Actor Aaron Pedersen
A wooden cross. A brass plaque. An oval black-and-white portrait photo shows Daphne Mary Hele as a smiling young woman. In 1948, the Catholic Presbytery of Alice Springs had granted the then Daphne McDowall permission to marry Dudley Hele. “Both are half-castes,” reads the correspondence, now in the National Archives. “Daphne was reared in the Halfcaste Institution.”
The marriage “will be a good thing”, reassures the church’s note, in its state-backed paternalistic assumption of power over a construction of racial hierarchy.
Daphne died in 1997. Years later, in Sydney, Arrernte–Arabana actor Aaron Pedersen and one of his younger brothers, Vinnie, who has an intellectual disability, pieced together the wooden memorial marker to place on their maternal grandmother’s grave. Pedersen flew to Alice Springs to honour their beloved nan with the marker.
He reflects now on his grandparents’ requirement to seek approval of their union, stemming from Australia’s “white problem”: a “Queen’s curriculum”, he says, founded on the lie of terra nullius, the legal doctrine, finally overturned in the 1992 Mabo High Court judgement, that the land was unoccupied before Captain Cook’s arrival wrought the violence of frontier wars.
Yet still today, many non-Indigenous people have failed to make first contact with an Indigenous person, says Pedersen. “Nobody owns anybody,” he says. “We only have the right to help each other enjoy this time we have together.”
The actor is sitting on the mezzanine of the foyer of Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre, eating a vegetarian focaccia. He has a big presence, sparks with energy. The 46-year-old is buff: grey T-shirt over red singlet and a denim shirt tied around his waist, a grey woollen beanie pulled down over his hair. Theatre fit, all the better for a singleted, sensual on-stage frisson with performer Ursula Yovich, his long-time friend. Their physicality is magnetic.
In a few hours, Pedersen will hit the stage for a new two-hander Australian road trip play, Heart Is a Wasteland, alongside Yovich, a fellow Northern Territory-born Indigenous actor. By chance, there’s a large Aboriginal flag affixed to the wall above the couch where he’s seated.
“I’ve said to John [Harvey, the writer], ‘What about making this into a film?’ ” The actor laughs, and continues: “Trying to get myself a job.” On the evidence of the play, a film adaptation seems apt.
Pedersen recently separated from producer Sarah Bond, his long-time partner. Born in Alice Springs, Pedersen and his seven siblings constantly moved between their mother, Margaret, who was an alcoholic, and foster homes.
There was domestic violence, and, for Pedersen at least, nightmares. In the 2006 documentary My Brother Vinnie, Pedersen said of their mother: “She had a hard life, but that’s no excuse. I’m sorry.”
Vinnie is well and in Sydney with a carer, although Pedersen has often been Vinnie’s carer, among dedicated others. “He makes me laugh,” beams Pedersen.
“My brother Vinnie lives in the spirit world, so I get a chance to hang out with him there, you know? I can be whatever I want. I can be an idiot. We muck around and play air guitar and different instruments. We do it in the street, in the car. It just lightens the spirit up. We can be brothers together on so many different levels. He’s a ratbag.”
Pedersen has been in acting work since his career took off in the series Heartland, in 1994, following seven years as a TV journalist, trained at the ABC’s former Melbourne studios at Ripponlea. In his latest feature, Killing Ground, the directorial debut of Damien Power, he plays German, one of a pair of men who terrorise white holidaymakers at a camping ground where a massacre of Aboriginal people once took place.
While the film’s Gungilee Falls location is a fictitious place, the actual location is Macquarie Fields, 42 kilometres south-west of Sydney, and about 26 kilometres by road from Appin where, in April 1816, army captain James Wallis recorded in his journal 14 Indigenous men, women and children being shot or falling to their deaths from the heights around Cataract River. The toll is almost certainly an underreporting.
Governor Macquarie had ordered three detachments of soldiers into the NSW interior to “punish the Hostile Natives, by Clearing the country of them entirely, and driving them across the mountains”, as well as to shoot resistors and hang their bodies from trees “in order to strike the greater terror into Survivors”.
Pedersen’s role was not originally written as an Indigenous one, but his casting underscores the never-ending cycle of killing; that the toxicity of the land has infected the spirits of people while campers blithely pitch their tents on a cemetery. This is no simple thrill-kill horror flick.
Pedersen performed in choreographer Stephen Page’s feature film debut, Spear, playing Suicide Man, a character dispossessed of his country who has turned to the bottle. The film was released in 2015.
“I lost a brother, just before playing Suicide Man,” the actor says now, circumspect on the details. “We came from broken homes. It was a hard life, for sure. Lot of men I’ve known in my time. It’s the way the world is.
“Alcohol for me, I don’t see the point in it. I’ll have a light beer, but that’s very rarely. I’m not one for drinking or socialising on that level. You’ve got to be drunk to enjoy drunks, you know? I think it’s one of the saddest things in this country.” His voice drops, perplexed. “This country’s always drunk. Drinks for the sundown, drinks for payday. Drinks because there’s some sporting event.
“I’m not a supporter of it. I never have been. I just think you’re stronger when you have your wits about you, you know? That’s just a personal thing, because I’ve grown up around it. Broken homes and stuff. So, I’ve seen the destruction. A lot of people seem to drink if they’re happy or they’re sad. And also, I’m allergic to alcohol anyway, which I like. It makes the choices very easy.”
I ask him what can be done about the epidemic of Indigenous suicide and high Indigenous incarceration rates. “A treaty, bro,” he says. “Let’s get on the real page.
“I strongly believe your attitudes and your beliefs of who you are comes from how you treat your Indigenous people. We’re the only country in the Commonwealth that doesn’t have a treaty. It’s ridiculous. What are they scared of?
“Why don’t you just try that? It might work. Actually, it will work. It’s not about money. You’ve got no idea how much that would change this country, and how it will make us unified, and become very real towards each other.
“You know, we don’t have a black problem in this country, Steve. We’ve got a white problem. How many know blackfellas in this country? Not many. How many associate with them? That’s the problem. What are their attitudes towards blackfellas? Well, it’s propaganda and the Queen’s curriculum; they’re all negatives.”
Pedersen hopes through his art, at least, to become some non-Indigenous people’s point of first contact – to maybe even move them emotionally, into conversations and unity with Aboriginal people.
He wants to inspire other budding Indigenous actors, too. When Pedersen was starring in Water Rats, he conducted drama workshops at Darwin High School. Partaking were students Miranda Tapsell and Shari Sebbens, who each went on to launch careers in the film The Sapphires, the TV series Redfern Now and a string of stage roles.
On screen is the country, and the dance. There is the land, the wind, the trees. The silence is the soundtrack, too: people’s behaviour and motives then become clearer. Collaborating with director Ivan Sen by playing flawed contemporary Indigenous cop Jay Swan, Aaron Pedersen’s movies Mystery Road and Goldstone almost become choreographed sensory pieces, against stunning orange sunsets of the Central West Queensland plains.
A black child on a bicycle in Mystery Road aims two fingers, gun-barrel-like, at Jay Swan’s cowboy-hatted head and warns: “We hate coppers, bro. We kill coppers, bro.” A decade earlier, in Broome in the West Australian Kimberley, Pedersen’s Indigenous lawyer Drew Ellis represented remote blackfellas at court in the two-season, all too short-lived SBS series The Circuit. Ellis was charged by a local at the pub as being white inside: “He’s a lawyer, ’course he’s a coconut.”
As a visitor acting on others’ lands, it is important to Pedersen he first be welcomed to country. He asked permission of elder Pearl Eatts to walk on land in Winton to play Jay Swan. Broome, on the other hand, was easier, given his youngest brother lives there, raising some of Pedersen’s nieces and nephews.
Is it difficult, playing authority figures that some Indigenous people may see as oppressors? “I wouldn’t be a cop in real life. It’s a hard job anyway, but as an Indigenous person: whoa, man, would that be hard.” Playing the role is cathartic, says Pedersen. “Look, Aboriginal people, we’re all hard on each other: our attitudes towards how we might present ourselves and what jobs to choose. I try to play all those characters as simple as possible: what the right headspace is.
“If you can allow the good person to shine through, people understand maybe what your journey’s about. Jay, being a copper, he’s got to remain strong to himself, but he’s also got a fine line between them and us, whether you’re a blackfella or not. I like the fact it complicates a lot of things. In Mystery Road, he’s doing the right thing, so that’s where I try to play the character from: what is right.”
By contrast, he worked German in Killing Ground “from the ground up”, trying not to overthink the character’s menacing motives after a few hours’ discussion in preproduction. “The whole texture of the Killing Ground storyline was: this land is sick, and until we heal it, until we talk about it, until we acknowledge that stuff, then the sickness will continue.”
Pedersen will explore Swan again when a six-part ABC Mystery Road series goes into production soon, directed by Rachel Perkins (Bran Nue Dae, Jasper Jones, Redfern Now), to premiere in 2018. Judy Davis has been cast as a fellow cop, which Pedersen says is “pretty cool”, while Perkins is a “mover and shaker. She means business, and that’s a good thing.”
Detective Swan – like lawyer Drew Ellis in The Circuit before him – is trying to find his identity, his home, where he belongs, as Ursula Yovich, playing Maria, the daughter of Jimmy (David Gulpilil) in Goldstone, reassures him: “This mob? It’s your mob. This land, you belong to it.”
Pedersen is in touch with his surviving brothers and sisters. “We’re all fighting the war of attitudes, policy and legislation, and it will take generations for things to become stronger. But it’s a starting point, to rise from the ashes and make the next generation better than the last. They’re important to me, my brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, uncles and aunties. That’s all I got, really. If I don’t have them, I’ve got nothing.”
Did he ever know who his dad was? “No, not really, no. I pursued a couple of [inquiries] but, yeah, didn’t really come up with anything. I’ve just let it go because at the end of the day, who knows if it’s going to be beneficial to me? I’m okay, I’ve been my own father in my own way. Who says it’s going to be a positive? Nobody knows. So I just prefer to leave it the way it is, because it could be something I wish I’d never gone down.”
Is he still alive? “I’ve got no idea, brother. I suppose my life would have been different had he been in my life, but that’s just me second-guessing it all. I’m okay with the fact he’s not there, and I don’t think I’d open that door.”
Did he ever forgive Margaret, his mother? “Totally, yeah. Look, me and Mum talk all the time now. It’s great, because she’s a lot healthier now. She doesn’t drink anymore. She stopped. She’s my hero.
“She’s always been proud of me. That’s always been a hard one. I was tough on myself, and I was tough on her. I’m really proud of where she’s at now. I’m my mother’s son, and she’s a fighter, man. She fought her way through this world.
“I’ve just eased up on myself. I had to step back and realise: I’m a privileged generation. I’m grateful Mum survived. I just know now our times on the phone, our times of distant conversation, are all filled with laughter.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 19, 2017 as "Aaron’s lands". Subscribe here.