SUBSCRIBER

Australian actor Miranda Tapsell has made her dreams come true

In her new memoir (yes, she knows she's only 32, but more on that in a moment), Miranda Tapsell says she wanted to perform since she was a teenager, daring to pursue her dream after Aboriginal actor Aaron Pedersen conducted a drama workshop at her high school in Jabiru, the main town in the Kakadu National Park, when she was just 13.


Miranda Tapsell says she didn't want to sugarcoat anything in her memoir. Picture: Supplied

Miranda Tapsell says she didn't want to sugarcoat anything in her memoir. Picture: Supplied

"You don't aspire to be what you cannot see. Aaron made me see," she writes.

"I could actually be paid for all of the things I enjoyed doing at home - dressing up and putting on funny voices. Except rather than do it badly in my lounge room, it could become a craft."

Nearly 20 years later, has she ever told Pedersen of how much he inspired her?

"No, I don't think he does," she said. "We've crossed paths a few times since then but hopefully when he reads the book, he'll remember. I think when you meet a billion people day, I don't expect him to remember a teenager he met in a school one day." Refusing to acknowledge that she is anything but memorable.

Tapsell says she wrote her memoir at 32 because she wanted to document big life events now, when she could remember them.

Tapsell says she wrote her memoir at 32 because she wanted to document big life events now, when she could remember them.

Ever since her big break in the movie The Sapphires in 2012, Tapsell has worked consistently, appearing in everything from Love Child to Doctor, Doctor, The Secret City to Play School and The Dry, the film adaptation of Jane Harper's bestseller. She stars in The Dry with Eric Bana and is still hopeful it will have a cinema release later this year, even in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

Because after so many frenetic years - her book Top End Girl documents her early life but, more particularly the crazy year of 2018 when she co-wrote, produced and starred in the box office hit Top End Wedding as well as organising her own wedding to comedy writer James Colley - things have come to a shuddering halt for Tapsell, and much of the Australian entertainment industry, in the face of the pandemic.

Tapsell says she has been focused on reading and writing new projects during the enforced break from filming but counts herself lucky that James can still work in isolation as a writer for The Weekly with Charlie Pickering. She was undeterred when her book was released during the shutdown, dancing joyfully on Instagram to It's Got to Be Real by Cheryl Lynn, celebrating the achievement the best way she could.

"I know people have said to each other, 'Be kind to yourself and creatively, if you're feeling like you can't make something at the moment, be kind to yourself'. So I'm aware of that, too," she said. "But I'm just really lucky I've had my wonderful husband and friends to bounce off, so it's given me some fulfilment during this time."

Even television's night of nights, the Logies, is not immune, the planned awards ceremony on the Gold Coast on June 28 cancelled because of the virus. Tapsell has already won two Logies, in 2015, for Best New Talent and the Graham Kennedy Award For Most Outstanding Newcomer. Rather than being flippant about the Logies cancellation, Tapsell is poignant.

Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Miranda Tapsell and Shari Sebbens in The Sapphires in 2012. Picture: Supplied.

Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Miranda Tapsell and Shari Sebbens in The Sapphires in 2012. Picture: Supplied.

"Obviously, it's a tough time for events like the Logies because it is a chance for a lot of people to see each other," she said.

"I often don't get to chat to actors I'm not sharing a set with, so it's a really beautiful time to go over to another table and say, 'Hey, I really loved that show, you were great in it'. So, it is a really wonderful night for that. I think what's the toughest thing is that we don't know when we can go back to work.

"I know television and film, particularly, have been the saving grace in a lot of homes [during the coronavirus shutdown] and I sincerely hope, and this is said with love and care, that people do really understand in this time how important it is to keep supporting the industry. Because if things stop being made in Australia, if art slows down, you're not going to have anything to look forward to when you're wanting to have a bit of a relax and an escape."

Miranda Tapsell as a child with her mother and father in Darwin. Picture: supplied

Miranda Tapsell as a child with her mother and father in Darwin. Picture: supplied

A fan of romantic comedies, Tapsell has written her memoir almost as the literary equivalent, the book at once engaging and easy to digest, but with some bigger themes along the way, not least about getting more Aboriginal representation in film and television and her own identity, as the child of an Aboriginal mother and white father. The memoir is also honest, including how hard she found studying at the prestigious acting school NIDA. And very funny. It's difficult not to laugh at her many asides, including the one about a particularly enthusiastic uncle who pulled a muscle while doing the floss at her wedding reception.

"A few people have found that very funny. Hopefully, I don't get into trouble," she said, with a laugh.

"I think that humour has been a way that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community has shared stories for so long.

I don't think there's any great challenge to have different actors from different backgrounds in roles because that's what most Australian workplaces look like, that's what most Australian schools look like.

Miranda Tapsell

"It's not to say, my family don't acknowledge things that make them sad or angry but growing up, on both sides of my family, I learnt very quickly how to tell a good story. It's what my mum loves when people come around. She doesn't want the television on, she doesn't want the radio playing, she just wants everyone sitting around, talking to each other.

"And I wanted to make sure with this book, the person reading it felt like they were the only person I was talking to."

Miranda Tapsell and James Colley at their wedding in Wollongong in 2018. Picture: Supplied

Miranda Tapsell and James Colley at their wedding in Wollongong in 2018. Picture: Supplied

Born in Darwin, a proud Larrakia and Tiwi woman, Tapsell says she had a happy, comfortable childhood. Her dad was the town clerk of the Jabiru Town Council and her mother was a teacher. Her adolescence was more fraught, when high school bullies started to target her Aboriginality.

"While I grew up being proud of everything I am, one of the big reasons I embraced acting was that I knew that being Aboriginal seemed to bother a lot of non-Indigenous people around me. Performing reminded me I didn't have to deny any aspect of myself," she writes in the book.

She was still in high school when she was one of only two students in Australia to win a Bell Shakespeare Regional Scholarship. She worked hard to get into NIDA and even harder to stay there, saying she felt at one stage she was going to be kicked out of the drama school, finding the studies more onerous than she could have ever imagined. That scare spurred her to devote herself even more to her studies and, with that, eventually came the breaks into plays, movies, television. But Tapsell never sugarcoats how difficult it was for her.

"I'm also a terrible liar. I've never been very good at telling someone I'm fine and they believed me," she said.

Miranda Tapsell in Top End Wedding. Her book documents making the 2018 film and organising her own wedding in the one year. Picture: Supplied

Miranda Tapsell in Top End Wedding. Her book documents making the 2018 film and organising her own wedding in the one year. Picture: Supplied

"I also wanted to tell the stories of some of the tougher times I had in becoming an actor because I do get the impression from a lot of my cousins and nieces and nephews younger than me that they're just used to things happening at a faster pace. I particularly wanted to tell my story of going to drama school for young people, even if they don't want to do acting, so that they know, rewards can come with things that take their time. And that it doesn't happen overnight.

"Also, they need to see, hard work is a big part of it. A lot of it is about confidence as well. I had become, out the other side, a very confident person. I had skills, I knew what I was capable of and I think confidence is a huge part of getting a role."

Tapsell played the role of a cadet journalist in the political thriller TV series Secret City, filmed in Canberra and based on the best-selling novels of press gallery veterans Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis.

"I've got a few aunties in Canberra and I've got family friends in Canberra as well. I do know the city well and I remember it being quite cold when I shot Secret City," she said. "I also did The Secret River in Canberra and remember going to the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition at the gallery. My aunty also used to sell a lot of her pottery at the Old Bus Depot Markets and we'd often stop by her stall when we were visiting. I also have an auntie with two Alaskan Malamutes and I'm used to going to all these beautiful parklands around Canberra with her beautiful dogs."

She is still hopeful The Dry, the screen adaptation of Jane Harper's rural-based thriller starring Eric Bana as Aaron Falk, isreleased this year.

"Because I thought Jane Harper's book was fabulous, a lot of people really enjoyed it," she said.

So what was it like working with Erica Bana?

"Oh, he's great. With all the success he's had in Hollywood, he's still a very down-to-earth man. You can tell he's a very diligent and conscientious actor. It was beautiful to watch the ease with which he got into the role," she said.

"I think the funniest thing was how upset he was that I didn't barrack for St Kilda. My cousins Xavier and Raphael Clarke used to play for the Saints many moons ago. And he's like, 'They're your blood! You should be supporting them!' I obviously, did when they played, so I do have a soft spot for the Saints." But, for the record, she barracks for the Sydney Swans.

She hopes, for the future, more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander faces are on TV and film, but in an incidental rather than deliberate way.

"I just feel like with America at the moment, while they've still got a long way to go, they've done a really good job with writing for three-dimensional,complex characters for actors who aren't blonde-haired or blue-eyed. Grey's Anatomy is a great example of that. In fact, a lot of the Shondaland shows like Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, are all really wonderful at doing that," she said.

"And also recently I just watched Mindy Kaling's [Netflix series] Never Have I Ever , a very cute teen show which is a very authentic story normalising the life of an Indian American girl. We can see how it can be done. I don't think there's any great challenge to have different actors from different backgrounds in roles because that's what most Australian workplaces look like, that's what most Australian schools look like and it would only really make the story stronger, because everyone would have a unique point of view, with what's happening in the plot."

Tapsell says her future will involve more writing, more producing, more acting and even another book.

"Whether they're memoirs or not is another thing. A lot of people have asked me, 'Why now? You're only 32, there's so much more life to live'. And I understand that. I have read Dame Judi Dench's and Michael Caine's memoirs, and I've also read a whole bunch of others, and what I got from the two of them is, not regret, just frustration in not being able to recount something in its full entirety.

"They couldn't paint a full picture of what happened in their 20s and 30s because it just happened so long ago. I'm really grateful I was able to document the film I co-wrote and produced and acted, at the same time as my wedding. All these big things that happened while I was a young woman are now documented because it was still fresh in my mind.'

So what would Tapsell say to her 13-year-old self now? That little girl who felt like an outsider. Could she ever dream that she would have achieved so much already in a notoriously difficult and fickle industry?

"I think that's the thing that would have blown her away, that everything she hoped for, came true."

  • Top End Girl is published by Hachette Australia.
This story Hard work makes dreams come true for Australian actor Miranda Tapsell first appeared on The Canberra Times.