It’s a bird, it’s a plane . . . No, it’s our first blackfella superhero!
He can heal, read minds and he’s being called our first indigenous superhero.
When actor Hunter Page-Lochard debuts on national, American and British television as the Cleverman, he’ll be putting the likes of Batman, Superman and Spiderman in their place.
Even before taking on the role, the 22-year-old son of Bangarra Dance Theatre’s legendary artistic director Stephen Page and former New York City Ballet dancer Cynthia Lochard had a firm idea of what his hero should be able to do.
The stories of the Cleverman, a bridge between the Dreaming and the present worlds, had been with him since childhood.
“He or she was a Magic Man . . . there are different stories from different people,” says Page-Lochard, whose previous acting credits include The Sapphires, Bran Nue Dae and Spear, directed by his father.
“Some say he can shape-shift and some say there are bad ones or there are good ones.
“I tell people it’s the Western version of a clairvoyant. Someone who is in touch with the spirit world and that’s what I knew before anything.”
The big-budget, six-episode ABC series was filmed at the Carriageworks near Redfern and other locations around Sydney over three months last year.
Scottish actor Iain Glen (Game of Thrones) is among a mostly indigenous cast that also includes Deborah Mailman (The Sapphires), Frances O’Connor (Mansfield Park) and Logie award nominee Rarriwuy Hick (Redfern Now, The Gods of Wheat Street).
Wayne Blair, who directed The Sapphires, was lead director.
The series will begin airing in Australia on June 2, a day after it premieres in the US. The British Broadcasting Corporation will show it in the UK later this year.
Cleverman is set in the near future where creatures known as Hairypeople from ancient mythology emerge and must co-exist with humans. Koen West, becomes an unlikely Cleverman and protector of his people.
Page-Lochard believes it will be a series for which he and the rest of the cast and crew will be remembered.
“We don’t have a lot of genre on television — white or black if we want to get political,” he says.
“Eighty percent of the cast are indigenous and yes, they are playing indigenous characters but it’s not thrown in your face – yes, this is an indigenous story, but this is still a high-concept sci-fi drama series. This is a thriller. This has got a whole bunch of other stuff that isn’t indigenous.
“So yeah, I feel like it’s groundbreaking. It’s going to open a lot of doors for people in the Australian film and TV industry to start taking some leaps like they did with Mad Max and stuff.”
Cleverman, the television series, had its origins five years ago when the show’s creator Ryan Griffen was playing a game of Ninja Turtles with his then three-year-old son Koen.
Griffen says both he and his son, after whom the lead character was named, are superhero buffs.
“It got me thinking about creating something cultural that he could connect to on a superhero basis,” Griffen says.
“I wanted to bring something Aboriginal, indigenous, to that world.”
At first Griffen started out with the idea of a series for young children called Dreamtime Detectives, but it eventually evolved into a series for adults — Cleverman.
“We started to age it up because it is quite hard putting Dreaming stories on screen and still hold the truth to a lot of the stories,” he says. “A lot of the stories I wanted to use, the moral consequences to a lot of this stuff, was death.
“So if one of the young hunters went out and was keeping some of the fish to themselves then the consequences were their death that would form the creation story of an animal or something like that.
“But you can’t really put that on kids’ television. You can’t really say a character’s going to go and steal some lollies from the shop and before he gets home he’s going to be killed.
“And for me I never wanted to change the essence of what the stories were. It was about staying true to the culture all the way through the process.”
Griffen spent a lot of time visiting indigenous communities around Australia, asking for permission to tell Dreaming stories.
One of the stories he was given permission to use was from near Katherine in the Northern Territory.
“It was a four-hour plane ride, a four-hour drive and then I sat in the riverbed for another four hours discussing the story with an elder,” he says. “For me it was probably one of the strongest stories.
“I sat in the river where there’s a song line — the paths across the land, water or sky which mark the route followed by spirits or creator beings during the Dreaming.”
The Hairypeople in the series speak Gumbaynggir from NSW.
Griffen says the Cleverman and the stories are different across Australia.
“Our show is definitely a different version of the Cleverman than he is in the community,” he says. “We have a Cleverman for the universe or the world we have created on the screen.
“The reason we did that is a lot of the discussions I had circles around men’s business so we can’t really show that on screen. A lot of that was pulled back and it was about us creating a superhero who had the elements of a Cleverman, who is someone who is given powers in a community to be a leader, a person who has the ability to be a conduit between the present and the Dreaming.
“That was a universal theme among all the countries we dealt with. Given that we’re taking it to more of a western world that has allowed us to throw in more superhero, or sci-fi elements to our Cleverman on the show.”
As for Page-Lochard, he says he likes being a superhero and jokes that he’s now angling for a special suit.
“Hopefully if the dream comes through in the future you will see me in a spandex outfit!” he laughs.
Cleverman premieres on ABC1 on June 2 at 9.30pm.
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