How Leah Purcell coped with old memories: hug the kids, walk the dog

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“I’m extremely honoured and excited,” Purcell says about the festivals. “This is an Australian story and I want my Australian audience to own this. I give birth and they’ve got to look after her.”

“My mother came from a generation of Aboriginal women that weren’t given a voice”: Leah Purcell in <i>The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson</i>.

“My mother came from a generation of Aboriginal women that weren’t given a voice”: Leah Purcell in The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson. Credit:Bunya

The film has a heavily pregnant Molly Johnson (Purcell) living in a timber slab hut with her children while her husband is away droving. Among the intruders that test her mettle and bring up secrets from the past are a rogue bull, an English police officer (Sam Reid) assigned to a nearby town and his aspiring writer wife (Jessica De Gouw) and an Aboriginal fugitive (Rob Collins) with a shackle around his neck.

It’s a story about a woman’s strength, fighting back against deep racism and violence, that resonates with #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter issues.

“My mother came from a generation of Aboriginal women that weren’t given a voice,” Purcell says. “My grandmother was considered sub-human. So I want to use [film] to bring stories to the forefront and be a truthteller.”

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Purcell is well known for acting in the TV dramas Redfern Now (2012-13), Janet King (2016) and Wentworth (2018-21), the films Lantana (2001), The Proposition (2005) and Jindabyne (2006), the semi-autobiographical play Box the Pony (1997) and the documentary Black Chicks Talking (2001), which she co-directed then adapted into a book and a stage show.

But it is her politically charged interpretation of Lawson’s famous short story that has taken her to new acclaim.

Author of the iconic short story <i>The Drover’s Wife</i>, Henry Lawson, c1900.

Author of the iconic short story The Drover’s Wife, Henry Lawson, c1900.Credit:State Library of NSW

The original story centres on a stoic woman who protects her four young children from a snake under their isolated two-room hut while her husband is away droving. When she waits it out overnight then kills it in the morning, her oldest son throws his arms around his mother and, seeing tears in her eyes, declares he will never go droving.

Leah Purcell as Molly Johnson

Leah Purcell as Molly JohnsonCredit:John Platt

Purcell’s mother would read the story to her when she was five years old.

“I think it was the first time I could use my imagination and I put myself as that little boy,” she says. “My mother was that drover’s wife. It just resonated with me. The book was one of the things I took with me when she passed away.”

It is a story that has inspired other artists, including painter Russell Drysdale and writers Murray Bail, Frank Moorhouse, Barbara Jefferis and Mandy Sayers.

Purcell’s version was a revelation when it ran for 33 performances at Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre. It earned rave reviews, swept the literary awards in 2017 (winning book of the year at both the NSW and Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards), was named best play and best new Australian work at the Helpmann Awards and took out the top prize at the Australian Writers’ Guild’s Awgie Awards.

That was quite an achievement given that, unlike her mother, she was never much of a reader growing up.

“Hated it,” Purcell says. “I was in the C group. Me and another mate would sit out on the verandah and talk about cricket and footy. He’d go, ‘we should read a few pages’. I’d say, ‘yeah, all right mate’.”

That changed when she met her life and producing partner Bain Stewart, who taught her to love reading.

Leah Purcell as Rita Connors in <i>Wentworth</i>.

Leah Purcell as Rita Connors in Wentworth.Credit:Fremantle/Fox

The Purcell version of Lawson’s story turns a briefly mentioned Aboriginal character into the heroic Yadaka, based on her great grandfather, whose crime is “existing whilst black”.

“Henry Lawson has his interpretation,” Purcell says. “I brought a black lens to it, an Indigenous female lens to it.”

‘Henry Lawson has his interpretation. I brought a black lens to it, an Indigenous female lens to it.’

Leah Purcell on ‘The Drover’s Wife’.

Purcell expanded the story further for the novel and now the film. And while she sees her mother in Molly, there is also a lot of Purcell’s own resilience.

Children are caught in the crossfire in the movie: Malachi Dower-Roberts (Danny Johnson), Amahlia Olsson (Delphi) , Jobe Zammit-Harvey (Joe Junior) and Nash Zammit-Harvey (Henry James).

Children are caught in the crossfire in the movie: Malachi Dower-Roberts (Danny Johnson), Amahlia Olsson (Delphi) , Jobe Zammit-Harvey (Joe Junior) and Nash Zammit-Harvey (Henry James). Credit:John Platt

While she loved growing up in Murgon – her father was a butcher of German and English stock who trained boxers, her Aboriginal mother raised seven children – it was a tough upbringing with her light-skinned family experiencing racism from both sides. “You weren’t black enough to be black and you weren’t white enough to be white because they knew you were of Aboriginal descent,” Purcell says.

She was pregnant at 17. “I turned 18 in August, my daughter was born in September and then my mum died in October,” she says. “I had to pull my socks up real quick.

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“I didn’t like the path I was going. There was domestic violence. My partner at the time, her dad, we broke up. It wasn’t nice. My mother dealt with her issues by drinking so I’ve turned to the bottle. I didn’t want that for my daughter.

“I caught my reflection in a mirror that I played in front of for years – being Doris Day, Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand, Whitney Houston – and I looked at myself and just went ‘who are you?’.

“Then this little voice in my head – this is true – went ‘didn’t you want to be an actor?’ I thought, ‘yeah, I did’. This other voice said, ‘well, your mother’s dead, there’s nothing holding you here’.”

Purcell secretly organised to leave: “I packed three suitcases, climbed out a window, pushed my car down the drive and went.”

Years later, her self-taught acting career began to take off with the 1992 play Through Murri Eyes, then another play in Low, the touring musical Bran Nue Dae, time as a video jockey on pay TV and, in 1996, the ABC series Police Rescue.

Leah Purcell in the ABC series <i>Redfern Now</i>.

Leah Purcell in the ABC series Redfern Now.Credit:

She first had the idea of adapting The Drover’s Wife while shooting Jindabyne in the Snowy Mountains – declaring on top of Mount Kosciuszko that she would be back to make a film.

Then, frustrated by being a director at a writer’s workshop in 2014, she went home, took down the tattered copy of the story from a shelf and wrote the first draft of her own version in seven days.

As she seems to do with everything, including fitness training with boxing and weightlifting to being grandmother of two boys, Purcell threw herself into filming on a cold, windswept mountain range across from where she had made that declaration.

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As well as directing, she had to swing an axe, fire a gun and take part in fight scenes to play Molly.

“I did all my own stunt fights – throwing myself on the ground with that [pregnant] belly when Yadaka jumps up,” she says. “We did 12 takes on that and we had the distributors on set that day. They’re looking at me and going, ‘Leah, you’ve got another five weeks of this. What are you doing?’”

The cold conditions were testing during the shoot.

“People go, ‘oh, it must have been challenging’,” she says. “It’s always challenging when you’re on location because of time and money. But I’m a person that doesn’t look at anything as a challenge. It’s just what my day is bringing. I’d walk out and go, ‘I’ve got my shot list, we’ve got a plan, what are you going to throw at me Mother Nature?’”

Rob Collins (Yadaka) and Malachi Dower-Roberts (Danny Johnson)

Rob Collins (Yadaka) and Malachi Dower-Roberts (Danny Johnson)Credit:John Platt

Purcell does not flinch from showing violence against Molly in the film, though she found it upsetting to watch these scenes repeatedly in the edit room.

“That’s when old memories started to come back,” she says. “There were times when I just had to go for a walk around the park, I’ve had to go home and hug the kids. I’d walk the dog and see his smiling face and the joy that he got, then I could let the day go.”

Purcell says she tried not to put the violence in every version of the story, but “it seems to be the issue that keeps calling me.

“It’s because I experienced it when I was quite young. If my ancestors want me to keep that issue alive until change actually happens then I hope that I can be a part of that journey.”

‘If my ancestors want me to keep that issue alive until change actually happens then I hope that I can be a part of that journey.’

Leah Purcell on violence against women

Purcell says she has always been so busy chasing the next deadline – not to mention helping with her grandsons’ homework – that she has not had time to reflect on how far she has come.

“But I’m going to take a moment and just go, ‘Purcell, look what you’ve come from and look where you’re sitting and what you’ve been given’ and just give myself a little pat on the back,” she says. “I want to go, ‘yes, I’ve been working bloody hard and it’s all coming home now’.”

And the actor is not done with The Drover’s Wife yet.

After adapting it into a play, a novel and a film, she is now planning a television version.

<i>The Drover’s Wife</i> by Leah Purcell.

The Drover’s Wife by Leah Purcell.Credit:

“We’re starting it in 2020 with Molly Johnson’s great, great, great, great grand-daughter,” she says. “An incident sets her on a path of going back and discovering.”

As well as writing and directing, Purcell could also play Molly in a 10-episode series. “Hopefully we can hook a streamer in and away we go,” she says. Purcell says the story means a lot to her because it was something she shared with her mother.

“She was a staunch woman and she had a lot of stuff thrown at her and she survived,” she says. “She was my hero.”

Melbourne International Film Festival is scheduled to run in cinemas August 5-15 and online August 14-22. Pending lockdown, Sydney Film Festival runs August 18-29 with the full program to be announced soon. And The Drover’s Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson opens in cinemas on October 14.

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Email the writer at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @gmaddox.