Interview: Shari Sebbens


Shari Sebbens as Sonya Mackenzie in Australia Day.

“Change the date but also change the system. My worry as an Aboriginal Australian is that after the apology happened everybody assumed that Aboriginal people had equality in this country and it’s just not true.”

Actor Shari Sebbens has only four feature film credits to her name, but it feels like she’s been around forever.
Sebbens’ is most famous for playing Kay in Wayne Blair’s musical hit The Sapphires.
In Australia Day, Sebbens takes on her most challenging role yet as a recently suspended police office who’s on a mission to save the life of young Aboriginal woman, April Tucker, played by the very impressive Mia Madden.

Interview by Matthew Eeles

Tell us about Sonya.
When we meet Sonya McKenzie in the film she’s at a pivotal, life-changing moment for her. I can’t say a lot about where we meet her but she’s an indigenous police officer and her father was also a police officer, played by the most excellent Ernie Dingo. We meet her in the film on a morning where her life has changed irreversibly. She is forced to make a very strong decision about her role in the community and how she’s going to deal with one Aboriginal girl in particular.

Are you the type of actor who creates a backstory for the characters you play?
Generally I do because a lot of the work I do is theatre work. I like to have some sort of backstory playing out in my mind while performing. The great thing about Australia Day is that a backstory wasn’t something that was entirely necessary because the film is so immediate and everything is so urgent and so of the moment.

Soya is a terrific character and I couldn’t help thinking that she would suit a Detective Jay Swan-style Mystery Road TV series platform to explore her character. Is she someone you would consider revisiting?
Absolutely! Aboriginal police officers are a really interesting mix. I had a cousin who was in the police force and it really took a toll on him because he was a black police officer and his daughter is now a police officer and it’s the same for her. There’s a different responsibility to their workforce and their community and I think there’s a wealth of stories in that kind of character.

You mentioned Ernie Dingo who only has a small role in the film during quite a powerful scene. Can you tell us about working with him?
I hadn’t met him but I felt like I knew him because for a time he was the only black fella on television. [Laughs]. I did actually see him when I was eight, in a play called Bran Nue Dae which was written by Jimmy Chi and it was performed by all my cousins from Broome so I felt like he was my uncle from way back when. [Laughs]. Working with Ernie on Australian Day was like working with Australian royalty really.

Mia Madden gives an incredible performance as this broken young girl, April Tucker. Tell us a bit about working with this great talent.
I started working with Mia in The Gods of Wheat Street in 2012 and it has been amazing to watch her grow into this amazing young actor. Now at 16 she’s so intelligent and sensible and grounded for such a young woman. Her presence on screen is incredible.

Did you meet her during the filming of The Sapphires?
Oh my gosh. I forgot she was in that. [Laughs]. We didn’t actually see each other on The Sapphires because she was a little version of a Sapphire. That’s right. Wow. I forgot about that.

Having worked with her on Wheat Street, did you have any influence on her casting in Australia Day?
[Laughs]. I wish I could give myself that credit. I don’t’ think so. Mia and I certainly have a relationship so I’m sure that chemistry helped during the audition process.

Matthew Le Nevez and Shari Sebbens in Australia Day.

Your character’s story is told independently of the others. Did you have much interaction with the likes of Bryan Brown and Sean Keenan while the film was being made?
None at all. [Laughs]. It’s actually the second film I’ve done with Bryan and we’ve actually never met. The first film we did was Warwick Thornton’s The Darkside. Warwick shot that with each actor individually and I had a giggle because one of the questions I got during that time was what was it like to work with Bryan Brown? [Laughs]. And I always answer, “I don’t know”. [Laughs].

One day you may actually work together.
Yeah, I’d love that. He’s an Australian icon. I think you get a good sense of what he’s like in real life from what he’s like on screen. I’m guessing he’s a laid back guy. He’s a great actor and I reckon it’d be awesome to work with him.

And of course there’s Kriv Stenders, one of the busiest directors in Australia. Can you tell us a bit about working with him on Australia Day?
Kriv is one of those people who you call an actor’s director. We did a lot of work during the audition and it really felt more like a workshop than it did an audition process. Over about an hour and a half we did most of Sonya’s scenes from the film so having that time with him in the audition informed me really well and it meant that I had so much to sit with and think about in the month leading up to making the film. He’s just so intelligent with the way he tells his stories and he picks really great teams of people to surround himself with. He’s really cool.   

Share a story with us about working on the set of Australia Day. What was one of your most memorable moments?
Well I don’t drive. [Laughs]. There’s a couple of scenes where I’m pulling up on a street and my Mum and my boyfriend and my little brother were watching the film and they just cracked up laughing. [Laughs]. I felt like a real rock star because I was driving for the first time. They still don’t believe it was me. [Laughs]. I kept promising them that it was me. [Laughs].

So no stunt driver then?
There was for one scene but I can’t remember if it made the cut. I just had so much fun actually getting behind the wheel and getting to feel like a badass.

I asked a mate if anyone in the film actually drove because there seems to be a lot of running from place to place.
[Laughs]. There was so much running. [Laughs]. So much running. Getting to be in Brisbane on the William Jolly Bridge at that time was just beautiful. We did it on a weekend and it was shut down for about an hour for us to film the climactic scene between Mia and myself. We were under the pump but it was really beautiful to just be on that bridge when it was so quiet at that time of day with the sun coming up.

Shari Sebbens and Mia Madden in Australia Day.

It always surprises me how connected our film industry is through its people. You studied at WAAPA. Did any of your fellow students go on to succeed in the industry?
Yeah. I did the Aboriginal theatre course at WAAPA so I did a nine month course. I did my full acting degree at NIDA so there were a few people from my year who have gone on to have really successful careers in theatre and film. Ryan Corr was from my year and he’s one of my brother boys. Miranda Tapsell and I did The Sapphires and she’s a Darwin girl too and she’s one of my sister girls. We’ve had a very close, connected friendship because of our work and we’ve found ourselves in some really amazing situations together.

You’ve got 16 acting credits to your name and you’re still relatively new to the feature film side of things. What’s your dream role? What type of character are you dying to sink your teeth into?
I like complicated women. Men often get to be arseholes on screen and they get to be completely multifaceted and I think the US are leading the way letting women have those same lives on screen. I think Australia has a lot of catching up to do and I hope I get to be a part of that change when it does arrive here.

Lead the charge, Shari. We need to see more of it.
[Laughs]. I’ll do my best. [Laughs]. I promise I’ll do my best.

Finally, I can’t let you go without asking for your opinion on Australia Day, the public holiday. What are your thoughts on the day itself? What aspects of it need to be reconsidered?
Change the date but also change the system. My worry as an Aboriginal Australian is that after the apology happened everybody assumed that Aboriginal people had equality in this country and it’s just not true. I’ve actually heard people say, “We’ve apologised. What more do you want?” and my fear is that if we change the date people will say, “Well we’ve changed the date. What more do you want?”
Changing the date won’t solve literacy rates and it won’t solve life expectancy problems, and it wont close the gap in all those things. It won’t change incarceration rates and it won’t change institutional racism. It is about changing the date but what that means is educating Australia to make people more aware of our history so that we’re all on the same page and that we can all learn and grow together as a country.

Australia Day has a limited theatrical release from September 21.

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