SYDNEY Aged six, Brandon Walters was battling leukemia. At 13, the Aboriginal boy is a new face of Australia, the child star of the epic movie "Australia" whose makers have vowed to protect him from exploitation.
Walters was discovered at a public pool in his home town of Broome in Western Australia and handpicked by director Baz Luhrmann for a pivotal role in the blockbuster film alongside homegrown Hollywood stars Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman.
With deep, brown eyes and a cherubic face, he also features in a A$40 million ($26 million) tourism campaign linked to the film, telling visitors: "Sometimes we gotta go walkabout."
Billed as "Australia's new young star" at a press conference on Tuesday, Walters received applause from his co-stars as he blinked into a sea of flashing cameras and laughter as he admitted he had never heard of Kidman before his casting.
"I felt a bit scared when I first met her," he admitted. Walters had not left the state of Western Australia before joining the movie.
Kidman said she formed strong bonds with Walters during the filming of the movie.
"I feel very protective of him," said Kidman, who celebrated the birth of her daughter Sunday Rose in July with her second husband Keith Urban and also has two adopted children.
"If the film does really well he is going to need a lot of protection," she said, smiling at Walters and constantly reassuring him, stroking and patting his back.
Luhrmann said he chose Walters for the film, after auditioning about 1,000 Aboriginal boys, because of his natural talent and charisma but also the strength of his family.
Australian filmmakers are well aware that Aboriginal actors in the past have complained of being exploited or displaced by instant fame after being plucked from obscurity.
FEARS OF EXPLOITATION
Australia has 460,000 indigenous Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, or 2 percent of a 21 million population, who are the nation's most disadvantaged group with far higher rates of unemployment, alcohol and drug abuse, and domestic violence.
"We know what that journey can mean," said Luhrmann, who has two children with his wife and creative partner Catherine Martin.
"Part of the deciding factor (for choosing Walters) was that it was such a strong family unit."
Kidman and Luhrmann were reported to have become so protective of Walters that they had set up a trust fund or scholarship to protect his future.
A spokeswoman for studio 20th Century Fox, which reportedly paid US$130 million to make "Australia," declined to comment while Walters' mother, Janie Wright, knew nothing of this.
"But we are not worried about his future," Wright told Reuters. "Back home none of this is a big deal. It's only when you come into the city that anyone cares.
"If it does become a problem for him we'll just go out bush, get away from it all. Now he's at school, he's happy and never stops talking. The film made him confident. He's no longer shy."
David Gulpilil, arguably Australia's best known Aboriginal actor who appears in "Australia" as an Aboriginal shaman, has previously expressed misgivings about his own acting career.
He complained he was only paid $10,000 for his part in the 1986 box-office hit "Crocodile Dundee" and he has struggled with well-publicized bouts of alcohol abuse and violence.
Rosalie Kunoth-Monks was moved from the Northern Territory's Utopia Station at the age of 16 to play the title role in the 1955 film Jedda, then just as quickly returned to obscurity.
"People exploit you and make money out of you. I hate that to this day," she recently told The Sunday Age newspaper.
(Editing by Miral Fahmy)