Interview: Baykali Ganambarr on THE NIGHTINGALE

The Australian actor discusses the challenges and responsibilities tackled in his award-winning debut performance

It’s been quite a journey for Baykali Ganambarr. After he stumbled upon an open audition for Aboriginal actors on Facebook, the stage dancer was cast in his first-ever film role as the male lead in writer-director Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale. Ganambarr plays Billy, an Aboriginal tracker taken from his clan as a baby and forced to grow up amongst brutal colonizers. Billy goes on to help the film’s lead Clare in her quest for revenge, and both are forced to confront and overcome the roles each of them play in colonial society. With no previous acting credits before The Nightingale, Baykali Ganambarr went on to win the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Young Actor at the 2018 Venice Film Festival; The Nightingale’s Jennifer Kent also won a Special Jury Prize for Best Film.

Ganambarr took a brief moment from his cross-country promotion for The Nightingale to talk with me about his experiences as a first-time actor, his deep dive into learning a near-extinct language for the film, and the responsibilities he faced in bringing a brutal period of Australian history to the big screen.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Julian Singleton: Very good to meet you, Baykali. It seems like it’s been a busy few weeks for you. It looks like you got to speak with Guillermo Del Toro on Friday (August 2nd)?

Baykali Ganambarr: Yes! I did. It was amazing seeing him again after the Venice Film Festival. (NOTE: Del Toro was the Jury President at the 2018 Festival.)

JS: Where you won the Marcello Mastroianni Award (for Best Young Actor). Has it been a whirlwind experience seeing how the film’s been received all over the world?

BG: I’m pretty much stoked and still can’t believe it. Getting an award at the Venice Film Festival was such a huge thing for me.

JS: It’s also your first feature film, that’s quite an achievement.

BG: You know, I’m a guy from such a small island, where I’m from in Australia, really remote. Getting my first lead in a feature film without acting experience or having been to acting school, it’s such a major success and achievement.

JS: It’s a terrific performance. From what I read, you grew up in a dance troupe as well. I was wondering how your training informed you that way in playing Billy.

BG: I’ve been dancing with this indigenous dance company called Djuki Mala. The company’s been going on for 12 years, but I’ve been dancing with them for 6 years. So it’s been quite a while. But other than being in the group, I’ve been dancing my whole life since I was a little kid. I reckon dance gave me that platform into acting, and that experience in front of a camera. Also, most people told me [acting] just came natural because of the dancing background.

JS: I was wondering what your relationship was like working with [writer/director] Jennifer Kent. I know she used to be an actor as well. Did it help having someone direct you who had been in your shoes?

BG: Yes. She’s so amazing, and such a fierce and strong woman. It’s so incredible how she, a white woman, made such an Aboriginal story and history. And it’s not just that, it’s our shared story, our Australian story. Working with her was amazing because she knew how to push me, but at the same time she respects my space. She respects all her actors. It was such an honor to work alongside her and Aisling Franciosi and Sam Claflin. They’re such amazing people.

JS: Other than the beginning and end of the film, The Nightingale is set in the jungles of Tasmania. It seems like it was a challenging shoot. Were there any major hurdles you had to overcome?

BG: Oh, yes. It was definitely challenging. Everything wasn’t shot in a studio. We actually had to go to these destinations where we had to go through forests, climb up mountains. Where I come from in Australia, it’s pretty hot all the time. Everyday, it’s hot. Going down to Tasmania, where it’s pretty much cold every day, it was so freezing for me. Everybody was so committed to telling this story, though. Everyone was 100% truthful and committed.

JS: I imagine it helped create a more collaborative atmosphere between you and your fellow actors.

BG: Yes, definitely. We all had to support each other in many ways. Wouldn’t ask for a better crew, such an amazing bunch.

JS: The scene that stands out to me the most is the scene where you and Aisling come across the group of other Aboriginal men in chains, and it’s like you two quickly assume the roles other colonists would expect both of you to play. So that both of you will survive rather than yourselves on your own. Could you talk about building that acting relationship with Aisling throughout the film and how it informed your performances?

BG: Before we started shooting for three and a half months in [Tasmania], Jennifer wanted me and Aisling to meet each other three weeks earlier. We got together and got to know each other and hang out more, so we could have that chemistry going. She’s such an amazing and experienced actor, and working with her was such an honor. She knew I hadn’t been to acting school or anything, and was always carrying me under her wing. She’s such a lovable and funny person.

JS: Going into that scene, it’s also the first major film to feature Palawa kani. What was it like learning the language for the film?

BG: It such an honor to represent this language for the first time on the big screen. [Aboriginal People] are really regaining their culture and their language because the colonizers, they pretty much rendered everything…what’s the word? Extinct? But now, people are still speaking Palawa kani to this day. I got to go down to Tasmania and Australia to get to know these people and get to work especially with Uncle Jim Everett — our Aboriginal consultant, leader, and Elder, who’s well-respected in the Tasmanian community. He was the one who taught me Palawa kani. He’s such a strong man, so much knowledge. To be able to represent Palawa kani [in The Nightingale] is such an enormous, huge responsibility to carry.

JS: You carry it well. In terms of the language nearly going extinct, that’s the other thing I love about that scene. Even though you’re at gunpoint and they’re in chains, these colonizers can’t stop you from speaking the language. Like how Clare speaks Gaelic as well. Despite all their efforts, language is just out of their control.

BG: Right. Language is pretty, pretty important. Speaking Palawa kani made me feel strong. I felt the spirit of the land. The story inspired me to keep going in this role of Billy and speaking this language. This movie definitely opens up so many Palawa kani to come out and be motivated in speaking their language and be brave.

JS: Even though it’s set in 1825 Tasmania, it feels like such a current film with the topics it’s tackling.

BG: The things that are depicted in Nightingale, it’s pretty much what’s happening today. The racism, the rape scenes, they’re still happening today. The history depicted in Nightingale is only scratching the surface. There’s definitely more to the history of Australia. But I’m so proud of how Jennifer wrote it, and how she went on about it with the Aboriginal consultants.

JS: The film opened in America this week, and it opens in Australia on August 29th. Is there anything you especially hope that audiences at home and abroad come away from The Nightingale with?

BG: Most people think it’s a horror-revenge movie, but me, Jennifer, Aisling, everyone on the crew who committed their work into making this film saw it as about empathy. Love. Respect. Kindness. I reckon in today’s society, I think everyone forgot about that. Empathy’s a really important thing in today’s society. You’ve got to be able to go into Nightingale with an open mind. It’s brutal, but honest. It’s definitely not sugarcoating the past, but telling that history as it is.

JS: The past may not be as sugarcoated as we imagine it to be, but it’s healthy to have that confrontation.

BG: Definitely. Acknowledging the past is the way to heal.

The Nightingale opens in Austin on August 9th.

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