We chat with the multi-talented Leah Purcell about The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson.
Read senior writer Joe Leydon’s conversation from Australia with Indigenous writer, director, and actress Leah Purcell.
Cowboys & Indians: You have scored a triple triumph as writer, director, and star of The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson, a powerful Outback Western inspired by Australian author Henry Lawson’s classic 1892 short story. This is your third take on Lawson’s tale — you previously adapted it as an award-winning play and an acclaimed novel. What is it about the story that made it so compelling for you?
Leah Purcell: I think it’s because it was something that my mother would read to me from her little book of Henry Lawson’s short stories. Unfortunately, she passed away before I could ask, “Why Henry Lawson, why that book?” But for me it was the first story where I actually used my imagination and I could see myself as that little boy, and my mother was the drover’s wife. It kind of replicated our story — it was me and my mom at home, with no father figure around. My mother was my mother, father, and my hero, and she raised seven children and looked after her mother and father. We had a combustion stove, so she had to chop wood. She taught me to split a log — and taught me to stack a wood heap so the snakes won’t get under it.
C&I: The original story is basically an anecdote about a woman alone with her children in their remote home while her drover husband is away for months at a time. But you have expanded it into a gripping scenario about racial and sexual politics and presumptions in 19th-century Australia. You have really made the story your own.
Leah: [Laughs.] Well, I have a great imagination, obviously. From a young age, thank goodness. It held me in good stead to get to where I am. I guess being from an Indigenous family, and being the youngest of seven — I felt that it was my responsibility to look after my mom. If she didn’t pass away when she did, I don’t know whether I would be here, because it was my responsibility to look after her.
C&I: The inciting incident in your film occurs when your character, Molly Johnson, encounters on her property Yadaka, a fugitive Aboriginal man who’s been accused of murder. As they warily bond, Molly is forced to deal with inconvenient truths from her own past.
Leah: Yadaka’s story is my great grandfather’s story. So I went straight to the diaries that were written about him by the authorities of the time. That massacre that Yadaka talks about, about running Aboriginal people into the river, was a fact that I had researched. I wanted the movie to be as truthful as I could — while also remembering that I want to have a commercial film that is going to reach people. I was juggling all those aspects to make it a really good film, that people would sit down and watch, and take something away from it.
You see, my family — we come from a long line of storytellers. I was blessed by my ancestors to be born at the time that I was, so that I could have a voice. My grandmother was part of a stolen generation, and my mother was what we call the lost generation, where they weren’t allowed to speak about their culture, practice culture, speak their language. And I was born at a time where I can have a voice. And I believe that that’s my calling — to give those women that were silent, their voice. So through my work I always express my personal experience, my family’s personal experience, to give a heart and soul, and a personal perspective, to what is usually a political issue in Australia.
C&I: And in addition to everything else, your Molly Johnson is quite a kick-ass protagonist. When she brandishes a shotgun and warns an unwelcome visitor, “I’ll shoot you where you stand, and I’ll bury you where you fall,” well, you get the feeling Clint Eastwood or John Wayne would think twice about messing with her.
Leah: Absolutely. I wanted to give this woman the power of strength. That’s my mother, that’s my grandmother, that’s our aunts. There’s me in there. And I love that in Australia here, the people that have seen it have said, “Never mind about Ned Kelly, we’re looking out for Molly Johnson.” We did a Q&A with our actors the other day, and Jessica De Gouw who plays Louisa Clintoff said, “We don’t need the Marvel imported heroes, we need Molly Johnson.” I hope that all women, all young girls, are inspired by this character. And that, hopefully, her legend lives on.
The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson has been rescheduled for a 2022 release by Samuel Goldwyn Films.
From our October 2021 issue
Photography: (Cover image) courtesy SXSW; (Illustration) Jonathan Fehr