A conversation with the cast of Bran Nue Dae

A conversation with the cast of Bran Nue Dae – By Simon Miraudo.

Rachel Perkins’ latest film Bran Nue Dae is the first cinematic adaptation of Jimmy Chi’s classic West Australian stage musical of the same name. The film is goofy, chaotic, brimming with laughter and filled with touching moments. Fittingly, so was my interview with the film’s cast. I spoke to Ernie Dingo, Rocky McKenzie, Missy Higgins and Dan Sultan about their experiences on the film. Ernie was jovial; Rocky was kind; Missy was relaxed and Dan was plaintive. Phones went off; lunch was consumed; good-natured barbs and compliments were traded back and forth. I sat in the Rydges hotel boardroom with my dictaphone as the Bran Nue Dae hurricane swept past me.

I first spoke to Ernie Dingo and Rocky McKenzie, the two leads of Perkins’ picture. Rocky makes his acting debut as Willie, a young Aboriginal boy who escapes from his big city school to find a way back home to Broome, and more specifically, his love Rosie (singer Jessica Mauboy). He is joined on his travels by Uncle Tadpole (Ernie Dingo), a drunken elder who promises to be his guide but proves to be more trouble than help.

In similar fashion, Ernie Dingo seemed intent on getting his young co-star into trouble. I asked McKenzie what his friends thought of him headlining a feature film. “They like it; they like the film. They’re pretty happy about it,” he replied humbly. Dingo piped up: “They’re ready to rip him.” He continued: “Willie kissing Rosie was actually Rocky McKenzie kissing Jessica Mauboy! That’s headline stuff. Mates are going to go him for that. We want to know what happened in all the rehearsals. Was there any tongue involved…” Dingo stopped himself, mercifully, as McKenzie burst into laughter.

Rocky McKenzie grew up in Broome, where he was a star basketball and football player. When the Bran Nue Dae team arrived in his hometown looking for eager young actors, McKenzie thought he’d have a crack. “The producer, director and choreographer came to my school wanting to meet some of the guys from the football academy. Me and about 30 other boys did an audition; I got a call back and did numerous auditions. It was a long process and then basically I got the part,” he said.

Where McKenzie was light on details, Dingo was more than happy to fill in the gaps. The fellow West Australian was one of the original cast members of Jimmy Chi’s stage production, having first portrayed Uncle Tadpole in 1987. Dingo recalled his time working on the play fondly. “I was doing a lot of theatre at the time; a lot of our roles in the early productions were ‘set it up and make way for the locals to fill in that role at a later date.’’’ I asked Dingo whether he was apprehensive at all about seeing Bran Nue Dae transported to the world of film. “I was surprised it took so long,” he said. “Hundreds of people performed in the stage version; I’d hate to count how many there were. When it came to acting in the film, you had a whole town waiting to fill in. And they did. In the background, in the scenery, they all had some involvement before; they knew all the songs and much of the scenes; when it came to acting, you had a town ready to go.”

Ernie Dingo had nothing but kind words for his fellow cast members, his people, and even himself. “Nothing fazes me about what I have to do in life; I come from a strong tribal background, I come from a strong family. I was the biggest showoff in my family, became the biggest showoff in my hometown, moved to Geraldton and became the biggest showoff in Geraldton; moved to Perth and became the biggest showoff in Perth, took over the whole of Western Australia and become the biggest Aboriginal male showoff in the state. Then I said ‘Bugger that I’m going to take over all of Australia’ and I did that too with The Great Outdoors. Now I’m ready to take on the world again.”

Jokes aside, he reiterated the cultural significance of Bran Nue Dae. “It’s very important to showcase the talent that we have; we don’t have the opportunities. There’s not too many productions based on positive aboriginal characters and aboriginal performers,” he said. “This movie is a celebration of life and the rich beautiful soul that comes from within; bring it to the surface and throw it out there; that’s what we’re doing. Giving young Aboriginal men and women a chance to show that we’re not as downtrodden or unfortunate as people may think.”

As I farewelled Dingo and McKenzie, I welcomed Missy Higgins into the boardroom. In the film she plays Annie, a sweet-natured hippy who offers Uncle Tadpole and Willie a ride back to Broome. Her co-star Dan Sultan was running late, so we spent a few moments making small talk. As we looked out upon the construction work currently taking over the Perth cityscape, I struggled to think of charming topics to discuss. Do I bring up the time in 2004 when I shouted out “marry me Missy” at one of her outdoor concerts? Thankfully, what little professional ethics I have left guided me away from such a cringe-worthy conversation opener.

“I first heard about (the film) when I was playing a festival with Paul Kelly, and he mentioned a friend of his, Rachel Perkins, was doing a musical film,” the ARIA award winning singer stated. “I contacted Rachel and she said she’d love me to audition for the role of Annie. And I hadn’t actually seen the play, but I heard the music, and it was such sweet songs and everything kind of came together timing wise. I thought it would be really fun and challenging; a new opportunity.”

The lanky Sultan entered the boardroom, spouting apologies. In fact, every single word that came out of the rising talent’s mouth seemed absolutely on the level. Here was a singer-songwriter who clearly hadn’t been subjected to many interviews before. Although Higgins was relaxed and natural, it was clear she was well-trained when it came to dealing with the media. Sultan was a little more unhinged, in the best possible way.

Sultan won the role of Lester, the suave pub-singer who threatens to steal Rosie away from Willie, after auditioning for Perkins. I asked how his skills as a performer aided his performance in Bran Nue Dae. “I find that when I’m onstage and singing, I’m not me. The person I am when I’m on stage as ‘Dan Sultan’ is not who I actually am. Its good fun and I have a really good time. I found that Lester wasn’t that much of a stretch from who I am on stage as Dan Sultan. So I could sort of just go into that mode,” he said.

Higgins felt there was a significant difference to her approach. “It definitely felt different singing from another character’s perspective; not a character that I had created for myself. It was interesting having to act that out at the same time; not just sing the song but to be in the costume of another person and singing with a different physical expression.”


asked what was in the future for Dan Sultan, or rather, the character of “Dan Sultan”. He cut-in half-jokingly and said “whoever the f*** that is.” He stated that he had a whole bunch of tours lined up over the summer, and was currently negotiating a deal in London. Amidst the excitement in his voice was trepidation.

“People say you should do what you’re passionate about. But when it comes to passion you don’t have a choice; it’s something you’re just compelled to. It’s not always good. It’s really, really hard. It’s great as well, but I don’t see my mum or my brother. My dad lives in Melbourne, I don’t ever see him. It’s like I can’t f****** maintain a f****** serious relationship, you know what I mean? I’ve just been really really thinking about a lot lately and I’ll just wait and see,” he said melancholically.

This caught me off guard. Missy jumped in with some sound advice: “Do it until it doesn’t make you happy anymore.” A good suggestion from someone who has no doubt been in a similar situation; jetting around the globe trying to foster a career – with success. Higgins meanwhile is currently writing her new album, having returned from a touring stint in the U.S. “I’m just enjoying living at the moment,” she said.

Although Dingo, McKenzie, Higgins and Sultan are all at different points in their lives and careers, it was undeniable that they were each enjoying life at this very moment. They are promoting a film they are clearly proud of and each of them exclaimed how much fun working on the film was. They adored the source material, loved performing the songs and had a ball with the cast and crew. But there is one problem with Higgins’ advice; to “do (something) until it doesn’t make you happy anymore.” The cast can’t continue to make Bran Nue Dae over and over again.

Check out my review of Bran Nue Dae.

One Response to “A conversation with the cast of Bran Nue Dae”

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