You can learn a lot about a person from their favourite television show. Madeleine Madden’s is RuPaul’s Drag Race—a ridiculous, beautiful, important, and fucking hilarious mess of a show. “A lot of people on that show have experienced extreme trauma and are turning that into art, and turning themselves into art,” Madden says. “That’s something that I love to see, and hope to do as well.”
Whether she knows it or not, Madden has been doing this for years. The healing power of storytelling is the invisible driving force behind her acting and her activism. At the typically awkward age of 13, when the biggest challenge facing most kids is figuring out which flavour of Impulse body spray represents their personality best, Madden asked the entire Nation to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Her message was broadcast on free to air television by GenerationOne as part of a campaign to achieve parity for Indigenous Australians.
“At such a young age I became this politicised kid,” she explains. “I’ve always been taught that if you have a platform you should generate positivity with that platform… especially coming from a group that’s a minority and, I feel like, can be demonised or misheard. I think it’s really important for me to be a representation of Indigenous people and also women of colour.”
These were the lessons whispered into Madden’s ear while she bobbed up and down on her grandfather’s knee at the age of four. She describes her entire family as “inspiring, vocal and different” but says it was her grandfather, Aboriginal rights activist Charles Perkins, who influenced her most growing up. “I have very distinct memories of sitting on his lap while he’d be on the phone with someone in Canberra—abusing them or swearing at them, just going off on them, then he’d hang up and then be that family man again,” she recalls. “Everyone in my family is really passionate in their own field, and I think there is this kind of legacy, which I feel like I need to uphold.”
Taking on issues of inequality and Indigenous representation is kind of like taking over the family business for Madden. The company doesn’t trade in goods or services, it trades in conversations—the rewarding and challenging chats that we need to have about our country’s past, present and future. “People want to work together,” Madden explains. “So just even having those conversations can bring up an ugly side, but [they’re] what we need in order for things to change.”
Madden definitely has the gift of the gab. Ten minutes after I’d met her, I was telling her my whole life story as if she were a long lost friend. She probably didn’t really want to hear about the logistics of my upcoming move or how many hours I’d spent scrubbing my bathroom that day, but she listened intently anyway. It’s because she has the rare ability to build genuine connections with complete strangers—and this is what makes her such a great actor. For her, acting is all about highlighting the similarities between people, rather than their differences, which something that a show like Redfern Now did so well.
“I knew that it was going to be a show that would really make a difference in the Indigenous community, but also in Australia, because it kind of showed that we’re all very similar. In a way, we all have the same issues,” she explains. “I think it was just a really honest portrayal of Aboriginal people and I wanted to be a part of a landmark series like that.”
It makes total sense when Madden adds that her favourite acting job was Australia’s first Indigenous teen drama Ready For This. This show allowed Madden to bond with her audience more than any other she’s worked on. “I know how much it meant to young Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people,” she says. “I would have little girls of all different backgrounds coming up to me and that’s because I feel like they’re looking at someone who looks like them, or who is discriminated against or whatever.”
When I meet Madden, she’s preparing to fly to LA for the premiere of Picnic at Hanging Rock. Madden plays the bookish Marion Quade in the television adaptation of the iconic Australian film. She tells me she was shocked when she got an audition request. “I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ I was really interested to see what was going to happen with this character and where I could take her, because she’s not a character that is talked about or celebrated in history, even though I do believe she is a woman before her time.”
The show digs down into the mystery of the disappeared girls. A story that some conspiracy theorists still swear is true to this day. Where Peter Weir kept the viewer at a distance —capturing the complexity of the ‘mysterious’ female experience from a definitively male perspective—the series takes you inside the lives and minds of complex women; it explores what Madden aptly describes as the “storm that is adolescence”.
“[It’s about] exploring your identity, exploring your sexuality in a time where you were so…oppressed,” she explains. “I think it’s a really important time as well to have a show like Picnic. We’re really joining that genre of strong female protagonist stories like The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Now that Madden’s got this mainstream role under her belt, the work is rolling in hot and fast. “I have four shows coming up this year. So it’s been a pretty mental time,” she tells me. When we speak, she’s in the middle of shooting Tidelands, Netflix Australia’s first original production.
“It’s kind of more of a fantasy thing. We’re mermaids but we don’t have tails,” she explains. “So it’s kind of like True Blood, but mermaids,” she adds with a laugh (although I’m very serious when I tell her that it sounds incredible). Another of Madden’s projects—ABC drama Mystery Road—recently premiered, and on top of all that, she just scored a role in the film adaptation of Peter Goldsworthy novel Maestro alongside Fear the Walking Dead’s Frank Dillane.
“I’ve kind of always been a bit of a performer,” she tells me. “At the age of eight I was dancing on top of a phone box at Mardi Gras. So it’s always been there… Creative people are fun. It’s nice not to take yourself so seriously, you know?”
Fun might be what makes her want to perform, but when I ask what drives her to keep creating, Madden says it comes back to community. “I just have that kind of drive to just represent and stand up for the community. I guess that’s really important to me. That’s what really drives me,” she says. “If I know that I’m doing something that will help people and hopefully change lives, or perceptions, that’s what gets me going.” To that, I’m sure RuPaul would say: shantay, you stay.