Water Rats: articles

Positive Force

Sydney's National Parks and Wildlife Service organises many tours to small islands in Sydney Harbour, including two weekly Water Rats Tours to Goat Island, where the television series is made. But there's no regular ferry service.

Like other members of the Water Rats cast, Aaron Pedersen travels to and from the island in one of the show's own fleet of boats, which include a water taxi. About 70 people, including a stunt coordinator, work on the show. They come from a very wide area of Sydney. They are picked up for work each day, either individually or in small groups, from wharves all around the harbour. It's quite an undertaking. And it must be quite a journey, in a low slung water taxi, on wet windy mornings, when the water's choppy.

There are no shops or kiosks on the island and once members of the team arrive for work, they are more or less marooned for the day. Pedersen lives in Sydney's outer west and regularly leaves home for work at 5.30am. He travels to the city by express train, takes "a land taxi" to the Yeend Street Wharf at Balmain, where either the show's water taxi or one of the patrol boats picks him up.

Pedersen always tries to remember to bring a newspaper to read between takes. "When we have an early start some people are quite miserable about it," he says. "But Goat Island is beautiful most mornings. You get a mist... Then you can see the city wake up. You can see the whole world waking up."

Pedersen joined the cast in January. He plays Detective Senior Constable Michael ("Mick") Reilly, the partner of the show's star, Steve Bisley (Detective Sergeant Jack Christey).

Although tomorrow night's episode on WIN is the last for this year, the first episodes of next year's shows are currently being filmed at Goat Island.

Pedersen's current contract runs for another year. But the show's executive producer, Ted Roberts, says he values the Aboriginal actor highly and hopes he will remain with the show for many years to come.

The Southern Star series premiered in l995 on the Nine Network. It's now also seen in about 120 countries, including the United Arab Emirates. Roberts reports he's even heard that a dubbed version of the show being viewed regularly by a family in a tent in the desert.

At any rate, the overseas sales must be massive. What do they total annually? "I don't know," Roberts says. "I'm not being coy. It's just that anyone who would know at Southern Star is overseas at MIPCOM [the annual international TV fair]."

Pedersen is 29. He's not married. He's a busy, successful actor. So you can't help wondering why he doesn't live closer to work — at trendy, waterside Balmain perhaps. "I like where I live," he says. "It's very suburban. I'm a kind of suburban person. I grew up that way. I really enjoy the large avenues and the quietness and the serenity. And you can hear the birds sing."

Alice Springs is his home town, but he wasn't born there. He was born aboard an Ansett airliner, three weeks premature. At the time his mother was travelling home to Alice Springs from Adelaide. "I'm a bit of an alien. I wasn't born on this earth," he joked.

He is one of a family of eight children, the third-born and the oldest boy. He went to school in Alice Springs and later to boarding school in Hamilton, Victoria. He was asked if Alice Springs is his parents' home town? "That's right," he says. But he sounded somewhat affronted. "It's my people's home town," he went on. "The Arunta people; Aboriginal people. It's my people's land," he stressed.

He had welcomed me to the set with the warmest, most winning smile. It was obvious that he was keen to talk about Water Rats. Instead there he was, being quizzed about his family. Well, viewers want to know more about him. But the impression he gave was that Aboriginal people consider queries about their relatives particularly intrusive.

But they must be proud of him. He's not only a handsome, slim, very fit-looking young man, he conducts himself with grace under pressure. He stayed the course. He didn't cut the interview short. He never lost control, although he spoke out passionately whenever the conversation touched on indigenous affairs or the land.

"The environment has been continually abused since the Industrial Revolution," he says. "Look at the last few months and all the hurricanes, tornadoes around the world. People think they just happen. They don't. They happen because they've cut down too many trees and raped the land." People think they can go on getting away with it, he warned. "But Mother Earth strikes back. Pow!"

He went to school in Alice Springs and to boarding school in Hamilton, Victoria. When he was 20 he joined the ABC as a reporter. He worked in Melbourne and Sydney, covering news and sport. He says his aim since his boyhood has been to present a more positive image of Aboriginal people on the screen. He remembered "sitting back in the lounge room watching TV" when he was growing up. He rarely saw an indigenous face on the screen. When Aborigines did appear, it was always in stereotypical roles, he says. They were portrayed as "drunks, criminals and no-hopers".

Drama seems to have always appealed to him more than journalism. He had only been at the ABC for a short time, when he got his first break. He was approached for advice about the script for the 13-part ABC series, Heartlands, starring Cate Blanchett and Ernie Dingo. Why ask me, when you can turn to Ernie Dingo for advice about dialogue? wondered Pedersen. "But are you still casting? Is the role for me?" It was cheeky, he admits. But he got an audition and won a small role. Concurrently with that series, he worked as a reporter for the ABC program, Blackout.

He later scored roles in the series, Territorians, and a role in the film, Dead Heart, starring Bryan Brown. He also spent some time as co-compere of the Seven Network series, Gladiators, and then won the part of the young Italian lawyer in Wildside.

"I didn't play an Italian," he says, explaining that his Wildside character just happened to have an Italian name. "My name's Pedersen. That's Danish. I'm not Danish. I would never do that, play another culture. It would just be putting the Italians out of work. I don't want to see white people playing black people."

All this strikes you as a bit over-the-top until you remember how many times you've cringed at the spectacle of, say, English actors attempting to convincingly play Americans. In any case, Pedersen's mission is to present a more positive image of Aboriginal people. "There's no colour problem in Australia," he says. "There's a race problem."

Pedersen may well have helped inspire his character in Water Rats. Both young men are portrayed in media releases as ambitious, good-humoured, fair-minded and compassionate. But just so long as you're straight with them. They're not to be crossed. And often Pedersen strikes you as by far the better person of the two. In tomorrow night's episode, for instance, Mick Reilly and Jack Christey are seen taunting a drug dealer, about his brother, who is dying of AIDS as a result of being forced into sexual servitude in goal. This, surely, is one of the great contemporary injustices we are doing little about. Young men, some of them convicted of only minor offences, ending up with death sentences because of the inadequacies of our penal system.

Eventually, your reporter found the courage to ask Pedersen how he comes to have a Scandinavian surname. "That's a weird question?" he says. But he did explain. White settlers, including missionaries, found it difficult to pronounce traditional Aboriginal names. So they got into the habit of re-naming families and individuals. Pedersen pointed out that like many indigenous people, his character in Water Rats, Mick Reilly, has an Irish name.

He's a largely self-taught actor. When people ask him if he's studied at NIDA, he points out that his culture, passed down over hundreds of thousands of years, includes dance, song, music and mime.

Yet he adds that he thinks all the time about the characters in Water Rats and how police officers cope with life, which so often includes "death knocks" (calling to advise families of the death, often in violent circumstances, of the death of a husband, wife or child). He mentioned police who get assigned to under cover work, for months or even years at a time. "They would have to get up and give Oscar-winning performances every day," he says.

The final episode of Water Rats for 1999 screens tomorrow (Tuesday) at 8.30pm on WIN.

Showtime Feature
Monday, October 11, 1999
Canberra Times