Miranda Tapsell realised she had forgotten about the theatre. She had forgotten what she calls its “little musicality” — the way each performance takes on a new, unrepeatable form. The realisation came after months of Melbourne lockdowns, when she ventured to Sydney and saw Griffin Theatre Company’s “Superheroes”, directed by her co-star in “The Sapphires” Shari Sebbens. This is what it feels like, she thought. This is how special it is. “There was something really emotional about going to the theatre again,” she says, “because I had gone into survival mode.”
There is no self-pity when she says this. In fact, she’s grateful for her good luck over the past year. The fortuitous timing that has always buoyed her career continued in 2020 with projects that, by chance, almost synchronised with the lockdowns.
When much of the country was housebound, Tapsell’s 2019 romantic comedy, “Top End Wedding”, took on a second life as a Netflix hit. “Heaps of mums were looking for a film to watch with their daughters, and that made me really, really happy,” she says. Then, just as life was returning to some version of normal, “The Dry” opened in cinemas.
Shot in 2019, the film was released on New Year’s Day 2021 to an audience starving for the big screen. “I only play a small part in that, but I was just blown away to find out how many people went,” Tapsell says. It was communal. It forced the audience to disengage from the world around them. “For 90 minutes they got to escape, they got to invest in this movie for a little while,” she says.
All that time away from the cinema and the theatre had her thinking about acting and the differences between stage and screen, cinema and television. For her next film, an animation titled “Back to the Outback”, she was able to voice the character at home. She stars as an “emo” thorny devil, playing alongside Isla Fisher, Tim Minchin, Eric Bana and Guy Pearce. “She’s very different to a lot of the characters I’ve played,” Tapsell says. Because she’s a lizard? “Because she’s a loser. She’s got that sort of grungy girl — ’90s girl — thing going on. So I had to find that.”
The lockdowns also pushed her to get back into writing. Her memoir, “Top End Girl”, which will be released in paperback in March, was composed in the snatches of time between takes or whenever shooting was behind schedule. Working like that suited her — even if it meant writing in full costume and makeup. “As one of the world’s biggest overthinkers, I didn’t have that luxury,” she says.
Confinement meant more dedicated, at-the-desk writing, accompanied by the music of Smoothfm. Her husband, the comedian James Colley, complained about the power ballads. But Tapsell remains unapologetic. “I grew up with ‘Flashdance’,” she says. “The ’80s was all about following your dream. Because I’ve got that nostalgic memory of it, it reinvigorates me when I’m in a slump.” (Her writing has the soundtrack — and pace — of an ’80s montage sequence.)
Tapsell’s personal relationships tend to become working relationships and vice versa, and she occasionally co-scripts with Colley. Other writing partners include Joshua Tyler, with whom she wrote “Top End Wedding” and the children’s book “Aunty’s Wedding”, and, of course, the playwright and actor Nakkiah Lui.
The Lui/Tapsell meet-cute has become a favourite anecdote. They met at the National Institute of Dramatic Art, where Tapsell had graduated as one of only two Aboriginal students in her class. She says she still felt “out of place, there in that building”. Lui had been on a panel of playwrights and afterwards in the foyer, as the hors d’oeuvre circulated, she sidled up to Tapsell and said, “Do you think anyone would be judging us if we got a second glass of wine?”
“I just sort of burst out laughing,” Tapsell says. “There is so much stigma around Aboriginal people and alcohol, and a weight came off my shoulders.” She was no longer the only one feeling that way.
Since then, they have co-hosted two podcast series: BuzzFeed’s “Pretty for an Aboriginal” and the Audible Original “Debutante: Race, Resistance and Girl Power”. Listening to them speak is like eavesdropping on a conversation between old friends. What drives it? “Her energy,” Tapsell says (when she speaks about Lui, she starts doubling pronouns). “Her, her passion. Her, her fearlessness. I continue to work towards [that] every day.”
The two were selected for the Bunya Talent Indigenous Hub, a collaboration between Netflix Australia and Screen Australia. The incubation program was supposed to run in Los Angeles last March but suffered the same fate as everything else in 2020: it was rescheduled, shifted online.
Tapsell pioneered some of the conversations about representation, sharing thoughts that were met with some resistance. It drove her to write more and she noticed her views were shifting. “My opinion on representation has changed since I started in the industry,” she says. “More recently, I’ve started to think to myself, ‘Is representation enough? Or is it just a foot in the door?’ It’s very important but it’s not the be-all and end-all.”
Is it enough, she asks, for Aboriginal people to just “be there” on the screen, or should they be driving the story? And what of the characters, do they have needs and aspirations in the script? Is their viewpoint authentic?
These questions are a business matter, as well as political one. “If I can go and see ‘The Expendables’ and watch it and enjoy it for what it is then, surely, people who don’t look like me can go and see a show led by Aboriginal people.” No doubt there will be something in there they can relate to, she says.
As an aside, Tapsell admits she has a soft spot for the star of the franchise, Sylvester Stallone — that icon of motivation, 1980s-style.