Portrait

Taking the journey from The Sapphires to Top End Wedding with Larrakia actress Miranda Tapsell.

By Brodie Lancaster.

Top End Wedding actress Miranda Tapsell

A woman walks carefully across the grass outside a community hall, each step a reminder this land is where the roots of her matriarchal family tree are planted deep. Later, under the sun on a Tiwi Islands beach, she calls her fiancé to let him know she’s just learnt the word for “husband” in Traditional Tiwi, a complex language isolate spoken mainly by older generations of the 2000-odd people living on the islands where the Timor Sea joins the Arafura Sea.

Here is the relationship at the centre of Top End Wedding, not the love story between the future man and wife – the idealistic Ned and determined young lawyer Lauren, played by Miranda Tapsell – but rather the love Lauren finds for Tiwi, for being on country, for the pieces of herself that snap together with a satisfying click when she visits for the first time the islands her mother left as a young woman.

“I don’t want to make art for art’s sake,” says Tapsell, who co-wrote the film, her first feature writing credit. “I feel like I’ve got so much to say, and I know that I can’t always sum it up at a barbecue or a party.”

Like her character, she grew up in Darwin, a place she says is so rarely visited by most Australians. “The very few people who have been up there just talk about how hot and expensive it is,” she quips. She describes herself as a socially awkward person, someone whose actorly facade disguises the fact she often feels uncomfortable, tangled in a near-constant struggle to find her place.

A Larrakia woman from Darwin, Tapsell spent much of her childhood living in Jabiru, in Kakadu National Park. She left the Territory for Sydney, at 18, to study at the National Institute of Dramatic Art, the start of an acting journey that’s seen her star in the musical comedy The Sapphires. Her performance in Channel Nine’s Love Child won her two Logies at the 2015 awards, where she used an acceptance speech to call on the industry to “Put more beautiful people of colour on TV and connect viewers in ways which transcend race and unite us”.

“I feel like women’s desires and hopes and dreams can be policed sometimes,” Tapsell says. “What I’ve loved about rom-coms is that they give me permission to be bold and to dream big. It’s kind of nice to go, ‘Why can’t I have the career I want? Why can’t I have the relationship that I want?’ and not compromise on that.”

A great many of the rom-coms she grew up internalising depict women, mostly white women, juggling both careers and relationships, and perhaps letting one fall in hopes of keeping a tighter grip on the other. When it came time to write her own story, both were a given.

The film opens with her character, Lauren, getting a promotion at her law job in Adelaide and watching her boyfriend, played by Gwilym Lee, get down on one knee, all in the same day. With the two motivating forces of the genre settled so early in the first act, where can the story go?

For Tapsell, the answer was always clear – home.

“The whole thing that I was grappling with throughout writing it was, This is not Meg Ryan living in New York. This isn’t Reese Witherspoon, even though she’s a country girl. This isn’t Katherine Heigl,” says Tapsell, dropping the trifecta of blonde rom-com stars from the 2000s. “So, how do I speak honestly and authentically about Lauren and where she’s grown up and the way she’s understood the world? How do you put that on the page?”

When a young Aboriginal woman sets out to write a romantic comedy about land and culture and community, there is no prescribed path. In the canon of films featuring this country’s first people, there are powerful stories of survival in the face of trauma, family separation and colonisation, each essential in highlighting Australia’s ugly recent history. But there also remain endless contemporary stories to be told, to broaden the scope of what is possible, not just for actors but for the people they are representing.

Top End Wedding tells a story that’s incredibly specific in its narrative and geography. Framing that through the lens of a big-budget mainstream romantic comedy, one to premiere at Sundance where the year in film is often predicted and cemented, was no simple task. Co-written with Joshua Tyler, the film also exists as an expression of his and Tapsell’s friendship, which she says was forged through a mutual love of a genre long cast aside as niche or not worthy of attention.

“I’m really thankful that I’m living in a climate where there’s Crazy Rich Asians, The Big Sick and The Incredible Jessica James on Netflix,” Tapsell says. “These are people who aren’t Aboriginal but they are from a marginalised ethnic background, and they’re trying to understand themselves in a relationship. It did give me that permission to stand on my own two feet and trust what I was saying.”

The night before our interview, Tapsell walked the red carpet with Lee at the film’s Melbourne premiere. The adrenalin still seems to be coursing through her when we meet. She is generous and enthusiastic, and wide-eyed in the most literal sense, with no allusions to innocence or naivety. Stationed on a couch in her hotel after a morning of press, she slips off her heels and emphatically describes what it was like for her, her crew and her story to be so warmly welcomed by the community in the Top End who, without even knowing it, were so essential in the formation of both Tapsell and her film.

“Even people in my life have gotten to know me better because of the art I’ve made,” she tells me. “I turned to acting because I always turned to stories to understand myself better. It was my compass.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 27, 2019 as "Country strong". Subscribe here.

Brodie Lancaster
is a critic and the author of No Way! Okay, Fine.