Ask actor Aaron Pedersen what it was like working alongside Judy Davis in the ABC’s upcoming outback detective series Mystery Road and buckle in for an enthusiastic answer.
“Arroooo yeah, well that was my Marlon Brando moment,” he whoops, almost starstruck at the memory of meeting the legendary star.
“I’m from Alice Springs and how does that even happen? I mean, there’s such a strong spirit there. She was just beautiful to exchange dynamics with.”
So the prolific actress who broke through with Gillian Armstrong’s 1979 hit My Brilliant Career was alright then?
“For her to step into Australian television and support an indigenous project, bringing her rock star nature to it, you couldn’t have written it any better,” he insists. “I had an absolute ball working with Judy. She’s the real deal.”
Davis plays no-nonsense detective Emma James opposite Pedersen’s detective Jay Swan in the gripping missing-person drama that may or may not involve murder. He’s the same steely gazed copper who drops into various outback towns wracked by violence in Ivan Sen’s movies, Mystery Road (2013) and Goldstone (2016).
Filmed in Western Australia’s East Kimberley, Bran Nue Dae director Rachel Perkins takes the reins for the six-part series, debuting on Sunday, June 3. And Pedersen is similarly effusive about Perkins.
“Rach’ is a force to be reckoned with,” he says. “She’s [celebrated Aboriginal activist] Charlie Perkins’ daughter. She has her own approach to how she sees the country and how we should tell our stories. The same type of warrior spirit that is in Ivan [Sen] is in Rachel.”
Both hailing from Alice, Perkins casts her niece Madeleine Madden – also starring in Foxtel’s Picnic at Hanging Rock – as Jay’s estranged daughter Crystal, with Cleverman star Tasma Walton returning as the detective’s ex wife.
While the movies cast Jay as something of a lone wolf, this time family is along for the ride. Funnily enough, Pedersen recalls babysitting Madden when she was five, but hadn’t seen her in quite some time, so slipped into that role easily.
“That really helped the dad journey. It just played beautifully,” he says.
Pedersen thinks it’s great we’re now seeing more Aboriginal leads on our screens.
“You know, I actually believe this country is starving for it. It needs it to get to the next place, to believe that we are having the right conversation … and that we can really mean it when we say we are the lucky country. Lucky for everyone.”
One of seven siblings, he’s a carer for younger brother Vinnie, who has cerebral palsy. Something of a larrikin, Vinnie was on set during the Mystery Road shoot.
“He’s so real and he keeps you humble, that’s for sure,” Pedersen chuckles. “He loves meeting everybody and thinks he’s more famous than they are.”
Acknowledging that his brother is the reason he gets up every morning, and why Pedersen has striven to lead a balanced life, he wishes there was more support for Australia’s legion of unsung carers. He’s hopeful that the NDIS will help.
“We’re getting there, but it takes a long time,” Pedersen says. “Carers are always the last to get the real support that’s necessary. We embrace our sportspeople with so much money, more than we do the carers, and that’s kind of ridiculous.”
Though his first acting gig was lending his majestically rumbling voice to cartoon series Crocadoo in 1993, his first live-action appearance was on another, admittedly short-lived, ABC series. Heartland saw him acting alongside fellow newcomer Cate Blanchett and Fast Forward veteran Ernie Dingo.
But his connection to the public broadcaster goes back even further, to his seven-year stint as a Melbourne journalist.
“I worked for the ABC, in Ripponlea,” he says, adopting an old school received-pronunciation presenter’s voice with rhyming glee. What does he make, then, of the budget’s latest swinging cuts to the public broadcaster?
“That’s the thing with politics, it shouldn’t be so abrasive,” he offers. “I don’t like that our public broadcaster is being undermined. We can’t ignore the fact that it’s such a great provider of not just jobs but also the identity of the country.
“We need to keep that ‘cause they nurture lots of different talent and they’re a great information base. They are the aunty of Australia, aren’t they?”
Mystery Road will debut its first two episodes on the ABC on June 3, 8.30pm, with the entire series available on ABC iView.