Ever since she was a child, Miranda Tapsell has loved to play dressups. So when The Weekly crew arrive at the lavish location we’ve hired for today’s shoot – an incredible heritage home in prime Sydney eastern suburbs real estate – the actor is in her element.
Swinging open the door to greet us, she spins to better show off one of the designer outfits she’s donned for the day. Lowering her voice, she puts on an exaggerated drawl. “Welcome to my hooooome,” she says, perfectly in character. “I’m riiiiicchhhhh,” before dissolving into a fit of giggles that feels far more like the Miranda we all know and love.
This sense of putting on a costume, of leaning into play, has been with the actor since her earliest years, she says later as we sit down after cycling through a range of outfits and poses around the property.
Miranda often felt underestimated growing up, she admits. Her height (in bare feet Miranda stands at a diminutive 149cm, or 4 feet 11 inches), her gender, her youth and her heritage have all played a role in her choice of career and how she tackles it.
“In my experience, I just think people don’t know how to talk to young girls,” she says now of those earliest experiences of feeling overlooked. “I felt that my taste in film, music and television just wasn’t given the same weight or depth that was given to young boys my age.
“My height is one of the big reasons why I became an actor, because the camera plays tricks on people’s eyes. Nobody is going to know how tall I am.
“Being short isn’t the worst thing in the world. It doesn’t bother me, but it does bother a lot of other people. It’s how people used to begin their conversations with me. People still ask me, ‘When are you going to grow, Miranda?’ I keep making the joke, ‘When the world stops growing.’ But when I started on stage, I remember one person saying to me, ‘When you are on stage it’s like you’re 10 feet tall. So really, I chose something to be good at and I stuck to it. And I’ve worked hard for sure.”
That work ethic came from her parents, she says. In particular from her mother, Barbara, who drummed into her only child the importance of discipline. And why, as a proud Larrakia Tiwi woman, this would be more important for her than others.
“Mum explained to me at a young age, ‘You being late is different to your friends being late’,” Miranda says, pausing to choose her words carefully.
“And it’s true. I remember people making a big deal of me being late, but you couldn’t quite pull them up on it and say, ‘Why was it a big deal that I was late and not my non-Indigenous co-star?’ Or, ‘Why did you not make such a fuss when another girl from my dance class was late but you made a fuss out of me not being on time?’ It’s really hard to pin that on people.
“I have all these little things so that people see me as a hardworking individual. I’m really proud of the fact that people say, ‘Miranda is a true professional. She rocks up five or 10 minutes before. And if she is late – which happens now that I have a kid – there is a courtesy call or message to let you know’.”
Miranda has found her attitude to plenty of things – including work – has changed since becoming a mother. It’s also safe to say that today’s act of dressing up is a welcome relief from the spills (as well as the obvious thrills) of parenting a toddler.
“Oh my God, I’m not ready for her,” she says with a raucous laugh while regaling us with tales of her strong-willed daughter, Grace, who certainly seems to have inherited her mother’s inner fire.
“She’s at that age where she is determined to do something on her own – you can’t show her how to do it. I love how curious she is. I love how determined she is. She is very headstrong.
“My life has changed so much. And it’s really made James [Colley, Miranda’s husband] and I think of what we want out of our life and out of our careers because our time is so much more precious. Time away from Grace needs to be worth it.”
That’s what made her latest project so special, she says. Miranda is part of the A-list cast of upcoming Disney+ series The Artful Dodger. Set 15 years after the events of Charles Dickens’ book Oliver Twist, the series picks up with Jack Dawkins – or Dodger as we best remember him – attempting to leave his life of crime behind him in Australia.
Miranda plays Red, a seemingly meek and mild housemaid who turns out to be the most fearsome bushranger in town. She rules the roost not only in her illicit business dealings but also in her relationships. And as someone who has long loved Dickens’ novels and the strong women within them, it spoke to Miranda in a way she couldn’t ignore.
“Someone who is misunderstood and underestimated can yield so much power,” she says, coming full circle to her own experience. “That really excited me.”
Also exciting was the opportunity to flex her skills off screen as well as on. Miranda was enlisted as a story consultant on the script, a wonderful way to continue strengthening her ability as a writer and storyteller.
“I love the screenwriting process, so I really chase every opportunity that I can get,” she says of the additional writing she was able to do. “Even if it’s just a little cog in the wheel, I’m just super happy to be there.”
It is roles like this, she says, that will always draw her in. For while motherhood is a thrill and a constant improvisation of its own, working makes up a huge part of her DNA.
Not only that, it makes her a better parent – one who can find the humour in her toddler’s shopping centre meltdowns along with joy in the monotony of doing endless piles of laundry and the other myriad housework chores a small child creates.
“I don’t think I could be at home the whole time,” Miranda admits. “Working helps me. It’s a bit of my old life. I go, ‘Oh, that’s who I am, that’s right.’ It’s not all I am anymore, but going to work is an uplifting thing because, when I do come home, I really appreciate being with Grace and being her mum. It’s because I get to have those other facets of my life, which is lovely.”
James is equally busy, she adds. In addition to his role as head writer of ABC TV’s Gruen, he’s ready to release a new book, The Next Big Thing. And currently Dad has Grace’s laser-focused attention.
“She’s switched parents in terms of who is her favourite,” Miranda giggles. “She had a big meltdown this morning over Dad going to work and I felt like we’d turned a real corner. Before that, it was just lots of, ‘Mum, Mum, Mum,’ and Dad wasn’t getting any kisses or cuddles. She’d be saying, ‘Go away, Dad,’ giving him a bit of sass. So, it’s nice that the tables have turned and now she’s sick of Mum. He’s such an attentive and affectionate father.”
Is it not a little bittersweet, though, we ask her? Did she not die a little on the inside the first time she was passed over in favour of Dad?
“To be honest, I was relieved,” she says with another peal of laughter. “Because when she does give you affection, it’s quite intense. She sits on your lap so you can’t move anywhere, and you have to watch Baby Shark. She’s your little shadow, just following you everywhere. I love my daughter and it’s very endearing when she is giving you that kind of attention, but you are exhausted at the end of the day. So poor bloke, I think he’s pretty wrecked!”
Learning to say ‘no’ has been part of the parenthood journey, both for Miranda and James. Neither of them has mastered the juggle, she says, adding, “We are never going to get that right.” But using that two-letter word and admitting that she has nothing left in the tank is liberating, if still slightly terrifying.
“I get the shakes when I say it because I think, ‘How am I going to manage the other person’s emotions and expectations when I’ve done that?’,” she explains, adding that James is far better at it than she is.
“Because I can’t take it back once I’ve said ‘no’. But I do feel better when I have.”
And it’s not just ‘no’ she’s learning to vocalise. With the juggle of balancing family, home and work, asking for help and accepting it has been another by-product of motherhood – one that she relishes.
“There’s something liberating in just asking for something,” she says, adding that she’s also learning to be kinder to herself in a lot of aspects of life. “If you don’t get it then you haven’t lost anything. But you’re not going to die wondering either.”
Luckily for Miranda and James, in addition to each other, they have a strong support network helping them raise Grace. Miranda’s parents, James’ relatives and good friends in their current home base of Sydney are the village that they depend upon.
“I can’t try to isolate myself and do it all, because I know I can’t,” she says. “And that’s okay.”
Their village also helps the couple continue to make time for each other outside their Baby Shark duty. Watching James soften his funny guy façade to be vulnerable with his daughter has shown Miranda a new side of the man she fell in love with. As has his willingness to be all-in on the journey with her.
Tonight, Miranda plans to ask her mum and dad to babysit so she and James can go out to dinner. “I’ve got my hair and make-up done, I can’t let this go to waste,” she says with another peal of laughter.
Carving out that “me time”, be it as a couple or separately, is the magic ingredient she’s needed to negotiate this new life stage. She’s become more resilient, she adds. And far better at improvising when things don’t go according to plan. Miranda’s self-talk has shifted too.
Where once she’d berate herself for not getting things 100 per cent right, now she does her best to find the humour in the mishaps that inevitably arise when a small human is involved.
“I’m learning to be a little bit less hard on myself,” she says. “I’m dusting myself off better.” As the face of Audible – home of audiobooks and podcasts galore – it’s unsurprising to hear that she’s a fan of listening to self-help tomes, taking notes on the bits of wisdom she finds useful, whilst happily discarding those that don’t serve.
She does the same with fiction, she adds, saying she’ll often underline or highlight a phrase or paragraph that gives her insight.
Grace is getting an early start in this, too. Her nursery is filled with prints of inspiring women and quotes, including one from Dolly Parton which says, “Find out who you are and do it on purpose.”
The last time we’d met with Miranda, she recalls, she was just weeks away from Grace’s birth – her belly huge and the days beginning to drag. “I remember I thought to myself, ‘I really want a brave little girl because I need a brave little girl’,” she says now.
“And it’s just crazy, that doesn’t always happen but I got exactly what I asked for.”
Grace Birri-Pa Purnarrika Colley arrived in late 2021. Miranda would love to be able to give her daughter a sibling, she says – especially as she grew up as an only child herself. But having had a tough journey to fall pregnant with Grace, she knows it’s not a done deal.
“I’m aware my 40s aren’t far off,” she adds. “So it’s one of those things where I’ve just got to be very grateful for what I have right now. And I am.”
The Artful Dodger premieres on November 29 on Disney+. Stream on Disney Plus with a mth-to-mth no lock-in contract. Subscribe here.