‘I broke out in a cold sweat’: could you stomach seeing your memories of bullying play out on TV? | Television

‘I broke out in a cold sweat’: could you stomach seeing your memories of bullying play out on TV? | Television

When Rebecca Starford was 14 she spent a year living in the bush as part of an outdoor education program at her elite boarding school. The bullying she experienced and witnessed there was violent and disturbing, escalating from scathing glances to one girl defiantly setting herself on fire – a dorm full of teenage girls turning into a vicious hunting ground.

Bad Behaviour, Starford’s 2015 memoir, chronicled that year and its impact on her adult relationships. Now the book has been adapted into a four-part Stan miniseries, which unflinchingly brings these events to life and examines the ripple effects of trauma.

“It’s quite an uncanny experience,” the Brisbane-based author says of the series. “Seeing some of the things that took place in the dormitory, I was breaking out in a cold sweat with the recognition of the past – it perfectly captures the mood and feeling, and the awful kind of claustrophobia.”

Directed by Corrie Chen, the series stars Jana McKinnon as Starford’s character, renamed Jo. When she arrives at the Silver Creek campus, Jo is a sweet, shy scholarship student. She is drawn to the beautiful, slippery Portia, played by a terrifying Markella Kavenagh, and becomes desperate for her approval. Portia is friendly one moment, distant and taunting the next: in one scene, Jo is thrilled when Portia invites her on a family holiday but the girl pulls away again just minutes later. Tangled in Portia’s web, Jo becomes a victim, bystander and, eventually, enabler of the bully’s psychological violence.

Ten years later, Jo’s memories of Silver Creek resurface when, working as an usher and building a career as a writer, she runs into Portia and fellow scholarship student Alice (Yerin Ha), who is now a famous cellist. Through these renewed relationships, Jo slowly recognises the ways in which she is still perpetrating the same kind of emotional terror she suffered. The show deftly explores the cycle of abuse as Jo embarks on a journey of healing.

Two girls in school uniforms stand in the bush
Tangled in Portia’s web … Jo (Jana McKinnon) and Alice (Yerin Ha). Photograph: Jane Zhang

“Even though it is based on a memoir, this show feels like the most personal thing I’ve made,” Chen says. “It required both Jana and myself interrogating our own emotional darkness, and the rawness of desire that comes from a reckoning within yourself.”

“There were definitely some really intense emotional states that Jo is in, which is fun to get your teeth into as an actor, but it’s also quite demanding – you don’t always immediately shake it off,” McKinnon says. “Corrie and I sometimes felt very similar … It was really nice to have her on my team and feel that together.”

Female bullying has been explored thoroughly in pop culture: Mean Girls, for instance, and Alice Pung’s novel Laurinda, which was adapted by the Melbourne Theatre Company. But where those use humour to offset heavy themes, Bad Behaviour plunges headfirst into darkness, playing out almost like a thriller. Shot in Victoria’s Macedon Ranges, the natural landscape creates an air of oppression, intensified by Caitlin Yeo’s haunting score.

“It’s a reflection of the emotional structure of the Silver Creek world – even though they’re in this open wilderness, there are the confines of what you’re allowed to feel,” Chen says. “Tone was actually really hard to pin down … how do you balance the danger of what Jo felt with an erotic fuel?”

Feverish eroticism underpins Jo’s confusion as she feels the first pinpricks of same-sex desire in this brutal landscape. For Starford, growing up in the 1990s, this was especially confronting. “I didn’t even know what being a gay woman could be when I was a teenager,” she says. “When I started to have those kinds of feelings during that year at school, I was very scared … I think that contributed to that complexity of feelings towards the other girls.”

These knotty relationships are fascinating to watch as they unfold in the dual timelines. Jo and Portia’s adult dynamic still has shades of their adolescent push and pull; the older and younger versions of each character are played by the same actors.

Two girls in school uniform crouch on the flood of a classroom looking at each other between the desks
‘There was a sense of catharsis watching the series’ … Portia (Markella Kavenagh) and Jo. Photograph: Jane Zhang

To achieve this depth of characterisation, the cast had one-on-one rehearsals in “specific character constellations”, and worked with an intimacy coordinator, Amy Cater, to tease out small physical details. “We really explored together: what defines this relationship and how does it change?” McKinnon says. “We went from the tiniest micro to the macro, exploring all the different relationships and the adult v teenage arc, and then put it all together like a big puzzle.”

Purposefully separating screen from real life was crucial in bringing Jo and Portia’s thorny relationship to life in a way that was emotionally safe for both actors. “Markella and I got on really well – we shared a trailer and that really helped us to stay connected in a way where there’s a definite boundary between who Portia is and who Markella is,” McKinnon says. “She was very clear about where the scene ended, and we would turn to each other to make sure we’re OK.”

As in any adaptation, changes have been made from page to screen. The most significant was making Alice an Asian character, a decision that reveals the subtle racial undertones of bullying. “When you’re a person of colour in this country, everything that happens to you is related to your race, but I didn’t want to make it all about that in why Alice was picked on,” Chen says. “I was trying to walk a very fine line of emotional truth.”

After spending years working on such an emotionally intense project, the director has found that Bad Behaviour has burrowed deep into her psyche. “I’m actually really struggling to move on from the making of this show – I had to really go back in time and expose myself in so many ways, so it’s still quite raw,” she says. “Every time I finish watching the show, the ending devastates me – I’m still left in that spot with God knows how many Portias I’ve had in my life.”

But for Starford, the show’s release is allowing her, finally, to move on. “Because this has been a project that’s been going on for almost as long as the life of the book, there’s an element of them being intertwined – so there was a sense of catharsis watching the series,” she says. “To use a horrible metaphor, it is the closing of this chapter for me.”