“I wouldn’t call myself racist as much as I would very presumptuous and judgmental; that’s what I was. There’s an implicit hatred attached to the word racist, and I didn’t hate, but I didn’t trust,” actress Nicki Wendt tells me when we discuss the controversial views she shared during the opening moments of SBS’s latest season of First Contact.
Travelling to some of the most remote parts of the country, First Contact takes six Australian personalities into the heart of aboriginal Australia for 28 days in a bid to challenge their views. And when it came to Wendt’s original opinions, well, they were less than sympathetic.
“My head goes straight to the cliche,” Wendt says in the opening moments of episode one. “The guy in the flannel shirt and the beanie and the thongs going straight down to the bottle shop.”
It’s a sunny Tuesday morning six months later and, hours before the first of three episodes is set to air, Wendt is quick to admit she’s “really nervous” about what the public response to those opening comments will be.
The Ex-PM star says the truth of those first comments was that she actually “never bothered to form an opinion".
“I’d never been interested enough to form an opinion, I just kind of took what had been indoctrinated into lots of white kids growing up in WA, which was steer clear.”
But it was impossible to "steer clear" in First Contact and that is what changed everything for Wendt.
“I met Elaine at the sobering up shelter and she wasn't even there to be a part of the show, she was just working there and started telling me her story and I have thought about her every single day since I met her," Wendt says.
“She had lost her daughter, Olivia, to suicide nearly two and a half months before. Her nephew found Olivia and within two days he did it, and then his dad was found two weeks later. He just didn’t wake up in the morning, and it sounds like he died of a broken heart,” she continues.
“Elaine lost three people in not quite four weeks and she still showed up to work with people every night and was so beautiful with all the people who came in and all she did was care for other people."
“Her life had been one of absolute hardship but she hadn’t chosen to see it that way. She had basically lived this unbelievably noble life where her job was to take care of people. And to me, it was not about her aboriginality; it was just about meeting someone who to me was a hero.”
Two weeks on from their meeting, Wendt was struck with an overwhelming sense of sadness when visiting a primary school in the remote town of Elliott in the Northern Territory.
"There were all of these kids kicking footies and playing hopscotch and doing what kids do before school and it was so happy. And I just lost it. I lost it because for a split second I thought, there are 60 gorgeous, happy, smiling kids here. How many of them will be left in 10 years if this suicide rate continues at this level?"
Fighting back tears, Wendt admitted, "I still can’t even talk about it."
Having been back in her hometown of Melbourne for a number of months since filming, Wendt says she still feels as strongly about the experience now as she did then in that moment.
"A change happened within myself… and it’s hard to explain just the level of change I experienced in my everyday life since I got back," she admits. "The whole thing was life changing, and I know people use that term lightly, but this really did change my life as a person."
Wendt's one regret, she says, is taking so long to expose herself to our country's indigenous culture and heritage.
"I’m so cross at myself for wasting so much time not knowing about it. I would have had a much richer life if I had known about aboriginal culture 30 years ago," she admits before adding finally, "What was I thinking?"
First Contact premieres on SBS at 8.30pm Tuesday 29 November.