Here’s a film that’s finally hitting theatres – and I can’t wait for people to see it.
“The Sapphires” tells the story of four Australian women who form a music group that travels to Vietnam to entertain troops there during the war in the 1960s – essentially Australia’s answer to “The Supremes”.
They’re played by singer and “Bran Nue Day” star Jessica Mauboy, Aussie screen legend Deborah Mailman and newcomers Miranda Tapsell and Shari Sebbens.
“The Sapphires” debuted at Cannes three months ago and the buzz has been growing steadily since. It’s such a wonderful feel-good flick with some incredible soul songs, it’s also shows a new side of Australian Aboriginal culture never before seen on our screens.
Moviehole’s Hugh Humphreys had a sit down with Miranda Tapsell and Shari Sebbens about what the film means to them, and its whirlwind rise to success since filming began only a year ago.
HUGH: The film has been so long in the works, and debuted at Cannes and got a really great reception – what does it feel like to be finally here?
SHARI: Indescribable. It’s a really weird feeling. There’s all this buzz and excitement but nobody’s seen it! I have 100% faith it will live up to that hype but it’s a weird period – what happens after this?!
HUGH: The reviews and feedback have been so positive. What was it like presenting it at Cannes?
MIRANDA: To be put on the world stage like that, it was such a huge honour. But at the same time I didn’t feel too intimidated by Cannes because everyone wanted the film to do well. It wasn’t like people were waiting to see what happened, everyone said great things about it.
SHARI: People want to feel good and they want to support happy, joyous works. The fact that it crossed a language barrier and a cultural barrier and still moved people in all the right ways is amazing.
MIRANDA: It was amazing to meet French journalists who knew so much about Aboriginal history and culture. Maybe because they pride themselves so much on preserving their language and culture – so when they see a language has been lost and a film about a new language of communicating through singing – their ears pricked up and were really interested which was great.
HUGH: Well, it is a film of cultural significance – its subject matter is about a significant period in Aboriginal history with a lot of changes through the late 1960s; how important was it for you to do justice to that time period and your indigenous heritage?
SHARI: Immensely. For me, the wonderful thing was playing this amazing character from 40 years ago, who is still so relevant today. In terms of identity and what it means to be Aboriginal in regards to the colour of your skin, and it is a great way of connecting with the modern public through film. There are people who look like me, [Shari’s character Kay was brought up as a white girl because of the lighter colour of her skin] and are still as Indigenous as the aunty over there who is just darker! For me that was a really important part of it.
MIRANDA: I just thought it was a wonderful experience to go through. Tony Briggs just wrote an amazing story based on his mum and aunties, and these Eora Eora women have done so much for the Aboriginal community. And I think it would be a crime not to tell that story!
SHARI: I think ANY woman would want to play these roles, black or white! I mean these are four amazing female characters written into it.
HUGH: Who all have such depth too.
MIRANDA: Exactly. They all exist in real-life, mainstream society and it’s such a beautiful thing to see, because we have never seen Aboriginal women in that light before.
HUGH: How much did you learn from the real life Sapphires?
SHARI: Oh, so much. It was a great day with them. We had lunch and it was really funny – no specific character is a particular aunty, we are an amalgamation of all four of them. So everyone’s got bits of everyone’s personalities! There is an obvious Gail and Cynthia and Kay, but no wonder Tony wrote them so well, it’s all there in real life!
HUGH: Did you find yourself sitting back and think “who needs a movie, we could do a documentary on these four women right now”!
SHARI: Yes! You think – take these women back to their younger days and they would have been having a grand old time, these rocking women!
MIRANDA: They’ve still got that youth and vitality about them. I would love to be like that when I’m their age.
HUGH: How did you two get to be involved in the movie?
MIRANDA: Well, actually we auditioned a lot together.
SHARI: We sent off our very first screen test reading for each other. We were in a rush in Darwin, and just put it down!
MIRANDA: And then we got called back and started auditioning – and we learned lines together and I thought “If you and I get this, it’s our first film!” and we both needed to get it so we could help each other through it. Then we started preparing together, and then when we got the role we were just screaming.
SHARI: I had found out I’d got the role and was told not to tell anyone. And Miranda had been told the same – and we had a moment wondering whether we’d both heard and then we didn’t even have to say it, we just looked at each other and started screaming!
HUGH: With the four of you [including Jessica Mauboy and Deborah Mailman – what was it like on set?
SHARI: Madness. Imagine us two and multiply it by four. So much laughter and a stupid amount of fun. People would ask the director Wayne [Blair] if anyone had had a fight yet and it just hadn’t happened! It was just wonderful, and we always see each other constantly. And when the four of us get together, it’s crazy.
MIRANDA: It’s like time doesn’t pass! We became such a tight unit and I think that’s because we all believed in the film so much. We cared about the story so much that we didn’t have the luxury of having an ego, we wanted it to do so well.
SHARI: The story is bigger than any of us and our careers. It’s become a great story and says so much for Australian audiences and Indigenous audiences too. It’s something Australia can be proud of.
HUGH: Deborah has said she loved the way it showed Aboriginal people having so much fun and laughter, because that was something not often seen on our screens.
SHARI: Yes! There’s this idea that people are surprised about a depiction of a mission being so bright and cheery. I mean, Aboriginal people didn’t choose to be on a mission, but what we’re really good at is having a laugh and using family and community to get through personal or in this case, national circumstances.
HUGH: And it really adds that honesty and authenticity to it, because all families – no matter what colour – are like that.
SHARI: Exactly. And I think it truly is one of the reasons we’re still going as a culture – because we know how to depend on each other and have a laugh.
MIRANDA: And what I see in these four characters – and what I see in my family too – is they’re not accepting the hand that’s dealt to them and being better and bigger than that. They think if they’re going to struggle, it’s going to make things better for their children.
SHARI: And it was in a time when white Australia was making a lot of choices for indigenous Australians, and for these women to say – “Nup, I’m going to do it my way!” – was such a big thing. When it was hard to be a woman, let alone a black woman – and to really decide what to do with their own life was amazing.
HUGH: It’s a great story for anyone!
SHARI: And for me – we’ve got an indigenous writer, cinematographer, cast, director – we’re defining our own identity now. And we’re getting a massive mob telling our stories in the way we want to tell them.
MIRANDA: You feel this change in the air. All these exciting projects that are coming up and have come along, will really show to Australia the potential Aboriginal people have. And while it’s great to inform people about the disadvantage Aboriginal people face, it’s really empowering to see them turning around and make the most of their circumstances.
HUGH: And it shows them as real people, not a stereotypical “other”. It’s so relatable for everyone!
SHARI: Well that’s it- it’s why someone like Harvey Weinstein can watch it and cry! And then take it to his own audiences! I mean, wow. It’s not about colour. Sure it’s about four strong Indigenous women, but it’s also about family, about loss and everything like that.
MIRANDA: And we can all identify with wanting to make something of ourselves, having dreams and aspirations and leaving your comfort zone to do something with yourself.
HUGH: And what about Chris O’Dowd [“Bridesmaids”] – what was he like to work with?
SHARI: HORRIBLE! [laughs].
MIRANDA: Really, really, really difficult.
SHARI: He’s so funny, and tall! Especially for Miranda [who’s very short!].
MIRANDA: Picture Gandalf and Frodo. Pretty much, end of story. [laughs].
SHARI: Yeah he was great. Really amazed at how committed to it he was. He was as passionate about the story as we were. But also having fun and letting us all have fun with him.
MIRANDA: Because my role is quite comic and his is too, it was so valuable to watch him and see how he acts and does his comedy.
SHARI: Watching him work, the questions he’d ask about his character in terms of the wider story, and his analysis there gave me a lot to learn from.
HUGH: Was it an incredible learning experience for you, being your first features? Especially with international stars like Chris, and the experience of Wayne as a director, and someone like Deb Mailman who’s an icon of Australian screen.
SHARI: I think that’s why we felt so safe. Because we had so many people – Deb most closely – being a role model and an inspiration for us. She never actively took that position on, just would lead by example. Even today in these interviews, just watching her, I’m always learning from her.
MIRANDA: She’s the most attentive person in the world, and is able to read people so well. I think it’s a really beautiful quality in a person to look into someone’s soul and know what they need; and without judgement. It was a really beautiful energy to have on set. And because we were all in this safety net of people who knew what they were doing, we had the confidence to match them and were empowered to do a great job!
HUGH: And what about the music?
SHARI: Oh, we LOVE the music!
MIRANDA: I’ve loved soul music ever since I saw the stage show when Deb was in it – and I was 17 years old and wanted to be an actress. And it only affirmed it to me when they got up and sang these great songs; I just died. It was perfect. And when the opportunity came along to audition, I just HAD to go for it! And the songs are so beautiful.
SHARI: And the songs are coming back for a younger audience too! I don’t know if everyone will know these songs even exist, but now they’ll know how important these songs were to contemporary music. And how some music today isn’t real music! [laughs].
MIRANDA: All the soul music was fighting for something, trying to say something socially and politically, commenting on it through their music. And I think that’s why it’s still so meaningful, everyone’s experienced fighting for something and there’s so much emotion. But when you sing it it’s so uplifting you just feel you can do anything!
“The Sapphires” opens in cinemas around Australia tomorrow, Thursday August 9.