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From Kakadu to Kingsford: Miranda Tapsell

By Madeleine Gray & Dan Hutton on December 30, 2016 in People

Photo:  Johnny Diaz Nicolaidis

Photo: Johnny Diaz Nicolaidis

Where are you originally from?
I’m a Larrakia woman. I’m from, and my people are from, the Darwin region. I didn’t grow up on my country, though. I grew up in Kakadu National Park.

Where are you living these days?
I live in Kingsford. I’ve been living there for a good two years.

What do you love about the Eastern Suburbs?
I like being close to the beach. I love that I’m close to friends and I’m close to the city, and close to the airport. It’s a really great, convenient area. My favourite beach is Maroubra. It’s family-oriented. I feel like I don’t have to be as dressed up as I do in some of the other areas. I like that there’s a sweet little rock pool there that I swim in.

Do you have any favourite local haunts?
I tend to get coffee at 22 Grams on High Street in Randwick. For lunch, I often get a really nice tuna salad there. They’ve got a great green juice there too, and a really fab brekkie – the corn fritters are my favourite. For special occasions the Cookhouse is really lovely. It’s got great tapas and cocktails, and things like that. It’s nice and close to where I live, so if it’s a last-minute sort of shindig with friends, it’s a good little place to go. That’s on Belmore Road.

What gets your goat about the Eastern suburbs?
I just wish that the train line would extend from Edgecliff and Bondi Junction down to Randwick and Maroubra.

How did you get into acting?
I was just really into stories. Whether it was my parents reading to me, or renting videos with my friends, I was just so invested. I liked the idea that you could be the hero of you own life, you know? When I found out you could actually do it for a job I was all for that. When I started high school a young Aaron Pederson came to my school. He made me believe it was possible. Also, seeing Deborah Mailman on TV in The Secret Life of Us and the waves she made, and the way she really made a name for herself on mainstream Australian commercial television, was a huge thing. But it did mean leaving the Northern Territory and it did mean leaving my community, but I knew that if I really wanted to follow that path, that’s what I had to do.

Were they many acting opportunities back at home?
There is a great theatre scene up there. There’s Brown’s Mart Theatre, and obviously the Darwin Festival really goes off. There are lots of local shows, as well as shows that have come up from Melbourne and Sydney, and around the country. So there is a thriving art scene up there, but in terms of screen work, there wasn’t much in the way of that. With opportunities to work on the stage at Belvoir and the Sydney Theatre Company, prestigious theatre companies like that, I did have to move down.

You’re a NIDA graduate; how was the transition from living in the far north of the country to coming down and being smack-bang in the middle of Sydney at NIDA?
Gosh, I just felt lost all the time. I was so disoriented. People in my year were constantly picking me up by car, or I had to meet them at the easiest possible place I could find because this was all before any sort of smartphone or Google Maps, you know? It’s interesting, having been here for quite a while, that I now find Sydney quite small. It’s nothing to travel from one side of Sydney to the other. Things never seem that far away, especially coming from the Territory where everything is at least four hours away.

Did you have any friends down here when you moved down, or were you just thrown straight in the deep end?
I did have family in Sydney, because my dad is originally from Sydney. We’ve always had Christmases down in Sydney with my relatives, but it’s one thing to visit and it’s another to be living there permanently. Also, I wasn’t living close to them because a lot of them live down in the Shire. It was just nice knowing that they were there, though. At the same time, the course was demanding. It demanded a lot of my time, and a lot of my commitment, but I can’t imagine not going through that institution, because things happen so fast [in acting]. You don’t get a lot of time to work on things, and to have a set of skills to help you get through something is so important. I’m grateful to have been given that opportunity. Not many people from the Northern Territory get that opportunity, and I’m one of the lucky ones.

Did you, and do you still, miss home?
Yeah, I miss the change of pace. I get cold too easily, and I get sick of rugging up regularly when I’m in Melbourne or in Sydney for work. It’s just nice to kind of put life into perspective a little bit. You don’t always have to be part of the hustle.

You’ve played some amazing, strong women over the years; what would you consider to be your breakout role?
My breakout role was in a play called ‘Yibiyung’ at the Belvoir St. I played the lead role, whose name is Yibiyung. That was a huge opportunity for me. The director needed to recast because the gorgeous actress Ursula Yovich was pregnant and wasn’t able to play the role. He met me, and I got to not only finish my course at NIDA, but also do a main stage show at Belvoir, which was an incredible experience. It was huge.

You’ve done a lot of theatre as well as film and television; how do the practices in each medium inform each other?
I think what’s nice is that you kind of get to fall in love with the craft of acting again when you go back to the theatre. The great thing, also, about being on screen is that you get to do things again. Sometimes, though, things happen so quickly that you don’t have time to contemplate or build your anxiety over whether you’ve got the capability to do it. I feel like being thrown into the deep end is the greatest challenge. I find it really fulfilling when I have to work fast and I do a good job.

Do you think the boundary between stage actress and film actress is being eroded?
Yeah, I think it’s starting to change a lot. I think actors working in the theatre once found it a lot harder to break into TV, and vice versa. I’m one of the very blessed actors that get to work and be cast in both. I hope that that happens for more actors. To be an all-round actor is how you perfect your craft.

Many of the roles you play have been specifically Indigenous roles; do you feel you have a responsibility to your people to share those Indigenous stories?
I’m one of the few First Nation women to get this platform and to get the opportunity to speak out on things, on issues that face Indigenous people, as well as the way they’re represented on film and TV. I could’ve easily not made the speech that I made at the Logies [on the need for more diverse representation in television], but I could either let people define me or I could define myself. I’m proud of who I am. I want to use my voice to help celebrate Australia’s First Nations people. We’re seeing a rise in Indigenous representation in television, but the reason why I made the speech at the Logies is that it’s still only five per cent. I also spoke about other marginalised groups that are underrepresented on television. I think television and stories are the best ways for people to see and share other walks of life.

Playing Dorothy [from the Wizard of Oz] in this year’s Flickerfest trailer was really special, because I want young girls like me to see that they too can be Dorothy. And the other boys in the trailer, like Meyne Wyatt, Jeremy Ambrum, and Bjorn Steward, who played Tin Man, Lion, and Scarecrow respectively, are all Indigenous, and I thought that was a really lovely celebration of what it means to have dreams and to believe in what is over the rainbow. The beautiful Dena Curtis directed it. She’s a wonderful Indigenous filmmaker. I think we are starting to see more Aboriginal people represented in mainstream television and film, and I just hope it grows more.

In the digital, televised age that we live in, actors are expected to have a stance on what’s going on in the world; would you rather be just an actress, or are you quite happy having that responsibility to speak out?
It’s so interesting that actors are viewed to be apolitical. It’s interesting because I believe that art is political. A wonderful writer named Toni Morrison said that, and I really see her point of view because when you think about Shakespeare, think about Arthur Miller, and think about all the iconic theatre, they all speak on social issues of the time. I think some people have really stigmatised what being political means, and what it is. I think it just means having empathy of what’s happening in your country, and to the people around you. Artists are empathetic people. If we’re not happy with the decisions being made around us then of course we’re going to speak out.

Unfortunately I can’t be separated from the politics surrounding Aboriginal people. It’s attached to me whether I want it to be or not. If I want those situations to change, if I want the gap in health and education to change, then I need to say something. What is really important is to have my friends and work colleagues to back me up in what I say. The expectation to speak on racism and sexism in particular is often left with the people who experience that. They’re left to fight their battles on their own. No one really amplifies their voice. It goes the same for the LGBTQI community. I just believe that burden could be shared around with people who don’t come from a marginalised race, who are able-bodied, who are heterosexual. I feel like they need to not only be in support, but actually vocalise it.

How can theatre reach more diverse audiences?
I think more funding needs to go towards the arts. Unfortunately the Australia Arts Council that funds a lot projects has had its annual funding halved. As a result, tickets can be very expensive, and the people who do support the arts are often just the people who can afford it. I think we need more philanthropists to back the arts. We need our government to see the importance, and the relevance, of art. I think people forget just how much we rely on it on a daily basis. Whenever we tune into Netflix, whenever we buy a song on iTunes, whenever we buy tickets to the movies, that’s an investment in art. It’s obviously a huge part of everyone’s life. To take money away from that means that things get harder to make.

This year you’re an ambassador for Flickerfest; what do you love about our local Academy-accredited short film festival?
I love Bronwyn, who is the CEO there. I just think it’s such a great place for artists like me to get out there. If the phone isn’t ringing, then you go out and make a short film with talented people, and come together to make a really great story. To be able to show it at Bondi, it’s so great. And it’s an Academy-accredited film festival as well. For viewers, there’s a beautiful family atmosphere. It’s very comfy; there are lots of cushions, lots of beach chairs. You get to sit down and watch films at the beach on a huge screen outside under the stars in summer, which is so beautiful.

As ambassador for Flickerfest, what does your role involve?
It’s about encouraging everyone to come along and support short films. Short films aren’t easy to make. They’re done with lots of love, but very little money. Lots of people put their heart and soul into these projects. If people can come along and spend a great night under the stars watching a really great film, then they should do it.

What can short films do that feature-length films can’t?

It’s a lot harder work to make a short film, because it’s almost like a haiku. You haven’t got a long time to tell your story, or to put your message across. You’ve got to do it in only so many words. That takes a very special skill, to really condense the idea. And there’s often a great punchline or twist at the end.

What advice would you give to aspiring Australian actors trying to get a break in the industry?

You’ve kind of got to throw yourself in to it. Not just into acting, either; you’ve actually got to learn about writing, and directing, and producing. You’ve got to do lots of things to really find your voice and find your craft. Find what you love.

You’ve said in the past that you’d love to play some kind of superhero role; which role in particular do you see yourself playing?
Oh gosh, too many. I am a massive comic book fan, and they’re coming into a lot of changes in the Marvel comics in particular. Someone else is going to be Iron Man, and it’s a young African American MIT student called Riri Williams. She’s this amazing aeronautical engineer. She’s now going to take over Tony Stark and be Iron Heart. I’m so down for being Iron Heart. I’ve even got the Iron Man t-shirt. That’s how lame I am.

Do you think that we’ve progressed to the point as a society where an Indigenous Australian woman could be picked to play a role like Wonder Woman?
I remain hopeful that we may see that. I saw the Wonder Woman trailer recently and I just geeked the hell out. I was just like, “Yes, please!” I would want nothing more than to be cast as Wonder Woman. Unfortunately, I’m not tall enough, because she’s meant to be an Amazon; she’s supposed to be really tall.

Are there any other roles you have your eye on, or any new projects coming up in the pipeline?
I recently finished filming a TV show called Newton’s Law with Claudia Karvan. That comes out next year on the ABC. And, of course, Love Child season four will start filming next year too. I’m very excited for 2017.

What’s it been like working on what is arguably Australia’s most iconic television program, Play School?
Oh, it is extremely special. I just love singing and dancing, and making crazy, wild things. I love going back into my imagination in that way, and I love that young kids can go on that journey with me. One thing I’m really bad at though is any form of arts and crafts. That’s something I’m very determined to work on, because my finger painting is just atrocious.

Who would you say are your role models?
I definitely look towards Leah Purcell. She’s a wonderful mentor, and she plays Daisy in Love Child. I’ve known her since I was 19. She’s been a great mentor for me. All the women in my family, too. My mum, my aunties, my grandmothers, they were all huge role models for me, because they all encouraged my education, and they all encouraged me to make something of myself and give it 100 per cent. I owe everything to them.

Do you ever plan on taking the leap and leaving Australia for the bright lights of LA?
I love what America is doing arts-wise at the moment. There are lots of exciting projects, particularly led by African Americans. There’s a lot of diversity starting to grow in a big way, and there are lots of interesting ways that identity and gender politics are being explored, particularly with Transparent and Atlanta with Donald Glover. If I get a chance to go over there, hopefully it’s safe to go over.

In an ideal world, what does the future hold for Miranda Tapsell?

In an ideal world, I think I’d just like to be happy and healthy, and continuing to do what I love.