• Uncle Jack Charles opens up about his life away from the cameras. (AAP) (Lisa Tomasetti/ABC)Source: Lisa Tomasetti/ABC
Respected Elder and actor Uncle Jack Charles speaks candidly with Karla Grant about his history of homelessness and how he overcame addiction.
Brooke Fryer

Living Black
15 Aug 2018 - 3:00 PM  UPDATED 16 Aug 2018 - 11:44 AM

Life in the spotlight is nothing new for respected Elder and legendary stage and screen actor Uncle Jack Charles.

One of the Stolen Generations, Uncle Jack battled drug addiction and homelessness and spent periods in jail, with his life experiences flowing into his art.

“The system has acknowledged my journey and given me so much support. And you know, Green Room Award, first blackfella to win, that’s a big deal," Uncle Jack tells Living Black.

"This mob down here at the East End theatres, they’ve acknowledged me as their golden child for Jack Charles V the Crown because that show and Bastardy (a documentary) is the combination of one man’s journey out of infamy to fame.”

Uncle Jack was a key figure in Indigenous theatre in the 1970s, and his recent screen roles include Cleverman and Mystery Road (the film).

And earlier this year, he joined a historic gathering of Aboriginal Elders on the steps of Victoria's parliament calling for clan-based treaties.

"From my own perspective we have certain demands that we will place on the state of Victoria," Uncle Jack declared.

Agitating and advocating for his people is a role he can bring a lifetime of experience to.

From Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri country in Victoria, Uncle Jack was stolen from his mother and grew up in Box Hill Boys Home. It was a brutal lesson in Australia's assimilation policy.

“It worked, it worked," he says.

"Because, for the whole 12 years of my tenure there at Box Hill Boys Home, I had no real interest in my Aboriginality or anything like this. Nothing was taught to me other than Captain Cook discovered Australia.”

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His early adult life was marred with stints in jail, alcohol abuse and - after giving up drinking - heroin use.

“I jumped out of the frying pan [and] into the fire by feeling that I needed something to address my seeming miseries. So I went straight into heroin,” he says.

He describes the vicious cycle of drug use and homelessness.

"I liked to sleep on the couches with the dealers close at hand,” says Uncle Jack.  

“So I was a good earner you might say, so much of the money that I spent (on drugs) supported these people that I crashed at their places.”

He also often slept on the streets.

Uncle Jack decided to go through rehabilitation after seeing scenes from the documentary which followed his life for seven years, Bastardy. He says what he saw of himself embarrassed him and encouraged him to become sober.

The issue of homelessness is still close to his heart.

“Places that are already lying empty could be accessed before the developers get into it,” says Uncle Jack.  

“I’ve noticed since the abandonment of our community centres here in Victoria, and I'd hazard a guess right across the nation, that there’s been a sharp rise in the number of young ones and older ones into our prisons and youth detention.”

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Uncle Jack regularly visits prisons, hoping to be a mentor to those inside.

“I’d love to be in a position where I can go counsel people. One set of counselling words doesn’t work for all. I would have to work on them individually and that’s the true essence of Indigenous counselling.”

“I know my place, and that’s out the front (of the prisons) advocating,” says Uncle Jack.

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