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How a hit romcom took indigenous Aussie star Miranda Tapsell back to her roots

Miranda Tapsell tells Russell Baillie how she came up with Top End Wedding and why its Northern Territory setting means so much.

Growing up in the Northern Territory with acting dreams, Miranda Tapsell always knew she was going to have to leave. Graduating from the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney – “I felt like Bambi in a cement forest ” – she started paying her dues in the theatre.

As her list of screen credits grew, including a role in the hit The Sapphires, she started cogitating on an idea – a romantic comedy set in her old neighbourhood, starring a character not unlike her. The idea turned into an ache.

“You’ve just got to trust your gut,” she says, from Melbourne. “I carried a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach for five years, but I’m so grateful I listened to it.”

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So, it would appear, is Australia. After its big opening weekend across the ditch, Top End Wedding, which Tapsell co-wrote, executive-produced and stars in, is shaping up to be a homegrown hit. She plays Lauren, an indigenous Adelaide lawyer who, on the eve of a big promotion, gets engaged to her boyfriend (Gwilym Lee, who played Brian May in Bohemian Rhapsody). That means a rushed trip home to Darwin, where, ahead of the wedding, her mum has gone walkabout. The film follows the couple’s attempts to find her, organise their nuptials and get hitched in front of the family and friends who have made the long pilgrimage to the tropics.

There haven’t been many feel-good Australian movies with Aboriginal lead characters or interracial couples – possibly the only other one was The Sapphires, the 2012 comedy about outback indigenous soul sisters entertaining the troops in Vietnam, in which Tapsell played one of the Supremes-like singers.

After that, Tapsell starred in Love Child, the Aussie television series set in a 1960s Kings Cross hospital for unwed mothers. Her performance won her two Logie Awards in 2015 and, with it, a moment. Her acceptance speech imploring the industry to “put more beautiful people of colour on TV and connect viewers in ways which transcend race and unite us” received a standing ovation,

Tapsell has had regular television roles since, while chipping away at a script she hoped would marry the romcom genre to the Territory and her own life.

Miranda Tapsell and Gwilym Lee in Top End Wedding. Photo/Supplied

“To resonate with audiences, romcoms really need the pay-off. To get the laugh, to get the tears, you need a strong structure and within that, I needed to find my perspective on the world. I had to figure out my way of saying what I want to say.”

She worked with co-writer Joshua Tyler and roped in Sapphires director Wayne Blair, who had Hollywood experience and, she says, got what she was trying to do.

“He understood the humour and especially coming from Queensland where the humour is quite similar to the Territory. He said, ‘Oh, Miranda, this is such a beautiful love letter to the Territory and a beautiful story about a sister finding a way home.’”

Darwin-born Tapsell spent some of her childhood in Jabiru in the middle of the Kakadu National Park, which features in the film as it has in others, including Crocodile Dundee. She says as a kid she took it for granted.

“I wanted nothing more than to have the stereotypical Hollywood American teenage life where they are eating burgers and walking around the mall and checking out boys. But I didn’t get that. So, making the film made me so happy, because I got to see my home town through new eyes.”

The film also headed to the Tiwi Islands, north of Darwin, somewhere movie cameras have rarely ventured. They were careful to talk to the indigenous communities before the shoot during last year’s mid-winter dry season. “There was a constant dialogue between not only the Tiwi, but also the Jawoyn, the Warray and the Larrakia in all the places we shot. And as soon as we told them what the story was about, they were so on board.”

The movie serves as quite the tourist brochure for the Territory, even if it reminds of the place’s social ills – the wedding celebrations are booze-free because it is held in a federal government dry zone. Still, Tapsell seems to have pulled off the improbable, a crowd-pleasing movie that touches on the thorny topic of Australian race relations.

“I feel so empowered after making this film, because talking about race and particularly my Aboriginality is something that is always seen as contentious and threatening. But it’s just such a big part of my life and it’s something I can’t divorce myself from.”

Top End Wedding is in cinemas now.

Video: Universal Pictures NZ

This article was first published in the May 25, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.