The Circuit: articles

Aaron Pedersen and Tammy Clarkson

Aaron Pedersen and Tammy Clarkson in The Circuit

Travelling full circuit

Aaron Pederson is juggling dual roles, writes Bridget McManus.

IT'S a scene that could be straight out of The Circuit, SBS' AFI award-winning drama series about white justice in black communities. A handsome, smiling Aboriginal man is refused service at a smart cafe because he has brought his dog along. Despite the fact he's sitting at an outdoor table surrounded by smokers, he is told the dog can't stay "because of the clientele". Barristers in full courtroom regalia ignore him as he good-naturedly makes his exit.

Except this isn't the upmarket tourist strip of Broome, the West Australian town where The Circuit is set. It's Lonsdale Street and the would-be cafe patron is one of Australia's foremost indigenous actors, Aaron Pedersen. He made his name playing a lawyer in the 1997 ABC series Wildside and plays the lead role of outback lawyer Drew Ellis in both series of The Circuit.

"No worries, darlin'," Pedersen farewells the waitress. With Ruby, the 14-month-old Staffy/Jack Russell terrier, straining at her leash, we find another cafe, where the owner rushes out with a bowl of water and the staff gush over their famous customer. Three lawyers at the next table congratulate him on his work. "You play a very good lawyer," says one. Another hands him his business card, "because a lot of actors get injured on the job".

"I feel like I'm in the Melbourne Zoo sometimes," Pedersen jokes of the heightened fame he's experienced since appearing as a regular on Channel Seven's cop drama City Homicide. "I'm like the monkey in the cage. It's feeding time — throw me a banana!"

As testing as celebrity can be for the intensely private actor (he abhors "red carpets and flashbulbs" and shuns Twitter, the social-networking site favoured by the famous), Pedersen is acutely aware of the positive implications his profile holds for Aborigines.

"This is the first time indigenous people have grown up with Aboriginal people on mainstream television," he says, "people like [myself and] Deb Mailman — and that's a good thing. The indigenous community has always supported my career and I'm full of gratitude because I think something happens when you see our own soul. People can see me [on television] and say to their kids, 'See that boy? He looks like you — that's your soul.' When you see your own soul, you get empowered. That's the connection."

For the young Pedersen, it was late Aboriginal actor Bob Maza, playing a barrister on television, who inspired him to act.

"It was the most powerful image I'd ever seen in my life and I just went, 'Look at that! That's what I want to do,"' Pedersen says.

It is three years since we first met in a corrugated-iron shed on the outskirts of Broome during the filming of the first series of The Circuit. At that time, Pedersen was feeling the dual pressures of his first regular series since Wildside and the weight of making an indigenous-themed show for all Australians. At the time, he told Green Guide: "If Aboriginal people think I've not done them justice, well, then I'm in trouble … That's why I'm very political about what I do. There's a different reason behind what I do as an actor compared with most other actors."

Time and the gruelling production schedule of City Homicide (which typically means 6am starts for its core cast, with no room for rehearsals) have seen Pedersen develop a slightly more pragmatic attitude to his craft.

"I believe I do the best I can on the day and that's where I leave it, otherwise it's going to do my head in," he says. "The editor is not going to choose the worst takes. They'll always grab the best out of everything, so I leave it and walk off. I'm not neurotic about it. I don't go home and go, 'I ruined that scene!' I see actors do that all the time."

Returning to Broome and The Circuit "family", however, he found a renewed sense of gravity and a deeper need for perfection, or something close to it. Following the confrontational vein of the first series, which refused to shy away from the ugly problems plaguing the outback, the second opens with a similarly unnerving scenario. Domestic violence, homophobia and an Aboriginal death in custody shape the action from the outset.

"I felt that a story of this nature needed to be shared with all of Australia because I think a lot of people like to see it as a story that exists over there," he says. "It's problematic because the legal system and the policing of this country is mainly done by non-indigenous Australians, so it is a big issue. I'm not saying that every time an Aboriginal person is incarcerated this happens, I'm just saying that when this happens, we should say, 'This is Australia's problem'. Why is this happening when only 2 per cent of the population is Aboriginal and, in some cases, 90 per cent of the prison intake is Aboriginal? It doesn't make sense."

Drew Ellis, the hotshot Perth lawyer seconded to follow Magistrate Peter Lockhart (Gary Sweet) around the travelling courthouse on "the circuit", is no longer the uptight "coconut" (black on the outside, white on the inside) he was dubbed by locals in the first series. He's savvier about local lore, tougher in the courtroom and less insecure about his heritage.

On a trial separation from his non-Aboriginal wife, Dianne (Kirsty Hillhouse), the door is open for the relationship to develop between Drew and court clerk Bella Noble (Tammy Clarkson, winner of the 2008 Graham Kennedy Award Logie for outstanding new talent).

"Drew's torn," says Pedersen, of the character's symbolic oscillation between a black and a white woman. "One of the things about people from indigenous cultures is, when you're put in a situation like this — when another culture has come and lived in your land — then you need to find a balance between the two worlds. I find that the incredible part of Drew's journey; finding the balance."

As with the first series, the screenwriters (who include co-creator Kelly Lefever, Dot West, Mitch Torres and Wayne Blair) have cleverly mixed confrontational scenes with the blossoming romance and, for light relief, injected a healthy dose of courtroom banter between the magistrate and hapless defendants facing charges for petty crimes. Storylines are again woven together. Out of the death in custody springs a plot that draws together Drew and gay journalist Archie McMahon (Nick Simpson-Deeks).

"It's about human love," says Pedersen. "It's humans caring about humans. It's not a division because of sexual preferences. I love that aspect of the first episode — that my character makes that journey with Archie. It shows that men can be friends and men can be men and men can care for each other in ways that men can."

The co-creator and producer, Ross Hutchens, says that in some ways, the actor's journey mirrored that of his character. It was a more confident Pedersen, he says, who flew into Broome two days after wrapping up a season of City Homicide.

"I think Aaron had a greater sense of ownership over [the second series]," Hutchens says. "He was also a leader for some of the other cast, which is important when you work with non-actors. A lot of the indigenous cast looked to him for leadership and he provided that."

Back in Melbourne and nearing the end of another City Homicide season, Pedersen is champing at the bit for a holiday with "the strong woman in his life", his beloved Ruby. His intellectually disabled brother, Vinnie, with whom he filmed the SBS documentary My Brother Vinnie, now lives with a full-time carer. Pedersen still calls Vinnie "his publicist".

"I should get him a megaphone," he laughs.

"We get out in the street and I'm like, 'Settle down!' and he's like, 'Hey, this is my brother! Have you seen my doco?' I've shared my life with Vinnie and I'm really proud that I've cared about him in such a way and he's cared for me."

Watching Samson & Delilah — the Academy Award-nominated film by his long-time friend, Warwick Thornton (who also directed My Brother Vinnie) — brought back memories of their childhood in Alice Springs.

"Most of the time we went out shooting kangaroos and rabbits 'cause that's the only food we had on our table," Pedersen says. "Not a lot of people had money to go and buy proper groceries. And at the end of the day, fresh kill is not a bad thing sometimes because you know it's fresh.

"I was going back over things that I'd seen when I watched that film. There were no lies in there, so I thought there was hope and positivity … Warwick has always been an observer. At the end I told him, 'Good work, brother'."

Pedersen is returning to City Homicide next year, which, he says, "releases" him from the incessant need to find work. And he remains passionate about strengthening the indigenous voice in the mainstream entertainment arena. He has aspirations to work with children to re-create Aboriginal stories for television.

"I don't think I want to be an actor for the rest of my life, no way," he says. "I want to give the job to someone else. I truly believe that when I started acting, the whole nature of my journey had to be to work myself out of a job. When there are more indigenous actors on television, then I don't need to be there."

Series two of The Circuit begins on Tuesday at 8.30pm on SBS One.

By Bridget McManus
November 26, 2009
The Age