Sometimes, when she’s coaching kids in the neighborhood, imparting important technical pointers and, more crucially, being a booster of the confidence that makes those skills sing, the thought strikes India Dupre: “I was only that little.”
In La Cañada Flintridge, Dupre comes highly recommended. For the past 15 years, she’s worked here as a voice and acting teacher for youth, sometimes directing ambitious productions at the La Cañada Junior Theater and often tutoring pupils privately as they prepare for auditions.
Most of those students don’t know much about Dupre’s personal background beyond the fact that she comes with a cool Australian accent.
Heck, as LCF resident Brent Kuszyk put it, he had to “pry” to get Dupre even to talk about her professional accomplishments after his daughter, Ali, began taking voice lessons from her. So clients might not know that Dupre graduated magna cum laude from UCLA’s School of Theater, that she’s appeared on network TV shows and in video games or, soon, that she’ll be making a short film funded largely by the Kevin Spacey Foundation.
This year, the KSF Artists of Choice program awarded Dupre a grant to help transfer her biographical story from her computer hard drive to the screen.
Dupre will direct the seven-minute “Stripped” as a proof of concept for a full-length feature. She’s set out to tell a tale — with help from La Cañada Junior Theater actors Stella Bonstin and Bo Oliver — that will teach viewers a lot about a difficult, despicable chapter in Australian history. And about her.
“It’s one of those stories you wouldn’t believe unless it was true,” said Craig Mazin, an LCF screenwriter who’s had a look at Dupre’s script, and whose children, Jack and Jessica, are among her devoted pupils.
Or in the words of Bonstin, the young actress who’ll play India’s younger sister: “It’s so hard to believe that all that really happened!”
India Dupre was born in Leigh-on-Sea, England, where she and her family lived until 1977, when she was 4 and a doctor suggested that a move to Australia would help improve her asthma.
“He referred us to the Fairbridge Society, who offered Mum a job there as a teacher,” Dupre says in the gripping trailer that helped secure the grant.
“So Mum, my brother, my sister and I took off to the other side of the world. But when we got there, to the middle of nowhere, they ripped up our mum’s letter of employment, took her away from us and forced her and other screaming mothers on a bus. We were left in blistering heat with hundreds of other kids.
“Then they put us to work.”
In 2009, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd formally apologized to the “Forgotten Australians,” including the more than 7,000 former British child migrants like Dupre and her siblings.
From 1912 until 1980, underprivileged British children were the target of immigration schemes by the Fairbridge organization. Operations included a farm school in New South Wales, at which about 1,000 boys and girls were trained to become farmers, or farmers’ wives.
“The overall reason — which we had no idea about then — was that they wanted to have a white colony,” Dupre said recently over tea in LCF.
She said she and her siblings were considered wards of the state and were kept apart from their mother for two years. They stayed either in foster homes or at the Fairbridge farm, which she recalls as a “slave camp.”
Dupre said Fairbridge personnel told her and her siblings, as they did many others, that their mother was dead. And she said they told Margaret Dupre, a singer and dancer who’d arrived in Australia without much formal education, that she could have her children again only if she got a house and a job.
But rampant unemployment in Australia at the time made that difficult, and the prospect of the family’s reunification was bleak.
“She always knew where we were, she just couldn’t get us back,” India Dupre said. “But eventually she got us on a visit — and she took us.”
Together, they went on the run, evading the authorities by hitchhiking from one side of Australia to the other, Dupre said. Sometimes, they lived in apartments, but often they stayed in a tent, carrying their pillows and blankets in trash bags.
They ate only fresh food and opted for flashlights instead of candles after a tent burned down. They entertained themselves with their imagination, or by listening to music on a cassette player that they also used to record messages for their grandparents: “It hasn’t been a very good Christmas because we’ve been rained out,” India can hear her younger self say.
If that seems like a difficult lifestyle, India doesn’t remember it that way. “We just moved all the time; we moved schools a lot, too, but it kind of became normal.”
She said the experience made her adaptable, independent and, in her role as the older sister, “bossy.” Mostly, she learned that when her family was together, life was good. That’s what she wants her film to impart.
“My point is that you can be a different kind of family,” Dupre said. “You can live in a tent and eat fresh fruit and not have a fridge and still be loved. There’s not one specific way to raise your kids. The most important thing is your mother’s love, you know?
“There’s a line in [the film] right now where the social worker is like, ‘Don’t worry, love, we’ll take you somewhere with a nice, proper bed.’ And the girl’s like, ‘I don’t want a proper bed, I want my mum!’”
Australian social workers saw it differently. Especially, perhaps, because Margaret Dupre — who will be played in the short by Katheryn Winnick (“Vikings”) — never landed what would’ve been considered an acceptable job.
Instead, she used her good looks to support her family as they continued to evade authorities. There was a gig with the tourism board that required her to fill meters for visitors while they shopped. She also worked as a model; her image (for which she was paid just $30, India said) still appears on postcards in Gold Coast gift shops.
On the run, India’s mum became something of an Australian icon.
So, when Dupre took to social media recently to research and procure props for the project, she was inundated with images from strangers who’d taken photos of her mom — and of her mom with her kids.
“Because we lived out of trash bags, we didn’t have any photos,” she said. “But because of the [racy] way my mom dressed, everyone took photos of her.”
Dupre remembers feeling both embarrassed and protective, and learning a lot about people based on their treatment of her mother.
“It’s an interesting barometer,” said Dupre, who helps care for her mother, who has moved to Venice Beach. “It tells you a lot about people, and it also made me not want to be judgmental. If somebody is making fun of somebody — not cool.”
Those life lessons are apparent today, Mazin said, in how Dupre leads her lessons.
“She’s living proof that being accepting and being encouraging gets better results than being demanding and critical,” he said. “And it’s not like she grew up without challenges. There are a lot of people who would’ve either given up or would’ve turned sour. She did the opposite: She is just endlessly positive and loving.”
As a teenager, Dupre won the Australian version of “Star Search” and starred in commercials before moving by herself, at 17, to live with an aunt in Laguna Beach. She finished high school there before enrolling at UCLA, graduating and starting her career as a singer and actor, and now, a filmmaker. (She has already gotten started on her next project, a period drama she’s calling “Venice of America,” based on Abbot Kinney’s development of Venice Beach.)
And, of course, she’s a teacher.
“I love seeing the kids get braver and braver,” she said. “I think that’s probably what I teach more than music, just giving it 10 out of 10.”
“And sometimes,” she added, “I think, ‘Oh, my gosh, wow. When I was 8, I lived in 100 different places and in foster homes and in tents.’ But you can’t really think about yourself having done that, but you can project yourself onto someone else. And I was only that little.”