Meet the young Echuca actor who has landed leading role in Nine Network mega series television Gallipoli which premiered on Monday night...
IT'S 5.30am and Dion Williams is running.
The 20-year-old, a promising junior footballer who discovered acting almost by accident but is now poised for a national profile, strides through the deserted streets of Echuca.
Beside him, as they've often been, literally and always figuratively in his life, are his father, Kevin, and older brother, Brayden.
Most young actors with Dion's CV – discovered for Chris Lilley's comedy series Angry Boys at age 15, a recurring part on the ABC drama Time of Our Lives, and now a crucial supporting role in the flagship Channel Nine historic drama Gallipoli – would have relocated without pause to Melbourne or Sydney by now, but the embrace of family and community is strong for a young man raised to be aware of his Aboriginal heritage and his potential to be whoever he wanted.
"What I say to him is, 'You're just a young kid from Echuca in country Victoria, so for other Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal kids you're a great example to them'," Kevin Williams tells me.
"He's grown up a nice young man who is caring and respectful. Everybody in Echuca sees him as theirs. They're proud when he goes away to do something."
Sitting in a Docklands restaurant for lunch during a recent trip to Melbourne to promote Gallipoli, Williams talks quietly about his own screen work – "he loves acting, but he doesn't like talking about himself," his dad notes – enthuses about his various co-stars, and smiles broadly when the topic is family and friends.
Echuca has a population of about 13,000 people, and Williams' extended family is huge; Kevin Williams has 200 first cousins scattered throughout Victoria and New South Wales, most of whom have at least three or four children.
"In Echuca you can't go down the street without saying hello to 50 people," says Dion Williams. "And you don't do anything wrong without everyone knowing."
On screen he has the quiet charisma the camera is drawn to, a sense of reserve that can reveal without warning unexpected emotions.
Off screen he stands 185 centimetres tall, but is lithe – he has exceptional speed for his height, as various AFL recruiters wistfully noted.
Williams has the build of someone who works out several times daily and is also working though the certification process to be a professional trainer.
Several times over lunch, without breaking eye contact, he would twist his taut frame from side to side, satisfying muscles confused by a still body.
In Gallipoli he's thinner, with the lean physique of a stockman now serving as part of the Australian Light Horse in the disastrous 1915 invasion of Turkey during World War I.
Williams scrupulously thinned down to play "Two Bob" King, a character whose light complexion means that his comrades in the trenches initially don't realise they're serving alongside an Aboriginal.
"That was the point. That appeared in the diaries of a number of people – they didn't realise they were fighting side by side with Aboriginal stockmen. And that's how we chose to tell that story," says John Edwards, one of Gallipoli's producers. "We felt that you can't tell a national myth and exclude the Aboriginal component of that story."
"He wasn't fighting for king and country, he was fighting for family and mob, which is what us younger boys would do now," says Williams, who had a great-uncle who was one of the Rats of Tobruk during World War II.
"I was so happy to get this role because I wasn't doing it just for myself, it was also for my family and friends and people to show that blackfellas fought for this country as well."
According to Gary Oakley, President of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Veterans and Servicemen Association, the contribution of Indigenous soldiers to Australia's bloody World War I campaigns is a "secret history".
He has the names of at least 50 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who served in the trenches of Gallipoli, and like all the Indigenous recruits in World War I they were serving despite an official government policy to reject anyone who didn't have suitably European parentage.
"I always tell people that the first equal opportunity employer in this country was the Australian Defence Force, because during the First World War they went against that ruling. The recruiters just saw another man who wanted to be a soldier," says Oakley.
"Some blokes would get knocked back from joining up in one place so they would go somewhere else and try again and again."
Gallipoli depicts the events that began with the landings on April 25, 1915, a date that would come to define Australia's national identity and inspire Anzac Day, with scrupulous care and artful storytelling.
It is a sizable production, but one that is not in thrall to jingoism or digger cliches.
Like most of the recruits, the central character of Thomas "Tolly" Johnson, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, looks like an overgrown boy who is thrown into the horrors of war.
Soldiers on both sides die horrible deaths, and the cost on those who survive each battle is obvious.
That Williams found himself part of the vast cast stems from a casual decision his father took five years ago, when, as the chairman of the Njernda Aboriginal Corporation he received an e-mail from the ABC, looking to audition Indigenous boys aged 14 to 19 for a new series from Summer Heights High creator and comic actor Chris Lilley.
Mindful of exposing Dion to new experiences, and aware that his son had always loved being the centre of attention, Williams took 15-year-old Dion and a cousin to Melbourne for the day to try out.
All he heard from each audition was laughter, and the next day the casting agent called to tell him Lilley wanted to offer Dion a role in what would become 2011's Angry Boys.
Playing Marlon, a boisterous inmate of a juvenile justice centre who answers to Lilley's eccentric prison guard "Gran", came easily to Williams. Lilley encouraged his cast to be themselves and improvise, and Williams was not without knowledge in the business, as he puts it, of "being cheeky".
"When my grandmother saw the show she rang my mother and said to her, 'Dion's not really like that, is he?'" he recalls. "She thought I was like Marlon and she was going to come down and whack me."
Time of Our Lives in 2013 and 2014 was a different matter. His character, Lachie, was someone Williams could easily identify with, a champion young indigenous footballer who comes to Melbourne to play AFL professionally but loses his way under an agent, William McInnes' Matt, who sees a client with commission and not a person. Lachie's arc ends in a police cell, with Claudia Karvan's Caroline as his lawyer, and in those scenes Kevin Williams realised, like others watching, that his son "had this presence without saying anything".
After that experience, Williams, who played junior representative football and toured South Africa with the Flying Boomerangs, a squad of talented young Indigenous players, and avoided drama class at high school, committed himself to acting. But even now, with Gallipoli about to air, he doesn't describe himself as an actor, and although he works opposite gifted actors – as a boy, Smit-McPhee was astounding in films such as The Road – and contributes to their scenes together, Williams doesn't think of himself as talented.
"He's a good kid, but he's very shy. What he loved with Gallipoli was being in the mix, being with all the other guys," says Edwards, whose numerous credits include Offspring and Howzat! Kerry Packer's War. "With his career he could just land on the right thing and take off screaming, but you can't predict the sort of thing that will launch somebody. Some guys take off, but other fall through the cracks or nearly get there 20 times."
Williams' approach to acting is shaped by a saying his father picked up from one of his own football coaches during his youth: KISS, or keep it simple stupid. "If you love what you're doing, keep it simple," he says.
It's difficult to overstate Kevin Williams' influence on his son (or any of his other three children, for that matter), which begins with the example of his own life. The 55-year-old was born at Narrandera in NSW, living in a tent on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River at a mission. When his family came to Melbourne in the 1960s they lived in a condemned house on Hoddle Street, four to a bedroom without electricity, before relocating to Reservoir.
Kevin Williams played junior football alongside the likes of Peter Daicos, and like the Macedonian Marvel ended up on Collingwood's playing list in the late 1970s. But after a year or two in the reserves he grew serious about painting, using skills passed down by his father and grandfather who were noted boomerang makers. His art has been toured internationally and been hung in Victoria's Parliament House.
Dion Williams was born in Townsville and the family relocated to Echuca in 2004, where his father sells his art exclusively through a gallery he co-owns while working with the local community.
His son, who has a Norwegian ancestor on his mother's side, has Waradjuri tattooed on his right wrist and Wakaman on the left, to denote his father and mother's respective tribes.
"My dad made sure I knew who I was," says Williams who has learnt about the Stolen Generation through the experiences of older relatives.
"I've got so many more opportunities than his generation had. Whenever I need a talking to, or a swift kick in the arse, Dad lets me know how well I've got it. He'll say to me, 'Who do you know that's done what you've done?' And the answer is no one."
Two years ago the Njernda Aboriginal Corporation opened a gym in Echuca, a "colourblind set-up" as Kevin Williams puts it, but one that aims to help the local Indigenous community by focusing the positively energy of youth in one of many rural regions in Victoria where methamphetamine, is a "real big problem". At the same time trainers work with community elders, helping improve their fitness as a pre-emptive medical initiative.
"I tell Dion, 'They might not have the opportunity you have, but because you do and you see them in the street and you take the time to talk to our cousins and your elders, they feel part of it'," his father says. "They're part of your success, and because you're that way that's why community members respect you."
The Indigenous soldiers who joined up 100 years ago and served during World War I, "beat the system by joining the military and proving themselves as honourable soldiers", says Oakley, but their stories were subsequently lost. One of Gallipoli's achievements is to make a contribution towards rectifying that, addressing the past while allowing Dion Williams to claim his future.
Lunch finished, he stands up and straightens his baseball cap, which is embossed with a single golden P. "It's for the [Pittsburgh] Pirates," smiles Williams."but if people ask me I tell them the P stands for pride."
Gallipoli premiered on the Nine Network on Monday night.
- Sydney Morning Herald