October 2012


The Mailman express

By Nick Bryant
Deborah Mailman, September 2012. © Tim Bauer
Deborah Mailman, September 2012. © Tim Bauer
An actress on a roll

Deborah Mailman introduced herself to the Australian movie-going public in 1998 by peeing on a plastic pregnancy test, watching in mounting fright as the solitary blue line slowly became parallel bars, and exclaiming, “Shit.” The film was Radiance; she was Nona, the tomboyish youngest of three sisters thrust together after the death of their mother on a desolate stretch of Top End coastline. She cavorted in a black negligee wearing a Marilyn Monroe wig, simulated an orgasm à la Meg Ryan, mimed sultrily to an aria from Madame Butterfly and leapt from a pier into the ocean in a Tosca-style denouement. For all the slapstick and showy set-pieces, what stood out about Mailman’s debut film performance was her magnetism, powered by a Julia Roberts smile.

Fourteen years later, she is careering around Sydney from one appointment to the next before flying off to the Toronto Film Festival, where the hit movie The Sapphires is making its North American debut. By midmorning, she is running over half an hour late. Waiting on the deck of her publicist’s home in North Sydney, I imagine a chaotic, real-life version of Nona crashing through the door any minute. The woman who enters, though, is unflustered. In a soft voice, Deborah Mailman apologises serenely and profusely for being late and gives me a warm, two-handed handshake. Before our interview, a mutual friend had advised me: “Don’t load her up with indigenous stuff.” When I tell her this she guffaws with laughter, then leans sharply to one side, as if falling off her chair. “Look, there’s a hell of a lot that needs to change,” she says. “But I never saw myself as a trailblazer.”

Still, Mailman’s path to success wasn’t exactly smoothed out for her. Just as she had to scrap to be cast as Nona – she cold-called and cajoled the film’s director, Rachel Perkins, into watching her play the same role on stage in Brisbane – she was originally not considered for her biggest part to date. When the producers started to assemble the actors to play The Sapphires, the sisterly Aboriginal singing troupe whose quest for stardom takes them from a Murray River mission to the front lines of Vietnam, Mailman was deemed too old. “When they put the audition call out, they were looking for girls between 16 and 28,” says Mailman, who had played the youngest Sapphire, Cynthia, in the original stage show. “They put me through the wringer. Audition after audition after audition.” In all, there were some 250 auditions as the producers tried various permutations. “Then it got down to a short list and I kept elbowing my way in.”

And so, last May in Cannes, it was a 39-year-old mother of two who found herself alongside director Wayne Blair and her Irish co-star Chris O’Dowd in a limousine flanked by motorcycle outriders, as they headed down the palm tree–lined Promenade de la Croisette to the film’s international premiere. “You could just hear this collective deep breathing going on in the back seat,” she recalls. Hordes of photographers came into view. “Someone said, ‘Are they for us? They are probably expecting Brad.’”

Afterwards, the cast danced back down the red carpet, having just received a ten-minute standing ovation. “We were all looking at each other, and saying, ‘Oh my god, what’s this all about?’” she says. “We didn’t realise it was ten minutes. They told us that much later.”

Australian audiences have since responded, too. So far the movie has grossed more than $10 million at the box office, one of just a handful of local movies to do so in the past five years, and an unprecedented commercial return for a film from an indigenous director with a mainly indigenous cast. “We now have an audience,” says Mailman. “There are people who really know their craft and an audience who want to hear our stories.”

Critically for an indigenous film, The Sapphires intended to make Australian audiences feel good rather than guilty, and dealt with racism in an unconfronting way. There are echoes of this in Mailman’s success. In the age of the sermonising movie star, she’s no activist but her charm is creating a ripple effect of its own.


Deborah Mailman is the product of an improbable love story with definite cinematic potential. If its closing scene is that red carpet ballet on the French Riviera, it might open in the rust-coloured dirt of a Queensland rodeo ring with her father, Wally, struggling to stay on his bucking mount. His rough-riding skills pulled crowds even in New Zealand, where, at a bushman’s ball in North Island’s Tokomaru Bay, he met Deborah’s mother, Jane. The next time he crossed ‘the ditch’ was to marry his Maori bride. After working at various cattle stations, the couple settled in the mining town of Mount Isa, where Deborah was born in 1972, the youngest of four children. In memory of her late father, the town is now home to the Mailman Express Sprint Horse Race, an annual 200-metre time trial staged as part of its famous rodeo.

“Dad was a great showman and a great storyteller, and loved being the centre of attention,” says Mailman. “I’m a bit more like Mum in terms of my nature and my personality.” At school, she was “ridiculously awkward” and teased about her weight. It did not help that her maths teacher came up with the idea of a “mass tree”, which involved pupils stepping on to scales and posting their weight in fluoro orange on green paper leaves. Mailman, who reckons she weighed twice as much as her classmates, often avoided this humiliation by wagging school. “There were some pretty shitty times that I had as a kid.”

She identifies as a member of Mount Isa’s Kalkadoon mob, though her father was a Bidjara man from central Queensland. Wally Mailman did not actively encourage his children to immerse themselves in indigenous culture and it seems his daughter felt as much defined by her weight as by her Aboriginality. All the same, she grew up conscious of her race, and the confines it imposed. Invited to play the lead in a school production of The Wizard of Oz, she refused. Summoned to the principal’s office to explain herself, she said simply: “Dorothy’s not black!”

Her interest in acting was kindled in high school. Spotting her talent, Mailman’s drama teacher encouraged her to pursue acting at university – a departure for a teenager whose sister trained as an electrician and whose brothers became boilermakers. Fearful that Sydney would “swallow me up”, she opted for drama school in Brisbane. Though overwhelmed initially – “this is way too big a world for me” – eventually she made friends, threw herself into theatre and discovered that she “loved the rawness of a live audience”.

After graduating in 1992, she toured regional Queensland with a play called Gwenda, a story inspired by her life and written by her high school drama teacher. With a collapsible set that fitted into the back of a Tarago, they drove from one high school to the next, the highlight being a performance at the Mount Isa Civic Centre, with her parents in the audience.

Bigger roles followed with the Queensland Theatre Company. Her first major production involved playing the Aboriginal activist and author Kath Walker, aka Oodgeroo Noonuccal, in One Woman’s Song. Then came parts in King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew. Six years after graduating, she landed her debut film role, in Radiance. Critics were charmed – one described her as “a powerhouse”. The film, adapted from Louis Nowra’s stage play, won the audience awards at the Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney film festivals. The ensemble piece also netted Mailman the AFI award for best performance by a leading actress. In what she describes as a “gorgeously, ridiculously thrilling moment”, she was presented with the trophy on the storm-strewn forecourt of the Sydney Opera House, lightning flashing behind her, still caked in thick white makeup, having come straight from performing Cordelia in Barrie Kosky’s King Lear. “All I could think was ‘I’m going to get bloody electrocuted here,’” she recalls.

Radiance also helped launch two very handy filmmakers. The first-time director, Rachel Perkins, would work with Mailman again in the musical-turned-movie Bran Nue Dae and the recent ABC drama Mabo. And the young cinematographer shooting his first feature, Warwick Thornton, would go on to create Samson and Delilah and was the director of photography for The Sapphires.

After Radiance, Mailman had to wait four years for her role in Rabbit Proof Fence, an unusually long absence from the big screen for an AFI award–winning actress. Yet she cannot recall feeling resentful: “My naivety saved me from getting too pissed off about the world. I just get on with it.”

Meanwhile, in 2001, the Channel Ten drama The Secret Life of Us provided her television breakthrough. Like her current role in the hit series Offspring, her bouncy Secret Life character, Kelly, was not written with an Aboriginal actress in mind. “She was cast because she’s a great actress,” says Rhys Muldoon, who starred alongside her. “She just happened to be a black chick.” The Secret Life of Us told the story of a group of twenty-somethings sharing a flat in St Kilda. Muldoon claims one their scenes together marked Australia’s first on-screen “white bloke–black chick fuck”. Regardless, Mailman’s catchy performance was deceptively significant. Suddenly an indigenous character had girl next-door appeal.

“With the weapons at her disposal, she could steal every scene,” says Muldoon, “but she’s a very generous actress.” A case in point is Bran Nue Dae, Perkins’ foot-tapping 2010 movie, in which Mailman played the boozy vixen Roxanne. (“Come with me,” she slurs in one scene. “I’ll show you a condom trick.”) The film’s promotional posters featured Geoffrey Rush, singers Jessica Mauboy and Missy Higgins, comedian Magda Szubanski and Ernie Dingo, but not Mailman. When her name was pulled from a golden envelope at the AFI awards, for best supporting actress, she was outside the auditorium, “yarning” with Perkins. The MC, Shane Jacobson, had to accept the award on her behalf.

Bran Nue Dae brought a fresh irreverence to indigenous filmmaking. It showed white audiences that it was “OK to laugh about Aboriginal stuff”, as Perkins put it. “It’s about telling our stories in a genre that is unexpected,” explains Mailman. “People look at Bran Nue Dae and go, ‘Oh, it’s a comedy.’ Yes, we blackfellas have got a sense of humour.”

Some of her recent roles have been more overtly political. In The Sapphires, her character is the conscience of the group, and drives the narrative when it touches fleetingly on issues like the Stolen Generations. And in the telemovie Mabo, she plays Bonita Mabo, wife of Eddie, the land rights hero. At first, she was unsure whether to take the part: “I wanted to know that the family were on board.” She was also daunted by the story’s historical magnitude. “This is huge, really huge, and I didn’t know if I was up for it.” She delivered perhaps her most complete performance yet, following the arc of Bonita’s life from the inauspicious moment she first met Eddie on the street outside a pub through their ten-year legal struggle to the day in 1992 when the High Court ruled in her (by then deceased) husband’s favour. Bonita, grey and wizened, heard the news on a radio bulletin and Mailman’s rendition of her disbelieving joy at that instant is pitch-perfect – a statement as resonant as any political slogan.

She is determined to pursue a manageable career: one that does not take her away too often from her home on the NSW coast, near Wollongong, where she lives with husband Matthew Coonan, who runs an internet start-up, and her two young boys, Henry and Oliver. But she’s been busy. Presently in cinemas, she plays Toni Collette’s chaotic lesbian lover in Mental, PJ Hogan’s sequel of sorts to Muriel’s Wedding. Next month, she stars in the breakthrough indigenous-made ABC drama Redfern Now, and there’s another season of Offspring in the offing.

Mailman points out there are just two indigenous actors who feature regularly on commercial television – herself and Aaron Pedersen. Ten years ago the other was Ernie Dingo. Even Offspring, which resembles polyglot Australia more than most commercial dramas, only goes so far. Her character, nurse Cherie Butterfield, exists in isolation from her mob.

But is it too much to hope for a ‘Mailman effect’, with filmmakers casting more indigenous actors in conventional roles? “It’s getting indigenous content into the mainstream. That’s what needs to shift,” she says. “I’m not going to stand on one leg with the big bloody trident spear and say this is what we need to do.” She flashes that smile that may just be weapon enough.

Nick Bryant

Nick Bryant is a broadcaster and writer, who has just returned to Australia after covering the Trump years for the BBC. His latest book is When America Stopped Being Great: A History of the Present.


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