Miranda Tapsell: More women of colour should be sharing the stage and screen with me

Miranda wears Hugo Boss jacket, $1399, and pants, $559, hugoboss.com; Giorgio Armani tuxedo shirt, $1450, (02) 8233 ...

Miranda wears Hugo Boss jacket, $1399, and pants, $559, hugoboss.com; Giorgio Armani tuxedo shirt, $1450, (02) 8233 5800; M.J. Bale bow tie, $60, mjbale.com; Kookai shoes, $160, kookai.com.au; Alinka "Katia" crossover ring, $3900, and "Stasia" two-star ring, $2900, alinkajewellery.com. Photo: Steven Chee

When Miranda Tapsell was studying acting at NIDA, a drama teacher pulled her aside. "You're charming, Miranda, but are you funny?" he asked. It's the kind of remark that may have sent any other young actor packing her bags and heading home. Not Tapsell.

In 2012, she proved doubters wrong when she starred as funny girl Cynthia in the hit comedy The Sapphires, the true story of an all-girl, all-Aboriginal singing group entertaining troops with soul music during the Vietnam War.

The film premiered at Cannes and picked up awards around the world. It was Tapsell's first trip to Europe and her introduction to the big time.

Miranda Tapsell's success in <i>Love Child</i> has shown that mainstream audiences will embrace an indigenous actor, and ...

Miranda Tapsell's success in Love Child has shown that mainstream audiences will embrace an indigenous actor, and character. Photo: Steven Chee

"It's crazy," she says, "I just think, how did this happen? How did it all come full circle like that?"

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I meet Tapsell for an after-work drink near the Ensemble Theatre on Sydney's North Shore. She is dressed simply, in blue jeans, runners and a white T-shirt; hair scraped back, no make-up.

At "not quite 30" (she won't reveal her actual age), she has an impressive CV: Teneka in ABC TV's Redfern Now, Martha in Channel Nine's drama Love Child, Nona in last year's production Radiance for Sydney's Belvoir Street Theatre; The Secret River for ABC-TV and Tiny Tim in Belvoir Street's A Christmas Carol. She also starred in a short film titled Vote Yes in support of the campaign for constitutional recognition of indigenous people. And last year, for Love Child, she picked up two Logie Awards: most outstanding newcomer and most popular new talent.

When I ask if she aspires to be an Aboriginal actor who plays characters that aren't necessarily defined by their backgrounds , she nods. She tells me about her friend, Chinese-Australian writer Benjamin Law, whose memoir The Family Law was recently adapted for SBS-TV.

"He said, 'We don't exclude the fact that they're Chinese, we're gonna have lots of references to them being Chinese, we're going to have Chinese actors on screen, but it doesn't drive the story, it's just normal,' " she says. "I loved that ... I know there's a hunger for those stories, for more diverse stories. I just feel that more women of colour should be sharing the stage and screen with me."

Still, there is power in Aboriginal actors, writers and directors telling their stories, Tapsell says. And the impact is felt far beyond the mob. She says strangers have stopped her to say how moved they were by the story of the Stolen Generations, so graphically depicted in The Sapphires.

"There was a beautiful Filipino girl who nearly burst into tears when she saw me, she stopped me in a shopping centre and she was like, 'Oh my God, I love you!' " Tapsell says.

Another time it was a producer on a job. "She said, 'It's really nice to meet you,' and she had this smile on her face, but then she just burst into tears. She said, 'You have no idea how much that story hurts.' "

Tapsell grew up in the town of Jabiru, in Kakadu National Park, where her father worked with the council and her mother, a Larrakia-Tiwi woman, worked at the local high school.

The family had regular Friday night movie nights and Tapsell fell in love with acting. Her favourite movie was Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, starring then hunk of the moment Kevin Costner. "That was the kind of superhero I liked," says Tapsell. "They had speed, agility and wit, they had things to get them by. A lot of the actors who played them were a little like me, and so I realised, 'Oh, I may not have super strength but I've got speed and agility, and I can be a little bitchy at times.' "

An only child, and the only girl among her boy cousins, Tapsell spent much of her childhood dressing up and putting on shows for her bemused parents. She liked to wear beautiful frilly frocks on family camping trips.

"I was performing in the lounge room constantly, and my mother would be like, 'Oh, look babe, I've really got to put the dinner on.' "

Her school in Jabiru only catered for students up to year 10, so Tapsell's parents, determined that their daughter would get an education, moved the family back to Darwin for high school.

"My mother was constantly on my case to do my homework," Tapsell says. "We argued constantly. But I realised later that as an Aboriginal woman she was never given that opportunity. My family had to work really hard to educate themselves to survive in the mainstream."

A defining moment came when Aboriginal actor Aaron Pedersen came to Tapsell's high school to run a series of drama workshops. At the time Pedersen was starring in the TV series Water Rats and Tapsell was beside herself with excitement. "I got up on the stage and I just really let loose," she says, laughing. "It was funny 'cause I was 13, and everyone was at that age where we're a little bit self-conscious and people were saying to me, 'Oh Miranda, why are you being so weird?' "

"And I said to them, 'Are you kidding me? This is Aaron Pedersen, if there's any time to show off, it's in front of him!' When I saw him, I was like, 'Wow, he's real. He's an actor, that's real, this is all real.'"

Tapsell's first audition for NIDA was unsuccessful. Undeterred, she spent a year working at McDonald's in Darwin and was successful on her second attempt. Her first break came during her third year at NIDA when she was cast in Wesley Enoch's 2008 production of Yibiyung at Sydney's Belvoir Street Theatre. She went in raw and emerged as an actor to be taken seriously.

Fame has given Tapsell a platform and she has not shied away from it. Her own family was not immune from the terrible legacy of the Stolen Generations: her great-grandmother was taken from her Aboriginal family and grew up in domestic service.

"She was raised in a very Western, Christian society, and as a result my people don't have that strong connection to language and culture," Tapsell has said in the past. "We've had to accept that and still be proud of our identity."

That separation from language and culture has remained a burr in Tapsell's heart, so when she held the microphone at the Logies ceremony last year, she took a deep breath and called for more racial diversity on Australian television. "Put more beautiful people of colour on TV and connect viewers in ways which transcend race and unite us," she said. "That's the real Team Australia."

Soon after, when she appeared on Channel Nine's panel show The Verdict, she told audiences that as a child she had been called words like "gin bag" and "nigger". And when host Karl Stefanovic asked if she identified as an Australian, she said no. "When I go to Australia Day [functions]," she told him, "I don't feel like an Australian that day, because essentially people are telling me that I can't be a part of that."

Today, Tapsell chooses her words carefully. She speaks from the heart but emails me later, wanting her words not to be misunderstood. Her parents called her after The Verdict, concerned about the negativity that was coming her way. Her father grew up in the southern Sydney beachside suburb of Cronulla, and is of English, Irish and Czech stock, and Tapsell is at pains to point out that feeling "not Australian" in no way diminishes her love for him or for Australia. Instead, it represents her ongoing struggle with identity.

"I'm often asked, 'Where are you from?' " she says. "As if I'm meant to be from somewhere else, that my dark skin represents some other identity. I'm very proud to be from this country, but I wish more people could take a leaf out of my parents' book because they always saw a more inclusive Australia, where I don't have to explain my identity to anyone because it was embraced from the beginning."

Tapsell is a proud Aboriginal woman, speaking her truth. And she is charming - that early drama teacher was right.

She goes home to Darwin often, only to be reminded that she's still just one of the mob. "In Sydney, I feel like [Sex and the City's] Carrie Bradshaw walking around New York, I just know the place," she says. "But I'd never try to pretend that I'm a Sydneysider in Darwin, or try to deny that Darwin's my home town. I'd be brought down from that cloud real quick, in a very loving way."

As our interview closes, Tapsell shows me the cover photo on her Twitter profile - four animated princesses of the silver screen and all women of colour: Mulan, Tiana from The Princess and the Frog, Pocahontas and Jasmine from Aladdin. They are there to remind her of how much has been accomplished and how much is still to be achieved.

"I just really hope that there's a young Aboriginal girl out there who sees me and sees that it's possible to have a career," she says. "It doesn't have to be acting. But hopefully they can see that I worked really hard to get myself a Western education, and although there are still lots of things that overwhelm me, lots of gaps in my knowledge, I was lucky enough to be given an opportunity. I hope that they can see that I did it, so they can do it, too." 

 

THREE FACTS: 
MIRANDA TAPSELL

  • She was named after the lead character Miranda in Picnic at Hanging Rock.
  • She will star in the third season of Channel Nine's Love Child later this year.
  • She is the newest host of ABC-TV children's series Play School.

 

This story first appeared on Sunday Life. Follow Miranda on @missmirandatap