When Deborah Mailman burst on to Australian screens in Radiance (1998), it was a performance that befitted the film’s title. At 26 years old she made her film debut as Nona, the whirlwind younger sister reuniting with her siblings after their mother’s death. One of the first feature films made by an Aboriginal director – and starring three Indigenous women – Mailman trumped both Rachel Griffiths and Cate Blanchett to win the AFI Award for Best Actress that year.
It’s a far cry from Nona to her latest role: as the mum in Blinky Bill: the Movie, a 3D screen adaptation of the adventures of Australia’s beloved boy koala. Even when she’s portraying a koala in a dress, you can still see the qualities that caught people’s attention nearly 20 years ago: her vivaciousness, her warmth and her wide-eyed charm.
“We actually call her Betty,” Mailman giggles, “Betty Bill.”
The film begins with Blinky’s dad (voiced by Richard Roxburgh) setting out from safe, suburban Greenpatch on a desert adventure. A year later, he still hasn’t returned. Impish and intrepid Blinky (Ryan Kwanten, of True Blood fame) leaves home to bring him back – without Mum’s permission.
Mailman says she jumped at the chance to do an animated film. “I’d never done that before and it was one of the boxes I wanted to tick, and I never thought I’d really get that opportunity,” she explains. Once she got to know the character of Blinky’s mum, the decision was sealed.
If you can forget about the fur, ‘Betty’ is a mother doing her best to cope in a tough situation. The adventurous spirit that drew her to Blinky’s dad has now led to his disappearance, and she feels conflicted by the similarities she sees in her son. “I think, for her, it is that balance of going, ‘I love that quality, but I’m also scared of it’,” she explains. Mailman says she was drawn to Betty’s very quick wit and resilient character.
The all-star cast must have helped. Along the way, Blinky makes friends with a lizard, voiced by David Wenham (who sounds like the mulleted ratbag he played in 2003’s Gettin’ Square); two emu sisters with airs, Beryl and Cheryl, both played by Toni Collette, and a hermit wombat named Wombo (Barry Humphries), while Barry Otto plays the despotic Mayor Cranklepot.
While the cast were never all in the same room together, Mailman found her time in the recording booth surprisingly similar to any other role. “I still had to physically get into the character when I was reading the dialogue… I had to find her in the body as well, and then look at those themes and what’s being said – finding the quality of what’s happening, finding the truth in the scene.”
Since Dorothy Wall published the first Blinky Bill book in 1933, the stories have often carried a strong conservationist message, which continued in the ABC animated series in the 1990s. The film incarnation capitalises on the Australian outback, with vistas created in the vibrant palettes favoured by Albert Namatjira. It emphasises the mythic Australian qualities that Blinky encapsulates – perhaps part of the reason he’s been so enduring in the national imagination.
“I don’t think there’s been a character quite like him,” says Mailman. “It really looks at the Aussie quality of optimism and mateship, and certainly those themes continue with this movie as well – always having a go, never giving up – and I think they’re those bigger lessons that are quite appealing to kids and adults.”
Director Deane Taylor (the art director on Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas) and the rest of the team at Flying Bark Productions have created a distinctly Australian kids film, but with the eccentric humour of 1990s comedies that works for everyone.
Blinky Bill didn’t feature in Mailman’s own childhood or that of her sons (now five and eight years old), but she’s planning to rectify that; any worries that her eldest would be “too cool for school” were quickly quelled at the premiere. “One of the good things that will come from the film is reintroducing young kids to Blinky Bill again,” she says.
This is hardly Mailman’s first time in the playpen. She hosted 22 episodes of Play School, earlier this year she had a role in Robert Connelly’s charming kids flick Paper Planes and recently she played the mayor in Oddball, a film that broke the cardinal rule about working with children and animals.
Mailman doesn’t find acting in films for children any different to those aimed at adults; in fact she relishes the chance to take her kids along to the cinema to see her work. “I’m a bit of a kid as well,” she giggles.
by Rebecca Harkins-Cross
» Blinky Bill is in cinemas nationally now.
This article first appeared in Ed#495.