A feather in his cap

By Larry Schwartz - The Age
August 20, 2005

Actor David Gulpilil is in Melbourne to attend the world premiere of the remake of the
film that made him famous, Walkabout, 35 years after it was originally released.
Photo: Angela Wylie

DAVID Gulpilil had a very different kind of movie in mind when he won a leading role in his first film, Walkabout. "Yeah, I thought I was going to be a cowboy like John Wayne," the actor, dancer, musician and painter says. "But you know it was different. It just was me."

More than 35 years have passed since British filmmaker Nicholas Roeg screen-tested three youngsters from Arnhem Land "out there in the reserve" at Maningrida. "I was the best because I danced and I did movements and I did spear-throwing, hunting," says Gulpilil.

He sported a falcon feather in his leather hat when we met at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image at Federation Square where he last night attended the world premiere of filmmaker and musician Richard Frankland's multimedia remake of the film.

Gulpilil said he had left Darwin on a day of 33-degree heat and arrived on a cold Melbourne night. He wore a thick woollen jumper beneath a long, black leather coat. "It's too cold for me," he says.

He is among the most recognisable of Australians. "I was in New York and someone came up and said, 'Could I have your autograph, please?' I said, Are you sure you know who you are talking to? And he said, 'Yeah, David Gulpilil. You're from Australia'."

Now in his early 50s and a grandfather of three, the distinctive face that won artist Craig Ruddy an Archibald Prize for portraiture, a feature of films including Storm Boy, Tracker and Rabbit-Proof Fence, has weathered in decades of fame and intermittent misfortune. Earlier this month he was fined $500 and disqualified from driving for a year for a drink-driving offence. "Yeah, that makes me upset," he said, "and ashamed too."

Home these days is a tent "in long grass" on the outskirts of Darwin. Authorities had forced him to move on from several locations including the city centre and warned him against hunting and fishing or lighting fires where such practices are not allowed. He had moved on from One Mile Camp in Darwin's Stuart Park, near where he was apprehended with a blood-alcohol reading of .093, because it was "too much humbug".

Despite the weather, he is somewhat at home in Melbourne and "10-20 years ago" lived in Glenroy.

Gulpilil was the youngest of five and an only son. Uncles Alec and Robert had taught him ceremonial dance. "Yeah, my life's been changed forever," he said of Walkabout. "I was just a bush boy."

The film industry had been good to him, though he had not made much money and "paid too much tax or something like that". He had fond memories of his experience with filmmaker Nicholas Roeg. "Yeah I remember him. He's a good English fella and he loved children. We were young kids and he was just like my father."

A young Gulpilil as he appears in the hit movie Walkabout.

Frankland last year co-founded the pro-indigenous Your Voice political party. His new Walkabout uses original footage, video, music and performance to reconsider European romanticism of Aboriginal culture and the legacy of theatrical and cinematic representations of Aborigines by white filmmakers.

He noted that his son, Jamie, had a leading role in Rolf de Heer's tragi-comedy, Ten Canoes, and spoke with a quiet confidence.

"I was going down, down, down," he said of lean times when work was scarce, "and I went up, up up."

Gulpilil is also preparing for an exhibition of his traditional paintings.

Walkabout, at ACMI Cinemas, Federation Square until August 28. Bookings: 8663 3583 or acmi.net.au/tickets.