Gary Nunn speaks to Matty Mills about his remarkable ascent in the arts and entertainment world, and life in general – and predicts even bigger things for the Kamilaroi wunderkind.
“The thing in my heart I’m most proud of is being an Aboriginal man,” Matty Mills says as we sip iced lattes in The Rocks.
As he raises the cup to drink, I spot the word ‘Kamilaroi’ tattooed inside his wrist. “My tribe,” he says as he notices me eyeing it.
In the background is the summit of one of Sydney’s most famous landmarks, the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Moments ago, Matty was stood on top of it, speaking through a microphone to scores of people who’d ascended with him.
Speaking to big audiences is nothing new to Matty. He’s usually in front of the camera for NITV or SBS, walking the red carpet at the country’s biggest awards ceremonies or presenting them himself.
He has reported from the ARIA Awards and the Dreamtime Awards, and has himself hosted the ACON Honour Awards and Pride in Sport Awards. Today he has swapped the red carpet for the wrought iron steps leading to the peak of the world famous bridge.
It’s something he’s been doing weekly for the last month – part of the Sydney Festival’s special Burrawa Climb – BridgeClimb Sydney’s first Indigenous storytelling climbing tour, led by Indigenous guides.
The attraction has just been made permanent and will continue twice daily on the last Saturday of each month, indefinitely.
At the start of the year, I joined the Burrawa Climb led by Matty, who taught us about the history, culture and language of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation – all delivered with energy and aplomb.
‘Burrawa’ is a local Aboriginal word that means ‘above’ or ‘upwards’. It’s a fitting theme of ascent for Matty who has been, literally, flying high – one day jetting on a private plane between Queensland and Sydney as film director Baz Luhrmann’s executive assistant, the next atop the Harbour Bridge with the Sydney Festival’s outgoing Artistic Director Wesley Enoch.
Today, the 25-year-old is reflecting on a career that has already taken him to some other dizzying heights.
Last year, on the set of Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming Elvis biopic, he had an interesting chat with Tom Hanks, encouraging the actor to view 26 January as ‘Invasion Day’.
“He was keen to understand Australia Day and get more context around it,” Matty says. “He was surprised about the history. He was asking me if it was similar to the sensitivities around Columbus Day in the US.”
It’s a similar chat Matty has just had with attendees of the Burrawa Climb: “I explain why January 26 is such an awful day for Indigenous people. Standing up there, looking down through a Western lens, the city has come a long way. But so much has been lost in Aboriginal culture, leading to a feeling of a lack of belonging for many of us. This is a way of reclaiming some of that loss.”
The steep ascent of the world’s tallest steel arch bridge and the upwards trajectory of the private jet of one of the world’s most famous film directors mirror a very personal climb from a childhood of homelessness, parental addiction, foster care abuse and filial separation for Matty.
His two brothers and sister lived in a housing commission property in Claymore with a single mum battling drug and alcohol addiction.
He was told his Aboriginal dad was dead. “We had a yellow rose we’d water in the garden and take from house to house to remember him,” he says.
There were many houses, including two different women’s refuges, when his mum couldn’t afford the rent.
“We were, in effect, homeless. That’s why we went to the refuges,” he says.
One house burnt down after his brother had been playing with matches.
After periods of neglect, the brothers were taken into foster care – four different homes in total. After the first foster carers were both physically and verbally abusive, the young brothers were split up.
He remembers one foster carer he liked – Robin. “The funny thing is, she saw me on TV doing a promo for the Burrawa Climb,” he says. “She wrote to me and it was the first time we’d spoken in 15 years. She reminded me what I was like in foster care – she said I’d battle her on her ignorance! I think about that kid – he was worldly. Smart. Resilient. Determined. I lost some of that growing up. It was a survival technique.”
It is, perhaps, not lost, but a long time since the up and coming TV host has had to draw upon those strengths.
This is the kid who lied about his age so he could get a job at a take away outlet to support himself and his brothers, claiming he was 15 when he was 13.
It’s the young Aboriginal boy who convinced a top Sydney boarding school they should offer him their first ever Indigenous scholarship.
The teenager who, at 15, wrote to playwright Wesley Enoch saying, “I want to do your Aboriginal piece, but I’m at a school where there are only whitefellas. They can’t help me – I need you.”
The playwright visited Matty in person at the school and has been a mentor to him ever since: “It was him who got me the Burrawa BridgeClimb gig,” he says. “From the top of that bridge, we looked down to the school where he met me in his own time – the only Aboriginal kid at this ‘elite’ school,” he says.
Aboriginal self discovery
It wasn’t until later in life that Matty properly connected with his Indigenous roots. Although he always knew he was half Aboriginal, it wasn’t until his fourth foster care placement that a bombshell was revealed: his dad wasn’t dead. He was very much alive. And he wanted to see his boys.
“That first time we met him felt like slow motion,” Matty says. “There were three young boys at one end of the hallway and this Aboriginal man at the other.”
“Do I call you dad?” Matty asked. “Of course you do,” was the man’s warm response.
It was a warmth that continued – Matty and his brothers; three of ten children from five different wives on his dad’s side – went to live with their dad in Tamworth.
He remembers the same warmth when he came out as gay to his dad: “His response was: ‘I can’t wait to meet the guy who loves my son one day.’ I remember exactly where we were when he said that. It was a beautiful moment.”
It was from here that Matty went on a journey of discovery and understanding of his Aboriginal roots on his dad’s side – he became “hungry” for knowledge of his culture.
It was knowledge his dad himself was denied: “During dad’s school years, Aboriginal kids were sat at the back and told not to speak. They’d get in trouble if they spoke their own language. He was in a community where he wasn’t allowed to connect with culture. He missed out on a lot,” he says.
“They’ve never met an Aboriginal person since me – and they’ll rule the country”
His own journey of Aboriginal knowledge discovery has mirrored others who consult him about Indigenous issues. But it can get frustrating.
A woman he attended boarding school with is one example. She recently messaged Matty saying she wanted to do a collaboration with an Aboriginal artist.
“I haven’t spoken to her in ten years. I thought, are you for real? In that ten years she hasn’t made any connections with the Aboriginal community. I’m the only one she’s ever met in her life! And these are people who go straight from that boarding school, to Sydney University, St Paul’s College, and then rule the country.”
He laughs at how condescending the request was. “She was saying: ‘It’s such a great opportunity for the artist.’ What she needs to understand is: ‘This is an opportunity for you. To learn something.’
“I get one message a month on average, just like this, as the one token Aboriginal person that went to that boarding school full of the ‘one percenters’.”
Being gay and Aboriginal “are the parts that get highlighted”, Matty says, “but there’s more to me than that!”
It does, however, gift him with a unique perspective. White supremacy, he says, has a lot to answer for – even in the gay community. “You’d expect another minority group to understand, but racial complexities are different,” he says. “If you’re not white, you’re ‘other’ or part of a diversity angle.”
What’s the solution to make things better?
“Things can’t happen quickly. When they do it’s not the best approach,” he says. “Through smaller steps and longer conversations, lessons are learnt. If you just change things instantly, sometimes the crucial part of having the conversation – the learning – is missed.”
I ask Matty if he’s referring to the recent move by Prime Minister Scott Morrison to change the national anthem wording from ‘young and free’ to ‘one and free’.
“It’s that, flying the Aboriginal flag, changing the date of Australia Day – all tokenism unless accompanied with decent conversations,” he says.
An example he cites of it working well is when it’s Aboriginal led – such as Kamilaroi woman Cheree Toka leading the push to have the Aboriginal flag on the Harbour Bridge permanently with her Change.org petition.
It’s something Matty has renewed enthusiasm for after the Burrawa Climb: “It’s unfortunate it’s not up to BridgeClimb because I think they’d like to have the flag up there as well. It’s up to Gladys Berejiklian. There’s nothing more stirring of my pride than seeing that Aborignal flag. It’s the simplest way of saying, ‘Always was, always will be.’”
“I love Australia. I’m so happy to be a First Nations person of this land, I feel so connected to it – but just think we could be so much better.”
The Baz Luhrmann gig (“I basically ran his life – from giving him his first meal to giving him a glass of wine before bed”) came about after Screen Australia phoned and explained that Baz wanted an Indigenous person to help him run his affairs.
“It’s important to Baz to have a diverse team and give opportunities to those otherwise denied them,” Matty says.
Over coffee, Luhrmann tried to talk Matty out of the role on the Elvis biopic. “He said, it’s going to be a slog and I don’t want to take you away from all this great stuff happening in your life!”
Despite the discouragements, Matty agreed to the role – intense, 18 hour days of pre-production – before Covid-19 shut down filming.
“I was ready for a break!” Matty says – a silver lining to the disappointment.
Matty has a specific goal and a good reason for it: he wants to be mainstream television network presenter.
“For the Burrawa Climb, we did a live cross with Sunrise and the opening line was a joke made on air about the ochre and the make-up department not coming back. I thought: ‘I wish we’d started off on a better note than this.’ The ochre symbolises unity. I was listening to this reporter talking to me about my culture, but he’s just making fun of it.”
After the strides forward its Channel 9 rival, Today, has made – such as hiring Gamilaroi woman Brooke Boney as a presenter – Matty says it’s time for Channel 7 (which until recently gave Pauline Hanson a regular slot) to catch up.
“I’m putting my reputation on the line to talk to [Sunrise] – the blackfella community don’t like [them], [they’ve] pissed them off a lot, said awful racist things. Here I am going let’s give them a chance and they didn’t come to the table,” he says.
“They need a black reporter who’s going to check them.”
If his previous persuasive tactics – which successfully convinced elite boarding schools and top playwrights – are anything to go by, Matty will, eventually, get his way.
The country – and our media landscape – will be better for it.
Postscript: This interview was conducted in late January 2021, when Matty Mills went by his previous name, Matty Webster.
In a statement released to the Sentinel on 11 February, Matty announced his name change and outlined the reasons for the change, writing: “Since my birth, my last name did not reflect my Aboriginal heritage. Due to a number of circumstances, I carried only my English name.
“Nothing makes me more proud than being Aboriginal, and I am so proud now to be carrying my family’s name.
“You will see Matty Mills, a new name but the same person, just with more pride.”
Gary Nunn is editor-at-large of The Sydney Sentinel. Twitter: @garynunn1.