The drama High Ground starring Jacob Junior Nayinggul and Simon Baker is out May 14 on streaming and video on demand. The film focuses on a massacre that occurred to the Aboriginal Australians and the violence that it brought afterward. Baker plays an ex-sniper named Travis, who returns to the area years later to track down a wanted criminal with help from Gutjuk (played by Nayinggul). However, Travis’ past and his role in the tragedy are revealed.
Check out our Simon Baker interview below to see the actor’s thoughts on working with talented indigenous actors, the importance of learning empathy, and an unforgettable filming experience.
Tyler Treese: Your character is really intriguing to me because he shows real remorse for what he’s done, and you see him battle with that guilt throughout, but there was still complicity to his actions, and he’s a very complex character. Can you discuss how you view him? Because he’s certainly not like a prototypical hero as he’s got a lot of blood on his hands.
Simon Baker: During the first World War, soldiers that came back, and he was obviously a sniper in the first World War, they came back to Australia. They were all suffering PTSD long before it was diagnosed. They were stationed out as basically kind of mounted police in these incredibly remote, hard parts of Australia. So they’re struggling with their own demons. First of all, I think he’s pretty much damaged goods, and I think that after the massacre incident and his involvement in that, I think he’s pretty much a guy that’s trying to disappear and escape from the world, from his past, and from it himself.
He kind of gets embroiled back into this. I have always thought it could have been very easy to play him as a more heroic character, but I think that was a trap because I liked the idea of him being someone that’s kind of grappling with a role in things in history on the biggest scale, but also grappling with that and also trying to find some sort of way out of the kind of the guilt and the torment that he has subjected himself to through his actions. I would say he’s probably kind of morally ambiguous, really. I think his intentions are probably reasonably good. He has sort of a sense of empathy. There’s that great scene where Jack Thompson says to him, “What made you think you could change who you are?” That’s kind of, to me, an interesting notion and particularly reflective at the time that we’re in now.
This film is set during such an interesting period. Was this a time period you were already fairly knowledgeable about, or did you have to do a lot of research before this role?
What’s interesting is that, not unlike in America, the Australian history that we were taught in school started pretty much from captain [James] Cook arriving on our shores from colonization onward. It didn’t go much past, deeper than that. One thing this nation holds in it is this incredibly rich culture indigenous culture that has existed for, to this point, we’ve dated to 60,000 years. That’s 60,000 years. You can really struggle trying to get your head around how long that is. You know, think about the Greeks, were what? 3000 years ago, 4,000 years ago? 60,000 years this culture has existed, and it’s an oral history. Nothing’s written. It’s through stories and through songs, and through artwork.
They existed peacefully until 230 odd years ago. The English arrived, and things changed. So I didn’t have a great deal of knowledge about it, but, and this might sound coming from a white man like me a bit sort of naive and ridiculous, but as soon as you get up onto that country onto that land, and you’re invited into that culture, that area… To stand with Jacob Junior and with Witiyana Marika (Jacob Junior plays Gutjuk and Witiyana plays his grandfather), to stand with these people, these traditional, first nations custodians of that country, you feel the knowledge. The knowledge gets passed on through the country, through the ground that you stand on and the trees and the history that exists in the stones around you. You can’t help but feel that energy. I mean, that’s sort of very overwhelming. When you’re up there, you feel like an absolute outsider in that world, and you feel so insignificant comparative to the power of that environment. That played a big part of it for me in the process of prepping for this camp.
You know, there are so many emotional scenes, and as a viewer, it’s so hard to watch the massacre scene. Can you just discuss what it was to do those reenactments and what the emotion was on set because it was quite a lot to take in?
I think for a lot of the local indigenous actors, that part talking those things, there was like a catharsis for them in a way sort of real processing of understanding because a lot of their, um, their ancestors had been involved in massacres as you know, lost a lot of family members. Then heard stories I think passed on about horrible atrocities. So there was a sort of beautiful gentleness around the construction of those scenes and the way they were executed.
A lot of those days were incredibly hot. We had a lot of ceremonies coming into locations, and the site of that particular massacre in the film, we had a big ceremony welcoming us into the area. Then we had a long and beautiful song that sung us out of that area, a traditional song that sung us out and left the pain and the sadness there as we moved forward. So it was very different than any other film that I’ve ever worked on because of the power of the culture that was dealt with. It was very, very alive. And, I think, beautiful to see represented on the screen, to see indigenous language. I mean, there’s a lot of different indigenous dialects in Australia. A lot of them have disappeared, but the two different dialects that mainly we used in the film, the indigenous dialects, it’s still in existence.
Jacob Junior Nayinggul Does such an incredible job in the film. There’s a bond that sort of develops between your two characters. Did that translate off-screen?
He is a traditional owner. He’s within the family that are the traditional owners of that particular country that we shot on. So in a sense, he’s kind of in line to be the boss of that area. Who you can sort of say, in our sort of white-collar terms, he’s like a prince at the moment. Two days before he started off on that set, he was a ranger like looking after that land. That’s what he did. So, he’s been through so much ceremony. He’s very respected in his community. He has a lot of knowledge and lore in him.
So he just carried it. This is a culture that we have to understand. It’s an oral history. So it’s all through stories, their culture is story, and who the stories are passed on to, and how they’re told and who they’re not told to and who they are told to. It’s all very, very important. He had a story that just lived and existed in his face. You put the camera on him, and you can see history and story without him doing anything. So, you know, here I am, flapping around as an actor, trying to play a part when he is it. The only advice I ever gave him, and it was very brief and very early on, was that “You know exactly what to do in your heart, and you don’t have to do anything except that.” He was able to do that because he is that.
If anything, it was about me, teaming up with the truth and history in him and going along for that ride. We are close. We’re close friends now. I spoke to him two days ago. He still lives in that country. He’s a beautiful, beautiful human being. He was incredibly generous and very kind to me, and I’ve worked with a lot of great actors, but it was really fantastic to work, to stand opposite the real thing, you know, the absolute real thing. I’m really proud of his performance. I’m really proud of the courage that he had to just stand up and do that and to represent his people and his voice in the movie.
One of the saddest things about the film, how it shows that there’s a real cycle to violence. The massacre occurs, then there are all these following deaths that spin out of it. Everybody feels justified in their actions. There’s no tacked-on happy ending here. Can you speak to what it means to be involved with a film that really doesn’t pull any punches? It speaks truth to the matter, and I think that’s really important.
Yeah. I think it’s very difficult to make a film that fits across both poles all the way through the middle as well. So there’s the gray area, the gray area, the ambiguous areas are represented. I think it’s probably a lot easier to make a film that sits on the extremes. I think what this film does very well is it covers a lot of that gray area. I think my character’s death, in a way, was sort of fated from the very beginning. I think it’s kind of like part of what that cycle is. I’m immensely proud of the movie. It was not an easy film to make physically. It was a very beautiful experience emotionally for my heart to be there in that place. It was incredibly uncomfortable, mostly at times, but one thing I’ve learned is it’s nice to sit in uncomfortable places. It’s actually not a bad thing at all. It’s very good for you. It’s very good for growth, and it’s very good for tolerance to understand and to learn how to be tolerant.
Yeah, that’s amazing. Taking these sort of roles, do you feel for somebody of your stature that it’s important that you spotlight some serious issues? Taking on one like this isn’t going to break box office records, but it’s more important than that, isn’t it?
I think there’s still, um, there’s still room in entertainment, in cinema, and I think in television, there’s still room to challenge ourselves as human beings and to grow and develop. It doesn’t always have to be a straight-up history lesson. It can be entertaining, can be compelling, and I’m not afraid to do things that are going to be a bit more challenging. I don’t know about my stature so much. I’m just a working actor. At the moment in my career, I’m afforded the choice to be able to choose things that I care more about. But this is just this moment, lives are long, and we go through various different sorts of stages and phases.