“I’ve been raised by a lot of really strong Black women,” says Aboriginal Australian actress Madeleine Madden. “I come from a very matriarchal family, which is the case for a lot of Aboriginal families,” adds Madden regarding her heritage. Her mother, Hetti Perkins, is a noted art curator and writer who has been a steward of Aboriginal culture and creativity. And, her aunt Rachel Perkins directed the young actress in the 2018 Aussie TV series Mystery Road.
One of the byproducts of America's racial reckoning in the wake George Floyd’s killing was that it cast a light on like experiences of marginalized people around the globe. “I can’t breathe” became a rallying cry for a wave of protests in countries like Australia and cities like Sydney, where Madden grew up.
Identifying as Black in Australia means you’re a member of its indigenous population who have long been engaged in a fight for equal rights. Land lost to colonialism, institutionalized racism and disenfranchisement are some of the inequities Aboriginals have struggled against.
“Civil rights is still a conversation and an issue at the forefront of all of our psyches at the moment,” explains Madden. "In Australia we had the Australian stolen generation of our voting rights. I think a lot of people think it’s a distant memory, but it’s not, this happened to our parents or our grandparents.”
The actress’ own grandfather, Charles Nelson Perkins, was a prominent activist at the forefront of the fight for the rights of Aboriginal Australians. One of his actions was organizing “freedom rides” during the early 1960s, following the blueprint of those held during the Civil Rights Movement as a form of protest in the United States.
Though her grandfather died when Madden was just a child, his legacy of championing the fight for equality has lived on in her family and she has in turn become a voice for her generation. As a teenager, she delivered a nationally televised 2010 address to the nation on the topic of what comes next for Australia’s indigenous people.
“I was about 4 when my grandfather passed away, but I did spend a lot of time with him,” Madden recalls. “I’d be sitting on his lap when he began having meetings and so we were very connected. I think this is something that has been passed down and I’ve always been raised [with the idea that] if you have a platform, you should use it to do good and speak up for people in your community.”
Madden’s platform is sure to expand, thanks to Wheel Of Time—an epic fantasy currently unspooling on Amazon's Prime, which is based on a highly successful series of books by the late author Robert Jordan. Oscar nominee Rosamund Pike, Zoe Robins and Daniel Henney also star. WOT, positioned to tap into the Game Of Thrones audience base, has already been renewed for a second season.
The series, replete with dazzling effects set against sweeping backdrops, casts women in a pivotal societal role. The imaginative tale depicts a sisterhood of sorceresses called the Aes Sedai, who are charged with protecting society from all manner of fearsome creatures while on a quest to find the “The Dragon,” an almighty force who holds the fate of the world in his or her hands. Madden plays Egwene, one of four young villagers believed to possibly be this anointed figure.
As a budding actress, however, Madden, 24, found she hasn’t always been the chosen one as far as job opportunities were concerned. She recalls one occasion in particular: “You know, I have a memory of when I was on a film set and there were three white actresses there talking about this audition they got. They all looked decidedly different, so clearly it wasn't like, [producers were saying], ‘Oh, we want someone with brown hair and green eyes.’ The other actresses asked me, ‘Did you get that audition?’ And I replied that I hadn’t."
"For them, it was like they were a bit embarrassed and shocked by it, but this is something that we [as people of color] deal with all of our lives," adds the actress. "We always say it's tough to get a seat at the table; and, I say it’s hard for us to even get a foot in the door of the building to get to the table. But I do feel like that has made me stronger, and I celebrate the wins so much more.”
In addition, Madden notes there’s been somewhat of a disconnect in the international perception of Australia and what it’s like for Aboriginal Australians. “As a Black woman and a Black person my experience has been very different. I have a deep love and connection for my country and my culture, but I also had a lot of difficulty growing up there. Racism is very real [in Australia] and it’s very out in the open."
Though she was raised in Sydney, which is more international than the rest of the country, Madden says she still felt the sting of discrimination. “I hated going to school, and I think a huge part of that was because of the racism that I experienced growing up there. From that, I sort of developed this social anxiety that I only feel when I’m in Australia, which is odd.” Currently based in Prague, where WOT films, Madden observes that though the Czech Republic is “a very white country, where folks stare and stuff," for some reason it doesn’t hurt her as much as when she's back home
“I think being a First Nations person—when it’s your country, your people’s country and your ancestors have lived on this land sustainably for millennia—and then being considered as alien in your own country is really hurtful and something that a lot of Aboriginal people struggle with,” reasons Madden. She also notes that it’s her connection to and love of her country and culture that pushes her past the negative experiences. Perhaps, it’s also what pushes her to keep speaking her truth.
Season 1 of Wheel Of Time is currently streaming on Prime Video.