Aboriginal: Rabbit Proof star loves his work

"I can't believe it!" exclaims David Gulpilil, in delighted, humble stupefaction. "I can't believe it!" The beaming actor is amazed at how many locals recognize him.

Gulpilil describes himself as a man of two worlds: one of knives and forks, the other of spears and boomerangs. Alternating between the bush and modern civilization, Gulpilil remains the world's most widely known Australian Aboriginal actor– his films include The Right Stuff (1983), Crocodile Dundee (1986), and Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002). Last week Gulpilil discussed his unique 30-year acting career at– appropriately enough– the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Museum.

Gulpilil was an aboriginal dancer, basically unknown outside Australia, when director Nicolas Roeg asked him to try out for the male lead in Walkabout (1970). The film concerns two English children lost in the Australian bush. A teenage bushman (Gulpilil) undergoing a test of manhood– a desert "walkabout"– discovers and protects them.

At that time, Gulpilil spoke no English. He communicated with Roeg and his co-stars "through my eyes, looking at them," he says, "and by listening. I was listening, but I wasn't even understanding English."

The neophyte actor was often understandably befuddled by his director. "'Action!' I couldn't move! What he mean, 'Action!'? I didn't know what 'Action!' was.

"It was just by eye and"– Gulpilil imitates Roeg gesturing wildly off-camera for him to move– "'Go, man, now!'" Essentially, he was the character he played. The haunting, off-kilter film remains a perennial favorite.

Walkabout thrust Gulpilil into the limelight. "It was good. It was great," he blissfully recalls. At the Cannes Film Festival, Gulpilil "walked on the red carpets," he says. "And it was the first time I ever went out of my country, to the other side of the world."

The easy-going bushman was soon watching John Lennon jam at one of the ex-Beatle's London parties, "up top of the roof," sipping tea with Bruce Lee, and visiting Buckingham Palace for an audience with "Her Majesty," Gulpilil recalls.

Gulpilil appeared with Dennis Hopper in Mad Dog Morgan (1976), about a legendary Australian outlaw. Gulpilil loved this period action piece, he says, since he had always wanted to make a movie about "Indians and cowboys," like his youthful hero, John Wayne.

Gulpilil confirms Hopper's reputation as a notorious '70s Hollywood madman. "Crazy!" he says of his co-star. "We were both crazy, anyway."

At 50, Gulpilil's slim frame belies his age. He still acts, dances, paints, and teaches film to youngsters of Ramingining, his Australian homeland. He also works as a volunteer tracker for the Australian government, performing the same sort of service as his character in Walkabout.

The beaming actor is "really enjoying" Charlottesville, he says. "It's beautiful. There are no clouds, and it's warm, just like in the northern part of Australia." The autumn foliage resonates deeply with the actor. "The trees are so different here," he says. "It's like the leaves have been sprayed with all different colors!"

Gulpilil will introduce and discuss his latest feature, The Tracker (Friday, October 23, at 7pm in UVA's Culbreth Theater). The Fringe Festival will host "An Evening with David Gulpilil" (Saturday, October 25, at 7pm in the old IGA building on Ridge-McIntire Road), featuring Darlene Johnson's 2003 documentary, Gulpilil: One Red Blood, and a performance of traditional music and dance from Central Arnhem Land.

David Gulpilil.