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"Chasing my dreams": Miranda Tapsell on her lucky childhood, reaching for the stars and her husband's surprise proposal

She's feisty, resolute and isn't afraid to challenge stereotypes.

By Juliet Rieden
There's an infectious energy that glows around actor Miranda Tapsell. It's there as soon as she walks in the room. The megawatt smile, the cheeky laugh, the passion and the drive.
This is a young woman who knows who she is and seizes the day, every day. Miranda goes at a million miles an hour, taking each opportunity that comes her way and giving it her all, even if it breaks scary new ground which it nearly always does.
It's one of the reasons she's already a major star of stage, screen and TV - with a Helpmann award and two Logies under her belt – and is also a screen writer and author with her memoir Top End Girl published last April.
Another of course is her innate talent and versatility ranging from slapstick comedy to serious drama, singing and dancing.
She was handpicked by Aussie director Robert Connolly for his compelling new film The Dry, based on Jane Harper's best-selling crime thriller.
"He rang me on my personal phone, he found my number, and said 'Oh Miranda, I would love for you to play the role of Rita. It's not a big role but we just need someone like you who wears her heart on her sleeve and has that country outlook'"
Rita is heavily pregnant in the punishing summer heat and fiercely protective of her traumatised husband who she needs to know will be there to support his family when the baby comes.
"She's a very outspoken character and when my husband watched it he said, 'Oh God, it's just like being at home!' I said, 'How dare you!'" says Miranda laughing.
Miranda was handpicked by Aussie director Robert Connolly for his compelling new film The Dry.
In the film Federal Agent Aaron Falk - played by Eric Bana - returns to his drought-stricken home town after an absence of 20 years to attend the funeral of his childhood friend, who allegedly murdered his wife and child before taking his own life. The role of Rita is a cameo but it's pivotal.
"She's not a big part in the book but when Rob and [writer] Harry [Cripps] were adapting the film they realised that there was no one pointing out the danger of not only the case but the fact that Eric Bana's character has a past. The cop Raco is so trusting and I think it was important for someone to show that he is a little bit too trusting of this guy who has come back into town," explains Miranda.
They filmed in the town of Donald in regional Victoria where Miranda says the issues of drought and climate change were painfully evident.
"It was really heartbreaking to drive out to Donald and see that all of the river systems had completely gone. We filmed before the 2020 bushfires and that was kind of eerie as well, to have all of that talk about fire in the film, and then have the bushfires happen not long after that."
The film is dark and powerful and a pertinent addition to Miranda's repertoire. At 33 her career is certainly soaring, but it didn't happen overnight.
An early springboard came when she was 16 and won the John Bell Scholarship to train with the Bell Shakespeare company. She won a place NIDA (the National Institute of Dramatic Art) graduating in 2008 and has been doing the hard yards ever since.
"I am so proud of the career I've had," she says.
"I've slogged away at it. I didn't go on Contiki tours. I didn't drop in and out of uni, choosing a course - though there's nothing wrong with that. I guess I'm just saying that sometimes actors really do put in the hours and it doesn't pay off, but it's nice to know that this young Aboriginal girl from a small town left her country, left her community, everything that made her comfortable, and was able to work with Robert Connolly and Eric Bana. When does that happen?"

STANDING TALL

Miranda's determined ambition I discover is deeply seated in a key moment in her childhood. It happened shortly after she moved from her tiny school in the mining town of Jabiru in the Northern Territories where she was raised to go to big school in Darwin.
"Because there wasn't Year 11 and 12 in Kakadu, I moved to Darwin in Year 10," she explains.
"I think it was the best thing to have happened to me because I was part of Corrugated Iron Youth Arts, which is like the Australian Theatre for Young People but in Darwin. And I did dance and drama at school too and I loved it so much."
It was as if a light had been switched on.
"I was really misunderstood a lot of the time as a kid and as a teenager. And I found that art was my way of being able to find the right words to express how I felt, how I saw things."
Age 13 Miranda found her calling. She wanted to be an actor, but she was also painfully aware it was likely to be a pipedream.
"I always used to put on shows for my family in the lounge room. It'd be a song, a dance and something I had written. My mum would get me Deadly Vibe – a wonderful Aboriginal and Islander-run magazine mainly aimed at Aboriginal youth. There were articles about how to be healthy and how to value your education and they'd also profile amazing Aboriginal artists and athletes.
"That's how I came across [actors] Deb Mailman, Aaron Pedersen and Leah Purcell. But I just thought, these guys live in Melbourne and Sydney, that's so far away…And then Aaron Pedersen came to my school and it was that much more tangible. For the first time in my life I felt I could actually reach out and grab on to my dreams."
As she talks it's as if that spark is being lit all over again. Miranda could not only see what she could be, she was talking to him and it literally changed her life.
In Jabiru being different had been Miranda's normal and from a young age she had to learn to battle the status quo. She was biracial, an only child and shorter in stature than her peer group and everyone in her family.
"On Mum's side, they're a basketball team. I was like: "Mum, you didn't think to give me any of this?'".
She jokes about it today, but when girls in her class hit their growing spurt leaving Miranda in the dust, it hurt.
"I knew I wouldn't be an Amazonian, but as a kid, I had imagined being at least average height," she writes in Top End Girl.
She was teased at school and in her own big family. "Dad was one of 12, Mum the eldest of eight…My cousins were used to taunting…and I didn't always handle it well," she recalls.
Miranda comes from a big family who taught her many lessons.
But while there were tough lessons to learn, Miranda was raised to stand up for herself and what she lacked in height, she made up for in a feisty sense of self.
"Jabiru was a very small town back when I lived there with a population of about 1,100 people. It was a very tight-knit community and the kids I went to school with in Year 1 I went right through with to Year 9. But my family was different."
Miranda's mum Barbara is a Larrakia and Tiwi woman, and her father Tony was raised in Cronulla, south of Sydney and moved to the NT working with Aboriginal communities in a local government role.
"Because my mum worked at the school as the Aboriginal and Islander education worker, we lived in town where a lot of the [non-indigenous] mining families had their own little clique without much interaction. But we were one of those families who knew everyone.
"At school, like a lot of Aboriginal kids, I was bullied by non-indigenous kids. They pick up vitriol from their parents and I was judged for identifying as Aboriginal, especially when my Dad isn't.
"As a biracial kid I was made to choose. What I really love about my Dad is that he's such a gentle, affectionate man who I think always made the effort to understand me and my Mum. Because he's not Aboriginal, because he doesn't live with race in the same way we do, he makes the effort to understand what we live with."
Miranda knew her own mind from an early age.

MY PEOPLE

Miranda knew her own mind from an early age and Barbara and Tony kept a diary of all the funny things their daughter would come out with.
"My dad told me that one day when I was four years I old walked into the dining room and he said to me, 'Good morning, my golden girl,' and I told him straight out, 'I'm not a golden girl, I'm a black girl.'"
She says being Aboriginal has always given her a sense of pride and belonging: "It is something I like about myself and is something that can never be separated from who I fundamentally am."
And with that rich history imbedded in her soul Miranda could take on the world.
"I was so lucky," she explains.
"I felt very connected with the Aboriginal communities that I grew up with, Larrakia, Mirrar and Tiwi, and growing up in the 90s and seeing Aboriginal actors like Deborah Mailman and listening to Yothu Yindi, Warumpi Band, Christine Anu – all of these people, these artists, these actors and musicians consolidated for me that there was nothing wrong with being Aboriginal."
Looking back Miranda says she also loved the simplicity of her bush childhood.
"School holidays were spent camping, hiking, fishing. I didn't have as much as I wanted - the American teenage life where you're at the mall, sharing milkshakes with cute boys, eating burgers and pizza. That wasn't my life. But I think it was nice to grow up with different values that you didn't need money to enjoy yourself. Putting people first is always an incredible value to have.
"And what I loved about the country was that everyone was invested in you. It wasn't just my parents who raised me; it was my whole extended family."
Nevertheless, finding her place wasn't easy.
"I think people made up their mind about me when they met me. They see how little I am, they see how brown I am, and there's a lot of people who just said 'oh she's a lovely girl but…' I was one of those wallflowers at parties as a young woman, having people talk in front of me and not with me. But when I found that I was good at something, that's what I latched on to. I can do this.
"I can put on funny voices. I have a good memory for lines. Then I found out that you actually could get paid to do that, and that brought me so much joy."
"I was one of those wallflowers at parties as a young woman, having people talk in front of me and not with me," Miranda says.
Miranda concedes it took a long while to stop worrying about her height though.
"I think lots of short people build up a bit of a complex. My husband says, you don't always have to be tougher, and I remember getting so angry with him when he bought me a step ladder so I could reach my cups and things. I said 'I will clamber up on to the bench, thank you very much!' And he said to me, 'you know people actually don't care? But when they see that you care, that's when they bring it up.'"
Learning not to care happened in a small way a couple of years ago.
"It happened when I turned 30. All the insecurities are still there but there's something about where you put your energy. I found myself worrying a little bit less about my capabilities and had this space in my brain where I could say, okay, this is what I've got to focus on, this is what I've got to do."
Miranda released her book Top End Girl earlier in 2020. (Instagram)

FUNNY MAN

Meeting husband James Colley, a comedy writer for ABC's Gruen and The Weekly, has also given her focus. They actually met on Twitter when Miranda stumbled upon his profile and started following him.
"He was friends with my friends so it's not like this strange catfish story, though he will tell you differently. He thinks I hit him up, that I started flirting," she jokes.
"He was chatting to Aboriginal playwrights and rappers, people I knew, and I was reading all his stuff which was quite funny. Twitter really is for comedians. You've got to think quickly on your feet and say very little. He was good at those punchlines."
They engineered a meeting and Miranda says she felt an instant connection.
"It was so nice to meet someone where I didn't have to try so hard. I was able to talk about Beyonce and hip-hop and things that we both liked. Mind you, he started talking about space because he's a real nerd and I was just like, 'mate you've lost me'."
I ask Miranda about when James proposed to her and she rolls her eyes.
"This is funny," she replies. "We were in Europe before he proposed and we went up to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris and I thought he was going to propose but he didn't. He said to me, shall we get some champagne? And I was like, oh yes, I don't mind! He's got this photo of me which he put on social media from that day where I'm sipping on my wine with a disappointed look on my face. I was not happy!
"But in some ways his proposal was a lot sweeter because it was at a playground where I used to play with my cousins when I came down for school holidays which has a lot of childhood memories."
Miranda sits back and starts retelling an elaborate tale of how, with her parents in the car, James parked up and made her walk up a hill in the heels she was wearing for the theatre visit she had planned for the family that afternoon.
She was extremely cranky until suddenly… "I turned around and he had the box in his hand. His hands were shaking and I didn't even let him get his words out, poor thing, he said, 'Miranda, you make me so happy', and then I started crying with tears of joy and I said to him, 'I'm sorry, I'm a monster… and his face dropped: 'Are you saying no?' I said, 'no, I'm saying yes, I'm saying yes!"
They've been married for two years and spent much of last year together in lockdown in their Melbourne home where laughter has been their medicine.
"James is very, very funny. That's what I really love about our relationship. We are able to make each other laugh. He's particularly good at it when I'm having a rough day and I'm in a foul mood. He's always managed to say or do something really funny that breaks me out of my spell, especially during lockdown."
Miranda and husband James spent much of 2020 in lockdown together - "We are able to make each other laugh. He's particularly good at it when I'm having a rough day" (Instagram)
Next up for Miranda is the Netflix animation Back To The Outback in which she voices Zoe, a Thorny Devil.
"Zoe is incredibly smart, so her friends often rely on her, because she is great at logistics and tactics. She's also a massive emo, so she's often comes across as aloof and deadpan. I was (happily) surprised to be cast as this actually, because I'm more known for being upbeat and friendly," says Miranda.
And then she's writing a time-travel buddy comedy with writer and comedian Nakkiah Lui for an indigenous film makers workshop with Bunya Productions and Netflix. It's a whole new venture for Miranda but true to her career to date she's reaching for the stars.
"Sometimes you just need to be thrown in the deep end, whether you think you can do something or not, and that's what my career has been.
I wasn't ready to leave home when I was 18. I wasn't ready to go to drama school. I wasn't ready to become a professional actor, I wasn't ready to become a screenwriter, but all of those things, every step along the way, I was never ready but I went ahead and did it. For me personally, that's the thing that's paid off."
The Dry is in cinemas from January 1.
WATCH: Miranda Tapsell calls for more "beautiful people of colour" on TV:

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