Celia Pacquola’s take on the big issues in Utopia

Government bureaucracy and the minutiae of office life ­– from signing farewell cards to tech upgrades ­– are mined for laughs in a new season of the award-winning ABC comedy Utopia.

Jun 07, 2023, updated Jun 07, 2023
Celia Pacquola returns as chief operating officer Nat in the new season of 'Utopia'. Photo: ABC

Celia Pacquola returns as chief operating officer Nat in the new season of 'Utopia'. Photo: ABC

When Australian comedy Utopia finished after four back-to-back seasons in 2019, lead ensemble cast member Celia Pacquola says she thought the much-loved show had run its race.

“Out of the blue, what a treat to come back… and well done me to have scored this incredible gig!” says Melbourne-based Pacquola, speaking to The New Daily in between sleeps and feeds with her nine-month-old daughter, Eleanor Jessica Munnis.

“We all thought we had a good run with four [seasons] and that was four years ago… It didn’t feel like it was coming back just because the other seasons were back to back.”

The fifth series, written and produced by three of the founding members of Working Dog Productions – Rob Sitch, Santo Cilauro and Tom Gleisner – brings back all the main cast, and unpacks some of the biggest issues inside the fictional Nation Building Authority (NBA).

So what can we expect this season? The NBA is still trying to get the job done in the face of endless backflips, government interference and ever-shifting priorities.

Sitch returns as chief executive officer Tony Woodford, Dilruk Jayasinha, plays project manager Ashan De Silva, Dave Lawson plays project assistant Scott Byrnes and Emma-Louise Wilson returns as personal assistant Katie Norris. Comedian and radio host Anthony Lehmann is back as government liaison Jim Gibson, Kitty Flanagan (Fisk) is the ever-intense PR heavyweight Rhonda Stewart and Rebecca Massey is Beverley Sadler, head of human resources (HR).

Pacquola has a career in award-winning stand-up, worked with best friend (and she was best man at his February wedding) Luke McGregor on Rosehaven, and won the 2020 season of Dancing With the Stars,  but she has never actually worked in an office. She admits she has met people who “love Utopia, but can’t watch it because it’s too close to reality”.

“As much as it’s dealing with big issues, billion-dollar spending, and infrastructure and things we’re seeing in our real life, there’s also the minutiae of office life, of taking people to lunches, and having to do tech upgrades, losing passwords, lanyards not working, fridges set to the wrong temperature,” she says.

“All that stuff is real and fun.”

And this season’s trivia?

“The politics around signing a card… having to have legal involved so you don’t offend anyone so you write the right thing in a going-away card,” Pacquola says.

“Or, making a speech at a farewell party and having HR involved. A smart fridge – it becomes the biggest thing. Tech upgrades. Not letting the bad guys in. Keeping security around passwords. There might be post-it notes stuck on screens with passwords.”

Pacquola, who plays chief operating officer Natalie Russell, singles out a few of her colleagues for special mention.

“Rhonda… I just love her character so much… whenever she comes and has a go at me as Nat, it is so fun. Beverley comes back a lot.

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“They are my favourite scenes, [with] very different brands of damage [control]. Rhonda says you’re an idiot to your face, just get on with it.

“And they both have very strong hair.”

The Utopia team get on with the job of ‘nation building’ in season five. Photo: ABC

Will there be issues with indoor plants, where office couches should go, demands for the tech guy, lanyards and should the morning tea muffins contain gluten? Or will they make headway with some of the biggest infrastructure projects like a decent airport rail link? A new bypass or solar scheme uptake?

Pacquola gives us some insights, even though she’s not entirely clear on what her own job specifications or KPIs are.

“I am not sure,” she laughs. “Which is kind of a testament to the show, that even after five seasons, I am not entirely sure what the NBA does. No one knows, and they don’t get anything done.

“As far as I can understand, Nat is just trying to do the simplest of tasks and it’s proving impossible… her overall aim is to build things.

“She gets a slightly bigger office. She is generally trying to do something off her own back, and hits roadblocks. And then Jim or Rhonda will come in and dump a problem on her desk, and she spends the next episode trying to clean up someone’s mess.”

Pacquola says her “next big thing” is host of improvisation comedy series Thank God You’re Here, which returns on Network Ten after 14 years on the backburner.

This article was first published on The New Daily.

Season five of Utopia begins on the ABC tonight (June 7).


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