When you watch Sumi Gunaratnam in ABC's The Disposables, it's easy to agree she was born to be on screen. But the 25-year-old's realisation that acting was her calling only came to her in her mid-teens. Until the ninth grade, Gunaratnam, like many high schoolers, thought of drama as a "bludge" subject. However, the influence of one inspiring drama teacher changed that.
Realising the power of drama in telling important stories, Gunaratnam set her eyes on an acting career and hasn't looked back. "That moment was like, 'OK, I'm going to do this. This is the thing I'm going to do,'" the 25-year-old told Draw Your Box.
Having mainly appeared in TV commercials and smaller projects to date, The Disposables is Gunaratnam's first major role – and it's quite the production to be tied to.
She portrays Priya, a 16-year-old refugee whose dad goes missing and is blamed for unleashing a mutating plastic-eating beast on the suburbs of western Sydney. She and her best friend Obi must do whatever it takes in a community that treats them as undesirables, in order to destroy the beast, find her father, clear his name, and secure a visa to stay.
Gunaratnam is the first Sri Lankan Tamil woman to play the lead in an Australian TV show, and the enormity of this, along with the political storyline, isn't lost on her.
"This is one of the first times we've seen a non-white refugee story being told like this, and it's just incredible. When I found out that I booked the role, I knew I had to take a lot of care," she said. "I wanted to make sure I was super careful and wanted to do everything the right way."
Director Renny Wijeyamohan commended the casting of Gunaratnam in this role, explaining it was important for Priya "to be played by an Australian Sri Lankan Tamil".
"That [the casting] was a really exciting part of the process for us, but it was also difficult because the South Asian diaspora is not typically one which has pursued creative fields, and so it was hard to find our lead," he said. "I think she [Gunaratnam] really understood the story, having grown up in that area of western Sydney."
Gunaratnam's parents arrived in Australia in the mid-1990s. Hearing of their hardships in migration, and speaking to extended family members who actually came to Australia as refugees, helped inform the actor in her preparation for the delicate role.
Immigration, refugees and the environment are easily quite political issues to explore on-screen, but Wijeyamohan had no intention of shying away from these.
As a Sri Lankan Tamil man himself, he said following the story of the Nadesalingam family played a huge role in his decision to depict a narrative around refugees. Priya Nadesalingam and husband Nades arrived in Australia on separate boats in 2012 and 2013, seeking asylum as they feared persecution in Sri Lanka because of their Tamil ethnicity. After having settled in the Queensland town of Biloela and having two young daughters, they were detained by the government in 2018 after ruling the family had no legal right to be in Australia.
"What was interesting about it is that there was such a huge response from the Australian public to this refugee story, and everyone really got behind them, which, for me felt like quite a big turning point in the narrative we have around refugees," he said.
Commenting on the environmental landscape was just as important. “There was a scandal coming out of Melbourne where basically a few recycling contractors went out of business and there were huge warehouses full of stockpiled recycling,” he said, claiming “the government wasn’t doing anything about it”.
“We were inspired by the School Strike 4 Climate movement that was going on as well,” he added. “That’s nothing I could have imagined my generation doing, but the young generation now is so connected and passionate about these issues and they're working to change the world to a place that they want to live in.”
Unsurprisingly, young adults and teens are the core target audience for The Disposables, and in an ABC-first, it’ll be platformed accordingly on TikTok as well as ABC Me and ABC iView.
“ABC’s audience traditionally hasn’t been that young adult audience,” said Wijeyamohan. “So making something that we feel pushes the boundaries a bit in its structure and storytelling format is something that you wouldn’t expect.”
Gunaratnam is aware that many other young South Asian women will watch the show, after years of not seeing many brown girls who look like them on Australian TV. Growing up, she struggled herself to see authentic brown representation on the screen, often noticing the rare person who looked like her being “the random character on the side that says a funny line” or is merely stereotyped because of the colour of their skin.
She said “being a Sri Lankan Tamil girl and being able to do this incredible project” is very special, because there will be “young girls that are going to watch this and be like, ‘Oh she looks like me’. I’m also a dark-skinned Sri Lankan girl and that in itself is a bit different because there’s so much colourism in our community.”
Ultimately, Wijeyamohan wants viewers – not just young people, but their parents and also those beyond the Sri Lankan Tamil community – to gain a perspective that challenges the often negative picture painted around refugees in particular.
“Refugees are real people just like you and I, they have hopes and dreams,” he said. “They've had many challenges and they can contribute to the community, and we see huge contributions in Australia from refugees in this country.”
With the Biloela family having a special connection to his storytelling process, Wijeyamohan only hopes they’ll get the chance to watch the show in due course.
“I think it’ll mean a lot to them to be able to see that kind of representation, and also an empowered representation,” he said. “In our story, it’s Priya and her dad who by virtue of being refugees – and I won’t spoil the plot – are the only ones who can save the community.”
The cast of The Disposables includes Sumi Gunaratnam, Lakota Johnson, Rajan Velu, Jordan Rodrigues, Josh Pyman, Heidi Arena, Zara Tate and Zenia Starr.
The creative team behind The Disposables includes Renny Wijeyamohan (Creator/Writer/Director/Producer), Sonia Whiteman (Creator/Writer/Director), Karen Radzyner (Creator/Producer), Keir Wilkins (Creator/Writer), Saman Shad (Writer) and Tom Black (Cinematographer).