Growing up in Australia with a surname like his, Anthony LaPaglia copped his fair share of racial scorn. Today he’s a serious, engaged actor who speaks intelligently about what’s happening in global politics. On the set of Sunshine, where he’s playing retired basketball player-turned-sports shop owner Eddie Grattan, he talks about race relations in Australia and how the media enshrines division.
G’day, Anthony. What brings you to Sunshine?
The producer sent me the script and, in my head, I was ready to say no. I’d been meaning to have knee surgery for maybe a year, and I kept getting jobs. The last eight months, I kept putting it off. On the last job, it just became not bearable anymore, so as soon as I got back, I went in and had knee surgery.
I was ready to say no because I needed to have the recovery time on the knee and it didn’t really match up. But I read it and I just felt like it was a piece of material that you don’t get much these days – it had substance. It’s about something that’s going on, not just in Australia but in the world – this whole idea about racism, about our perception of other cultures... Every country’s got their problems with it and now we’re going through, globally, the greatest immigration influx since World War II.
It’s a huge political issue in Australia.
You know, I always feel like Australia is, in many ways, more progressive than a lot of other countries, or I’d like to think they were. When it comes to immigration and the assimilation of other nationalities, I’ve found it to be somewhat disappointing now. The attitude of the Australian public is in how little they really know before they make an assumption about a group of people, no matter what their religious background is.
The truth of the matter is that Australia was built on immigration. My parents certainly were part of that. I don’t see what’s different other than the skin colour and religion. You know, you get these stories about Sudanese gangs...
The Apex Gang.
Right.The press has a right to report stuff, but they also have a responsibility to present it in some kind of perspective. I didn’t see the [A Current Affair] piece, but I get the feeling it was really negative, and it kind of brands everybody as like, “Now, these Sudanese gangs, we must beware. They’re going to come and machete you", or whatever the hell it is.
If you were to break down per capita crime and gangs, it’d be more than just the Sudanese. You’d find white Australia right in there, in terms of violence and crime et cetera. I’m not sure the numbers are significantly spiked. It targets a group of people and tends to push the perception of who they are.
It’s not a new thing for Australia. Jump back 50 years and Sunshine could be about Italians and soccer instead of Sudanese and basketball.
Yeah, I would tend to agree with that on some level. I mean, I lived through that, where definitely anybody from the Mediterranean area was bottom of the rung. This feels a bit more virulent than that, though. Maybe because I went through it, I felt like it was something you could kind of deal with and kind of fight your way through.
This one seems a bit more impenetrable. With us, it was more dismissive, that we were just second class. With this, there’s a fear-based thing going on when people are... I don’t think people were afraid of Italians and Greeks. I think they were just dismissive of them.
How has making Sunshine shaped your impressions of the situation here?
It’s been a great experience. The other big thing is I’ve gotten to know the Sudanese community out here, because they’ve been definitely involved in the background, in scenes, and they’ve been delightful. Despite whatever is going on out there, I think people should be more open-minded and not concentrate on what I’d think is a small element. If you look at any one of the different subcultures across Australia, they all have a bad element.
Greeks, Italians, Lebanese, Chinese... everybody has an element that’s not right. Going right back to the convicts, to descendants of convicts. We all have an element that isn’t great, and to focus on that and portray a whole community that way, it’s tempting because it’s easy. But I think, as in my experience, encourage people to be more open-minded. They’re not concentrating on only the bad. There’s a lot of good.
I don’t know. I can’t believe it’s 2017 and I have to say this.
Things seem to have flipped in the past few years.
Sometimes what I say to people – and I don’t mean it in a disrespectful way at all – is that Australia is an island. It’s a big island, but occasionally it has an island mentality, which is understandable, but at the same time, I grew up in an environment where we were not the most popular people in the country. I feel like, especially people who are on the receiving end of that, should be far more understanding and accommodating. Our history in immigration should dictate, rather than some kind of jingoistic knee-jerk reaction to what’s going on.
Sunshine will air over two big weeks, premiering Wednesday 18 and Thursday 19 October at 8.30pm on SBS. You can watch an encore screening on SBS VICELAND at 9.30pm or stream it online on SBS On Demand.