Prostitute, drug addict and this week, a prisoner with a history of abuse: racist typecasting is dictating Shareena Clantonâs career.
Aboriginal actress Shareena Clanton will hit screens in Wentworth this week playing Doreen Anderson, a prisoner with a history of drugs, alcohol and abuse. Clanton is already well known from her role as Lilly in Redfern Now, another drug addict, this time with a psychiatric illness.
If you are sensing a theme here you’d be right and it’s impossible to ignore Clanton’s conclusion that the reason is simply racist typecasting. Casting directors take one look at her dark skin and cast her as a victim or a loser.
‘In the roles I get I’m always being beaten up, if not physically, then emotionally. I’m always a drug addict or I’ve been abused or I’m supposed to be this dumb Aborigine. Why can’t I be the secretary or the cop? Why can’t I just be the mother on the Kellogg’s commercial sending the kids off to school with breakfast?’
Just 23, Clanton is clearly an excellent actor. In 2011 she was nominated for a Sydney Theatre Award for Best Newcomer and in 2012 was nominated for an AFI/AACTA Award for her role in Redfern Now. On stage she has had a season with Shakespeare WA.
But when artsHub asked if she had ever had a television role where she was not cast as a down-and-out she laughed and said wryly, ‘‘I was a whore in an episode of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. She was a high-class prostitute.’
The stereotyping is particularly galling because it is so far from the reality of Clanton’s background. She comes from a highly-educated family: her mother was the first female state prosecutor in WA and her four sisters are all tertiary-educated, including a twin now at NIDA.
Her father is American so she has spent time in the US and says Australia is far behind the US and UK in colour blind casting. ‘I remember the first time I saw black people on TV when I was a kid. It was just kids in cereal commercial or something and they were just being kids. Over there I could just be a cop or I could be a mother or I could be a judge.
‘Here if you cast an Aboriginal actor who’s a judge, people are like “What are you trying to say? What would that mean if she is Aboriginal”. Far out - sometimes it doesn’t have to mean anything. It does at the moment because there is this very strong entrenched racism but you know in the UK you can have a family and the Mum is Sri Lankan and the Dad is Macedonian or whatever and that’s not even commented on. We are so far behind in Australia.”
So far the best she has been able to do is to work with the characters she has been given to make them more intelligent than their circumstances might suggest. Sometimes that means arguments with directors and producers whose thinking about the role is limited. ‘I’m saying, “She is not stupid. She is actually highly intelligent” and going up against directors and producers and casting agents and heads of networks who just think it’s another Aboriginal drug addict.
‘I get very angry, very frustrated. Sometimes I’m just sick and tired of having to educate people. I just want a job where I don’t get beaten up or abused or take drugs.’
The best directors, though, encourage her to grow the characters. In Wentworth, a remake of the television classic Prisoner, which starts on Wednesday on Foxtel, Clanton worked closely with Kevin Carlin, the director of the first episode, to establish a character whose intelligence was evident despite her history and circumstances. ‘I said, “I don’t want this to be another stereotyped dumb Aboriginal girl who is on drugs.” Kevin was great. We had some wonderful in-depth conversations.’
Of course, making her characters more individual also makes them better characters. ‘I’m just trying to make them human, more on a level that anyone can relate to. I think that’s why Redfern Now has been successful. It doesn’t matter if you are black, white, brown or brindle, there’s a human element.’
While Clanton would love an ordinary middle-class role where her background was irrelevant, she is also drawn to telling distinctively Indigenous stories, the stories of her grandparents’ generation forced onto missions and her parents’ generation of stolen children. She admires the way actors Leah Purcell and Tammy Anderson have written work they perform themselves and sometimes finds herself sitting down writing, though she has yet to write anything she is ready to share.
The pressure to defeat the stereotypes is not just an on-set challenge. Clanton finds she has to behave better than other actors so people don’t jump to racist conclusions.
‘Sometimes I don’t go to the wild parties. Or I’ll go to parties but I won’t drink at all because as soon as someone sees you with a drink in your hand you are just another Aboriginal alcoholic. I can’t swear even though everyone swears. I feel like I have to dress white, I have to talk white. I have to over-articulate although even if I sound like the damn Queen it’s still not going to make a difference. And you don’t always want to look like you just stepped out of Burberry.’
There is no paranoia in Clanton’s approach, just depressing experience. Only last year she was travelling home on a train, dressed in track pants after a movement class when she was racially abused by a man who called her a ‘black bitch’.
She hears crude and demeaning jokes about Aborigines and has to find ways to respond without giving way completely to the anger she feels. ‘I feel the best way I can respond is by being more successful.’
Clanton is certainly on the path to achieve that.