Hat, boots, holster. Furrowed brow and taciturn demeanor. The grizzled, bearded detective Jay Swan may hail from Down Under and travel in an S.U.V. instead of a horse, but he is an immediately recognizable archetype — straight out of a Hollywood western.
Yet there is an important difference between him and the law-enforcing gunslingers of yore: Jay, like the man who portrays him, Aaron Pedersen, is an Aboriginal Australian — still a rarity in leading roles in a country wrestling with its history of violence against Indigenous populations.
For Pedersen, this is the crux of the character, making the successful Jay Swan franchise — which includes the award-winning TV show “Mystery Road” — about a lot more than cuffing bad guys and riding off into the sunset.
“They are without a doubt individual conversations that I’m having with the people in Australia,” Pedersen, 49, said by Zoom about the series and two movies in the “Mystery Road” universe. “We, Indigenous Australians, see the world very differently. This is our version of how we see it, how it resonates within us and how it affects us on a personal level and a professional level.”
Season 2 of “Mystery Road,” which makes its U.S. debut Monday on Acorn TV, begins as a headless body is found among the mangroves. Dispatched to investigate, Jay quickly uncovers, as usual, a thorny mess. Adding to the complications, an archaeologist (Sofia Helin, from the Danish-Swedish version of “The Bridge”) digs up as much strife as she does ancient artifacts. And as usual again, Jay is called on to solve a metastasizing case while walking a precarious tightrope between cultures.
“Jay is mistrusted by the white community,” one of the show’s producers, Greer Simpkin, said in a separate Zoom interview. “He has access to the Aboriginal community, but they don’t trust him because he represents white justice.”
For an Indigenous man, playing a cop comes freighted with conflicting pressures given Australia’s brutal colonial legacy, which continues to shape race relations there. (The country saw its own Black Lives Matter protests this summer.) But the role isn’t new to Pedersen, who did play detectives on several seasons of the popular Australian series “Water Rats” (from 1999 to 2001) and on “City Homicide” (2007-11).
Those were mainstream characters in mainstream shows — “City Homicide,” which is available on Hulu, should please “Law & Order” fans. But Jay, of “Mystery Road,” is something else altogether.
“With every Indigenous character there’s an underlying politic that just goes hand in hand with who they are,” said Wayne Blair, who acted in Season 1, co-directed Season 2 and, like Pedersen, is Indigenous. “And that creates another layer of disorder, another layer of someone trying to solve things, of trying to do what’s fair in the world.”
It’s a responsibility Pedersen takes to heart. “Aaron has accepted and embraced his role as a leader and role model for Indigenous people, particularly young people,” the Australian actress Judy Davis, who starred in Season 1, wrote in an email. “It was not simply an acting gig for him, but a means to an end — trying to give courage and belief to the young Aboriginal kids who flocked around him constantly.
“He was like a rock star — which in a sense he is.”
Pedersen’s physical density and natural poise bring to mind the screen presence of a Robert Mitchum or late-period Gary Cooper — his “Mystery Road” character looks strong as an ox and immovable as chiseled granite. “He’s like one of the old matinee idols, he could easily be a romantic lead,” Simpkin said. “He’s so … can I say ‘sexy’?”
But the detective also suggests carefully hidden vulnerability and kindness, qualities that come through most when he deals with younger, conflicted Aboriginal characters for whom he acts as mentor and protector.
It’s something that hits close to home for Pedersen, who is of Arrernte-Arabana descent and grew up poor in the Northern Territory town of Alice Springs. His childhood with an alcoholic mother was chaotic and even violent, and Pedersen and his seven siblings bumped around in foster homes as wards of the state. Pedersen realized early on that he would have to look after his young brother Vinnie, who has cerebral palsy and mild intellectual disabilities.
“I remember him saying, ‘I’m hungry,’ or he needed some help,” Pedersen said. “He reached out to me, and I looked across thinking, ‘OK, here we go, this is for life and there’s nothing I can do about it.’ And why would I?”
The 2006 documentary “My Brother Vinnie,” which Pedersen wrote, is an affecting portrait of their relationship, and the brothers remain bonded. “He’s in my contract,” Pedersen said with a chuckle. “He gets a room, he gets an apartment, he’s on the set, he’s on the call sheet. He is ‘Mystery Road’ — he’s given a lot to the show in a way that people wouldn’t even begin to understand.”
Pedersen landed his first television roles in the early ’90s and kept busy, a regular presence on Australian screens big and small. But his Jay character, which first appeared in Ivan Sen’s 2013 film “Mystery Road,” was a major step.
“Ivan wrote it with me in mind,” said Pedersen, who at the time had known Sen for many years. He combined some of his and Sen’s personality traits to shape his performance. “I said, ‘Yeah, you’re all the silences and I’m all the dialogue,’ “ the garrulous, chatty actor recalled telling the much quieter Sen (who is also Indigenous and is an executive producer of the series).
As they developed Jay, the two men took a road trip that inspired some key ideas about the character, especially when it came to his look. They started off in the cotton fields of Moree, in New South Wales, but those landscapes just did not feel right.
“We went further up to Queensland and it all started opening up,” Pedersen recalled. “We thought, ‘This is cattle country, with cowboy hats and boots.’”
“For us Indigenous people, it’s a big thing, the stockman,” he added, referring to the ranch workers who look after the livestock. “So it’s a bit of an ode to them.”
The TV series, which debuted in 2018, takes place between the events of the first movie and the second, “Goldstone” (2016); for fans, procedural plots unfurl amid knowledge of the broken man Jay will become by the sequel. Both seasons take place in remote northwestern Australia, but while the first prominently features a sprawling ranch, the new one brings Jay to a town where turquoise waters collide with red soil.
The region’s striking beauty had already made an impression on Pedersen while shooting two seasons of “The Circuit” (2007-10), in which he played a lawyer dedicated to helping Aboriginal people. Returning to film Season 2 of “Mystery Road” sealed the deal. And so last year, he and his younger brother relocated to the fairly isolated town of Broome, in Western Australia.
“I just love country,” Pedersen said, using an Aboriginal term for the symbiotic connection between land, culture and people. “It just felt like that’s the place to go and live life.”
Pedersen, however, was not chatting from Broome but from Melbourne. He had traveled there to begin shooting a new installment of the “Jack Irish” franchise, which stars Guy Pearce, and stayed because of coronavirus restrictions. While technically another crime drama, “Jack Irish,” also streaming on Acorn TV, is considerably lighter in tone than “Mystery Road.”
“I love comedy, and I’d love to do more of it, but I end up with the work I end up with,” Pedersen said, displaying a refreshing humility that also hinted at a full awareness of the fortunate but complex place where he now finds himself.
“I’m not going to be precious about the fact that I’m not getting all these other particular roles because there’s nothing wrong with the ones I’m getting,” he continued, laughing. “It doesn’t matter if I play cops for the rest of my life. That’s called a career.”
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