Interview: Deborah Mailman of “The Sapphires” and “Mental”

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If you’ve seen an Australian film that had Aboriginal characters in it over the past 20 years, you’ve seen Deborah Mailman at work. She was in “Rabbit Proof Fence” and “Bran Nue Day.” She’s in “The Sapphires,” which opens Friday.

And she’s in “Mental,” a Toni Collette/P.J. Hogan comedy that opens in some markets this month. Mailman, 40, is an Indigenous Australian. Her parents give her Australian Aboriginal Bidjera and New Zealand Māori (Ngati Porou and Te Arawa) heritage. She starred in “The Sapphires,” about an Outback girl group that tours Vietnam during the height of the Vietnam War, when it was an Aussie stage play. And she reprises her role, as Gail, the flinty, willful hard-to-like sister in charge, for the movie, which co-stars Chris O’Dowd.

“Four very complex, very strong, very sexy, very headstrong and very real Aboriginal women on the screen. That hasn’t happened before. I had never heard about the entertainers who took these jobs and traveled to a war zone to entertain the troops,” she says. “That’s a fascinating story, because they’re not soldiers, and experiencing the war from their background, through their eyes, was a new idea to me.

“That correlation between African Americans and Aboriginal Australians that the movie shows was always there. My parents’ generation were very influenced by Martin Luther King, Jr. Civil Rights was on the march in America, and in Australia. In America, Martin Luther King was struggling for equal rights, and in Australia, people were inspired by him to attempt to get tribal recognition and equal rights for Aboriginal peoples.

“I like doing movies that touch on Australian history, telling the world about ‘The Stolen Generation’ (Aboriginal children removed from their homes and ‘raised white’).  Most of the world doesn’t know about Aboriginal culture, and any movie that shows you one of the oldest living cultures on this Earth is a great thing. Our country’s history is a lot more than throwing shrimps on the barbee. It’s our national identity that comes through here. “That’s why I do these films. On a very human level, you tell a story that touches on something that is part of your heritage, and that help others understand it. Maybe we can transform the audience, in a way, by informing them.

On “The Sapphires” (my review is here) and its soul and country music subtext. “Soul music and country music are big in my house, and in my community. You hear a LOT of country music in Aboriginal peoples’ homes. “I hadn’t sung or danced outside of that original play. It takes a lot for an actor to just get the confidence to sing and dance – when you’re not a natural singer or dancer – up on the stage every night. WAY out of my comfort zone. The songs are great, but music like that is terrifying to perform.” On Gail’s similarity to her first big role — “the Shrew” in “The Taming of the Shrew,” Shakespeare’s play.

“I played Kate in 93-94, fresh out of acting school, in Brisbane. She and Gail are basically the same character, aren’t they?  Classic girl who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Strong women who tell it like it is.” On the reception of “The Sapphires” —   “When we did the premiere in Dublin last year (in Chris O’Dowd’s stomping grounds), it was the most amazing screening we had. Everybody there GOT the joke. The cultures connect, the way we use language is similar.”

On her role in “Mental” (my review is here) in which she plays the gay pal of Toni Collette, a woman we meet in a mental hospital Collette’s character is visiting. “The script didn’t say, ‘Aboriginal crazy woman,’ so I love that they considered me for that. We’re at a place within our industry where the landscape for indigenous actors is shifting. We’re moving beyond roles that are described as our background. A character doesn’t have to be described as an Aboriginal woman for me to have a shot at it. That happened in ‘Mental,’ where I’m a character who is never regarded as black or Aboriginal. She’s just crazy. “I’ve done TV shows back home that aren’t defined by my heritage, something Australia is just now achieving but something that’s been happening for actors in America for decades. To play a role that isn’t a label is a dream that’s finally starting to come true in Australia. Casting directors have to learn to be braver and look outside the box.

“There’s not too many black faces on the screen in Australia. Never have been. But things are changing. The first indigenous produced and written series is on, now – “Redfern Now” is one that I’m on. And another one’s coming up,’The Gods of Wheat Street.’ So the landscape is shifting for Aboriginal artists who are getting the opportunity to tell their stories. “But there’s a part of me that goes, ‘Let’s make this go a little bit faster.’

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