Newcastle actor Susie Porter on genre-defying new SBS drama Hungry Ghosts

NEW ROLE: Porter plays archaeologist Catherine Taylor in Hungry Ghosts.
NEW ROLE: Porter plays archaeologist Catherine Taylor in Hungry Ghosts.

Susie Porter was instantly intrigued when handed the script for a promising new SBS drama series called Hungry Ghosts.

Set in contemporary Melbourne during the month of the Hungry Ghost Festival, it tells the story of three generations of Vietnamese-Australian families haunted by the traumatic events of war.

"Hungry Ghosts, at its essence, is about people who have suffered a trauma in their life and while they thought the trauma had been dealt with, it resurfaces in the present," producer Stephen Corvini says.

"The manifestation of that trauma is a ghost. In each case, the person who has had the trauma has never told anyone and the ghost takes them back to what happened originally.

"The show is genre bending - it blends horror and supernatural with human stories of families and generational drama. It's a story about modern Australia, a community made up of people from every nation on earth."

TALENT: Catherine Van-Davies as May Le and Suzy Wrong as Roxy.

TALENT: Catherine Van-Davies as May Le and Suzy Wrong as Roxy.

Porter knew she had to be involved. She plays the role of archaeologist Catherine Taylor in a cast that includes Catherine Van-Davies, Jillian Nguyen, Bryan Brown, Clare Bowen, Gareth Yuen, Suzy Wrong and Ryan Corr.

The Hungry Ghost Festival is a traditional Buddhist and Taoist festival held on the 15th night of the seventh month in the lunar calendar when the gates of hell are said to open and ghosts are free to roam the earth. Many of these ghosts are believed to have died without being given a proper ritual burial and therefore remain lost, wandering souls. To appease them, family members offer prayers and food and drink to their deceased relatives, burn fake bank notes and other forms of votive gifts.

Fourteen days after the festival, to make sure all the hungry ghosts find their way back to hell, people float lanterns on lakes or down rivers. The lanterns direct the ghosts back to the underworld, and when they extinguish, it symbolises that the dead have found their way back.

In Hungry Ghosts, a powerful amulet is broken on the eve of the Hungry Ghost Festival in Melbourne and a vengeful spirit is unleashed, bringing the dead with him. May Le (Van-Davies) must fight the malevolent spirit who seeks to corrupt her and torment the community.

Only by discovering her true heritage and genuine self can she help to heal a community still afflicted by the anguish of a lost homeland.

"When I read the script I realised I hadn't seen anything like this before on Australian television," Porter says.

"That always attracts me to a project. Also, I love the horror genre so to play an archaeologist who is suddenly possessed by a demon - well, how could you say no to that?"

Porter was born in Newcastle and attended Newcastle Grammar School and the University of Newcastle. There, she started acting in theatre productions, loved it, and successfully auditioned to study at The National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in Sydney.

UNIQUE: Susie Porter is one of the stars of Hungry Ghosts, an intriguing new SBS series that premieres on August 24. Picture: Sarah Enticknap

UNIQUE: Susie Porter is one of the stars of Hungry Ghosts, an intriguing new SBS series that premieres on August 24. Picture: Sarah Enticknap

Her list of film and television credits include Little Fish, Two Hands, Puberty Blues, The Secret Life of Us, Paradise Road, Ladies in Black, RAN: Remote Area Nurse, Hounds of Love, Better Than Sex and Cargo.

Most recently, Porter gained a new generation of fans as notorious drug trafficker Marie Winter in popular prison drama Wentworth. She has won multiple AFIs, IF Awards and Logie Awards, and is in Melbourne filming season nine of Wentworth when we speak.

"I feel really grateful to be part of that show - I always loved Prisoner as a child," she says.

"With Hungry Ghosts, it was nice not to be the lead. It means you don't have to worry about carrying anything or anyone and you can relax and enjoy the ride.

"Also, it was a great way to showcase some very talented Vietnamese actors whose names we may not be familiar with."

Hungry Ghosts writer and producer Timothy Hobart spent a lot of time researching epigenetics - the idea of inherent trauma - when putting the story together. He also spoke to people who had lived through the trauma of the Vietnam War, or whose parents had.

"It really fascinated me. I wanted to find a way to explore [epigenetics] so I began looking at the idea of intergenerational trauma and thinking about the events that might create that," he explains.

"The exodus of the Vietnamese diaspora after the collapse of Saigon had always interested me so I looked further into that.

"Marrying that with a ghost story came from the idea of 'hidden trauma' and our use of language and how we describe that past trauma.

"It was very important for the project to bring in Vietnamese Australian writers and storytellers such as Koa Pham, Alan Nguyen, Jeremy Nguyen and Michelle Lee."

Director Shawn Seet had been waiting his whole career, he says, for a script "that primarily dealt with an Asian topic".

"It had something really profound to say and at the same time was a great story. Hungry Ghosts really celebrates the inclusion of Asian culture in Australia," he says.

Hungry Ghosts can be streamed at SBS on Demand.

This story Susie Porter couldn't say no to Hungry Ghosts first appeared on Newcastle Herald.