Drug use, psychological torment, kidnapping – these might seem like an odd fit for a studio best associated with a rose-tinted output, but they’re nevertheless the themes of the story Disney has chosen to tell in its first original Australian scripted series on its streaming platform Disney Plus.

The Clearing is a dark psychological drama loosely inspired by an Australian cult called The Family and adapted from a crime thriller of the same name by Melbourne-based award-winning author JP Pomare.

Told in a multi-timeline structure, the story opens on Freya (Teresa Palmer), a young mother alone in a dark lake, holding her breath, anchoring herself below the glassy surface. Throughout the first episode we see into Freya’s crushingly complex childhood, raised in a cult of bleach-blonde-haired children when she was then known as Amy (played by Julia Savage).

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Presided over by a calculated con artist and cult leader known as Maitreya or Adrienne (played in both timelines by Miranda Otto), the cult raises the children as their own, restricts children’s access to the outside world, deprives them of food, feeds them LSD and schools them in quasi-Eastern practices. (Like The Family’s real-life leader Anne Hamilton-Byrne, the Maitreya character was a yoga teacher.)

Pieces are painstakingly put together as the drama slowly unfolds over the series. Palmer’s performance grounds the show and serves as a constant reminder of the toll of Maitreya’s hunger for power and control. She’s joined by a cast of celebrated local actors including Guy Pearce, Kate Mulvany, Claudia Karvan, Gary Sweet, Hazem Shammas and Mark Coles Smith.

Showrunner Elise McCredie, who co-wrote the critically acclaimed ABC series Stateless and Michelle Payne biopic Ride Like a Girl, co-created the show with Matt Cameron (Jack Irish), with Osamah Sami (Ali’s Wedding) also part of the writing team. Behind the camera, and on it, The Clearing boasts some serious Australian talent.

Palmer spoke to Broadsheet about the new show and what we can expect from the rest of the season.

Although your character Freya is fictional, the story behind The Clearing is loosely inspired by a real Melbourne cult. Does playing a character rooted in reality change your performance?

I researched a lot of different cults to help lay the foundation of my character. Freya is completely fabricated, however there are lots of personal stories out there which have some similarities to Freya’s backstory. I would use some aspects of what I was reading and then also just allow the work to unfold from the writing.

There’s this notion that falling victim to a cult is often reserved for the down and out, or the vulnerable, but it can be anyone. Often the concepts feel familiar, like something spiritual or holistic. It all sounds good in theory, but it can quickly spiral into extremist beliefs at the hands of a manipulative, power hungry leader. That spiralling is what I find really fascinating.

You and Julia Savage do a beautiful job playing two halves of the same character. Did you and Julia collaborate to create cohesion?
We didn’t really, although many people have commented on how similar we feel on screen. I take that as a huge compliment because she’s such a brilliant young actress, nuanced and with a stillness and wisdom on camera far beyond her age.

One of Freya’s main motivations is her love for her son and her desire to protect. As a mum of five, how did your personal experience shape your understanding of Freya?
You always end up bringing much of your own life to a role, and of course having so many children helped to shape the ways in which I wanted Freya’s motherhood to be the most pivotal role in her life. I was excited to be able to show sides of her playfulness and connection with her son.

Freya has tried to create a very stable life for Billy – a far cry from the kind of upbringing Amy experienced whilst in the hold of the cult. She’s committed to offering her son chances that she herself wasn’t afforded. She’s affectionate with him, loving and playful. However, the demons of her past still follow her and manifest themselves in some of her behaviour towards Billy – she’s overprotective, isolated and paranoid at times. I really loved the humanness in her.

Another element I found interesting is Freya’s continued relationship with Miranda Otto’s character, Adrienne / Maitreya.
This relationship is a very dysfunctional one and it’s built on manipulation, fear, and control. There’s an element of Stockholm syndrome but also Freya finds herself stuck between a rock and a hard place. She’s living in a house of cards, ready for it all to crumble around her at any point. She’s doing what she thinks she must to survive.

I love watching the evolution of her character as the show presses on, as you see how this dynamic starts to shift. When we see Amy initially within the grasp of Adrienne, Amy’s choices are taken away from her. Now, as an adult, the relationship is even more complicated as Freya is choosing to participate in a meaningful way in her “mother’s” life – there’s a more layered reason behind that but we eventually see the shackles come loose.

I was totally hooked after the first few episodes. What can we expect for the rest of the season?
You can expect the show to take you from one dramatic twist to another, unravelling secret after secret as Freya is suddenly forced to come face to face with the dark underbelly of where she comes from. It’s grips you even tighter as the story evolves.

The Clearing is streaming on Disney Plus, with new episodes released each Wednesday.