There’s a lot of ink spilled about so-called ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ in Australia, but we do tend to hold our genuinely talented public figures in high regard. Take Deborah Mailman – the luminous star of The Secret Life Of Us, Offspring and Bran Due Dae seems almost universally adored by audiences.

But even Mailman said she was unprepared for the groundswell of affection that’s met her latest film, the musical biopic The Sapphires.

“I’ve never experienced this before; I’m doing lots of media and everyone genuinely loves the film,” she told the Star Observer.

“I love that I’m talking about this film and talking about this story – it means everything to me.”

Based on the 2005 stage play of the same name, The Sapphires tells the incredible true story of how a group of young Indigenous country and western singers from a remote Aboriginal mission found themselves in war-torn Vietnam, singing gritty soul standards to entertain the American Marines.

Mailman plays eldest Sapphire Gail, with Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell her younger charges. Scruffy, wisecracking Bridesmaids star Chris O’Dowd plays Dave, the scruffy, wisecracking manager who ‘discovers’ the girls.

“I love these girls, I really do. We’ve clicked right from the onset, and it made the experience of filming much more resonant. They’re my sisters now,” Mailman said.

The four bring a sparkling array of talents to the film, with Tapsell a particular standout as the wide-eyed, sexed-up Cynthia. While Mauboy is arguably the least experienced actor of the quartet, she’s far and away the best singer. The reverse is true of Mailman, who admitted she’d struggled with the vocal aspect of the role since first appearing in the original stage production.

“To be in the original production was probably the most challenging job I’ve ever had. I had to sing on stage, which is pretty hard for me to do,” she said, wincing at the memory.

“Anytime I’ve had to sing, I’ve been rehearsed ‘into’ a song. I could never just get up and belt out a tune in the way Jess does so brilliantly.”

Once Mailman heard writer Tony Briggs was working on a film version of the play with director Wayne Blair, she knew she had to be involved. There was one problem: she was at least a decade older than the mid-20s age bracket producers were looking to cast.

Thankfully, Mailman looks much younger than her 40 years, which works in the film’s favour as Gail looks very much a sibling to youngest sister Julie (Mauboy), despite 18 years separating the two women.

“That was the fight, to prove that. Half the challenge was making us all look believable as siblings even though the other girls are all in their 20s,” she said.

“It was great to be able to play Gail. She resonates for me more than any of the other characters, because she’s the mama bear and the protector. That’s how I felt when we were filming.”

Gail is one of two living Indingeous women Mailman has played recently, alongside her stunning portrayal of Bonita Mabo in director Rachel Perkins’ telemovie Mabo.

How did she deal with the pressure of knowing her performances could be judged against their real-life counterparts?

“A lot of the times you don’t have that choice, so to be offered these amazing characters that are still here and have contributed so much to communities over the years – I don’t know how it came to be,” she said.

“With Bonita, it was the first time I’d played someone real. It was nerve wracking but great, because I could really pick her brains about everything. With the Sapphires, it’s not so much of a direct biopic, it’s more an amalgamation of a lot of their energies and experiences of the girls, so the pressure wasn’t quite so great.”

Between Mabo, The Sapphires, Bran Nue Dae and grittier fare like Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah, Mailman acknowledged Indigenous cinema had experienced a coming of age in recent years.

“We are encouraging and nurturing our writers and directors out there, so there is a real diversity of stories that’s started to come through in the past few years. Suddenly you do have a Warwick Thornton and a Rachel Perkins and a Wayne Blair, all very different artists with very different voices.

“It’s been wonderful for me as an actor – these two roles, in Mabo and The Sapphires, have been the most important work I’ve ever done.”

INFO: The Sapphires is in cinemas August 9.

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