High-level actor talks about Indigenous culture
The drama Heights starring Jacob Junior Nayinggul and Simon Baker is released on May 14 in streaming and video on demand. The film focuses on a massacre that occurred among Aboriginal Australians and the violence it subsequently provoked. Baker plays a former sniper named Travis, who returns to the area years later to track down a wanted criminal with the help of Gutjuk (played by Nayinggul). However, Travis’ past and his role in the tragedy come to light.
Check out our interview with Simon Baker below to see the actor’s thoughts on working with talented Indigenous actors, the importance of learning empathy, and an unforgettable filming experience.
Tyler Treese: Your character really intrigues me because he shows real remorse for what he’s done, and you see him struggle with that guilt all along, but there was always a complicity in his actions, and he’s a very complex character. Can you discuss how you see it? Because he’s definitely not like a prototypical hero as he has a lot of blood on his hands.
Simon baker: During the first world war, the soldiers who returned, and he was obviously a sniper in the first world war, they returned to Australia. They all suffered from PTSD long before it was diagnosed. They were stationed like a sort of mounted police in these incredibly remote and harsh parts of Australia. So they struggle with their own demons. First of all, I think he’s pretty much damaged property, and I think after the massacre incident and his involvement in it, I think he’s pretty much a guy trying to go missing and escape from the world, from its past and from it. himself.
He’s kind of involved in all of this. I always thought it could have been really easy to play him as a more heroic character, but I think it was a trap because I liked the idea of him being someone who is in some way. sort of grappling with a role in things of history on a larger scale. , but also grappling with that and also trying to find some sort of way out of the kind of guilt and torment he’s been subjected to through his actions. I would say he’s probably a little morally ambiguous, really. I think his intentions are probably reasonably good. He has a kind of empathy. There’s this beautiful scene where Jack Thompson says to her, “What made you think you could change who you are?” It is a bit, for me, an interesting notion and particularly considered at the time where we are now.
This film takes place during such an interesting time. Was this a period that you already knew quite well or did you have to do a lot of research prior to this post?
What’s interesting is that, much like in America, the Australian history we were taught in school started pretty much from Captain [James] Cook arriving on our shores from colonization. It didn’t go much beyond, deeper than that. One thing this nation holds in itself is this incredibly rich Aboriginal culture that has existed for 60,000 years to date. It’s been 60,000 years. You can really have a hard time figuring out how long this takes. You know, think about the Greeks, what were they? 3000 years ago, 4000 years ago? This culture has existed for 60,000 years and it is an oral history. Nothing is written. It’s through stories and songs, and through works of art.
They existed peacefully until 230 years ago. The English have arrived and things have changed. So, I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about it, but, and it might seem to come from a white man like me a little naive and ridiculous, but as soon as you come to this country on this earth, and you are invited in this culture, this region… To stand alongside Jacob Junior and Witiyana Marika (Jacob Junior plays Gutjuk and Witiyana plays his grandfather), to stand alongside these people, these traditional guardians of the First Nations of this country, you feel knowledge. Knowledge is spread across the land, through the soil you stand on and the trees and the history that exists in the stones around you. You can’t help but feel this energy. I mean, it’s kind of very overwhelming. When you are up there you feel like an absolute stranger in this world, and you feel so insignificant compared to the power of this environment. It played a big role for me in the preparation process for this camp.
You know, there are so many emotional scenes, and as a spectator it is so difficult to watch the scene of the massacre. Can you just discuss what it was like to do those reenactments and the emotion on set because it was a lot to absorb?
I think for a lot of local indigenous actors, that part that was talking about these things, there was kind of a catharsis for them of a kind of real process of understanding because a lot of their, uh, their ancestors had been involved in it. massacres as you know, lost a lot of family members. Then I heard stories that I think conveyed about horrible atrocities. So there was a kind of nice sweetness around the construction of these scenes and the way they were performed.
Many of those days were incredibly hot. We had a lot of ceremonies in the places, and at the site of this particular massacre in the movie, we had a big ceremony to welcome us to the area. Then we had a long, beautiful song that sang us out of this area, a traditional song that sang to us and left the pain and sorrow there as we walked along. So it was very different from any other movie I’ve worked on because of how powerful the culture it was. It was very, very alive. And, I think, beautiful to see represented on the screen, to see the native language. I mean, there are a lot of different native dialects in Australia. A lot of them are gone, but the two different dialects that we mainly used in the movie, the native dialects, still exist.
Jacob Junior Nayinggul does an incredible job in the film. There is a bond that develops between your two characters. Did this translate off screen?
He is a traditional owner. He is part of the family who are the traditional owners of this particular country that we have shot at. So in a sense he’s sort of in line to be the boss of this region. Who you can sort of tell, in our white collar terms, he’s like a prince right now. Two days before starting on this plateau, he was a ranger who looked after this land. That’s what he did. So he went through so many ceremonies. He is well respected in his community. He has a lot of knowledge and traditions in him.
So he just wore it. It is a culture that we have to understand. It’s an oral history. So it’s all through stories, their culture is a story, and to whom the stories are passed on, how they are told and to whom they are not told and to whom they are told. This is all very, very important. He had a story that lived and existed on his face. You put the camera on him, and you can see the story and the story without him doing anything. So, you know, here I am, waving as an actor, trying to play a part when he is. The only advice I ever gave him, and it was very brief and very early on, was, “You know exactly what to do in your heart, and you don’t have to do anything other than that. He could have done it because he is that.
If anything, it was about me, teaming up with the truth and the story in him and being on this journey. We are close. We are close friends now. I spoke to him two days ago. He still lives in this country. He is a magnificent and magnificent human being. He was incredibly generous and very kind to me, and I’ve worked with a lot of great actors, but it was really fantastic to work, to stand up against the real thing, you know, the absolute real thing. I am really proud of his performance. I’m really proud of the courage he had to stand up and do this and represent his people and his voice in the movie.
One of the saddest things about the film, the way it shows that there is a real cycle of violence. The massacre takes place, and then there are all these subsequent deaths that flow from it. Everyone feels justified in their actions. There is no happy ending nailed down here. Can you talk about what it means to be involved in a movie that really makes no noise? That is telling the truth on the matter, and I think it is really important.
Yes. I think it’s very difficult to make a film that also fits both poles up to the middle. So there is the gray area, the gray area, the ambiguous areas are represented. I think it’s probably a lot easier to make a movie that’s on the extremes. I think what this movie does really well is that it covers a lot of that gray area. I think my character’s death, in a way, was sort of fatal from the very beginning. I think that’s kind of part of what this cycle is. I am extremely proud of the film. It was not an easy film to make physically. It was a very beautiful emotional experience for my heart to be there in this place. It was incredibly uncomfortable most of the time, but one thing I learned is that it’s nice to sit in uncomfortable places. This is actually not a bad thing at all. It’s very good for you. It’s very good for growth, and it’s very good for tolerance to understand and learn to be tolerant.
Yeah, that’s amazing. In taking on these kinds of roles, do you think for someone of your stature that it is important that you bring some serious issues to light? Going against one like this won’t break box office records, but it’s more important than that, right?
I think there’s still, uh, there’s still room in entertainment, in movies, and I think on TV there’s still room to question yourself as a human beings and to grow and develop. It doesn’t always have to be an outright history lesson. It can be entertaining, compelling, and I’m not afraid to do things that are going to be a little more difficult. I don’t really know my stature. I’m just a working actor. At this point in my career, I have the choice to be able to choose the things that are most important to me. But it’s just that moment, life is long, and we go through different kinds of stages and phases.