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“I Immediately Knew That’s What I Wanted To Do”: The Woman Who Inspired Leah Purcell

"I really do owe my interest and drive to her".

Powerhouse showrunner, director, actor and writer Leah Purcell has cemented herself as one of Australia’s best in the entertainment industry.

She sat down with marie claire Australia to talk about the women who inspired and encouraged her to pursue her dreams.

Doris Day

I grew up watching Doris. My mum and I were home alone a lot … and she would watch black-and-white movies on weekends in Murgon [Queensland], as there’s not much to do in the bush.

I looked at Doris and saw the singing and the dancing and immediately knew that’s what I wanted to do. I’d stand in front of the mirror in my room and repeat what I’d seen her do, while pretending there were millions of people watching me through my mirror. As I got older and began to research her, I realised what an extraordinary woman Doris was. She was holding her own in the male-led golden era of Hollywood. She always stood up for herself and her films were successful.

The first time I went to see a musical – Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, at the local high school – I just remember going, “That’s what Doris Day does.” I realised this was my way into it. I looked back at the smiling faces and the clapping and cheering and I said, “I can’t wait to get to high school!”

From grade 8 to grade 12 I was part of that process and the musicals were one of the things that kept me toeing the line in school. I really do owe my interest and drive to Doris.

Doris Day
(Credit: Getty Images)

Dr Ruby Langford Ginibi 

We meet in the early ’90s, when I was new to Sydney. When I first came down, I said, “Where is all the mob?” I headed to Eveleigh Street [in Redfern]. It was the movement of the Stolen Generation. We had Sorry Day and the native title.

I met Aunty Ruby at the Sorry Day. We were some of the first ones at Bennelong Point. She reminded me of my mum: short and plump with a big laugh. She had this energy but was a mature lady and was writing her novel. I just got caught up in this feeling that it was never too late to do anything in life. She encouraged me and when she finished her novel she approached me to be the voice for the audio book.

A few years later, when Aunty Ruby was asked by Belvoir St Theatre to do something with Don’t Take Your Love to Town, she was over the moon and said she would, “as long as Leah plays me and is part of the process”. Unfortunately she died [in late 2011] before we opened. She wanted me to come see her in her nursing home, but I had a cold and didn’t want to pass it to her.

When I did that play, she was there in spirit. We had some spiritual stuff happen. I had to light some candles and have a moment. I remember saying, “Aunty Ruby, you gotta let me do this now … so I can get through it. You sit back and enjoy it.” Maybe I’ll do her story down the track.

Florence Chambers

My mum was mighty. She raised seven children as a sole parent. She was only 60 when she died [in 1988]. Her life was just beginning – no more kids – but unfortunately the good die young.

She had this superwoman persona, but every now and then when she was in the [presence] of powerful white people you’d see the little insecure Aboriginal [come out], which was conditioned into her. I’d look at her and think, “Where have you gone?” But when she saw me on stage at those musicals, mate, she wasn’t that shy Aboriginal woman anymore. She’d shout, “That’s my daughter up there!” People would come and say, “[Leah] was so good,” and Mum would say, “It’s no good me telling her. I’m her mother. You need to tell her.”

Thank God they did. When I was living with domestic violence, I’d turn to the drink. [But] those little voices and encouragements came back, and I remember picking up The Drover’s Wife book that was my mother’s. I saw her as the drover’s wife, and I was her protector. My mum is always with me in heart and spirit and in my mind.

Purcell’s latest film, The Drover’s Wife, is in cinemas from May 5.

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