Aaron McGrath’s star turn in Jasper Jones shines light on perennial issue

Aaron McGrath and Levi Miller in a scene from Jasper Jones.

Actor Aaron McGrath says the new film Jasper Jones — which has racism at its heart — may be set in the past but still has a message for modern-day Australia.

McGrath, an Indigenous actor from Redfern in New South Wales, plays the title role in the film, which has been directed by Indigenous filmmaker Rachel Perkins and also stars Hugo Weaving and Toni Collette.

The film will be released in cinemas on March 2 and is being described as an Australian To Kill a Mockingbird – the American book and film classic that deals with racial inequality.

“There are still some (racism) encounters out there,” McGrath, 21, told NIT. “And it’s good to talk about and hopefully people will watch this movie and come away thinking (the issue) is still out there to this day.

“Hopefully we can change.”

Set in the 1960s, Jasper Jones is based on the novel of the same name by West Australian author Craig Silvey. It tells the story of two boys — a 14-year-old white boy Charlie Bucktin, played by Levi Miller, and mixed race outcast Jasper Jones, played by McGrath – who become embroiled in a murder mystery.

Jasper Jones asks for Bucktin’s help when he finds his girlfriend hanged in bushland and fears he will be blamed.

Set in the fictional town of Corrigan, the film was actually shot in six weeks in the south-west WA town of Pemberton.

Rachel Perkins, a celebrated director who is well known for films such as Bran Nue Dae and Radiance, hand-picked McGrath for the title role. Perkins is the daughter of the late Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins.

Having given McGrath his first professional break in her 2013 TV series Redfern Now, Perkins says he’s the “soul” of Jasper Jones.

“Aaron has a warm screen presence,” Perkins says. “That’s the thing about the character of Jasper. He appears as this young Aboriginal hooligan, but actually he’s a warm, intelligent and hard-done-by guy who is misrepresented by society. And that is Aaron in lots of ways.”

For his part, McGrath says he can’t speak highly enough of Perkins.

“She’s great, she’s really, really great,” he says. “When I did Redfern Now, that was my first lead and first time working with a proper director. She’s shown me the ropes, basically, coming from no training and that.”

McGrath says he’s largely self-taught as an actor, but has learnt as he’s gone along and picked up tips from the best when he can.

“I didn’t get much of a chance to work with Toni (Collette), but I watched her do her work on set, which is a great experience, just watching how she does her craft,” he says.

“But Hugo – there’s a really intense scene with me and Hugo. I’ve never had any training or anything. I didn’t do drama at school. I did drama in Year 9, but I dropped it because I was too afraid to get up in front of girls … but the first thing that I felt really comfortable about and good about after I’d done it was the scene with Hugo – there was no self-doubt after that scene.

“It wasn’t just feeding off his energy or anything. I actually asked him for a tip and he told me one simple thing: ‘To be present’.

“I really took it in and gave it all I got. I never looked back. I felt really good about that scene.”

McGrath says when they had a break from filming on set, he and Craig Silvey would play golf.

When the whirlwind of publicity is over for Jasper Jones, McGrath will head to Melbourne to resume filming on the ABC series Glitch. He’s also keen to try his hand at theatre.

In the meantime, McGrath says he’s sure Australian audiences are going to love Jasper Jones.

“It’s a film everyone can relate to,” he says. “The whole story is about growing up —adulthood, elements of racism, love, betrayal, all these things.”

  • Jasper Jones opens in Australian cinemas on March 2.

By Wendy Caccetta

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