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
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
A young Gulpilil as he appears in the hit movie
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
Walkabout, at ACMI Cinemas, Federation Square until August
28. Bookings: 8663 3583 or acmi.net.au/tickets.