In the flesh, Bindi Irwin is both bigger than you remember her and smaller than you might imagine.
To many, she remains frozen in time as the eight-year-old who delivered a moving public eulogy to her late father, Steve, after his death-by-stingray in 2006. In reality, she is now 14 (and a good deal taller), though her rebellious teenager streak is, she insists, confined to ”staying up five minutes past my bed time and occasionally forgetting to brush my teeth”.
On screen in her new film Return to Nim’s Island Bindi plays a girl trying to save her eco-paradise home from being developed by largely unseen forces in Brisbane that are eerily reminiscent of the white-shoe brigade of the Bjelke-Petersen years.
In real life, Bindi says, ”I’m trying to save a place called the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve from being strip-mined”.
The Irwin reserve is in far north Queensland, a 135,000-hectare property bought for A$6 million by the Howard government in 2007 as a tribute to Steve.
Managed by the Irwin family, the reserve is home, according to Bindi’s mother Terri, to 19 per cent of Australia’s native bird varieties and countless plant and insect species with enormous potential for medical research.
”There’s one spider they’re looking at extracting venom from for use in treating breast cancer,” Terri says.
In 2010, the reserve was granted environmental protection under the Labor government’s Wild Rivers Act.
Last year, Campbell Newman’s conservative government began the process of winding back that protection and opening the reserve to bauxite mining.
Needless to say, that’s a plan the Irwin family is resisting. ”We’ve got over 400,000 petition signatures,” says Bindi proudly.
In the film, her character Nim is a stroppy, indomitable force as she fights off the developers and poachers who are trying to exploit the island hideaway she shares with her environmentalist dad (played by American actor Matthew Lillard).
The character is both her and not her, she says. ”Playing someone different to yourself is kind of strange, but I feel like Nim is part of me. I’m not so uppity, I guess – she’s got a lot of attitude, and I don’t think I’m quite like that.
“But she lives on an island surrounded by animals, and I live right in the middle of Australia Zoo surrounded by animals, so I could really connect to the character and understand where she was coming from.
“She is such a passionate and determined being. Nothing can stand in her way even when the world is against her.”
In her public utterances, Bindi Irwin is relentlessly on-message, a Wildlife Warrior with a well-honed patter. But if it is a role she’s playing, it’s one she seems perfectly happy to have been cast in.
”I want to carry on in my dad’s footsteps and make sure his message lives on forever,” she says. ”I feel like that’s why I’ve been put on this planet – to get my message across.”
– Sydney Morning Herald