Leah Vandenberg Talks Representation on Screen, Tree House Cubby, Play School, and The Hunting

From GP to Play School to The Hunting, Leah Vandenberg has been on Australian screens for a few decades now. Her current passion project is conducting playdates via Zoom to connect kids with artists in her very own Tree House Cubby. Leah recently caught up with Nisha-Anne from lockdown in Melbourne to talk about her experiences as a woman of colour in the Australian arts, reflecting on how things were and how things could be in the future. An edited transcript of that wide-ranging conversation follows.


So tell me about Tree House Cubby?

It’s something that I started last year during our lockdown. The public housing towers went under hard lockdown in July last year and so I was seeing Instagram stories of all the children literally locked in their apartments. There was one particular little girl who was crying in the lift and not understanding why she couldn’t get to the play area in the top level. Also, children looking out their windows and seeing their buildings surrounded by police, other children looking out the window and seeing the kids across the street not experiencing the same kind of lockdown and riding their bikes.

And for me, as someone who’s been a Play School presenter and been in that early childhood field for a couple of decades, it was a no-brainer for me to think I can do something from my apartment and create a playdate for them via Zoom because I’m in lockdown too. I started doing playdates with the kids once a week, and we were doing singing and dancing and stories and painting, and realised from that there was a real need for kids to have this kind of access during Covid.

But then I started thinking too, specifically kids from refugee and migrant backgrounds who don’t have access and are experiencing a lot of limitations around access to art, play, artists. So, I decided to apply for a grant that would enable me to address the need for kids from refugee and migrant backgrounds, and also address the need [of] our artist community [where] we’ve all lost our work. And so be able to employ an artist every playdate, for the kids to have access to an artist and play with an artist. And the artist clearly gets something out of this as well, not just in having a gig but also a mutual reciprocity going on with the kids being able to engage with the artist. The artist was also getting so much back knowing that they were able to share their gifts and their talents and their art with the community who, you know, often it will be the first experience of that particular artform.

And for example, I have a friend who’s an opera singer and done operas with Victorian Opera and all. And she came on a few weeks ago and she sang an aria and we all pretended we were going to the most famous opera theatre in the world, in Italy. So we all went on a virtual hike to La Scala. And these kids – their faces lighting up and them engaging with the artist and then singing Kookaburra Sits In The Old Gum Tree with their operatic voices. It was really beautiful, to see this beautiful exchange of energy and play.

We’ve got South Sydney kids, Northern Territory kids, Punjabi kids, Sri Lankan kids. We’ve had some Afghan families as well. And these are the communities you don’t see in the opera world, for instance.

And it must have been quite huge for those kids to see an opera singer and be exposed to the whole opera experience.

That’s right.

I don’t think anybody in my family has ever been to the opera. [Note: Um, I temporarily forgot about my cousin who is an actual opera singer, sorry Patricia.]

That’s right! Yeah! The parents as well. It’s not accessible for most people because of the ticket prices.

And it’s so much a white people thing as well. It’s so much white culture, isn’t it?

That’s right, and that kind of goes in with inclusivity and diversity. I guess that’s the driver for me. As much as I wish that it wasn’t a driver and I could just think simply about art.

No, I totally get you. Especially as people of colour, we operate in that white paradigm. As much as we would like not to, we do, don’t we?

We do. I was reading something recently that said a white person will think in terms of their rights. And a person of colour will think in terms of their responsibility to enable more and to sort of pave the path for others. That really rings true.

You’ve been in the industry for so long and you’ve been to so many auditions and so many casting processes. Has it changed since you started?

Yes, it has. It’s changed in the types of stories we’re now telling. It’s changed in the opportunities for artists of colour to be able to write stories, share stories, direct their own stories, be in their own stories. It’s also changed in terms of the networks realising – as in television networks realising that they need to change their agenda. It’s probably one of the slowest areas to see that change, in network television, but we’ve got influences like Netflix outside of Australia who are light years ahead of the Australian screen industry. And they are imposing, really, that you need to have diversity and you need to have inclusivity in your casting and we need to see that representation in your cast. And so whether it’s tokenistic, whether it’s reluctance, a necessity on the parts of those who are producing screen content – at this point, that’s less of a concern to me. As long as we’ve got that representation.

And I think we can see it in the content now, and especially with Blackfella Films. Redfern Now (2012) was one of the first, I think, to really own their own content. And Mystery Road is a fantastic example of that. And the comedy that’s coming out. Miranda Tapsell making her own feature, Deb Mailman in Total Control. We’re seeing strong characters, and they’re not characters that are perpetuating negative stereotypes, either. So, thank goodness for the First Nations content because that’s, I think, really paving the way for other cultures to be able to show their stories in a complex and authentic way.

And I suppose for you as well, it’s a long road since you played the shopgirl in one little episode of – what was it, Kath And Kim?

What, people remember that? Yeah.

And now with The Hunting (2019). I mean, that’s a whole storyline for an Indian family, right?

It was a Punjabi family. And I’ll try and talk about that as an example without stepping on too many toes because one of the issues in bringing our stories to our screens that are about other cultures [is] if the writers and the producers and the creatives are not of that culture, then it is still going to be problematic. And the responsibility, as we know, becomes a heavy weight for the actors onset. You’re the one who’s holding that culture.

That family was kind of a generic Indian family when I was reading the script. And that’s something that’s a challenge because specificity gets lost when you’re not working from the bottom up. And that was one instance where it can’t be a general Indian family. And even our names – they mean specific things. Our surnames – you can tell whereabouts they’re placed in India. They can have a story in themselves.

I suggested that it actually be – I’m not Punjabi but I am part of the Punjabi community in my dancing and [with] my partner as well. It’s one of the fastest growing cultures in Australia, the Punjabi diaspora. And I suggested that the family be Punjabi and I gave my reasons and brought my partner into the conversation as well with the producers. And we agreed that yes, we would make this family Punjabi.

So then that responsibility as a result – because as Leah who’s got an Indian dad and a white mum, I can’t – you viscerally can’t take on a role that is not right on the page. When you’re representing a culture and you go “That’s not right, that’s not right.” You can’t do it. You can’t speak the words. Your body just goes into resistance because it’s false. And everything about acting is about being authentic. You know? It’s about finding your truth in that character. And so the names of the characters – I named all of the characters in that family, for example.

I was thinking the name Ravneet [the character played by Leah] is so lovely. (laughs)

(laughs) Yeah. Because the names on the page weren’t Punjabi and they’re so specific, Punjabi names. And the surnames. There are certain names that you just go – Jasmeet, Sukhdeep, Manpreet – they’re Punjabi. And so then the next part of that responsibility goes into asking if they’ve got a cultural consultant. They didn’t. Then you end up finding someone in Adelaide who you know to hook up with the production so they’ve got some kind of cultural consultant. Then you ask, do you have someone to help with the Punjabi dialect and translations? I organised that. Then you talk about the music that’s going to be in the production, and my partner comes on board for that.

By the by, the music that is in the latest Netflix [recent addition of The Hunting] is not the music that we suggested. It must be a copyright thing, I’m really not sure. But the music that we chose was spot on, in my opinion. And I thought we were going with that but then I watched it back and went “Oh, that’s not the right music.” I think we even said on SBS at the end it wasn’t quite the music, either. But it’s in that specificity, isn’t it? You get taken out of the reality when you’re hearing something and you go “That’s not something that someone would play in there.”

So in terms of the responsibility that you have as someone who’s considered part of the “diverse” casting, it’s a hundred times more than, say, [Richard] Roxburgh or Asher Keddie. They can go in and do the job. They don’t go, “Oh, what would a white person wear to dinner? How would a white person set the table? What would they have in their kitchen? What do we need to put in to the art department there that makes it look like a Punjabi [home]? What would you have hanging on the wall?” You know, they don’t do that. Their role is the Anglo-Celtic reality.

So that comes across in every facet of your work, and you end up not being able to focus completely on your role as an actor as a result of having to think about all these other things, [like] “Take your shoes off when you’re in the [Indian] house.” And telling fellow actors, “We’re an Indian household, we’re not going to be wearing our shoes in the house. Some people might, but we’re playing a pretty traditional kind of family.” And you compare it with the white actors.

But then you go into inclusion and diversity on screentime. That’s something that’s being spoken about quite a lot at the moment, that you’re in the scene but you’re not necessarily seen. And that’s to do with storyboards and what the shots are and what’s the edit at the end of the day. You might have a scene between a brown-skinned person and a white-skinned person and once you start putting your radar out for that stuff, you realise there’s three seconds on the white person and one second on the brown person. Or they get the close-up and the brown person gets the over the shoulder. It’s so apparent once you start watching through that lens, who’s owning that scene—

And who’s being left out of the frame.

That’s exactly it. And that goes onto then the post-production, what’s called key art. So what you see on Netflix, say, as the promo for your show or what you see on any media promoting the show.

I was really surprised and really disappointed that the focus was so much on the white Australian family. And I did not appear – and when I say “I”, I just want to say this, it’s always about me being representative of a woman of colour. When you put all of that background work in and you do your job and then at the end of the day, you’re not in the key art – this is actually really critical and it’s not talked about very much.

If you’re not in the key art or used in the publicity after production, that directly affects your income or your next job. Because you’re constantly kept in a holding pattern as the unseen and the supportive cast, but what’s being promoted is that the protagonists are white Australian. We are then completely on the margins even in the post‑production. And that’s happened on every production I’ve worked in. I would say every production apart from one of my first ones which was GP back in the Nineties.

What happened with GP?

That was a whole year. It was my first gig out of drama school. And it was such a terrific show, it was like doing an apprenticeship after drama school and being thrown in a regular role in a really respected drama with fantastic directors. Every actor in Australia pretty much at that time was on GP. Peter Andrikidis was the director and the producer of GP, and he was so on it about inclusivity and diversity. We didn’t even use those words back then! Or representation. And he just knew it and he lived it.

The Nineties was so unexpectedly great for that in terms of inclusivity. Were you on the key art for GP then?
Yeah, I was one of the leads so it was called a regular role, and regular role meant that. There were three doctors in the show and a receptionist and that was us. And you never felt like you were secondary or on the margins. It was like “Wow, you got a gig on GP!” I was like “Yeah!” It was great. And we did twelve, thirteen, fourteen-hour days. They were huge days. And so from that moment, I would say, after GP, that’s when I started noticing the industry going in a downward spiral in terms of representation.

I agree. I think it’s like we jumped ahead in the Nineties and then we’ve slid back and slid back and now we’re jumping ahead and now I think it’ll probably go back again. But maybe not. Maybe not. What you were saying about the promo art reminded me of Netflix at the moment. If you look at their promo art and their images, there are so many people of colour. And sometimes they’ll use a person of colour in the promo art and I’m thinking “That person doesn’t even have a big role but okay.”

Yes. And it’s interesting too because I noticed on the promo art, Kavitha [Anandasivam] who played my daughter in The Hunting and I took a snapshot when it came on because, you know, the key art changes all the time. And there was a picture of Kavitha and I went “I’m going to take a photo of that!” (laughs) Because previous to that, it was Richard and Asher. Of course when I speak about actors who are white-skinned actors, it’s not a comment ever on a personal level about the actor.

No. Of course. It’s the system.

They’re all colleagues and they’re good people. And they’re great actors. So yeah, it is a systemic thing. Exactly right. So in terms of inclusivity and diversity, I think it had a moment and an opportunity to grow, and then our stories just became – there was a whole time when it was just about the colonial stories. And I remember being a graduate and thinking, “Far out. How am I going to fit in that?” I’m not going to be seen as an outback kind of bush wife. Our stories weren’t there.

I wonder now – I mean, I didn’t even know that the Afghans of The Ghan were not just Afghani people but were Pakistanis and Indians and I keep thinking—

Right.

I only found that out a couple of years ago. And of course they would have all been lumped into the same group and called Afghans.

I don’t think I knew that either!

I’m pretty sure it’s correct but that’s something I really want to read [up on]. But it also got me thinking about Indian people in – when was the first Indian person in Sydney? Were they brought over by the British people as servants? That sort of thing in terms of stories that we could tell.

And what a story that would be.

I know. Is there a particular story that you would like to tell?

I did write a feature film which I haven’t looked at – I wrote it over ten years ago.

I think it’s time to bring it out again, maybe.

I know, I know! I did this screenwriting course at RMIT and I just thought – I think it is toxicity. With the toxicity that I was drinking in from our Australian screens, it was – because it was not truth. It was really affecting me, to the point where I couldn’t even have a television for over a decade in my apartment. It was just like “I can’t handle this, I can’t handle it, it’s just so wrong.” And so I went, “Okay, I’m going to, yeah, write.” And so I wrote that story. And yeah, I’ll have to look back at it. I think there’s something in my personal story that I will probably write.

Good.

Around in that. There is this interesting space of – having an interracial parentage, it’s kind of third culture kid stuff. And the internalisation of culture that children experience from birth to like five years old, especially those years when you’re not verbal. And then if you move to another place that doesn’t have any of that – so I went from a very collective culture to individualistic, from Fiji to Brisbane. And then living with my white family, my mum. And these two kinds of weird realities that are going on but they’re – I don’t know yet. I don’t think I know yet. I’m still unpacking.

It’s a complex thing.

It is, and I think so many of us have that experience of, say, returning to India or Sri Lanka or wherever one of the parents are from, and we can’t speak the language but yet we’re – that common story – we go in, we feel at home, but we’re not treated like family. We’re treated like a stranger. And yet you’re seen here as the other as well. So you’re always being othered in whatever space you’re in.

I totally agree.

And even here, we’re othered in our own communities as well. You know, especially – can you speak another language?

No, but you know what, I can understand Hindi. But I can’t make it come out of my throat. So when I went back to India a couple of years ago, I was in [Mumbai] Airport and I was trying to ask the lady where to go for a phone charger and the words just wouldn’t come out of my throat at all. I had no idea what to say. Even though she spoke and I understood pretty much everything she said. It was so weird.

Wow. But that’s exactly what I’m talking about, Nisha, is that internalisation. You felt like that was on the tip of your tongue, yeah?

Yes.

It was like, “It’s here! But I just can’t get it out.” And I felt the same even when I went back to Fiji because I was spoken to in the Fijian dialect by my nanny. And when I went back as a twenty‑something actually in search of her – that’s the story – like I was listening to Fijian. It was like “Oh my god, I know this” and then they started singing and I just was bawling my eyes when they were singing because I had been sung to every day as a baby because she was my nanny. And she told me I would be on her [chest], like constantly, like I would sleep with her. And that internalisation of the feelings and how language sits in your body and the frustration then of that familiarity and yet you can’t execute it. You can’t perform it.

That would make an amazing movie.

It would, yeah. Yeah, it’d be good.

We were talking about Netflix and I have to tell you recently I rewatched Erskineville Kings (1999).

Oh!

Because it popped up on Netflix. And I watched it way back when it came out.

What!

And I loved that film so much but I loved it for the way it filmed Sydney and so I rewatched it recently and I was absolutely electrified because I went on “Hold on! That girl looks like me!” And I went “Holy shit, holy shit, are you telling me this film that I love has had an Indian person in it the whole time?” And I knew but I didn’t know because I remembered you in it but I didn’t remember you as being like me even though you totally were.

Yeah!

So how was that experience for you? Was it a good experience, Erskineville Kings?

Yes, it was. It really was. Because we were all mates. Because I went to WAAPA and Marty Denniss who played Barky, he wrote the film. And we all went through the Academy together in WA. I think there was only one actor maybe who wasn’t a WAAPA actor. Most of us were all WAAPA. So we had been in Western Australia for three years, all of us together including Hugh [Jackman]. And it was just like “Yeah, let’s all do a movie.” And I did audition for the role and I was crossing my fingers I would get it, and it was a really, really positive experience.

Your character was really cool as well. She was so arty, she was intelligent. Because I was wondering, “Oh my god, is she just going to be like the conventional sweet girlfriend?” But she wasn’t. She was so cool, she had her own life.

She was. And she challenged him! Yeah, she did! And she was there to call him out on stuff. Because that’s happened so many times where you feel like you’re brought in as the girlfriend role, and often the unsaid thing is the “exotic girlfriend” role and that’s just, you know, so boring. But no, Erskineville Kings was a different experience altogether. It came after GP. And there was always like that thing of “Oh, am I getting a little taste of what can happen from here, to go into a feature?” Didn’t work out like that. (laughs)

How did you get cast on Play School?

They invited me to audition because they had seen me in GP. And I was at the ABC. ABC is really a family. It was in those times as well. And I was really fortunate to be invited to audition. I had always dreamt about that. It’s like a no-brainer. You can’t really see – I was going to show you the corner of my apartment where I’m doing Tree House Cubby. It’s got lights and things all over it right now. But it was like a childhood thing when I was growing up – I would sit in the cupboard and pretend to have my own kids show. And so here I am literally painting a set in the corner of my apartment and doing a kids show. So when I got Play School, that was like yeah.

You’ve been doing that for so long now and do you feel like that’s part of the whole normalisation of seeing people of colour onscreen?

It’s getting better. I think children’s television is more ahead of the game than adult television in terms of representation. And I have been with Play School for a long time, and yet it’s the first time that we’ve had a Hindi language song which I wrote. It’s a very short little counting song with dinosaurs. But still it was like in my whole time there, there was never a Hindi song and I’d always wanted to be able to do that. And then recently I wrote an episode that was – I wrote a Punjabi song, I’ve written a dholi, and we had a tumbi player and did bhangra.

Actually having the confidence – because this is something that happens with actors especially who have been marginalised for a long time – your sense of ownership of your space in the screen industry really starts to deteriorate. First of all, you’re not getting the same opportunity and access to roles. When you do get the role, you’re in the scene but you’re not necessarily seen. When the follow-up with key art and publicity [happen], you’re not seen. It all drip filters into you, and you being critical of your own talent, and it affects, I believe, your performance in the end. Because you’re second-guessing and you start to lose faith that it’ll even be seen. It’s a really sad space. I just think there’s all these little micro moments that diminish you as an artist, all affect you and your performance. And so it wasn’t until Covid that I called the producers [of Play School] and said, “I want to be on the writing team.”

I was going to ask you about the writing. So how did that feel?

I was really scared. It’s interesting, isn’t it? At twenty-something, we just go, “Yeah, I want to be on the writing team!” But because I had so much of being pushed out of the circle – to put yourself forward every time and get rejected, it puts these little dents in you. And it was like “Oh, I’ve been with this show for so long. I’ve actually wanted to write for it for a long time.” I just went, “Okay! I think I should be on the writing team, and there are no women of colour on the writing team, and I can bring content that we’re still not seeing. And plus, I have been bringing content to Play School and I’m not getting credit.” I am bringing content on a number of levels to screen productions and I am never getting credited and I’m certainly not getting paid. And it’s time.

The next day, the producer said – well, he said, “Just leave it with me.” And then he’s come back and he’s said, “Yeah, okay. And can you write your first episode?” I was like, “Yes!”

Wonderful.

It was great. It was really cool.

And that was really quick as well, like a one-day turnaround rather than making you wait weeks or whatever.

That’s right. You could say it was a twenty year wait but you know.

Well, yeah.

But it’s also dependent on the producer you’re engaging with. Not every producer is going to be open to that. I’ve certainly had producers in a television series where I’ve said, “Can I change the name of my character to reflect her ancestry or her racial background or her cultural background?” and they’ve flat out said no. Or they’ve said, “Yes, we will,” and then they change the surname which will never be heard or seen. Honestly. I can’t even begin.

That’s so tokenistic!

Oh, mate. We could spend the whole interview.

I know. So now are you a permanent member of the writing team?

Yeah. I think so. There’s no permanence in Play School. But I’m pretty confident. I’ve just written my third script. So I hope that will continue. And certainly with my Tree House Cubby, that is engaging with the very audience that I am really committed to. We’re singing in different languages, we’re bringing different stories in.

Because of Zoom, the kids not only see me as a connection to – say, the Indian kids and the Sri Lankan girls too because we’ve got beautiful Tharnicca and Kopika from the Biloela Murugappan family. They get to see people who look – they see me and that is a reflection of them in a way. But better still with Zoom, the kids actually get to see themselves on Zoom.

https://www.abc.net.au/radio/melbourne/programs/mornings/zoom-playground-for-communities/13543258

Oh! And you think that makes a difference as well?
I think it does! Because at that age range, they’re so interested in themselves and they get to see themselves. We do bhangra, we did that at every show. And even to see them just looking at themselves and going, “Wow, I’m cool!” It’s an interesting space and it can do some of the things that Play School can’t do simply because it’s not Zoom.

It’ll be interesting to see how these kids grow up in terms of what they demand and what they feel they’re entitled to – which we’re already seeing – and them going, “Yes, I want to be on the writing team.”

I think you’ll relate to this, you know, the common thing that everyone talks about how they change their name. I wasn’t born with a name that is difficult to pronounce for white people. But you know that whole thing about names being changed to make it comfortable for the white person. I’m saying this in terms of confidence with children. I was working with Save The Children, volunteering years ago. And this one little girl came running up to me and hugged me – which isn’t unusual for Play School presenters, it’s such a blessed job. And she came up and gave me a hug and she went, “You said my name, you said my name!”

On Play School?

Because you know we do play things. And I’ve always been really conscious of the names we give things. In the script, it might be Peter and Michelle. I was like, “Can we please say Ayesha and Raj or other names?” And they’re all open to that. That’s what I’m saying about the non-credit stuff, the stuff you do. Anyway, we had toilet roll people or something and I said, “Can we make it Ayesha and somebody else?” And this little girl came up and said, “You said my name, you said my name! Ayesha!” Oh! Aww.

I wanted to ask you about your theatre work. Because I saw you were in [a stage production of] A Clockwork Orange? What was that like?

That was wild! That was again lots of WAAPA friends. [They] had started a theatre company and one of the productions was, yeah, A Clockwork Orange. It was a wild time. And this is a time when you did independent theatre and we did – Love And Understanding was another play that I did with Joe Penhall who is an English playwright. A really great three-hander play and we all did it because we loved theatre and that’s what we were trained to do.

But the independent theatre scene was one where it really was a time when we were the classic starving actors. We were getting full houses in our little independent. Tamarama Rock Surfers was the production company. We would do fantastic productions and independent theatre with a lot of new writers and – Clockwork Orange wasn’t a new play – but we would do these plays to full houses but we’d look at each other at the end and go “How are you getting home tonight?” I’m not even kidding. Like “Do you have enough money to actually get the train home?” It was just the things you did in your twenties because you loved your art, you wanted to do it but you didn’t get paid for it.

A Clockwork Orange was one of those. I don’t know if we ended up – you know, Russell Crowe actually came on board at the end, I remember.

What?

I know, crazy. He gave money to the production because I think we were needing money. Jason Clarke directed it.

Oh, I love Jason Clarke! Such a good actor.

Really good actor. Aaron Jefferys was the lead. And I played his girlfriend and a number of other small roles. There were so many good actors, actually. And I remember that, yeah, Russell Crowe gave money to the production and said, “You have to pay your actors.” And him and Nicole [Kidman] came on our last night, I think it was, and saw the production. It was fun good times.

I did Melbourne Theatre Company, a play called Grace with Noni Hazlehurst, and that was a four-hander. And I think that is the last play that I did, and it really took it out of me. And this is about inclusivity and diversity, actually. The play was a great play, a great role. I am in awe of Noni Hazlehurst to this day, she’s a phenomenal woman, humanitarian, and actor. But every night as we would do our curtain call and bow to the audience, I would look out at the audience and they were what was kind of called ‘the Hawthorn’s net’. They were all sort of white middle‑class, upper middle-class. It was a very rare day that I would see a brown person in the audience. Night after night after night I was doing a gruelling role where I had a five-page monologue. I had to mourn the suicide of my mother, mourn the death of my husband, and I was prostrate on the floor, I was exhausted after every performance. And it’s like “Where are the brown people?”

I had to think about the energy expenditure of what I was doing and who the stories were being told to, and it felt really weird. And that’s partly where Tree House Cubby is coming from, giving access to art to audiences who generally aren’t given access to it. It was then pretty much on that closing night I went, “I don’t know if I want to be an actor anymore,” and I ended up enrolling into Deakin University and doing international and community development. Which I’m still doing. And so I’m still doing my Masters.

That makes me all the more eager for your feature film and when you’re in the director’s seat as well as the writer’s seat. What do you think?

Oh yeah, I’ll be writer-director.

Totally, right?

Yeah. I won’t necessarily be in it.

You think that will be an amazing experience? I’m sure it’ll be difficult but does that idea excite you, of just being in total control of your own art?

Completely. I know I sound like I do lots of courses but I did the documentary filmmaking course at AFTARS. And I actually started making a documentary. It was around race and young boys who were wearing swastikas.

So neo-nazi kind of race stuff?

They actually weren’t neo-nazis but at the time, it was exploring why young white males were fantasising about a world where everybody was white, and trying to unpack that. Unfortunately one of the boys passed away and I dropped the project altogether. But it was a really, really interesting project and at a time when people were saying, “Oh it’s just a phase that the boys were going through.” This was 2011. And I knew at the time that we were growing something here. There was some very, very strong recruitment–

Radicalisation.

Absolutely. And recruiting young men to these far-right groups and I knew that it wasn’t a phase. At that time, yeah, I was writing-directing, and I knew that this is something that I’m really, really comfortable in. And yet I had to still feed myself and so I was still doing the acting thing and then I was doing my Masters at the same time. And it was like something’s got to give. But certainly it made – and I still fantasise – I met with a girlfriend on the weekend who’s about to direct and write her own feature. And I’m so happy for her and it’s like “Oh god, I really want to be in that space.”

I’m sure you will be, Leah! What’s next for you aside from Tree House Cubby?

Here Out West (2021) is the next film.

Oh! I’m so excited about that.

I’m excited, too.

Who did you work with?

It was Arka Das.

I like him! I saw him in UnIndian (2015).

Oh! I haven’t seen that!

He’s so cute in it. I was watching it, [thinking] I would rather watch a whole romcom where he’s the lead.

Oh, yes. He’s really, really good. He wrote – it’s a story of eight chapters, an anthology. He wrote one of them. And his chapter intersects with my chapter. And Bina Bhattacharya wrote mine. And I had this amazing opportunity to sing a song in Bengali. That’s pretty much when I went “I want to do this film.” So it’s a father-daughter scene in a hospital. It’s very moving.

I haven’t seen the film yet but I think the fact that we’ve got eight different writers from eight different ethnicities and racial groups and cultures, maybe nine languages all up. And all female directors. I’ve got high hopes for the film and I want them to do their bit and represent all of us who are in the film.

I am very excited about it. I’m very hopeful that it’ll get a good release and all that. Who was the director [of your chapter]?

Ana Kokkinos.

Of course. So back with Ana Kokkinos.

Yeah, after The Hunting. She’s very much been on this game of inclusion and telling stories for her whole career.

Absolutely. Leah, thank you so much for taking so much time to talk to me.

Thank you!

See Leah in Here Out West, the opening night feature for Sydney Film Festival 2021.

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