Jacqueline McKenzie stars in the TV series Pine Gap.
Jacqueline McKenzie stars in the TV series Pine Gap. Lisa Tomasetti

Aussie thriller's spy games in the Outback

A NEW Aussie drama imagines the spy games that are likely taking place in the Outback.

Pine Gap, the ABC's first local co-production with global streaming giant Netflix, is named after and set in the intensely secretive world of the US/Australia joint defence facility in central Australia.

Located 18km outside of Alice Springs, Pine Gap is one of three massive satellite surveillance bases which allows the NSA and CIA to monitor and collect intelligence from Asia, eastern Europe and the Middle East.

"It's a massive section of the world we have our electronic tentacles in," Jacqueline McKenzie tells The Guide.

"Thank God in a way, because it's able to tune in to terrorism plans and plottings, or whether there's a proliferation of nukes anywhere. I felt a bit more confident knowing that we had an ear to what was going on in the rest of the world. The tricky balance is to make sure it's very much a joint facility and the power balance is equal.

"That's where a lot of the drama lies for us - the power struggle between the American side of things and the Australian side of things. Then there's the interpersonal side of things... there's the chance for romance and intrigue and testing of loyalties. It's a fabulous hotbed for drama which is completely unique."

Steve Toussaint and Jacqueline McKenzie in a scene from Pine Gap.
Steve Toussaint and Jacqueline McKenzie in a scene from Pine Gap. ABC-TV

McKenzie plays no-nonsense Deputy Chief Kath Sinclair, who works closely with her American counterpart, Chief of Facility Ethan James (Steve Toussaint).

"If you want a head of a facility, you want someone tough," she says. "You want someone who can stand up to the plate for Australia's sake to be heard. What a great role for a woman. They could have easily put a male in that head role. I said thank you to (the creators) Greg (Haddrick) and Felicity (Packard) for writing me a ball-breaker.

"Her job means everything to her and I would like someone who's defending my country to be like that."

Kath and Ethan face a tough task when a leak is discovered and the only way the information could have got out was a mole within their ranks.

"There's joint information of course, but the Aussies and the Americans are also running their own races," McKenzie says.

"They have meetings every day about what they're going to be tracking. Sometimes the Aussies want to track things they don't want to talk about and they don't have to divulge, and the Americans do the same thing. You have to trust, and in our series that trust comes under tremendous threat."

Jacqueline McKenzie and Stephen Curry in a scene from Pine Gap.
Jacqueline McKenzie and Stephen Curry in a scene from Pine Gap. Lisa Tomasetti

With access to the real Pine Gap off limits, the facility's hi-tech control room was recreated on a sound stage in Adelaide and the nearby decommissioned Holden plant served as the exterior. Other scenes were also filmed on location in Alice Springs.

"The old Holden factory looked surprisingly similar," she says.

"Government officials aren't supposed to have any formal comment on the facility, but we got the inside edge from David Rosenberg, who wrote the book Inside Pine Gap. He was able to tell us if what we were doing looked and sounded authentic."

Pine Gap airs Sundays at 8.30pm on ABC-TV.

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