Non Fiction: The Colliding Worlds of David Gulpilil

Published in The Enthusiast 

David Gulpilil looks older than I expect. Segments of his  shoulder-length grey hair are unintentionally dreadlocked and his suit hangs from his slight frame like it doesn’t belong. He is late, having already missed the traditional smoking ceremony that he was due to participate in – part of the opening celebrations for the ACMI Screen Worlds exhibition that he’s in Melbourne to promote.

People mill about, strangers greet him by name. He’s smiling, waving back, but at 9:30am there is something about his face that says this world – a boardroom in the middle of the city, surrounded by people he doesn’t know – is confusing. His mind is still processing the morning chaos, yet he’s jovial with the glow of a man who’s just had an early morning tipple.

I’m nervous. Growing up on a filmic diet of Storm Boy repeats, I’m finally meeting the man who, in the film, lovingly buried Mr Percival (the real pelican died in early September at Adelaide Zoo).

Vaughan, his minder, directs his attention to where I’m standing. Gulpilil flashes what should be a toothy grin, but he’s missing many of those and before I begin to greet him, he’s already wrapped his arms around me in a strong embrace. He sits, his hands pressed into mine. Any nerves I had about meeting my ageing childhood hero have dissipated. With formality seeming entirely inappropriate now, I begin to explain my love of Storm Boy and that old pelican. Vaughan jokes that “Gulpie wanted to have Mr Percival stuffed, for memory’s sake,” as Gulpilil lets out a roaring laugh.

His eye contact is intense; gaze unfaltering while he’s otherwise animated. It’s this intensity that has grabbed audiences since his first appearance onscreen in Walkabout. Back in 1971, director Nicholas Roeg plucked him from the Maningrida bush in central Arnhem Land for his extraordinary ceremonial dance skills. “They come and they sat down because I am the best dancer in the world – better than a prima ballerina,” he laughs.

Gulpilil hadn’t learnt to speak English well at the time. “I was a non-English boy as I was growing up, and I just learned from Rolf Harris,” he beams, “and the journalists taught me (during the promotional tour for Walkabout) in London. I always remembered (the words) ‘yes’ and ‘maybe’,” he begins to cackle, “the journalists couldn’t get their stories.”

Gulpilil, for the better part of his life, has spoken mostly in his native tongue, coming to the city only for work. “Back on the land I live with my nature and home and there’s nothing, it’s simple,” he says.  “You know film is just film, but me and the land…”

Despite his a deep pride for the bush, he relishes talking about the experiences that life as an actor has provided. “I flew to Hong Kong and London and I walked on the red carpet and I came in and I walked in Buckingham Palace in the royal ground and had food there.” He mentions the celebrities he’s met, name-dropping any chance he gets, “Jack Nicholson, Jim Brown, Clint Eastwood …… I stayed with John Lennon, we played guitar and he taught me a bit of English.” Gulpilil at 56 years old still behaves like a star-struck 16-year-old, yet he’s not completely immune to his own ego and is happy to be on the red carpet given the chance: “It makes me feel like a king!”

He might be full of bravado but Gulpilil is known to have those from home, in the Northern Territory, close by for support. Vaughan, who patiently prompts him through the interview, has known him for nearly thirty years and Gulpilil and his wife, Miriam Ashley, currently live with him.

Belinda Scott, associate producer of Ten Canoes, who has known Gulpilil for 20 years, often assists him during interviews and travels with him frequently. “David is as difficult as he is divine, he’s had a number of minders over the years, close friends who have spent time ensuring he makes the plane, has appropriate clothes for the climate and generally just keeping him company when he is away from family.”

His family seems to extend well beyond just blood relations and the loss of John Cann, Gulpilil’s close friend and agent of more than twenty-five years, therefore had a deep impact. Cann, who had often supported David with his own money, passed away late last year after a battle with cancer. 
“The last words he said [to me] was, ‘I’m going, I hope someone will look after you’.” So who’s looking after him now? Gulpilil looks at Vaughan with conviction and deep gratitude. “Him,” he says. “He is.”

Back home in Darwin these days – he moved away from Arnhem Land – an average day for Gulpilil is far from the life one might expect of a multi-award winning actor. “I do painting. In the morning. I get up and I paint and I think.” Painting has since been a necessity for Gulpilil – a matter of survival – and he sells his artwork to make ends meet between projects. Vaughan’s wife, Cindy, inspired Gulpilil to begin painting between film takes to prevent anxiety. The tradition means more to him than anything else: “painting is higher than the film because the film is only half a watermelon, you know? But the art – it stays there in my heart.”

His children are mentioned frequently; he taught them how to dance, hunt and sing, “I’m proud, I’m proud,” he repeats as a tear works its way down his cheek. Many of Gulpilil’s six children live in the city “getting an education”, and sons Jamie and Jida have, in recent years, entered the industry too in the films Ten CanoesNed Kelly and Australia.

Gulpilil is grateful that his sons will continue to tell indigenous stories to “do the movies to educate family, my people, them blackfellas or whitefellas or any fellas.” And despite mixed reviews regarding the way in which Australia presented indigenous history, Gulpilil is happy that the film was able to reach such a large audience.

“Baz Luhrmann came up and said to me, ‘I came to see you,’ and I said, ‘Yeah? What for – peanut butter?’, ‘Nah, a movie!’” he laughs, “so I taught [audiences] and they understood from my point of view … my ancestors are gone so it’s my responsibility to pass on the stories to the next generation.”

It’s this responsibility that brings his two worlds into fierce collision. Life on the land is a world away from the red carpet that makes him feel like a king. He craves both and there’s a sense that this is what he’s yet to make peace with. Between descriptions of his home, of life alongside crocodiles and swampland, he reiterates that he has awards, “that’s my proof see…, I’ve got about a hundred of them. I’m famous.”

Vaughan interrupts: “Infamous, more like it.” Gulpilil cackles.

Despite being planted between two opposing trajectories, Gulpilil’s spirit is as strong as ever. Behind the haze, his cheeky grin and sharp sense of humour ring out. “I am here,” he gestures largely, “Australia I am here!” I feel sad that after all these years he thinks we might not have noticed.