On an ordinary rainy day at Melbourne Airport, a fortuitous meeting took place. A young motor mechanic named Tom E. Lewis was on his way home when he was spotted in the crowd by a film director – and from that chance interaction, he was offered the title role in the 1978 film The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Since then, Tom has made a name for himself as an actor and musician, as well as the being face of Katherine (his smile graces the huge billboard welcoming visitors into town). Tom’s latest achievement sees him also earning the title of co-creator for theatre production The Shadow King, which is coming to Brisbane Festival from September 9–13.
“I can’t believe what’s happening right before my eyes!” Tom E. Lewis exclaims in disbelief. Our conversation is taking place via Skype, and this is his first interaction with the technology. “I’m a bushman,” he says, “Growing up where I did, I would never have dreamed this could be possible.”
Born in the Northern Territory at the Roper River Mission, Tom was brought up on the riverbanks and recalls that he always felt a strong connection to the bush. As a teenager, he was sent to work as a motor mechanic, learning the trade from a man who he fondly refers to as a father figure. “He meant a lot to me. He gave me the opportunity to work and keep learning, but also to be able to enjoy my country and be part of something that was bigger than just me.” Little did he know, something big was just around the corner for him.
After a trip to Melbourne to earn his trade certificate, Tom was waiting at the airport for his flight home to Darwin when he was spotted by Australian film director Fred Schepisi and his wife. He was approached by the pair, who asked him to audition for (and eventually play) the title role in the film The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Tom’s world changed from that moment. The film was a great success, earning a number of awards in Australia, as well as being one of the first Australian films to be nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
For Tom, that chance meeting was just one of many incredible opportunities he has encountered. “I’ve been very fortunate,” he says. “I get to perform music, and in theatre and films, and have learnt lessons from each experience I’ve had. I didn’t go to school for drama, I was forced to learn on my own through the school of hard knocks. And I have never given up learning. Language and culture are like flowers. You maintain them like a garden. Flowers shine when you water them, and, if you embrace culture, it too will shine.”
Tom is constantly taken aback by the similarities between the indigenous culture that was ingrained in him from a young age, and what he has learnt in the “white fella’s” world. And his most recent project, The Shadow King, is a great example of that. He co-created the production with director Michael Kantor, reworking Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear as a tumultuous tale of two indigenous families, set in Australia’s north. When asked if it was difficult to transform a 17th-century Shakespearean classic to a modern indigenous production, Tom smiles. “Shakespeare was very clever, wasn’t he? He wrote about my world as much as his own.” His initial interaction with Shakespeare was when he read Othello for the first time. “I realised there was a commonality. All our stories are the same – it doesn’t matter how old it is. There is spirituality in these stories – our beliefs are in there, and inside of us. It’s a blessing that someone wrote these treasures.”
When Michael Kantor approached Tom for the role of Lear, he presented him with a crown. Tom admits he was apprehensive at first. “I thought, ‘How do I wear that crown?’ Then I realised, you have to understand the whole story. It has to be inside you before the crown goes on. It was a beautiful learning experience for me. King Lear is about land and daughters, and it doesn’t matter what culture you are – it makes sense. We have translated the story, yes, but we have treated it with great respect.”
The play has been greeted with an incredible reception, and Tom has been overwhelmed by the response it has received so far. “I was scared at first,” he confides. “But we received a standing ovation for our first performance. And the theatre was full for three weeks on all three levels. My people were there, and they stood for us. They loved it! I’m working with an amazing team, and we all feel happy that we have done the right thing by the story.”
Throughout his life, and his time working on The Shadow King, Tom has been grateful for the knowledge he has gained from his interactions with those around him. “We are all on a journey,” he smiles. “It’s always nice to meet strangers, and to learn from them. I am lighter and richer in knowledge because of that.”