Cast more Indigenous actors in ‘non-Indigenous’ roles, says Deborah Mailman

Redfern Now star wants more imagination in TV casting.


Deborah Mailman is one of the country’s most beloved actors, with a formidable list of credits including Offspring, Mabo, The Secret Life of Us, Redfern Now and The Sapphires.

But she knows she has had opportunities that haven’t been extended to other Indigenous actors, too often cast in Indigenous-only roles. This contrasts to shows in the US such as Grey’s Anatomy which ‘cast blind’ with Caucasian, African-American, Asian and Latino actors.

Mailman believes Australia still has some ground to make up if Indigenous actors are to be cast in roles that are not defined by race.

“I’d broaden things so that Aboriginal actors have the opportunity to diversify, to be able to be cast in roles that aren’t anchored in an Indigenous experience. So for example, seeing more opportunities that have been given to me being given to other actors. I played Cherie in Offspring or Kelly in The Secret Life of Us and I’d love to see more of that happening,” she tells TV Tonight.

“I’m not saying I don’t want to play Aboriginal roles. Some of the greatest work I have been a part of have been that. But it would be great to have a bit more imagination in casting.

“But not to be tokenistic in any way. We’ve got some great actors coming through, so I don’t think it’s an argument to say we haven’t got the actors anymore. That used to be one of the arguments.

“It’s a dead argument now.”

This week she reprises one of the roles that has meant to much to her, Lorraine, for Redfern Now: The Telemovie. The 90 minute drama tackles the confronting issue of rape, when three young women are refused a taxi and are forced to walk home late at night. What unfolds is tough viewing.

Mailman admits that prior to her beginning press interviews she asked producers for guidance on discussing the issues.

“Let’s talk about Rape,” she insists. “It’s important that we say it’s a sexual assault, that 2 women are brutally raped and how the impact of the crime plays out through the women and their loved ones. I think it’s important we term it in that way.

“The writers wanted to look at a stranger being the perpetrator rather than someone they know. The general statistics are, more often not, victims knowing the perpetrator. So this is actually quite an unusual story.”

The cast brings back some of Redfern Now‘s ensemble including Wayne Blair, Rarriwuy Hick and Lisa Flanagan.

Unflinching scenes are part of the hallmark of the Redfern Now brand, but even for the most experienced actors it was a confronting shoot.

“It took me quite a while to be able to wind down from it. To carry that much emotion for all of that time –for all of us- was hard work,” she continues.

“But within that it was a great script and that’s what I love about Redfern Now: they don’t shy away from bigger and harder conversations.”

Anthony Hayes guest stars in a pivotal role as the perpetrator and villain of the story. Mailman acknowledges these scenes required enormous trust.

“I think he’s an extraordinary actor and I knew instinctively we would be fine with each other and respectful in our process. Trust happened very quickly, but (director) Rachel Perkins is great at leading that as well,” she notes.

“In rehearsal we had some tough discussions about how we would do this, and worked to find the physicality of the scene. But also not to over-rehearse it so that on the night we shot, it didn’t look over-rehearsed.”

This may well be the final chapter in the Redfern Now story, but ABC has indicated if the creatives want to revisit the brand it would ‘never say never.’ After 12 episodes, Mailman says it has been of great value to the inner Sydney community.

“There’s been great pride in what it’s done for the community. Having filmed in and around the block and Redfern there is always a wonderful feeling of being supported and people generally loving that there was a focus on (them),” she says.

“It’s not the cameras putting them in the News. It was a different experience. To be able to put it on a mainstream stage and say ‘This is our story’ made a lot of people excited and proud. It just allows us to represent ourselves with ownership, through complexity of character and relationships.

“It’s provided a great platform for emerging artists, all these young actors are coming through like Aaron McGrath are great. It gives them the opportunity to get experience. But also behind the camera and across the board too, in terms of the opportunities it has given.

“To place it in a suburb such as Redfern, which has such a rich history, it’s done a lot.”

Redfern Now: The Telemovie airs 8:30pm Thursday on ABC.

5 Responses

  1. Totally agree here. In Australian shows, we definitely need more aborigines. Deborah has always been great and is probably the best indigenous actress I know of. Shareena from Wentworth is actually brilliant and could be the next Deborah. Come on TV/movie casters, start making an effort here. Their community needs more role models. One of my most hated shows on Aussie TV is the likes of Home and Away and Neighbours, which cast pretty much 100% white Australians, which is a really bad representation of what Australia is actually like. I think SBS or ABC should collaborate with people like Deborah to create an acting school for aborigines. Use tax money to fund their training and development.

  2. I totally agree with Deborah. Often in many shows we see a “token” person. This is totally wrong. Casting is about who is the best person for the job irrespective of race, colour, creed, sexual orientation, tall, short or looks. In our daily lives we see all sorts of people. That’s how the community should be portrayed on television. Cast people because they are the best, not because a “token” person is needed.

  3. She’s spot on, actors should be cast on their abilities, not which colour they are. Likewise, there should be more characters in film and TV who are QLBTI and it’s not central to the story ie imagine in Friends if one of the characters were gay but the others didn’t bang on about it all the time. It should be the same if Indigenous (or any race for that matter) actors are cast – why do the other characters need to mention it? In real life people don’t constantly talk about their friends ‘otherness’.

  4. I thought “The Gods of Wheat Street” did a pretty good job in this regard. There were very few mentions to their aborginality throughout the entire series. The other good thing about this show was the realisation of the depth of good Aboriginal actors. Every one in this case was excellent and special mention to Lisa Flanagan who was superb.

    But I do agree with Deborah main argument that actors should be cast for a talent and ability not because they represent a convenient storyline for however they want to represent aboriginals or a social inequity.

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