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At 19, Wentworth actress Leah Purcell fled domestic violence with her baby daughter.

Before Goa-Gunggari-Wakka Wakka Murri woman Leah Purcell was a Logie-nominated actress and a four-time NSW Premier’s Literary Award-winning writer, she was a teenager growing up in Murgon, a rural Queensland town 270 kilometres north-west of Brisbane.

Escaping her abusive relationship at 19, she threw her belongings into her “little yellow Datsun Sunny”, pushed the car down the driveway and left the town she had grown up in. The year prior, Purcell had given birth to her daughter at 18, and her mum had passed away a month later.

“I fell pregnant when I was 17, turned 18 in August, my daughter was born in September and my mother died in October,” she explained to Marlee Silva on Mamamia’s Tiddas 4 Tiddas podcast.

“I had to grow up pretty quick.”

Listen to Leah Purcell’s conversation with Marlee Silva on our Tiddas 4 Tiddas podcast here. She talks about her experience with domestic violence, how she got her start in acting and the mantra that got her through everything:

Having dealt with domestic violence from the age of 14 to 19, Purcell said her mother’s death was the catalyst for her to leave.

“I believe that her death was a blessing. It set me free and made me look at myself,” she said.

“My relationship with my daughter’s father was deteriorating, I couldn’t take anymore.

“If my mum was still alive today, I don’t know if I’d be here. It was my job as the youngest of seven to look after her. I was influenced by her because she looked after her mother for 27 years… That’s just what you do, the Blackfella way.”

 

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Instead, she left and spent the next three months in Merimbula, a coastal town situated above the Victorian border. The actress then made her way to Brisbane, where she moved in with a friend from preschool, and the rest as she says, “is history”.

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“It’s about me closing that door in Perkins St in Murgon. It’s about me jumping in the car even though I was running away because my partner was inside… But I was brave enough to take those steps, and I know it’s not easy when you’re in domestic violence situations and everyone is different,” she said.

“But it’s the psychological damage that takes so much longer [to recover from]. Bruises heal, psychologically it doesn’t and it took me a very long time.”

Looking back at her early 20s, Purcell said shes learned to “not fear fear,” a mantra she applies to her career and personal life.

“I love fear. Bring it on,” she said.

“Once you take that step, I believe you give an energy to the universe and you’ll be given a gift because of your bravery.

“It’s just part of the journey, part of the war, it’s a part of life. It’s not meant to be easy.”

Beginning her new life in Brisbane, Purcell began to build up her acting credentials, going from a self-described “dodgy TV workshop,” to becoming the first video jockey on Galaxy (a now defunct Australian subscription television channel), to scoring a role in the iconic Australian drama, Police Rescue as Constable Tracy Davis in 1997.

“I rung [my agent, Ann Robinson] every second day, poor thing, until finally she turned around and said, ‘it’s yours, now leave me alone,” laughed Purcell.

“I don’t know the rules and I don’t want to know the rules… I believed I could do that job and I was the first Aboriginal person to get a role that wasn’t a specific Indigenous role.

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“At that time you’re just hustling, you need to pay the bills. I just wanted a role.”

Reflecting on her illustrious resume which includes playing inmate Rita Connors on Foxtel’s Wentworth and directing the Channel 7 series The Secret Daughter, which starred Jessica Mauboy, Purcell says her proudest job to date has been playing the role of Grace Nielson in Redfern Now. A role which earned her a Silver Logie nomination for ‘Most Outstanding Actress’ in 2013.

“I said ‘I was representing [my] mob,'” she said.

“When I do Blackfella roles, they’re my hardest roles, because I need to be better than what I normally am. I want to represent truthfully.”

“Every time I step into the shoes of an aunty, and it is a black role, it’s so important to me that I do it to the best of my ability. I think it’s important that we as Blackfellas tell our stories, [and] it’s important that we as Blackfellas have time to create our stories and not have everyone else jump in.”

Watch the season 7 trailer of Wentworth featuring Leah Purcell here:

Video by Foxtel

2019 sees Purcell working on adapting her critically-acclaimed play, The Drover’s Wife, for a feature film, titled The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson. The three-time NSW Premier’s Literary Award winning script is loosely based on the classic Henry Lawson short story of the same name.

Speaking to ABC Arts, she describes her rendition of The Drover’s Wife as an exploration of her own personal and family history, while using Lawson’s story as “a base”.

“You just look at the politics of the time. It’s about the hardships of women, let alone black women. Then I’m looking at race relations.

“I’ve taken word verbatim at some of the diaries of my great-grandfather’s research and it’s not pretty, but it’s the truth.”

And while she has ambitious plans to open at the Cannes International Film Festival, her ‘you can’t fear fear’ mentality remains.

“I believe in what I do. You have to. If you don’t, who else is going to?” she jokes.

“It’s about not fearing fear, and having the belief in yourself. If someone closes one door, you go through the back door, or you go through a window.

“You find a way, you get in there. Shake it up.”

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