When she walked into the London casting room of The Wheel of Time, Madeleine Madden scanned the faces – a sea of white – and thought, “Yep, standard.”
To announce her presence, she politely inquired, “The Wheel of Time?”
“They were like, ‘Oh no – upstairs’,” she recalls. “Then I walked into the actual room and it was such a diverse room of people, I just felt so relieved. For so much of my life I was the odd one out. Here they’d done a worldwide search and brought in people from all over who they felt they were the best for the job.”
Madden had starred in Australia’s first Indigenous teen drama, Ready for This, and Redfern Now, a critically praised drama following Aboriginal families living in the Sydney suburb, which should have been considered a triumph – yet she was told by an industry insider that she’d never need to get dialect sessions because she’d never find a job outside Australia.
“It was something that was just such a casual throwaway comment, but I was like, ‘Yes, I’m being put in this box once again, and being told what I can and can’t aspire to,’” she says.
As things transpired, Madden has found freedom overseas. She went on to have a key role in the Hollywood blockbuster Dora and the Lost City of Gold, and now she’s the heroine of The Wheel of Time, the scenic Amazon-commissioned fantasy series based on the books of Robert Jordan, with a notably multiracial cast.
Madden’s entrance is dramatic: as apprentice healer Egwene al’Vere, she is violently pushed from a cliff (a stunt she undertook herself) in an initiation ceremony. It’s a fitting metaphor for the actor, who describes taking on the role as “sink or swim”. She’s 24 now, and this project (the number of seasons as yet unknown, though there are 14 books) will likely document all of her 20s. (It’s safe to say she’ll also be invited to comic cons for the rest of her life.)
Right now, promotional images dominate billboards in Times Square and Piccadilly Circus. With the cast and crew having been in a tight bubble – shooting on location in Czech Republic, Slovenia and Croatia for two years, on sets such as a quaint village built into a quarry outside Prague – it must be discombobulating to resurface into such scrutiny.
The most bankable name on board is Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl, Pride and Prejudice, Beirut), who plays Moiraine Damodred, one of the Aes Sedai sisterhood of sorceresses. Yes, the hero’s journey narrative, so common in blockbuster movies, has had a gender flip.
In the books, of which 90m copies have been sold since their inception in 1990, the female characters were more feisty than feminist – and all notably buxom. In showrunner Rafe Judkins’s adaptation, they’re contemporised for a more progressive, PC audience.
“Particularly with Egwene and Nynaeve, we really get insight into their thinking and their lives, which we may not necessarily get in the books,” Madden says. “Women are at the forefront in this story, and it’s such a celebration of not only diverse people, but diverse ways of thinking and perspectives.”
Many moons ago (well, 2017), Jeff Bezos had a prophesy that Amazon Studios would produce shows to outperform Game of Thrones, and so there’s a lot banking on The Wheel of Time – $10m an episode, in fact. But this creation is far more YA in tone than its HBO rival. The cast is largely young and clean-cut, playing “dentally sound peasants”, and morality is as central a conceit as it is in Lord of the Rings (the rights of which Amazon has also bought, for $250m). The frequent earnest exposition monologues threaten to outnumber the gruesome deaths, and future headlines in the vein of “Game of Thrones walks fine line on rape: how much more can audiences take?” seem unlikely.
As Madden says, “The darkness definitely creeps into the series as we go along further, but I don’t think there is a glorification of physical violence or sexual violence in our story, which is quite unique for the fantasy genre.”
Madden calls Egwene the “dream role”, relating to her character’s core values and sense of duty. Being born into a family known for its activism and creativity has a profound influence on her career; Madden’s grandfather was Aboriginal rights activist Charles Perkins; her film-maker aunt, Rachel Perkins, founded Blackfella Films; and her mother is art curator and writer Hetti Perkins.
“I’ve been raised by strong women in my life, who have sacrificed a lot for me to be where I am. And I think that’s the same with Egwene,” Madden says. “You know, literally what doesn’t kill her makes her stronger, and I feel that’s something that I also take on.”
As a teenager in Australia, she’d delivered a televised address to the nation, on behalf of Generation One, an Indigenous initiative seeking education and employment parity. “I just remember being like, this is something that I could get behind as a kid,” she says. “I didn’t really understand the gravitas at the time, or the scale of what this was.”
After the broadcast, Madden became a target, and not just of children at her school. “Obviously, this brought out some nasty things from the woodwork, and that was quite shocking, being a 13-year-old kid,” she says. “And having adults come for you, which was just insane.”
But rather than discourage her, the pushback crystallised Madden’s belief that the campaign was important.
“It’s been instilled in me since I was young that I have to use my platform to change the world. That’s something that’s part of my DNA,” she says. “I think also that just being born as an Aboriginal woman, my life is politicised, so that’s something I’ve dealt with every day of my life.”
Politics certainly promise to shadow The Wheel of Time as each episode is released. Early opinions on Twitter veer from dismissing it as a “woke show” to applauding the diversity in the casting that moves beyond being tokenistic.
Critical reviews are more singular in their disappointment, though Madden is often singled out for praise. Forbes called her likable and observed that she was given a less restricted role than that originally created by Jordan, while Gizmodo observed the depth and nuance she gave to Egwene, at odds with the “stereotypes and cliches” of the books.