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Interview with Deborah Mailman – Star of The Sapphires

Interview with Deborah Mailman - Star of The Sapphires

The ads for The Sapphires might feature Chris O’Dowd but the second you sit down for the Sapphires, you will know that reality the movie is not about him.  The movie is the true story about how four aboriginal young women from Australia wound up playing for US troops in Vietnam.  While this might not seem like a feel good or beat sounding film, I assure you it is.  It’s got a great soundtrack and is one of the most feel good movies I’ve seen in a long time.  It touches on issues of race in Australia about how aborigines were treated wrapped up in the Vietnam war and all the politics surrounding it.  At the heart are these four women who love to sing and who just want to make something out of their lives.  O’Dowd plays the drunk who becomes their manager and helps them negotiate Vietnam.

Women and Hollywood spoke with one of the leads Deborah Mailman while she was in NY last week for the premiere. 

Women and Hollywood: You’ve been on a quite a road trip for the last couple of months.

Deborah Mailman: We have, in fact, probably the last ten months to a year; it’s been a very unexpected journey but really wonderful that the film has taken off in the way that it has.

WaH: The film really highlights the race issue in Australia.  Talk about that piece of the story.

DM: 1968-69 was quite a significant time for Indigenous Australia. 1969 brought out the referendum to basically change part of the constitution to include Aboriginal people. Up until then, we weren’t even considered citizens in our own country. So 1969 brought out a change on national scale, on a national conscience, to right what was wrong for so long within our laws. With the film The Sapphires, set in 1968, there was a lot going on in the world, in terms of the US’ own civil rights movement. There were a lot of parallel indigenous communities and nations across the world, not just in America, not just in Australia, but a lot of cultures around the world having to find their own independence within a stronger culture, dominant culture.

WaH: You started on this journey back in 2005 working on the play. So talk a little about the transition; did you play the same character in the play?

DM: No, I actually played the role of Cynthia. It was great, I knew back then how wonderful the script was. We all went out every night on stage and the response from the audience was really great. Fast forward to today, where the script has gone through a few evolutions, but the audience response has remained relatively the same because of that joyous spirit that the story comes from.

WaH: I think the joyous spirit is what makes it so successful.

DM: Absolutely, people understand about family; people understand about being in situations where you have to be brave. People get falling in love. Even though it’s coming from a very specific place, and it’s coming from a country like Australia and it works on so many other different levels. 

WaH: Let’s talk about the difference between going from one role on stage to the leading actress in the movie.

DM: There was such a big time jump between the play in 2005 to actually filming in 2011.  But coming back to the script again and looking at the character of Gail was really great, because I couldn’t play Cynthia. I think for me Gail was the role that I really wanted because she is the mother figure to the girls and I connected to her immediately because I am the mother of two kids. So it was easy to understand that position of being a mother and having to protect your family.

WaH: Did you feel a certain level of responsibility because you were playing a real person?

DM: Yes definitely, we wanted the Aunties, (it’s a term of respect that we have for our elders back home), the original Sapphires to be proud of the film and to do their story justice. Absolutely there was a bit of responsibility. But there’s a lot of license that the writers took too, they did take a lot of liberty to dramatize events within the film. 

WaH: You’re a successful working actress in Australia; and you go from movies and TV to theater. Talk a little bit about how you’ve made a career of this and what it’s like to be a working actress in Australia.

DM: I trained as an actor back in 1991-1992 and graduated in 1992. The Australian film industry is a small industry, so you have to really be flexible within working in different mediums. A lot of actors work in theater, film, and television, because there’s not much opportunity in terms of employment there. So you do have to be resourceful and be able to flex your muscles artistically.  

WaH: Even though it’s small, you have a lot of strong women directors, producers, and writers. Have you had experience working with the great women in your industry?

DM: Yes, I have worked with a lot of really great women directors: Ana Kokkinos, Cate Shortland who just recently directed a film called Lore, another director Rachel Perkins, she’s a an Aboriginal director; and I’ve worked with her three times now and she gave me my first film role actually back in 1997. These great, strong, creative women are driving a lot of these stories back home; it’s fantastic, it’s inspiring.

WaH: What was the biggest challenge in making this film?

DM: That’s a good question.  For me personally making sure we give these women complexities, to make sure that there was always humor and a sense of fun was at the forefront of our minds the whole time. We wanted this to be joyous. We wanted this to be uplifting. We wanted it to be something people come out clapping and laughing. That’s the challenge, to flip the expectation of an indigenous film. For some time, they’ve been very despairing or quite sad, coming from a place of tragedy. For this, it was spinning that on the head and getting it right; making sure we didn’t ignore the fact that we were at a very critical place in Australia at that time, but to have fun within the playing of the story as well.

WaH: What do you hope people are going to get out of this film?

DM: Well, what’s been wonderful in particular about being here in America and when we’ve been traveling to different countries over the world, people have been learning about Aboriginal Australia.  We are actually giving them a story, a place of culture. Actually saying, we are one of the oldest living cultures on Earth, this is where we come from. This is who we are as people, and within that, show them a story that is very specific to these women. So that’s what’s really wonderful that more people are fascinated by our politics by our culture, that’s why we do what we do.

The Sapphires opens March 22 in the US.

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