Why Miranda Tapsell wrote herself a lead role
MIRANDA Tapsell's romantic comedy game is strong.
So strong in fact, that Gwylim Lee, her co-star in the new Aussie rom-com Top End Wedding, says that if he was ever on a quiz show and faced with a tricky question about the genre, Tapsell would without question be his phone-a-friend lifeline.
So it was hardly surprising that for her first feature film as writer and star, the 31-year-old double Logie award-winning actress turned to the genre that she already knew inside out and had given her so much joy over the years.
She and her co-writer Josh Tyler had already bonded over a mutual love of classics such as When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless In Seattle and My Big Fat Greek Wedding when they realised they had something else in common - a love of the Northern Territory.
"There have been a few films up in the Territory but I think what Top End Wedding captures is just how romantic the Territory is," says Tapsell.
"When I met Josh Tyler, my co-writer, one of the things that made us friends was the fact that Josh had told me was how much fun he had up in the Territory and how much he loved it."
As a proud Larrakia-Tiwi woman, born in Darwin and raised on Mirrar land in Kakadu, the Territory is deeply ingrained in Tapsell, so it became a no-brainer for the aspiring writer to combine those two passions in Top End Wedding, which premiered in Melbourne and reunites the actor with the director of The Sapphires, Wayne Blair.
In it, Tapsell's hotshot indigenous lawyer, Lauren, and Lee's slightly bumbling Brit, Ned, charge around the spectacular far north of Australia in search of the mother of the bride, who has disappeared.
Lauren's quest eventually takes her to her mother's birthplace in the Tiwi Islands for the first time and helps her find her place in her family and the world.
"It is a universal story of just how important it is to know your family and what your roots are because I think (that gives you) a stronger understanding of yourself," says Tapsell, who married writer James Colley in December.
"And if you have a stronger understanding of yourself then you have the ability to give your heart to other people."
Filming in breathtaking locations from Ubirr escarpment in Kakadu to Katherine Gorge and the Tiwi Islands, also allowed the now Sydney-based Tapsell to reconnect with her own heritage and share its charms with the wider world.
"I am so glad that I got to show off where I grew up because I am so proud of where I grew up," Tapsell says.
"I am so proud of the people who have raised me and shaped me into the woman I am today. I am so glad that I got to make a film that was a love letter to them."
Tapsell graduated from NIDA in 2008 and made her film debut opposite Jessica Mauboy in the 2012 hit The Sapphires.
Her roles in Channel 9's Love Child earned her Logies for Best New Talent and Outstanding Newcomer and she's since appeared in Cleverman, Newton's Law and Doctor Doctor.
But it was her desire to step up to headline a film - and a respect for multitalented creators such as Taika Waititi and Mindy Kaling - that led to Top End Wedding.
When no other lead roles were forthcoming, she wrote one herself.
She also wanted to share her culture and experiences with the world. But having famously called for more representation on Australian screens in her Logies acceptance speech in 2015, she'd much rather share her message through her art than from a soapbox.
"I am so blessed with my platform and especially now that I am beginning to write I can now put my heart and soul and everything I believe in into a film like Top End Wedding," she says.
"Things that people want to say on social media or on television to me is just stuff that can be a distraction to what I want to say. I am often burdened with having to justify why people should care about Aboriginal people or why they should embrace a culture that is older than 65,000 years old and I think it's really nice if the people who are on board and do want to know more about indigenous Australia, they can come and see the films that I am now going to make like Top End Wedding."
She stands by her words that more indigenous Australian stories should be told. But as much as Top End Wedding received a warm reception at the chilly Sundance Festival this year, and Tapsell says that many people from minority backgrounds have told her how deeply the film resonated with them, she stresses that it's just her story, told from her experiences.
"I can't possibly tell everything about or speak about the wider Aboriginal experience in a 90-minute film," she says.
"I can only speak what I know of and I can only be honest about that. That's why people in the industry need to back and support indigenous voices because everyone has a different perspective."
For Lee, who was last seen playing guitar guru Brian May in Bohemian Rhapsody, Top End Wedding was an insight into a culture he knew next to nothing about.
He admits a little sheepishly that his experience of the Northern Territory pretty much began and ended with Crocodile Dundee, (which he rewatched just for good measure) but his voyage of discovery filming reflected that of his city lawyer character.
Coming to Australia after getting the script in cold grey London was an easy decision to make, but says his travels around the Top End - from barramundi fishing off Darwin to swimming in Litchfield National Park - were as educational as they were recreational.
"(I was) learning so much about indigenous culture and history and realising that Australia is not really a country but a continent of so many different cultures and countries," he says.
"And also learning about the troubles and conflict of indigenous people throughout history and even still today, really. It's quite shocking in some ways. But what has been lovely about this film is that there has been a beautiful pride and positivity about representing indigenous culture. It hasn't all been angst and anger - it's been a celebration of indigenous identity."
But like so many Brits before him who have visited these shores, it wasn't all plain sailing, with some slightly alarming encounters with the local wildlife.
"It's an endless challenge just to stay alive isn't it?," he says with a laugh. "It was quite a shock seeing the call sheet for the first time and it said 'croc spotters will be on set today'. That's something you don't see on a call sheet in London. Each day there was a new addition to the call sheet that just added to my terror.
"There was 'watch out for snakes today' and then if it's not crocodiles or snakes or spiders, then it's the sun, which is going to bake you. So every morning I would go on a makeup truck and I'd joke with the makeup girls about putting on my suit of armour, which was factor 50 all over, then bug spray, then the ointment on all the bug bites that you got the day before - it was kind of endless. But it's an adventure that I love."
Top End Wedding opens May 2. Miranda Tapsell, Gwylim Lee and Wayne Blair walk the red carpet that Melbourne premiere at The Rivoli in Hawthorn at 4.30pm today.