“How is this still an issue?”
Growing up, Indigenous actor Rarriwuy Hick saw very few people who looked like her on Australian TV. Two decades later, she is part of a cultural shift changing all that
Rising TV star Rarriwuy Hick is part of a cultural shift for more diversity on our screens. And the Indigenous actor says she hopes to inspire more young women to “be strong and who they are”.
When she was a little girl, actor Rarriwuy Hick rarely missed an episode of her favourite television show Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. The children’s series focused on five ordinary teenagers who transformed into colour-coded superheroes to save their small town – and the world – from alien destruction. Upon religiously tuning into the series during the mid-’90s, Hick liked the Pink Ranger Kimberly best.
That is, until the day the actor playing the Yellow Ranger changed to Karan Ashley, an African American.
“I was like, oh my gosh – that’s me!” she recalls. “I remember being shocked to see someone on the screen who looked just like me, especially the curly hair.”
A young Hick, whose family split their time between Sydney and remote Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, was beside herself. Back then, finding a person of colour on the telly was like spotting the proverbial needle in a haystack.
“There weren’t a lot of TV characters who were diverse-looking. It was nice but also kind of reassuring to see someone who was a bit like me.”
Two decades later, things have changed. Australian TV has made big strides in the diversity stakes, with focused efforts to have more reflective characters.
And now Hick, 26, a rising star of small-screen drama whose credits include Redfern Now and The Gods Of Wheat Street, finds herself being approached by young fans who say the same sort of things she once did.
“Having girls come up to me and tell me they see parts of themselves in my characters is incredible,” she tells Stellar from the Melbourne set of a hush-hush new project. “It’s nice, but it also makes me wonder, how is this still an issue? But I’m hoping it inspires young Aboriginal girls – all girls – and for them to use that inspiration in any way they want to – whether they want to be an actor or they just see strength and know they too can be strong and who they are.”
She also stars in the ABC sci-fi drama Cleverman, which last year won acclaim here and in the United States after its premiere, and has since been picked up around the world.
Set in a dystopian world in the not-too-distant future, the series focuses on the recently discovered “Hairypeople”
– part of Indigenous mythology – who spark fear and distrust in the community, a mood quickly seized upon by the power-hungry government.
“It’s so exciting to be part of such a great TV series but also an Australian sci-fi show. Taking away it being an Indigenous show, the genre of it is the strong point.”
Hick plays Latani, a teenage Hairy who is plunged into a fight for her life.
“It’s like Latani has become an Australian-style Indigenous Wonder Woman. She can have sass, but she’s strong. She doesn’t put up with anything and fights for what she believes in. I love the character. I’m completely drawn to her and the world they’ve created that she exists in.”
Although playing a 15-year-old was a somewhat daunting prospect at first. “It’s been a while since I was a teenager,” she says with a laugh. “I had to kind of think about what they’re like. Me at that age, I was quite sporty and adventurous and enjoyed being outdoors. I think I was a bit of a tomboy. I didn’t find my feminine side until a lot later, maybe when I was 18 when I finally learnt how to walk in heels.”
Hick was also painfully shy as a child, and hated speaking to anyone outside of her inner circle. “You couldn’t get a word out of me,” she says. “I never wanted to be an actor. But I did want to be a dancer. I enjoyed movement and that’s who I was. I didn’t have to use my voice when I was dancing and I really enjoyed that.”
Her mother Janet Munyarryun was a founding member of the globally renowned Bangarra Dance Company.
Hick says her mother is the reason that she went “down this path”, and is in many ways responsible for its unexpected turns.
“I grew up in this world, going to rehearsals and watching people perform. That’s all I’ve known so it was bound to happen, I think.
“I was in a dance production and the producers and directors of Redfern Now happened to be at the show, and saw something in me that they wanted to explore onscreen.
“A few years later when it was being made they called me. It was the first time I was onscreen. It’s how I learnt how to act. It was the beginning of it all.”
Hick is now juggling meatier projects spanning stage and screen and she’s producing her own work, with a few exciting concepts in the pipeline.
DURING HER FORMATIVE years, Hick traversed two very different worlds. Her parents wanted her to have opportunity and brought her to Sydney for long stints, but were also desperate for her to retain her Indigenous culture in Arnhem Land. There, she spent carefree months in the tiny community of Dhalinybuy.
“It’s remote. I’m talking really small little tin sheds, only about eight of them, and three hours from everything,” she says. “There’s no reception, no internet… no Facebook!
“I’m the eldest kid. I have one biological brother, but traditionally there are nine of us. They are my cousins, but in my culture they’re considered brothers and sisters, and that’s how we see each other. They see me as their big sister. It gets a bit crazy but it’s fun being the oldest. I get to be bossy and they listen to me.”
Her name, pronounced “rad-er-way”, means “butterfly” in her native tongue. It’s a language she was speaking before she learnt English, and is one of seven mostly stly Indigenous dialects she knows.
“It was important to keep my language strong,” she says. “I speak my Aboriginal language fluently and I’m glad I kept connected to that.”
Her upbringing and the dynamic of being the eldest has shaped who Hick is, she says. She describes herself as strong-minded and fiercely protective of those who are hard done by.
“I believe in humanity and I feel very strongly about speaking up about things that are wrong.”
She was among those who expressed anger over the recent Western Australian case of a man who ran down and killed teenager Elijah Doughty, only to be found not guilty of manslaughter but guilty of a lesser offence. Hick also made headlines in 2013 when she and a group of other Indigenous actors were denied service by multiple taxi drivers at the conclusion of their performance at a Melbourne theatre.
“It’s so important to me to use my voice,” she says. “But I’m fighting for humanity. It is not really just an Indigenous thing, it’s about humanity and the belief that people should be treated well. The only way we can move forward in Australia is by talking about these things.”
Hick admits there are days when she’s upset by the challenges her community continues to face. The removal of children by authorities from Aboriginal families in the Top End is an issue that has touched her personally, having involved members of her own family.
“It’s upsetting and at times it’s quite devastating,” she tells Stellar. “But I have hope. I think most Aboriginal people have hope that things will move forward and everything will be OK.
“And also, Aboriginal people are good at having a laugh. We like to get around a dinner table with lots of food and focus on the good, too – family, community.”
Laughing is something she shares with her partner Meyne Wyatt, himself an accomplished actor. They met several years ago while working on a Sydney Theatre Company production – back then just two young up-and-coming performers who became friendly.
“He became a good friend, and then my best friend, and then…” Hick trails off with a laugh.
“We just get each other, I think. We make each other laugh. We’re also not afraid to make fools of ourselves – dancing down the aisle of the supermarket, being silly.
“We enjoy the fun-ness of life. That’s not even a word, but you know what I mean.”
They’ve spent the past few years living out of suitcases and between cities. Wyatt did a long stint on the soap Neighbours while Hick went from theatre in Melbourne to TV in Sydney.
“We’ve decided to get a place in Sydney and make that our base. If we need to travel, we go off, but then come back somewhere permanent.”
When she’s not working, Hick is something of a serious homebody. The intensity of shoots coupled with the often-heavy subject matter leaves her exhausted, so when a job finishes she cocoons herself away. “I will happily hide away for months and months and just watch Netflix and do Sudoku or my puzzles. It’s like recharging my batteries for the next work thing.”
Trips home these days are far too infrequent, although she has formed a surrogate family away from home comprising her acting “rat pack” of other young up-and-comers.
But as often as she can, she makes the long trip back to Arnhem Land to escape the “noise and busyness” of modern life.
“It takes me a while to adjust to the rhythm, though,” Hick says. “It’s slow – a little bit like a country town with a slow pace. When I first go back, my mum will tell me to talk slower because I’m talking too fast or walking too fast. I always have to remind myself to breathe and relax and slow down.
“My brothers miss me, so whenever I go home they ask me what I want for tea that night and I tell them it’s whatever they can catch.
“They’ll go out all day and come back with five lobsters or something. What’s not to love about that?” Cleverman is available on ABC iview.
“I believe in humanity and I feel strongly about speaking up about things that are wrong”
RARRIWUY WEARS Cooper St dress, cooperst.com.au
IN REEL LIFE (clockwise from top left) Rarriwuy Hick with Deborah Mailman in a scene from Redfern Now; Hick on the 2017 Logies red carpet; with partner and fellow actor Meyne Wyatt.
RARRIWUY WEARS Cooper St jumpsuit, cooperst. com.au; Tony Bianco shoes, tonybianco.com.au HAIR & MAKE-UP Julia Green