Bran Nue Dae‘s run at the Riverside had been getting mostly positive reviews and most of the notices had singled out Dingo’s performance. When I mention this he responds with genuine self-deprecation, deliberately name-checking several of the younger cast members.
“I think that’s because I’m the old bastard and on my way out,” he says. “All these wonderful kids are just probably thinking, ‘Be nice to the old fella so he don’t get cranky’.”
But that self-deprecation is also married with genuine pride at how far he has come. A little later, I ask whether he regrets becoming such a well-known personality and constantly being recognised in public.
“No!” he says. “I worked bloody hard for that. I worked bloody hard at being famous. It wasn’t planned, but someone gave me the opportunity and I did it to the best of my ability.”
Dingo is wearing pretty well for a self-proclaimed “old fella”. In a much-laundered polo shirt and casual pants, he is slim and looks fit with only the grey hair and beard giving away his 63 years. There’s a rangy intensity and seriousness about him that initially seems at odds with the knockabout, easygoing persona familiar to generations of Australian TV audiences.
I order the crunchy prawn salad and Dingo goes for the moroccan lamb salad. For drinks there’s tap water – Dingo doesn’t go for grog much and, besides, he’s working that evening.
Dingo was a “station kid”, born on his aunty’s wash-house floor on Bullardoo Station, north of Mullewa.
He recalls with fondness growing up around Mullewa, the second eldest of nine children, surrounded by extended family and friends.
“Everyone sort of knew everybody,” he says. “You knew the Reserve Mob, you knew the Four Corner Mob, you knew the Fringies, the Railway Mob, the Up the Hill Mob, the Farming Mob … In Mullewa you could see the hospital where you were born, the school where you’d go, the footy oval where you played and the cemetery where you’d be buried.”
But where many of his contemporaries were happy to stay close to home, something in the restless young Dingo drove him to look further afield.
“I used to build sand hills and build the sand up about a foot in front of me. I’d lay under the sand and make the sand my horizon so I could touch it. I always wanted to know what was over the next horizon.”
It was basketball initially that took him over that horizon. He was a good player – good enough to play at state level – and moved to Perth where he also began to get theatre roles. The work came steadily on both big and small screen: Bran Nue Dae, Crocodile Dundee II, hosting Seven’s The Great Outdoors for 16 years … His dry-as-West-Australian-dust voice echoed around the world in 2000 when he narrated the Indigenous component of the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony.
Not bad for a station kid from WA. But success has brought plenty of challenges reflected in his occasionally chaotic personal life, which has fuelled salacious stories in gossip magazines. And there has been a personal toll.
“It’s pretty lonely this job, to tell you the truth,” he says. “People just watch me do my two or three hours or an hour on telly or whatever and say it was lovely. But they don’t know that at 2 or 3 in the morning you feel alone. You haven’t got people around you that you love or you can’t watch your babies as they are sleeping. I don’t get to do that much because I’m too busy entertaining others.
“I’ve a bad case of depression. Sometimes you think all I have to do is go up this cliff and all I’d have to do is turn left. No one will know. I have stupid ideas. I’ll call them stupid now because I want to be tough. But, yeah suicidal tendencies.”
It’s not the first time Dingo has discussed his depression publicly. One of his coping mechanisms, he says, is to throw himself ever more deeply into his work – revising scripts and analysing how he can improve his performance.
And, he says he’ll just wait until he can sit down by a river in the bush “and enjoy the scenery, not the thoughts”.
His late mother, Bessie, remains a constant in his life.
“Every morning I say hello to my mum,” he says. “When she was alive it was more fun but it wasn’t good also because she could answer back. She’s been gone 16 years so I can say what I want now.”
Bessie was evidently a force of nature among the Dingo mob and the wider community.
‘You got to fit into black fella way and when you fit into black fella way them old people will teach you straight away.’
“Everyone knew Aunty Bessie – she was Auntie Bessie to just about everybody: black, white, male, female, the local pollies … they all knew who my mother was.
“I’d be all, ‘My name is Ernie Dingo’ until I got home and then it’d be, ‘Oh, you’re Bessie’s son!'”
Country and community run deep in Dingo and he lights up when we get to talking about Camping on Country, the community health and wellbeing project he help found along with documentary-maker Tom Hearn.
“We take a lot of old people bush and we talk about strengthening the men in that community to make them healthy and able to look after their community and show the strength of traditional lore,” he explains.
And through invigorating the elders, Camping on Country aims to reach the young men who have lost their way.
“A lot of the young men we are working with have come out of jail and still have that hopelessness of trying to fit in to a non-Indigenous society,” says Dingo. “We say, ‘Don’t try to fit into white fellas’ way. You can’t understand them and they are not going to understand you. You got to fit into black fella way and when you fit into black fella way them old people will teach you straight away’. Our culture needs to be strengthened.”
According to the Camping on Country website, there are now nine separate men’s groups set up around northern Australia, from Kununurra to Mareeba. Reading the stories and looking at the pictures it’s hard not to share Dingo’s enthusiasm. The project appears to be making a difference where it counts.
It’s what he calls his people “fixing themselves on the inside”, and he’s got little time for anyone from outside coming along to impose “solutions”.
So when I ask whether he has ever considered politics – he’d be a shoo-in with his profile and credibility – his response is vehement.
“I’ve got no aspirations to try and educate these people running our country. My job is working with kids. They’re battling. They’re doing a lot of fighting themselves to try and fit it. That’s why I’ve got no political aspirations at all.”
So, is he hopeful about the future – for himself and Indigenous people more generally.
“As long as I can make my mother smile, that’s all that matters,” he says.
After we shake hands in the glaring sun and I take my leave, I glance back and Dingo is standing on the terrace, looking out over the river: possibly thinking of fresh water, home and red dirt.
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Nick Galvin is Arts Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald