Heartbreak High’s Thomas Weatherall & Kartanya Maynard On What It Takes To Get First Nations Representation Right

Heartbreak High does representation right — we all know this. There's a reason why so many of us see ourselves in this show — whether it's seeing an actor who looks like us, or watching the characters go through struggles we know all too well, it's a lesson in the art of authenticity.
Much of this has to do with the show's emphasis and mission to spotlight a diverse Australia — including First Nations representation. While First Nations stories can be rare to find on our screens, Heartbreak High has made an active effort to centre their stories, featuring three First Nations actors in the main cast — Kamilaroi man Thomas Weatherall (Malakai), Trawlwoolway woman Kartanya Maynard (newcomer Zoe), and Arrernte woman Sherry-Lee Watson (Missy).
For Weatherall, who is now a Logie Award winner thanks to his portrayal of Malakai, there's a reason why Heartbreak High is aceing First Nations storylines — because they're just one part of their character. "The thing that I loved the most about Malakai and was drawn to the most is that he's an Indigenous man, he's proud of his culture, but it's not the most important thing about him or his character breakdown or what he goes through in this show," Thomas Weatherall tells Refinery29 Australia.

"I'm a proud First Nations person, but that's not all I am. And when I was 16, that wasn't the only important thing in my life."

Thomas Weatherall, Heartbreak High
"So often, you see scripts or shows that are made and they get reduced to their cultural identity," Weatherall says. "I'm a proud First Nations person, but that's not all I am. And when I was 16, that wasn't the only important thing in my life."
Weatherall emphasises that one of the things that makes for such good First Nations representation on the show lies in the fact that the characters aren't shying away from their culture, but they also care about other things and go through similar struggles as other characters. "That was really important to me because I think it's so easy and common to kind of reduce a character to just that plotline," Weatherall says. "But suddenly, here's this young Indigenous man in one of the main romance arcs of the show and he's a love interest, and he has a really intense emotional and dramatic storyline as well."
"There's a lot of nuance there," he continues. "They're not just focused on ticking the box."
Meanwhile, Kartanya Maynard (who plays Zoe), says that one of the key ways that Heartbreak High gets representation right is that there's First Nations representation not just in front of the camera, but behind them. "One of the reasons Heartbreak High gets it so right is that it's not just on the screen that there are First Nations people; it's behind the screen," she explains. "It's in the writing behind our characters and also it's considered in everything from makeup to costumes."
Indeed, a deeper dive into costuming this season reveals how Aboriginal identity and clothing have been infused subtly through the use of band tees (thanks Costume Designer Rita Carmody). Several times, Malakai sports a shirt from acclaimed musician and Coodjinburra man, Budgerah. Similarly, Weatherall's character also wears a shirt from King Stingray, a Yolŋu surf rock band. Similarly, the character Missy (Sherry-Lee Watson) also sports a shirt from Kamilaroi man, The Kid Laroi, gently weaving in First Nations identity into the character's everyday clothing.
Maynard also tells us that she had the capacity to change lines, especially if she thought a First Nations person wouldn't speak that way. "I know that if I need to change something because that's not how a young Aboriginal person would speak, there's no questions asked," she explains.

"It's important because I know firsthand what it's like to grow up not seeing people like you on TV or when you do, it's very, very traumatic and hard to watch."

Kartanya Maynard, Heartbreak High
Take a quick look at TikTok and you'd be amiss to not realise how many First Nations people have also been impacted by the heavy First Nations presence on Heartbreak High. "It made me feel so seen," one user commented on Refinery29 Australia's video. "It's nice to see Indigenous representation without the trauma," another wrote.
The stats tell a similar story. A 2023 diversity report from Screen Australia found that the number of First Nations main characters in local TV dramas has gone from 4.8% to 7.2% in five years, a large increase that bodes well for the future of TV. TikTok comments raise a larger sentiment about not just the amount of First Nations representation on screen, but also the type of stories that are depicted.
"It's important because I know firsthand what it's like to grow up not seeing people like you on TV or when you do, it's very, very traumatic and hard to watch," Maynard says. "There's already everyday struggles for First Nations people in this country — if the only media where you're represented is just talking about your trauma constantly... those pieces of cinema and TV are so important, but it re-traumatises you."
"I think we're doing so much better in our industry in particular, but I think there's always room for improvement," she continues. "If you want to see how it's done, look at Heartbreak High.
Weatherall has high hopes for what representation will look like on the screen in the future. "I came into the industry at a really lucky time," he explains. "I look at Indigenous actors who are older than me that I've worked with and it's very different to when they started, and I feel very grateful for that... there's still a lot more room to grow in that capacity, but I definitely think we're on the right trajectory."
Want more? Get Refinery29 Australia’s best stories delivered to your inbox each week. Sign up here!

More from TV