Born in Western Australia to Zimbabwean parents, Charmaine Bingwa is the first openly gay and woman of colour to win the $US30,000 Heath Ledger Scholarship presented by Australians in Film.
“I’m stunned; this is an incredible platform,” Bingwa told IF after accepting the award from Heath Ledger’s father Kim Ledger today at a dinner attended by eight of the 10 finalists at the Chateau Marmon in Los Angeles.
In her acceptance speech she told how Heath touched her life when she saw Brokeback Mountain. His character’s lines about ‘the pain of a life not lived’ inspired her to come out as a gay woman, she said.
“I heard the other day someone say that the most powerful currency you have is the impact you have on other people and I think Heath epitomises that. Heath personally taught me what the power of a performance can do,” she added.
She also spoke about the challenges of being an actor of colour, which inspired her to create, write, direct and star last year in online series Little Sista, which won the best screenplay prize at the LGBT Toronto Film Festival. She played a gay woman who is paired with an at-risk youth in a Big Brother, Big Sister program in the series which is available on the gay website Revry.
This year there were a record number of applications for the Ledger Scholarship including an increase from diverse and under-represented communities.
Judge Naomi Watts said: “As with previous years, we had an exceptional group of finalists, which made it all the more difficult to choose. It goes without saying that each one of them has an exciting future ahead of them.
“In the end we can only have one winner and I am truly thrilled for Charmaine. We were all incredibly moved by her performance in her final audition and can’t wait to follow her career.
The other finalists were Harvey Zielinski, Shalom Brune-Franklin, Ezekiel Simat, Gemma Bird Matheson, Kipan Rothbury, Aaron Glenane, Brenna Harding, Bethany Whitmore and Nicholas Denton.
Apart from Watts the judging panel comprised Elizabeth Debicki, Rose Byrne, Matt Damon, directors Gregor Jordan and Jeremy Podeswa, US producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura and casting directors Kirsty McGregor, Amanda Mitchell, Jason Wood, Carmen Cuba, Barbara McCarthy and Ann Fay, patron of the HLS.
After Little Sista Bingwa was cast in the Turner-Roache brothers’ Nekrotronic as the snarly villain who is possessed by Monica Belluci’s character and is determined to wreak revenge on her son.
Despite the big budget she likened the experience to a group of friends getting together to make a movie.
Her breakthrough role was playing Mrs Muller in Doubt: A Parable at the Old Fitz, for which she received a Sydney Theatre Award nomination and Broadway World nomination for best supporting actress . Her screen credits include the short films Boys Will Be Boys, Breathe, Can You Dig It? and Waiting For God.
As for the future, she says: “I am open and available.” She doesn’t yet have a US agent, which may well change soon.
The scholarship’s prizes include $US10,000 towards living costs, rent and transport assistance in Los Angeles, two round-trip economy airfares from Australia to Los Angeles, group acting classes and personal coaching from Lisa Robertson Studio, movement and voice classes with Kennedy Brown and dialect coaching with Joy Ellison.
The previous recipients were:
2009 – Oliver Ackland (The Originals, Wasted on the Young, The Proposition)
2010 – Bella Heathcote (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Fifty Shades Darker, CBS’s Strange Angel)
2011 – Ryan Corr (Hacksaw Ridge, The Water Diviner, Cleverman, Holding the Man)
2012 – Anna McGahan (Picnic at Hanging Rock, Anzac Girls, House Husbands)
2013 – James Mackay (Hacksaw Ridge, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales)
2014 – Cody Fern (American Horror Story, House of Cards, American Crime Story: Versace)
2015 – Matt Levett (Wolf Creek, The Secret Daughter, Devil’s Playground)
2016 – Ashleigh Cummings (Puberty Blues, Hounds of Love, upcoming The Gold Finch)
2017 – Mojean Aria (SBS’s Dead Lucky, upcoming Danger Close)