The Circuit: articles

Aaron Pedersen

Making a splash

As The Circuit returns for a second series, Aaron Pedersen's character, lawyer Drew Ellis, is still struggling. When he arrived in Broome to work with the Aboriginal Legal Service, Drew envisaged a quick, career-boosting stint on the travelling magistrates court. Now, his marriage has crumbled, the white coppers distrust him and many of the blackfellas still call him a "coconut" — white on the inside.

This part of Western Australia may be the land of his forefathers but Drew feels profoundly out of place. And it's through his eyes we see all the challenges — and the hope — faced by indigenous Australians. In episode one alone there is alcoholism, homosexuality, drug addiction, domestic violence and a death in custody.

"This is one of the best dramas in Australia," says Pedersen, veteran of Wildside, MDA, Water Rats, Blackjack and The Secret Life of Us. "This should be on commercial television. And there should be 22 episodes every year."

The Circuit is compelling, substantial and timely. And Pedersen, it turns out, is as intriguing as Drew, albeit for different reasons. While Drew is a spoiled city slicker struggling to reconnect with his outback roots, Pedersen grew up poor in Alice Springs before making it big in the city.

Pedersen's story is full of drama, starting with his birth on a plane 40 minutes from Alice Springs. When his brother Vincent was born a year later with cerebral palsy and a mild intellectual disability, their mother disappeared from view.

Their childhood was marked by poverty and instability. For food and clothing, Pedersen would forage in bins and steal clothes from washing lines. As the boys shuffled from foster home to foster home, Pedersen increasingly became his brother's carer. Then, when his mum wanted to take the boys back, the 13-year-old Pedersen refused, applying to become a ward of the state so he could stay with his foster parents.

After school, Pedersen flew to Melbourne to take up a cadetship as a journalist with ABC TV, before moving to Sydney to work for indigenous current affairs show Blackout. His star rose quickly. In 1994 he was voted Cleo Bachelor of the Year.

Not that he had time to celebrate — with Vincent living in a special needs home and being tended to by the boys' grandmother, two other siblings came to live with Pedersen. "I fed three mouths off one wage and was pretty much a single father," he once said. "I didn't have time for relationships or time for anything."

His career was firing, however, with roles opposite Cate Blanchett in the 1994 miniseries Heartland and Bryan Brown in the 1996 film Dead Heart. In 1997, Vincent came to Sydney and Pedersen, 27 and working on Wildside, became Vincent's full-time carer.

After six years, Pedersen realised he couldn't go on as a full-time carer. Fortunately, he had been seeing film producer Sarah Bond and her mother offered to become Vincent's carer. As Pedersen says, "Mum Frances is a gift in my life."

To document his relationship with his brother, Pedersen wrote the award-winning documentary My Brother Vinnie, which Bond produced. "I have a tight circle," Pedersen says. "It's the easiest for me. It keeps me grounded. And my brother is a big element in my life."

Meanwhile, the work continues to flow. For three seasons, Pedersen has played one of the lead characters in Channel Seven's cop drama City Homicide. "I believe something like The Circuit complements City Homicide and vice versa," Pedersen says.

He considers it a great gig, albeit relentlessly morbid. "To be working on homicide, I wouldn't wish that on anyone," he says. "On set, it's like being at a funeral every day for three weeks. You arrive at eight in the morning and everyone is talking rape and pillage. That's an energy that you carry with you every day."

On City Homicide, where his Aboriginality doesn't rate a mention, Pedersen plays a cop. On The Circuit he plays a lawyer. On MDA he played a doctor.

"Aaron would be the most white-collar blackfella on television in the last 15 years," says one of Pedersen's co-stars in City Homicide, David Field.

"He's the Sidney Poitier-esque equivalent for Australian television. It's a fantastic thing he's done. In the eyes of the general public, he's elevated Aboriginal people to portray them as educated and dignified, to show there's no reason they can't be doctors or lawyers or anything else."

As a boy, Pedersen knew he wanted to act. Over the years his motivations have become as much about educating as entertaining. "Television is an important tool for me," Pedersen says. "It's a powerful instrument if used correctly.

"For a lot of people TV becomes first contact with indigenous Australians. You get a chance to get into people's lounge rooms every night. If I really did that I'd be locked up for a long time."

'They call it colour TV but where are all the coloured people?'

It's hard to overstate the importance of Pedersen's presence on the small screen. Times are changing: the PM has apologised, Ten Canoes and Samson & Delilah were hits, First Australians was a landmark series. In this context, Pedersen has quietly become more popular and more visible. And the culmination of his work to date is The Circuit, a gritty, uncompromising series that does justice to his experiences as a proud Arrernte-Arabana man.

"Indigenous people are so empowered by this show," he says. "They see their own spirit and soul. And non-indigenous people have said to me, 'I learned more in six weeks [watching series one] than I have in 20 years. This is about trying to put some balance back into Australian television. My line has always been: 'They call it colour television but where are all the coloured people?' "

Series two of The Circuit also features Pedersen's directorial debut. "I hate to say it but directing suited my brain," he says. "The chaos and mad nature of it."

A sign of things to come? "Yeah, I wouldn't mind," he says. "I don't think I want to be an actor forever, brother. It's too draining. I wrote something that turned out to be very successful with My Brother Vinnie and now I've directed an episode of a television series, so I'm ticking boxes."

Better than directing, however, is his knowledge that The Circuit has tapped a rich vein of veracity.

"The greatest thing that came out of it was me shopping in Coles in Broome one time," Pedersen says. "An old lady said, 'You're that Circuit boy, eh?' I said, 'Yeah, I am.' And she said, 'I like that one, boy. You mob pay respect to Broome. We proud of that one.' That was a poignant moment."

The Circuit returns to SBS One on Tuesday, December 1, at 8.30pm. City Homicide finishes on Seven on Wednesday at 8.30pm. Repeats will air on Wednesdays during summer.

By Sacha Molitorisz
November 24, 2009
Sydney Morning Herald