30 March 2013
This wildlife warrior turned movie star packs a powerful message into her latest endeavour on the big screen, writes VICKY ROACH.
Bindi Irwin isn’t afraid of snakes or crocodiles. She’s even stood up to Hillary Clinton.
But horror movies give her the heebie-jeebies.
"I just can’t cope," Irwin says sheepishly.
When one of her mates decided to celebrate their birthday by watching an installment in the Saw franchise, the 14-year-old wildlife warrior was forced to admit defeat.
"I felt really bad. They had to change their entire party plans."
It’s nice to know that even Irwin, who reduced 300 million viewers to tears when she delivered an assured eulogy to her late father at age eight, has the odd moment of weakness.
Her most recent project, an upcoming role in the Canadian comedy-honor series My Babysitter’s A Vampire, might almost qualify as a form of exposure therapy similar to the method used by Australia Zoo to help herpetophohics overcome their fear of snakes.
But although Irwin finally gets to play a villain in the Fresh TV show, she stresses the emphasis is firmly on the laughs.
The natural-born performer finds herself on more familiar turf in Return To Nim’s Island, in which she plays a conservation-minded castaway.
"She wants to protect her island so badly, she won’t let anything stand in her way. And in real life I am trying to protect the Steve Irwin wildlife reserve from being mined for aluminium. It’s a cool parallel," she says.
"Nim is more feisty than me - maybe some anger management training wouldn’t go astray. But other than that we are quite similar."
In town to promote her first major role in a feature film (Free Willy: Escape From Pirate’s Cove went straight to DVD), it’s clear the high-profile youngster is growing up fast.
In the sequel to Nim’s Island, the 2008 film that starred Abigail Breslin, Jodie Foster and Gerard Butler, her character even has a love interest.
Former Neighbours star Toby Wallace plays a smitten young adventurer who travels to Nim’s tropical paradise to reconnect with Irwin’s character. Wallace landed the role on the basis of their shared screen chemistry. When filming began, they discovered a deeper connection.
"My family is very conservation-minded and I am definitely interested in that kind of stuff," Wallace says. "I think that’s why we enjoyed each other’s company talking about how the world should be."
The story picks up a few years after the characters’ first meeting, when the pristine island is simultaneously threatened by poachers and developers.
One of the villains is played by former Play School presenter John Waters, currently starring in The Addams Family musical.
"It was a little strange to see him coming at me with a knife. He used to sing me my ABCs," Irwin laughs.
While her two great loves - film and wildlife conservation - might seem disparate, she says they actually complement each other surprisingly well.
"The film industry is such a wonderful platform to get my message across - I can reach a whole different audience," she says. "And I am in a unique position to do that because I love filming and I also want to make sure that my Dad’s message and legacy live on forever.
"If you asked, let’s say Hugh Jackman, what his opinion on the non-consumptive use of wildlife was, that would probably get to more people than if you just asked a passer-by on the street. Their opinion counts just as much but it won’t reach as many people. And that’s what I am trying to do. My mission on this earth is to bring the message of conservation to people."
Irwin pauses, momentarily, for breath, but it soon becomes clear she is just warming up.
The most recent cause to which she has devoted her seemingly inexhaustible supply of energy is overpopulation, a subject even Hillary Clinton may have found too hot to handle.
Irwin withdrew a 1000-word essay she wrote on the subject for Clinton’s e-journal after it was drastically edited. "It was completely different. I was a little bit shocked to tell you the truth," she said at the time.
"I completely respect Hillary Clinton - I hope she is president one day - but it’s sad they didn’t want to listen to my point of view. The true test of freedom of speech is when someone says something you don’t like."
The essay was eventually published on Crikey.com.
At 14, Irwin is carrying a lot of responsibility on those stilldeveloping shoulders. But with her beloved planet being assaulted on a number of fronts, this girl-in-a-hurry doesn’t feel there is time to indulge her inner-mall brat. "I might not be here tomorrow so I want to get my message across before it’s too late."
Irwin believes her sense of urgency has more to do with the behaviour her dad modelled rather than as a reaction to his death. She recalls one morning when he interrupted a maths lesson to lead a climb up a nearby mountain.
"He wasn’t patient at all. I have maybe inherited that. It’s in my blood," she says.
But she acknowledges the loss of her father has affected the way she lives.
"After losing Dad, I think it’s really concreted the idea that life is fragile and you do need to complete things now because you don’t know how long you have."
Animals on a roll
TOBY Wallace and Bindi Irwin had to work hard to ensure they weren’t upstaged by their animal co-stars in Return To Nim’s Island.
Irwin was impressed by the professionalism of the sea lions, a species she hasn’t worked with before. "They were better trained than me," she says. "They hit their mark every time."
Wallace, who is less experienced with handling wild animals, was initially intimidated by the prospect of performing a dance routine with a 100kg sea mammal. But once the former Neighbours star found a way to communicate with Selkie the sea lion, they got on swimmingly.
"It was really cool. If you look closely you can see these hand movements I do, they are basically for the sea lion’s sake."
The bonding process, says Wallace, 17, was relatively uncomplicated. "I had a fish bag hidden underneath the costume. Every time we did a routine I would chuck him a fish."