or more governed by emotion, which is what the most fascinating aspect of all of this is: how on earth we are expected to pass judgment on someone, particularly for something as diabolical as murder?
Satchwell is a big fan of the Flemish-language original, De Twaalf, which she describes as having a thermal texture.
It’s incredibly human, she says. That living, breathing, closeness of observing a person reacting in a situation and experiencing it, there’s a lot of space for that, which is a really captivating thing to watch on screen, to see someone navigate a situation rather than dramatic plot point, dramatic plot point.
And while court cases should be the last bastion of truth – that is, after all, what everyone is there to discover – Cowell says there is just as much room for opinion.
We’ve just had four different witnesses tell a very different story about the same thing, he says. And that’s because we’re getting towards the crescendo. You start with facts, everyone’s presenting facts, but hang on, the facts aren’t the same. Reminds you of certain American presidents, you know?
It’s up to us to decipher [the truth] from the life that we’ve lived, on what our values are. Who is telling the truth? Garry, not so much because Garry has motive, but everybody else is reacting to it emotionally. And that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re saying the truth.
Which is the brilliance of the show – the ripple effect through the lives of juries, and you go home with the jury members. And you see why they’re taking stuff personally, but that can really, really cloud their judgment. So I think everybody’s pretty baffled by the end because of their own shit.
And while we do get to see the jurors’ lives outside the courtroom, a lot of the acting work is just sitting in the background, listening to the evidence presented before them. Half of the time they are not even on camera, so what exactly are they doing?
Listening acting is my favourite thing, says Satchwell, before conceding but I am getting a lot of work done. I’ve finally embraced technology and I am very happily sitting there and getting a lot of work done in between takes.
And for Cowell?
It’s a great way to get paid, he says, laughing. ‘What did you do today, darling? ’ ‘I sit there and watch Marta Dusselldorp and Sam Neill talk. ’ And hanging out with Brooke Satchwell. You know, it’s not awful.
The Twelve premieres on Fox Showcase on Tuesday, 8. 30pm and Foxtel on Demand.
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