Papuan Actor On The Rise: KEENAN WALKER
Updated: Jul 7
Interviewed and transcribed by Gabriel Faatau’uu-Satiu
Headshots of Keenan Walker
My name is Keenan Jarrah Frederick Walker. I was born and raised in Canberra, Australia. I am part PNG, English, Irish. My Grandmother (on my Mother’s side) is Papua New Guinean. Well actually, she only identifies as Papuan. Not New Guinean. But to the outside world, we are Papua New Guinean.
Can you speak about that? Even briefly.
Firstly, we speak different languages. Generally, Papuans speak Motu and New Guineans speak Pisin. Even our features are distinctively different. My Grandmother would always say, you’re Papuan. Only Papuan.
Now I know you have a blended family, can you talk about that?
On my Father’s side, his parents are ten pound poms. I know there’s some aboriginal genes from my Great Grandmother’s side too.
Is that something you claim?
I don’t explicitly claim it only because I don’t know too much about that side. Growing up, although I never claimed that part of my history, I naturally gravitated towards the indigenous culture. I loved it so much. Their connection to this land is next level. I guess now as an adult, because the culture is not present in my day to day life, I just never say that I am aboriginal.
It sounds like you have claimed it in some ways. And that’s beautiful. This topic is definitely an ongoing thing in today’s current climate, right?
Anyway, moving on or else this will read as a different interview haha. Um...what area of the film industry do you work in?
I am primarily an actor. I started acting officially last year after completing university. I’m also writing a few things on my own and in my own time.
Did you always envision this for yourself?
I always had a creative passion when I was a kid. After watching Billy Elliot. I loved the idea of dancing, specifically ballet. It was considered out-of-the-norm for my friendship circles and family, especially being surrounded by my uncles who loved footy. But I was so infatuated by performing. Everywhere I’d go, I’d be dancing. In the shops just anywhere out and about, I’d be dancing. I really wanted to do ballet. But my peers always pushed me to pursue footy. It was considered the ‘manly’ thing to do. So there was no one I could look at growing up that gravitated towards the arts. But it never left my mind.
I did lots of sports growing up. I was really good. Don’t get me wrong, I love footy now. I even considered doing it professionally and had been scouted by talent squads etc. But I gave the footy dream up and instead opted the University route. I went to University as it was considered the ‘good’ thing to do to secure a ‘good’ career. Since I was competent in math and physics I figured that I would get a Bachelor's Degree in Software Engineering. I knew there was a creative spark that stayed with me and I thought I could use I.T. as a creative outlet to make things, create software, create applications not knowing that I really wanted to pursue art as a career.
Was there a defining moment for you?
During those years of study, I was getting bored. To test the creative waters I casually took up acting classes at the National Acting School in Canberra. There was one specific class that I bombed. I was a fraud. Everyone had found the emotional capacity to be raw and unapologetically themselves. I remember just looking into their eyes and feeling their sadness. Here I was, being so far from that. Being so open with myself in the same emotional space. I thought I knew myself, and it was at that point, I knew I had so much more to learn about me. Being true to me and what I wanted to be and do.
2nd headshot of Keenan Walker
Did you finish off your I.T. degree? Or did you give that up for acting?
I was about a year and a half from finishing off that degree when I had that defining moment. But I hung in there and actually finished it. While I was doing that, I had done some acting things. But I only took it seriously after I graduated. I took more classes, had a similar experience where the actors in the space really captivated me. And I caught the bug. I knew I had to eventually be in Sydney to really take it seriously.
Did you grow up in a conservative family? Were they always supportive of you? Did they have other dreams for you?
My Mum is so lovely. Very gentle but free spirited. She’s the type that wouldn’t care if I was cleaning toilets, acting full-time or pursuing IT. She loves and supports me endlessly. She always says as long as I am happy and live with no regrets. All of that sort of stuff. She’s amazing.
My Dad has always been a supportive force in my life. I look up to Dad and go to him for advice for many things. Growing up one thing that Dad said was: “Keenan, never die with regrets. If you want to achieve something in life then back yourself and go get. No regrets son. Life's too short to think what if”. This advice along with many others has helped shape me into the man I am today.
With the knowledge about your family I know now, if given the chance to go back in time, would you have pursued art/drama/acting instead of I.T.?
No. I wouldn't have pursued drama instead of I.T because I believe everything happens for a reason. I mean, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation right now if I hadn’t experienced what I had. I like to live with no regrets. And I’m grateful to have studied IT. In fact, it’s given me a whole new respect for my surroundings. It’s allowed me to push myself in a space that I never knew I could. I started a Degree in Software Engineering with no prior I.T knowledge. I really threw myself into the deep end. Completing that degree taught me valuable life lessons such as discipline, time management, listening, and pushing on when time gets tough. It was hard. Like friggin hard.
Since graduating, I’ve been on this whole journey of self discovery and realisation. I can see how it’s shaped the person I am now and I wouldn’t exchange that experience for anything.
Do you want to talk about some of the works you’ve done?
Well, I haven’t done a whole lot to be completely honest.
Shush! We all start somewhere. Let's start with when you finished studying.
So while I was in Europe, just after I finished graduating, (I was there because I wanted to reward myself for getting through it) a director reached out to me. He saw me about 6-12months prior at the National Acting School in Canberra and asked me to be a part of his project. So I returned, went straight into his short film, Reckless Love in a supporting role.
What was that experience like for you?
To be fair I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t understand how it all worked. But it was such an eye opening experience. From there, I went on a whole crusade about learning, not only the craft as an actor but also understanding what happens behind the scene too.
Keenan Walker in the lead role for a TVC (Kwel Athleisure). Dir. Nick Rysk
What other works have you done that you can talk about?
I’ve done a few commercial-like things. One of my favourite jobs actually was doing a Triple J music video, playing the lead. It was a collaboration between Triple J and NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Art) as part of the Triple J Unearthed Series.
My main focus at the moment is to be a student of my craft. I am always looking to absorb knowledge and wisdom from great actors and teachers who surround me. I even moved to Sydney this year in March just before the COVID-19 situation got serious. But I’m here, just really putting all my energy I can into making this a full-time thing for me.
I also did a commercial shoot (moving image/stills) which was a self-funded project for my own clothing line I have, Kwel Athleisure. The company started a few years ago. I used to really be into body building, and I always wanted to create clothes for myself. Without being biased, I love to train in my clothes. The style, the feel, the fit. I’ve been asked if my clothing is specific to men, which it is, but I know women also buy my clothes too.
Where can people find your clothes?
The thing that makes KWEL different to other brands is the supreme quality and tapered fit. The great thing about KWEL is that you can dress it up or down. It’s so suitable for various occasions. It is a passion project of mine, a bit of a side hustle, and it’s something that my degree has helped me with too. I don’t see why I can’t be limited to one thing. We can do it all if we really want it.
When I fell into acting, I still tried to utilise the business part of my brain. The arts are similar in a way and how we navigate our way around. Ultimately, it’s a bit of a money game, but there is the skill you need to connect and communicate with people also. Plus, it always comes in handy as a side hustle that can support me while I really give acting a good go. Long term, I’d love to expand it and grow it obviously, but I am happy where it’s currently placed. And it still continues to do well while I can focus more on acting.
Is there anything else you are working on that you can share about?
Can I talk about the pilots coming up?
Do it! How did you come across that project?
Funniest thing, I actually came across the advertisement on a website/application called, Backstage. Do you, yeah of course you know it. Anyway, I saw it was being filmed in Sydney, read the synopsis and characters which I really loved and could identify with. But, I saw that they were specific to Pasifika groups ie Sāmoan, Tongan and Māori. And I wasn’t sure, you know, being Papua New Guinea. But long story short, obviously I got in. I’m so grateful that the writer/director (Taofia Pelesasa) really wanted a voice outside of Polynesia, especially that Micronesia and Melanesia are even more underrepresented.
The project is still a wee away from being shot, but I just love the whole cause behind it. It’s definitely one of a kind and hopefully not the last. The amount of love that we all have for it is unheard of. I can’t explain it. Especially right now during the current climate, with the Black Lives Matter movement, and seeing now in 2020 that people of colour, particularly Pasifika people are still playing those stereotypes. There couldn’t be a more suitable time to be telling our stories, it’s long overdue.
The way Taofia Pelesasa (writer/director of Parramatta and Deity series) has written these pilots really highlights our experiences growing up here in Australia. We are more than just great footy players. The series, the movement, the whole vibe of bringing brown voices together is going to change the way people see us, for us. You know?
That’s so beautiful. I can’t speak on behalf of Fia, but from me personally, firstly thank you. It’s why we fight tooth and nail to get a seat at the table. I’m also inspired by your journey too. I absolutely love that a brown brother works in I.T. I know it’s not unheard of in our community for sure, but those outside automatically assume because we’re brown, that we’re only footy players.
I hate that so much. People make these assumptions and call us ‘dumb coconuts’. But we are so much more than what people perceive us to be.
It is exactly that. What do you have to say to those people?
Educate yourself. Don’t be so goddamn naive and narrow minded. There is so much malice and judgement in the world. I just don’t see the need for any of that behaviour. This isn’t just specific towards Pasifika people, but I see it towards our native people here in Australia too.
It needs to stop. We are all born on this planet called earth. We have no choice on where we’re born and how we’re born. But we can choose how we treat others. We shouldn’t have to cling to those circumstances that are out of our control. Take you and I for example, you are born and raised in New Zealand and I am born and raised here in Australia. Probably a bad example actually because you and I get along. But there is that rivalry between our countries. But is it all necessary? No.
I have that trouble being a relatively new kiwi here. My argument always ends with “we bleed the same colour. We all sh** the same colour”.
Wow! Haha. When you put it like that, we’re just people.
Keenan Walker in 'The Butcher's wife', MV, Lead Role, Director: Marco Dahmgani
Exactly. Anyway, moving on or else Imma throw hands soon haha. I’ll ask a fun one. So, if I could give you all the money in the world, offer the best resources which you’ll have at your disposal, what would that project look like?
I want to make the most honest documentary that highlights all the injustices in the world and direct it specifically to what we’ve done to Mother Earth herself. I want it to highlight what we can do as people to heal her. By healing her, I feel like we can learn something about ourselves as people. I see it as a way to unite people, bring us together as a community, and then move forward.
What’s stopping you from achieving that? What needs to change and how?
The biggest thing is me. I’m using my current time to focus on myself and my career (which I know sounds selfish). But the ultimate goal is not to just be a revered actor, it is larger than that. I didn’t get into this to just make blockbusters, get rich and be famous. I want to use the platform of fame or whatever you want to call it to create and inspire positive change regarding environmental and social issues. I want to make an impact on people and animals. For me, my intention always was and still is to make a difference. I can do that by giving a voice for those who can’t be heard. Whether it is humans, Mother Earth or animals (which I have a huge soft spot for).
Who are your heroes? Let’s start big with any internationally based ones.
I love Arnold Schwarzenegger.
What? Why? Haha. I mean, I grew up in that era of his prime film roles. But going back to my question before, why him?
For me, it wasn’t about his films. It was about Arnold's drive and self-belief. He was born in a small village in Austria. Growing up Arnold fell in love with body building. The idea of a man getting on stage in his briefs, oiled up and flexing his muscle was against the societal norm (post WWII). But he still pursued it. Very optimistic. Resilient. And somehow ended up in America where he became this huge force to be reckoned within the bodybuilding industry and then the movie industry. I love the idea of an immigrant, with an accent, who dreamed of being a movie star ended up becoming the number one leading man in Hollywood. He was and still is a household name.
Didn’t he move into politics?
He did. People laughed at him and didn't think he could do it. But still look at what he achieved. A small town boy with an accent. He overcame so many adversities, and proved everybody wrong. He did it by being unapologetically himself. Very resilient. Very optimistic. I can’t say he is the best actor of all time, but looking at his career span like that, he’s pretty amazing. And I have so much respect for the guy. He’s a testament.
That’s amazing. Do you have any other heroes that are more close to home?
I turn to my Mum for a lot of wisdom. We have a really good connection as she is a source of comfort and warmth.
What advice would you give to first time filmmakers?
I’m still very new to all this. But the advice I’d give, seeing I am experiencing this myself firsthand is that, you can’t be perfect. Put all your chips down. Give your best effort. Lower your expectations and be truthful to yourself and the story. I guarantee, people will resonate with you one way or another.
I’ve also done things a bit unconventional in comparison to other people. Because there isn’t a set trajectory, there isn’t a real traditional route to getting to the top (whatever that might look like for you). The main thing is to trust your instincts, don’t compromise your character and learn to read people. You can always tell when someone is total BS. Treat people kindly. I’ve just done what resonates with me. And it’s working out fine.
With your knowledge about the Pasifika Film Festival, why do you think it's important to have a space like this that exists?
It gives us a space, a platform and a voice so we’re heard. It also means business. We are serious about what we do. We are serious about telling stories.
I do want to say, (I guess) specific to me being PNG, the Pasifika world is dominated by the polynesians. But I always say, power to the people. And it’s awesome that we have so many brown stories getting out there. If there is something that I could say specifically to my PNG brothers and sisters, I’d encourage them not to be afraid of telling our stories. We have so many stories to be told. We can feel a little overwhelmed because we’re even more underrepresented. Telling more of our stories will help unite our people with not only eachother but the rest of the world.
What’s your greatest fear?
I just don’t want to live with regrets. Regrets that I never tried hard enough, didn’t back myself, and never made a proper effort to pursue what I love and believe in.
Any last words?
Don’t be afraid to show your vulnerabilities, let go of your ego and show the world your 100% authentic self. And a huge thank you for interviewing me. This was so fun!