Extrovert ... ''a lot of actors don't have a steady income, so you need a back-up'', says Rory Potter, weighing up a future in theatre after appearing in Medea and The Secret River. Photo: Marco Del Grande
AS THE secret heart of The Secret River, the actor Rory Potter carries the weight of hope on his slender shoulders.
His character, Dick, aged 10 or 11, must face the consequences of covertly befriending the indigenous boys on the Hawkesbury River - a beating (enacted offstage) by his father, a former convict, William Thornhill.
''That's a bit awkward because I have to yell,'' says the freckled 12-year-old, sitting next to his mother, Jackie May, at the Sydney Theatre Company before a performance.
''I see the story as being about how Australia's future and past could have been different if people like Thornhill had stood up and said this [killing] was wrong. I think people need to know what actually happened.''
Last week, Rory won the Sydney Theatre Awards' best newcomer honour, shared with Joseph Kelly, his co-star late last year in Belvoir Street Theatre's update of Euripides' Medea. Rory was then 11, Joseph 13.
Rory and his brother, Finn, 15, both have a flair for stage drama, despite neither parent being involved in theatre: their father, Nick, works in IT and May is an ABC Radio National journalist.
''He's reasonably extroverted and a bit of a show-off,'' May says, ''but he's got a very good nature so he can keep a lid on it.''
It was only last July that Rory, on the advice of Jack Youens, his drama teacher at Summer Hill Public School, enrolled in after-school acting classes at the Australian Theatre for Young People, where he saw a notice for Medea auditions.
Rory and Jospeh found themselves helping the Medea writers Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks with the script, adding phrases (''I'm only little'') and suggesting and providing props such as Nerf guns and toy swords.
Medea is about a mother who kills her two children; The Secret River is about the slaughter of Aborigines. In both cases, May, her husband and the respective theatre companies talked Rory through these confronting issues, which he understands but seems unaffected by. Neil Armfield, the director of The Secret River, had seen Rory in Medea, which became the fledgling actor's audition for the Sydney Theatre's stage. However, it was the little Belvoir play that proved the harder of the two, given the extensive lines he had to learn.
The hardest part now is waiting in the wings but nerves seem to bother him little. ''Secret River is quite easy because you can't see anyone because of the bright lights,'' he says.
His favourite actors are Richard Roxburgh, whom he has not met, and his Secret River co-star Trevor Jamieson. He has met Hugo Weaving, who obligingly spoke Lord of the Rings Elvish to him.
Has he met Cate Blanchett? ''Yeah, she came into the dressing room but I was in the toilet at the time. I was getting changed, so I quickly had to get changed and run out.''
He is not easily starstruck. A keen AFL footballer and cricketer, the young actor thinks he might yet become a geneticist who helps sick animals. His present commitment is four nights a week, and his days off are spent with friends or playing with his Xbox.
''I don't know if I can make acting turn out because there are a lot of actors who have never really made it big,'' he says. ''A lot of actors don't have a steady income, so you need a back-up.''
The Secret River has a range of remarkable child actors: Bailey Doomadgee, Lachlan Elliott, Kamil Ellis, Callum McManis, James Slee and Tom Usher.