Heartland: cast and characters

Ernie Dingo as Vincent Burunga

Vincent Burunga is a man walking the razor’s edge between two worlds. Born in Western Australia, he became estranged from his people when caught between the demands of traditional law and white law. Finally the conflicting demands of his job and his society led to him travelling to the East Coast. Working in Brooklyn Waters as an Aboriginal Police Liaison Officer, he’s an outsider to the local Aboriginal people and an outsider to the town. The expectations of both sides are enormous, particularly when a local boy is accused of murder, and he is charged by the community at Binbilla with the seemingly impossible mission of freeing him from the white justice system. But this struggle and his relationship with Beth Ashton (Cate Blanchett) lead him to a deeper understanding of the worlds he is attempting to bridge… to axe his own demons, and find a way forward in his own life.

Ernie has been closely involved as a consultant on all aspects of BURNED BRIDGE. His character Vincent is based on Ernie’s own origins and background. His extensive input includes the naming of both his own and Cate Blanchett’s character.

Ernie began his theatrical career in Perth in 1978 with the Middar Aboriginal Dance Theatre. He has since had an extensive career in theatre, film and television. His theatre credits include Bran Nue Dae; Dreamers; Munjong; No Sugar at the Vancouver World expo and Bully’s House at the Long Wharf Theatre, Connecticut.

Films include The Fringe Dwellers directed by Bruce Beresford; Crocodile Dundee II; Cappuccino; Till the End of the World; and the award winning Mr Electric. His television appearances are numerous; he is a presenter on the Seven Network’s lifestyle show The Great Outdoors and hosted the live national telecast from Broome of Stompem Ground 92 on the ABC. His TV acting credits include GP, The Flying Doctors, Clowning Around, Rafferty’s Rules, Dolphin Bay, A Waltz Through The Hills, Tudawali for which he one the Canadian Rocky Award for Best Actor, Dirtwater Dynasty, Relative Merits, Blue Lightning, Cowra Breakout. He was winner of the AFI Award for Best Actor in a Television Drama for A Waltz through the Hills and was nominated in the same category the year before for his performance in Tudawali. In 1990 Ernie Dingo was awarded the Order of Australia by Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth II.

IMDb: Ernie Dingo

Cate Blanchett as Beth Ashton

Beth Ashton arrives in Brooklyn Waters to settle her grandfather’s estate, and take "time out" from a life in the city that has fallen apart around her. The breakup of her marriage to Garth Maddern has left her bruised and vulnerable. Her involvement with Vincent and her growing contact with the people form Binbilla, is the last thing she expected when she came, but as she learns more about their world and their way of looking at life, she finds herself changing in unexpected ways.

She arrives an outsider, but as she discovers more about her grandfather’s life and the people he was linked to more closely than she imagined, she comes to find a sense of belonging, and a deeper understanding of herself.

Cate notes the difference in Beth’s character from her own "I am more of a watcher where Beth feels she has to participate and bravely goes where a lot of people wouldn’t. I believe in giving people space to reveal themselves and not always tackling things head on as she does, although she displays a great honesty in doing so. She is so challenged culturally and confronted by the privacy of the Aboriginal society and doesn’t like being shut out." Born and raised in Melbourne, Cate, a relative newcomer, graduated from NIDA in 1992. Her credits include a guest role in ABC’s Police Rescue—The Movie; and in the theatre, Kafka Dances for the Griffin Theatre Company and Top Girls and Hanjo for the Sydney Theatre Company. Most recently she has received acclaim for her performance as the confrontationist student in David Magmata’s Oleanna for Sydney Theatre Company.

IMDb: Cate Blanchett

Bob Maza as Alf Dyer

Alf Dyer is an elder of the Birpai people, and the lynch-pin of the Aboriginal community at Binbilla. Growing up there when it was a government reserve, he’s spent time out in the white world, learning what makes it tick. Now, he’s content to live out his life in his own country, with the family that has always been his strongest comfort—his sisters Vi (Auriel Andrews) and Mary (Lillian Crombie), his nephew Robert Sutton (David Kennedy), his niece Sally (Lisa Kinchela), and his two grand-sons, Chris (Wes Patten) and Ricky (Bradley Byquar), whom he’s raised since their father’s death.

But his peaceful life, and the harmony of the community is torn apart when Wilga Carmichael, daughter of the other big family is murdered, apparently by Ricky. Alf is forced to draw on all his strength and wisdom to hold Binbilla together. Knowing in his heart that this grandson is innocent, he charges Vincent Burunga with the task of proving it, knowing that this is his responsibility under both white law and the old ways.

And he has to learn that "you can’t walk forwards looking backwards." The trick is to learn from the past to deal with the present, and build to the future.

"Alf is based on a character both Ro Hume and I knew. When I was regional director of Aboriginal affairs in Port Macquarie, he was the spokesperson. There were a lot of good qualities in the man. He was firm in his religious beliefs; practised what he preached; he had the difficult task marrying two worlds - modern white and Aboriginal traditional", explains Bob Maza. "BURNED BRIDGE is important because it has gotten us into mainstream viewing time with a respected medium—ABC—and raises the awareness of general Australian issues that are important to Aboriginal people". Bob Maza was a series consultant and writer as well as appearing in Burned Bridge. He has had a long and multifaceted career spanning 25 years as an actor, voice-over actor, playwright/composer, producer/director and media consultant. Maza has appeared in numerous television series from Bellbird through Hunter, Division 4, Matlock Police, A Country Practice and G.P. His films include Rainbow Serpent, Fringe Dwellers, Ground Zero, No Trouble, Reckless Kelly and Nostrodamus Kid. His work as playwright/composer includes the film Spinifex Breed, the plays Basically Black Revue, Mereki, The Keepers, and this television series Burned Bridge. He has ben producer/director on several stage plays, commissioned videos and radio plays. And has been a media consultant on various films, plays and workshops for commercial, educational and government agencies.

Bob Maza passed away in May of 2000.

IMDb: Bob Maza

Justine Saunders as Millie Carmichael

Millie Carmichael is the matriarch of the Carmichael family, and the wellspring of its strength. Fiercely proud of her people, she is a tireless worker for their advancement, which leads her to clash with Alf about the best way forward for the Binbella Community. She sees no reason why her two children, Wilga (Kylie Russell) and Clarrie (Aaron Pedersen), shouldn’t be able to have the best of both worlds, taking advantage of opportunities available to whites without having to sacrifice their Aboriginality.

Her world is torn apart when Wilga is murdered. In her eyes, Ricky is responsible, because he should have looked after Wilga. And it takes all her strength and the support of her husband Shortly (Kevin Smith) and the others in the community to finally help her come to terms with her grief and look once more to the future.

Justine Saunders sees Millie as a very strong character who has had a lot of fight against; "She wants better for her children. Then she has to pick up the pieces after her tragedy, and go on because it is very important to keep her immediate and extended family together. BURNED BRIDGE shows very positive images; it’s time we had a series that shows we are part of the socioeconomic structure of this country; we don’t have to be hidden in the background anymore—we can be up front."

After studying for twelve months at NIDA in 1980 Justine Saunders has gone on to carve an impressive and comprehensive career in film, theatre and television.

Her theatre credits include Bullies House for the Nimrod Theatre and the Long Wharf Theatre, Connecticut USA; The Cake Man for the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust; Sorry Sold Out; Marginal Farm; Despatches From Another World; Coordah; Capricorna, No Sugar ; A Special Place; A Currency Lass; Honeyspot; Byzantine Flowers, The Crucible and Australian People’s Theatre for the Sydney Theatre Company.

Justine’s films include The Tree; Fred Schepisi’s The Chant of the Blacksmith, Letters to a Friend; Charley’s Web; The Fringe Dwellers; Top Enders and Until the End of the World.

She has appeared in numerous television dramas; G.P., Certain Women, Ben Hall, Rush, Number 96, Bellbird, Pig in a Poke, Against the Wind, top Mates, Women of the Sun, Prisoner, A Country Practice, The First Australians, The Last Resort, The Flying Doctors among others.

IMDb: Justine Saunders

Steven Vidler as Phil McCarthy

Phil McCarthy is the young Sergeant in charge of the Police station at Brooklyn Waters. Easy going, fair, he’s part of the new generation of the Police Service, determined to do his best for the entire community, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. He welcomes the part that Vincent plays in building bridges between the Police and the local Aboriginal community, knowing that there is more than a century of fear and prejudice to be overcome on both sides. When Wilga Carmichael is killed, Phil’s determination to make sure that the man he believes is responsible, Ricky Dyer, is punished has nothing to do with Ricky’s colour, but everything to do with Phil’s anger and disgust at the crime itself. But as the mystery unravels, Phil is forced to face the fact that the prejudices he thought he had escaped are so subtly and deeply part of him that he saw what he expected to see, and the hardest thing he must ever face is the responsibility he feels for Ricky Dyer’s ordeal.

Steven found Phil an interesting character, "He’s and average type of guy doing a good job—without having an understanding of what he is dealing with... Having worked with Bob Maza and Ernie Dingo over these months I feel like I am just scratching the surface of Aboriginal culture. What’s really interesting and worthwhile about this project is that it opens the issue out instead of letting the audience off the hook. When we hear about cops dealing with Aboriginal issues we think of red necks—Jackboot Boys. The influence of Ernie and Bob made that change in the actual script...you get occasional people like that but it is not the issue".

While a student at NIDA, Steven was cast in Robbery Under Arms—the a mini-series and a feature film. Following his graduation in 1983 he continued to work on screen before moving into theatre and establishing a reputation as one of Australia’s most interesting young stage actors. His television credits include a major role in the ABC/Roadshow Coote and Carroll mini-series on journalists and photographers caught up in the Vietnam war, Frankie’s House; the award winning ABC TV telemovie Displaced Persons; the mini-series The Dunera Boys and the telemovie of David Williamson’s hit play The Perfectionist; as well as guest roles in many of the country’s most popular long-running series.

IMDb: Steven Vidler