Barbara Tapsell vividly remembers the moment she learned she was about to be a grandmother.
She and husband Tony were in the final days of their holiday to Melbourne to see their only child. It was a glorious sunny day and as her daughter emerged from taking a shower, hair freshly washed, she was glowing.
“I just looked at her and thought, ‘Miranda looks different for some reason’,” she tells The Weekly.
For Miranda Tapsell herself, the discovery would not happen for well over a month later. Having been trying to become pregnant for 18 months, she’d convinced herself that maybe a baby just wasn’t on the cards for her and husband James Colley, 31.
“I’d spent so long as a young woman learning about contraception and how not to get pregnant, that learning how to fall pregnant was a real shift,” she says. “It’s not as easy as people think. I got disheartened, it was like, ‘no, I’m not pregnant this time. Not this time either’. So, I was at the point where I was quite pessimistic.”
The realisation that the cycle of disappointment might have changed was a revelation. Taking yet another pregnancy test without much hope, she was startled to see those longed-for lines.
“I came downstairs to tell James and it was the most wonderful thing,” she smiles. “We were able to have that moment together and just savour it.”
“We’re so excited to meet this baby,” James adds. “And seeing Miranda as a mum is the part that I’m really most excited for.”
That glow which her mother had noticed, Miranda says, quickly disappeared as first trimester morning sickness hit hard. Then – as she and James moved from Melbourne to Sydney – they were in constant lockdown, separated from friends and family.
But as Sydney’s harsh restrictions finally lifted, she emerged, just weeks ahead of the baby’s arrival, to star in our Christmas cover shoot. And as the photos attest, the glow is well and truly back.
“This is really special for me to be a part of as I never really got to share my pregnancy with people,” the 34-year-old says. “I mean, obviously I spoke to people, but they never got to see the progress. Lockdown made me focus on how tough I thought it all was, as opposed to seeing this time as something special and exciting.”
“Luckily we are one of those couples who came together better because one year of marriage in lockdown basically counts for five,” James, who is the head writer for three hit ABC series – The Weekly with Charlie Pickering, Question Everything and Gruen – reveals.
“So, a big part of this [shoot] for me is being able to celebrate her pregnancy. There was no babymoon and Miranda never had that chance to do all the things you do in that middle part of the pregnancy that’s supposed to be fun, where you’re celebrated and told you are glowing.”
The pair have decided not to learn the baby’s gender, “because how many times in life do you get surprises like this?” Miranda exclaims.
However, all other preparations for bub’s arrival are far more concrete. For a start, the nursery is ready.
“Miranda has decked it out with pictures of Beyoncé and inspirational quotes from Dolly Parton,” laughs James. “I put one Penrith Panthers poster on the wall, so my inclusion is there.”
Miranda has learnt Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in Tiwi. “So I can sing it to bub,” the proud Larrakia Tiwi woman says.
“Kookaburra Sits In The Old Gum Tree has also been translated into Tiwi so I also want to learn that. I come from a culture that is over 60,000 years old, which is really special. I have lots of picture books, not just by Aboriginal authors but also African-American authors, Chinese-Australian authors. My parents raised me to be interested and curious about the way that other people lived. I definitely want to raise my baby that way, too.”
And that’s where the final piece of the pre-baby arrival falls into place as well. After being separated for over six months, Barbara and Tony have permanently relocated from Darwin to Sydney to enjoy being active grandparents.
“It’s wonderful,” says Barbara of being closer to her offspring and her family. “I’m excited to be able to share little things in my own language, so to say Larrakia or Tiwi words to the baby, extending that cultural knowledge.”
“Mum’s already started calling herself Alap, which is the Larrakia word for grandmother,” adds Miranda. “And she calls my dad Owaw – grandfather. But the problem with learning any language is that you need to be on the ground. In Darwin, there was a big mission called the Kahlin Compound so there’s that history of the Larrakia people not being able to speak their language. We’re only really starting to learn. But the words that I do know are really important to me. And I’m so glad James supports that as well.”
Miranda and James famously first connected in 2016 after mutual friends suggested she follow him on Twitter. Soon they began messaging each other directly. Not long after she told the then Melbourne-based writer she was going to be in town.
“She was flying in and out that same day, so we weren’t going to get a chance to meet,” James recalls. “But I messaged her that morning wishing her a good day. She wrote back and told me her flight had been cancelled and, if I wanted, we could grab some dinner … It turned out that was a lie. She received the text message from me and decided on the spot she was going to change her flight.”
It was a wise decision, as it turns out. James – who admitted later he’d had a crush on Miranda long before they connected on social media – was trying to play it cool. But walking along the waterfront after dinner he blew the act.
“I went, ‘I really like you…whoops, shouldn’t have said that!’ But it was fairly instant. And [after that] we were inseparable.”
“Can you believe that was only five years ago?” Miranda laughs. “There’s an ease to our relationship I really like. An honesty and transparency. One of the things that has been a huge comfort to me is that I know if we ever go through any form of hardship, we’ll be able to do that together. I don’t feel like I’m ever going to have to go it alone.”
They met each other’s parents quickly, too. “I know a lot of people would find that full-on but, you know, I was about to hit 30 and I gave him a bit of an, ‘I’m sorry, you’re either in or out of this. You can’t be hot and cold’ ultimatum,” Miranda says of the rapid progression of their relationship.
“The fact he was keen to commit as well helped me with meeting the parents. I loved that they reminded me of all the families I had grown up with in Darwin. When I sat down, I thought, ‘I really feel at home here.'”
Miranda may be an only child, but with her mother one of eight and her father one of 12, there were plenty of aunts, uncles, cousins and more to make up a whole tribe.
“They played a big part of raising me as well,” she says of the ‘it takes a village’ dynamic. “That’s how I hope to raise my child as well. The bub will be among family and friends constantly. And I’ll also be helping out with their kids, too.”
“It was never just the three of us,” Barbara reminisces of her own days as a young mum. “We lived in Jabiru in Kakadu National Park and we’d come to Darwin for school holidays, birthdays, Christmas, any event really, and stay with my sister because she had the space.”
“Christmas was something I was always really excited about,” adds Miranda. “I just remember the smell of rain; it would be so monsoonal. Watching Carols in the Domain on Christmas Eve. The excitement of not being able to sleep because you’ve got presents and Santa’s coming. Boney M would be playing in the background while my mum was cooking just the most beautiful food.”
Magpie goose – a wild water bird common in the Territory and which Miranda describes as being, “dark, like duck” – would go on the barbecue. Prawns, mud crabs and other fresh seafood would jostle for space there as well. Later the clan would decamp to a nearby uncle’s house to use his pool for a swim to cool off once the festivities were over.
Until the pandemic hit, Miranda returned to Darwin most Christmases to immerse herself in both her clan and the land she loves. This year, with the baby having only just arrived, the celebrations will be smaller but equally filled with love – and food.
“Oysters, sushi, soft cheese, cured meats … all those things that pregnant women have been encouraged not to eat,” Miranda says, her eyes sparkling at the thought of the impending feast. “And, you know, I’d love a cheeky glass of champers on the day!”
On December 8 Miranda and James may have another reason to pop a champagne cork, too. Miranda has been nominated for an AACTA Best Supporting Actress in Film Award for her work in The Dry.
Should she take it home, it will join the two TV WEEK Logie Awards she won in 2015 for Love Child.
“The Weekly with Charlie Pickering is up for an AACTA too, so we had a nice little dinner when the nominations were announced – and then admonished our dog because he brings nothing to the table,” James says with a grin. “I remember when we first started dating, Miranda lived in a studio apartment. When she went out to shoot for the day, I was looking for the teabags. I opened the cupboards and there were two Logies sitting in there. I went ‘Okay, I understand the kind of league I’m playing in now!’ I love when these things get acknowledged because she does work very hard for them.”
That sense of drive was instilled in her by her mother, Miranda explains. As the eldest of eight and often helping care for her younger siblings, Barbara had struggled during her own education.
“As a young person, and being an Aboriginal person at school, I found it very hard,” Barbara acknowledges.
“I was a very shy person and I got trodden on by a lot of people because I couldn’t stand up for myself. I couldn’t explain to my English teacher why I couldn’t do my homework because I didn’t have the support at home to do it. I didn’t understand and my mum couldn’t help me, and my dad couldn’t help me. So, I’d be sent out of the classroom because I couldn’t do my work. I had a hard life with my schooling and the criticism that I got so I thought, ‘When my child comes along, it’s going to be totally different. They are going to have a better life than I had’.”
To that end, Barbara and Tony inundated their daughter with books, encouraging a love of reading.
And when the time came, Barbara went to school with Miranda – working as the Aboriginal support worker for her daughter’s fellow students at both primary and high school.
“She was there to make sure they ate, they had the support and the help that they needed when they were overwhelmed or didn’t understand,” Miranda says now.
“I wish I could tell stories of wagging and smoking behind the gym, but my mum wouldn’t have had a bar of that!”
And while most parents would have baulked should their child have declared they were going to embark on an acting career once they left school, Barbara actively encouraged her daughter despite the uncertainty of the profession.
“As the eldest child she didn’t have the luxury of questioning whether or not she could do something,” Miranda says with pride, “she just had to do it. So, she had this fearlessness. I’d get scared and say, ‘What if I can’t do it, Mum?’ And she’d say, ‘Well, you don’t know unless you try. If things don’t work, you can get a cafe job or line up at Centrelink. If that’s where you end up, that’s where you end up’. I’m very thankful to her for that and that’s what I want to instil in my child – the courage to fail.”
For now, failure doesn’t seem to be an option for Miranda. Next up is a role in the Netflix animated film, Back to the Outback, in which she plays Zoe, a moody thorny devil, alongside a voice cast which includes such luminaries as Isla Fisher, Eric Bana and Guy Pearce. And she’s keen to get back to work once the baby is settled in, so as not to lose the momentum she’s worked so hard to build.
“I want to make that balance of being able to give my child what they need but also fulfil my aspirations,” she explains. “I still want to act, to write and create, because that’s my outlet. I love being a storyteller. My people have been telling stories for so many years and I’m glad that my child will get to witness those stories. That’s the most important thing to me.”
Back to the Outback is in select cinemas in December, and on Netflix December 10.