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The Sapphires - Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell interview

The Sapphires

Interview by Rob Carnevale

DEBORAH Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell – aka The Sapphires – talk about their experiences of making the Australian hit movie and what attracted them to the story in the first place.

They also talk about how Beyonce partly inspired some of their singing and dancing, shooting in Vietnam and working with Chris O’Dowd.

Q. This is based on a true story, so how aware were you of the true story before *you did this film?
Jessica Mauboy: I wasn’t really aware. I had heard back in my home town. But I received the script through Wayne Blair at our first meeting and that was it, that was when the journey began.

Shari Sebbens: I was aware in so far as I’d heard about the stage production that was first mounted in 2005, which Deb [Mailman] was part of, so yeah.

Q. Deb, you were actually in the original stage production, weren’t you?
Deborah Mailman: Yeah, in 2005 with Wayne and that’s the first time I heard about the story, through co-writer Tony Briggs who is a very old, dear friend. So, just hearing about his long story.

Q. And Miranda?
Miranda Tapsell: I actually saw the stage show with Deb in it and I was so star-struck. Was like a mad Beatles fan, fanning myself and going [screams I love you]. It was a very special experience. And it was so wonderful then to get the experience to audition for the film. I thought: “Wow! I get to be [one of] The Sapphires!”

Q. What happened to the girls when they came back from Vietnam?
Deborah Mailman: They did have a career. For the last 40 years they’ve been very active within health and education. I think three of the sisters run the medical centre in Redfern and have been quite instrumental in bettering health and education in communities. But I guess they didn’t come back to singing, they came back and decided to do something different, which was change the situation within communities.

Q. Were the sisters involved in the film at all? And did they ever come to the set?
Shari Sebbens: We met them prior to filming, when we were in rehearsals and they came on set a couple of times. One day in particular, one of the aunties came on and worked with us on the indigenous language.

Q. Is the racism issue very much a raw subject still in Australia?
Shari Sebbens: Indigenous Australians are very much aware… in a lot of ways we are still as racist as the 1960s and 1800s even. But we’re definitely moving forward and that’s what this film is doing. It’s a beautiful vehicle that starts these conversations that Australians aren’t necessarily willing to have a lot of the time. But it’s bringing it to the table in a really celebratory way. But none of us are blind to the racism. We heard these stories from our mothers, our aunties, our parents and still experience it today.

Q. Would anyone else care to comment on that?
Miranda Tapsell: It’s changed the perception of the way indigenous women are portrayed in the media as well. I guess it happens with a lot of minorities around the world. We play domestic violence victims, we play women who have come out of jail, and many negative things. But these women, that were created by Tony Briggs, are really three dimensional, so it was like candy for all these indigenous girls. It was massive for us when it came along.

Deborah Mailman: There’s been a lot of significant change particularly within the filmmaking world over the last five or 10 years especially, where there has been a lot of funding towards indigenous stories and nurturing our filmmakers. So, through those initiatives we’ve seen films like Brand New Day, The Sapphires… all these films have been coming out over the last little while and that’s because there has been a significant shift in people wanting to embrace the stories and embracing them in a genre that the writers want to write them in.

Q. Are the real women as feisty as you are in the film?
Jessica Mauboy: Oh yeah [laughs]. I remember we had our first meet and greet with the aunties… and we call them that because that’s how we refer to all of our elders in Australia, as uncles and aunties. But we had our first meet and greet with them and we were all really quiet and almost intimidated by them, but just hearing them and observing them and really kind of getting the characters out of them was great. We were kind of in awe of them.

Deborah Mailman: Absolutely that family dynamic that you see on-screen is very much there in real life!

Q. Did you have to go on a family boot camp?
Miranda Tapsell: Well, see, myself, Shari and Jess all come from the same home-town. We’re all from Darwin. So, were kind of talking about the people that we know and the food that we love, so we were able to connect with that. And Deb is so naturally lovely and down to earth, so we just really naturally bonded. And because we loved the story so much we knew that we had to do it good service and we didn’t want to jeopardise that.

Q. How difficult was it to get those authentic dance routines?
Deborah Mailman: It was fun. We had a great choreographer on board, Steven Page, who is the artistic director of Bangor dance theatre back home and so we were pretty much locked away in the rehearsal room, sweating every day, going through the songs, until we got to the point we were comfortable doing them in front of the camera.

Q. How was filming in Vietnam?
Jessica Mauboy: It was pretty chaotic. There were times when we had days off and went shopping but it was just beautiful, really beautiful culturally. And we respected that.

Shari Sebbens: We had a night or two to get over the jet-lag and the time difference meant that when we were working until 5am sometimes it was 9am in Australia. So, we were on these clocks going: “Oh, we’re supposed to be getting up now, but I’m actually just finishing and going to bed.” And then there were moments when we’d get someone to go and grab a barbecue pork roll! It was hot and sticky too, so we’d all be sitting in any room that offered any air conditioning. But it was so much fun and such a world away from where we’d been and the luxury of hotels and that sort of stuff.

Q. And Deborah, how was it for you?
Deborah Mailman: It was the first time I’d been to Vietnam and I remember the scene that Chris [O’Dowd] and I were doing on the river bank because there was this tropical storm coming in. We had to try and get this massive scene in the can but had to stop and start, stop and start, because the weather was coming in. It was one of those moments where we’d go until the heavens opened, and then we had to wait until we could get on with the job again. But those moments are really exciting… hard but exciting.

Q. Was it easy to channel your inner soul person?
Jessica Mauboy: I think it was pretty much like the dancing. Lyrically, rhythmically it was pretty full on. We learned every backing vocal, every lead. But again it was wonderful music to be able to do. Land of a Thousand Dances was certainly the one that got us pumping. But I think overall we did pretty good.

Shari Sebbens: Miranda and I kind of had this WWBD thing going: “What would Beyonce do?” We were channelling her every day.

Miranda Tapsell: We couldn’t do these tiny little movements, we had to bust out lie Beyonce, so we did the hair flicks and everything. It was fun!

Shari Sebbens: We also went back and watched old clips on YouTube to see how these amazing original artists did it too.

Miranda Tapsell: It was also great that the choreographer was so familiar with that era. He was so funny because all of us aren’t that classically trained, rather than going ‘5, 6, 7, 8…”, he’d be going: “And leg, arm, leg!” It was awesome [laughs].

Read our review of The Sapphires

Read our interview with Chris O’Dowd