The name Mercia Deane-Johns, who stars in the 2015 Australian road film ‘Last Cab to Darwin’, may not be on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Though neither, to my surprise, were several other notable Aussie actors and actresses when I spoke to some professional Australians at an expats event last year.
The names of Judy Davis, Elizabeth Alexander, John Hargreaves, Nick Tate and the former Sydney gangster Abe ‘Mr Sin’ Saffron simply drew blank stares from the young (well, youngish) Aussies at the Australia House event. Alexander Downer, the High Commissioner of Australia to the United Kingdom, came to my rescue when he said diplomatically, “This man certainly knows his Australian cinema.”
A career of versatility
Mercia Deane-Johns has been an important part of Australian cinema, theatre and TV for the past four decades. Her first credited role was in the 1973 ground-breaking sex comedy `Alvin Purple` starring Graeme Blundell.
She had a small part as a secretary in Phillip Noyce’s `Heatwave` in 1981 and in the same year had a more substantial role in `Winter of Our Dreams` directed by John Duigan, playing alongside Judy Davis and Bryan Brown.
One of Mercia’s early jobs was in the 1970s series `Matlock Police` in which she and Sigrid Thornton played girls who were incarcerated in a home. In 1977 she appeared opposite John Hargreaves in `Young Ramsey`, a series about a young city vet who does to work in the country. She went on to play a vast array of characters: Italian mammas, the Israeli girl Timna in `The Sullivans`, the outrageous and eccentric Sharon Taylor in TVs `Chances. She has played bikie chicks, secretaries, academics and even a prostitute in the 1983 film `Going Down` which, while given only a limited distribution at the time, continues to grow in reputation as a minor gem of Australian film.
In the 1980’s Mercia played opposite a teenage Nicole Kidman in the TV miniseries `Vietnam` and in the 1990’s, as well as `Chances`, she was in the police series `Water Rats`. As well as appearing in several episodes of the beloved police drama `Blue Heelers`, in the early 2000’s she was in the drama `Above the Law`
More recently the actress played Grace Barton in ten episodes of `Packed to the Rafters` from 2009-2010.
As well the impressive acting CV, Mercia studied Classical Singing and Theory of Music at the London College of Music in the mid-1970s and has a Diploma of Music.
Hard yakka for Aussie artists
Mercia explains the difficulty for Aussies striving to make a name for themselves on the local and world stages.
“The life of an artist in Australia is very difficult; if you’re an actor, director, musician, painter, then you’re an outsider,” she said
“Money is often scarce. Australia is such a small market within the entertainment industry that an artist still has to make it overseas, to become one of the top ten here.”
Indigenous Australia close to the heart
While Mercia loves Australia, the plight of its Indigenous people still breaks her heart.
“It’s a beautiful country nature wise. Yet, for me, it’s a cultural desert,” she said.
“What the colonisers did to our Indigenous brothers and sisters is a total disgrace, and until there is reparation or a treaty signed and more land returned, this country shall have a heart that only just beats. It may be multi-cultural, but it is fiercely racist, and because of that, ignorant.
“We should have the Aboriginal flag, and in such a wealthy country there should be no poverty or illnesses that belong to the third world for our Indigenous peoples. They die younger than the white population; suffer from kidney disease, and trachoma. It’s a disgrace.
“So often governments give funding, and yet it never seems to reach where it is actually needed.
“As a child, I would become hysterical watching anything to do with whites treating blacks badly. They’d have to drag me out of the room. I still feel the same.”
Catching the Last Cab to Darwin
Her latest screen appearance is in a supporting role in the Australian movie ‘Last Cab to Darwin’, a comedy/drama road film directed by Jeremy Sims (star of Chances, coincidentally) who co-wrote it with Reg Cribb from their original 2005 Drover’s award winning play.
Set in the 90s, the film tells the true story of taxi driver Max Bell. Diagnosed with cancer and given just 3 months to live, Max decides to drive the 3,000km journey from Broken Hill to Darwin where there was a policy of voluntary euthanasia at the time.
`Last Cab to Darwin` also stars veteran Oz actors Michael Caton, Jacki Weaver and John Howard (the actor, not the former PM) and Aboriginal actress Ningali Lawford-Wolf.
`Last Cab to Darwin` had its premiere at the Sydney Film Festival in June this year before going on to a successful national release. It has been nominated for eight AACTA Film Awards, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Male Lead Actor and Best Female Lead Actor. The film is due for an Australian DVD release in December and will make a nice little Christmas stocking and parcel filler for your overseas mates and family.
Mercia’s festive future
Mercia Deane-Johns is chirpy and cheerful about what her career in entertainment has in front of her. She is a supremely talented performer and still harbours ambitions of indulging her musical side by appearing at the Edinburgh Festival.
Check out the ‘Last Cab to Darwin’ official website
TOP IMAGE: Mercia Deane-Johns on stage in the 2011 production of ‘Cabaret Caliente’