Jess, in The Sapphires you play an indigenous girl who grows up with her sisters wanting to be a country music singer, is discovered at an outback pub, and turns out to have an incredible talent for soul. Sound familiar?
The story was very familiar to me: coming from Darwin, growing up with sisters, punching each other up and saying “I love you” and “sorry” afterwards. That’s how we were! We played in the backyard, we sang country music and listened to Charley Pride. That was our backyard conversation – singing. There were five of us. It was crazy. We were the loudest house in the suburb. So [the character] Julie is like me. I never experienced racism, though.
Probably once in my life – maybe at school I was called “black bitch”. So finding out what was going on in the 1960s was really emotional and really difficult. It was an honour to be playing that part. This film really gave me a whole other perspective on culture and life and having hope and fighting for something.
The Sapphires are hired to perform to American troops and they find solidarity and respect from African-American soldiers that white Australia won’t give them.
Yeah. There’s a point in the movie where it shows Martin Luther King on TV, and who else were the aboriginal community looking up to in the ’60s, apart from the American blacks? That’s who gave them hope.
The play and now the film is based on the real-life experiences of sisters Laurel Robinson and Lois Peeler, and their cousins Beverley Briggs and Naomi Mayers. Did you get to meet them?
Yes! As a group – myself, [and co-stars] Deborah [Mailman], Shari [Stebbens] and Miranda [Tapsell] – we all got to meet the Aunties.
What are they like?
Very strong, very firm – women with confidence. They’re still working for the community. So I was really nervous to be telling the Aunties’ story and wanting to get it right. They watched the film and it was nail-biting because we didn’t want them to come back and say “no, that’s not how it was.”
What did they say?
They said they were very proud.
How did you get the part?
My manager read the script and said, “You’d really love this.” When I read it I became passionate about it. I knew that it was going to be really difficult, because I hardly ever played the angry, emotional character. Rosie, who I played in Bran Nue Dae, was really sweet and really innocent.
Deborah Mailman was in Bran Nue Dae as well. Did you swap notes this time?
There were times where I’d teach her music, and times when she’d be behind the camera going “breathe, it’s OK, just breathe and do it again.” She really helped me. Wayne [Blair, director] was really hard on me. He would just be yelling “Angry! More angry!” and I’m like “I am angry.” I was whipped! There were moments where I was just like “I can’t do it, Wayne!” And there were moments where he was like, “Jess, you have to step up. These other girls will shit all over you [in the acting stakes]. You need to step your game up.”
You’ve worked with Snoop Dogg, Ludacris and loads of top US producers. What’s next for you music-wise?
I’m working on my third album. I wrote a song called ‘Gotcha’ for the film that it runs out of the film and into the credits and I’ve asked if I can have it for my album because lyrically it’s beautiful and it’s really me.
Irish actor Chris O’Dowd [Bridesmaids] plays the manager and he’s hilarious. What was he like?
He’s like a big brother to us. We hung out with him and his wife-to-be in Cannes and Dawn [Porter], his fiancee, she’s like, “I’ve got to ask you something. You can say no – but could you sing myself and Chris down the aisle?” So I’ll be heading over to London to sing them down the aisle in September.
So basically you hate him.
He’s a top bloke, he’s great!
The Sapphires screens from Thu 9 Aug.