Shari Sebbens rises to the challenge of ‘The Heights’

(L-R) Shari Sebbens, Calen Tassone, Siria Kickett and Marcus Graham in ‘The Heights’ (Photo: Ben King)

When Shari Sebbens graduated from NIDA and WAAPA she expected her fair complexion would mean she would be cast mostly as white characters in shows about Indigenous people.

Happily she was wrong. After making her screen debut in Wayne Blair’s 2012 hit The Sapphires she starred in a bunch of series including Redfern Now, The Gods of Wheat Street, 8MMM Aboriginal Radio and Black Comedy, all true to her cultural identity.

“I think The Sapphires confused the hell out of everybody as they thought, ‘She looks white but she says she’s Aboriginal,’ she tells IF. “It’s something our community has known since colonisation: our people come in very different shades. I call it the Fifty Shades of Black.”

The actress will next be seen in the Matchbox Pictures/For Pete’s Sake Productions 30-episode drama serial The Heights, which premieres on the ABC at 8.30 pm on February 22.

Co-created by Warren Clarke and Que Minh Luu and set in the fictional inner-city neighbourhood of Arcadia Heights, the drama explores the relationships between the tower’s residents and those who live in the adjoining, rapidly gentrifying community.

Shari plays Leonie, a successful, driven mother of two who has a co-parenting arrangement with her ex-husband Pav (Marcus Graham). Calen Tassone (Red Dog: True Blue) and newcomer Siria Kickett play their kids Mich and Kat.

Leonie was raised by her white father Bruce (Bernie Davis), who is living with her while he recovers from injury; her Aboriginal mother died in childbirth.

Describing her character as a control freak, she says: “Without her, the family unit would probably come unstuck. She goes through a lot of soul-searching and internal conflict as she wonders what her role is in the community around her. By the end she is quite a changed person.”

It was a hectic shooting schedule overseen by the directors James Bogle, Renee Webster, Darlene Johnson and Andrew Prowse, which she says “forced me to step up and deliver as much detail and nuance in the performance as I could at high speed; it was mad and quite thrilling.”

She pays tribute to Prowse, who died in December, as very much an actor’s director who was constantly in the pursuit of truth.

The Heights cast includes Roz Hammond, Fiona Press, Dan Paris, Saskia Hampele, Phoenix Raei, Yazeed Daher and newcomers Bridie McKim, Mitchell Bourke, Koa Nuen, Cara McCarthy and Carina Hoang.

It was the most diverse show she’d ever worked on, observing: “The creators and writers were so passionate about getting it right and not being tokenistic.”

The producers have options on the key cast for a second series and Sebbens is very hopeful it will be renewed.

Tassone will soon appear in the national tour of The Sapphires play, written and directed by Tony Briggs. Shari was offered the job of co-director but turned it down in favour of performing in the Black Swan State Theatre Company’s production of Thornton Wilder’s American classic Our Town.

The actress had a lot of fun reuniting with Blair, Miranda Tapsell and Goalpost Pictures’ Rosemary Blight and Kylie du Fresne in Top End Wedding, the romantic comedy which got rave reviews at Sundance and opens on May 2 via Universal Pictures. She plays Ronelle, one of three bridesmaids for Tapsell’s character.

“It was really interesting to come back after The Sapphires,” she says. “It was Wayne’s first film and my first film. We have both grown so much. The way we communicated on set, the short hand, was so lovely.

“Nobody knew what success The Sapphires would bring. We knew that our mob would love it and that’s what mattered the most to us, then the rest of Australia came along for the ride.”

While she is delighted to see much greater representation of Indigenous characters and stories on screen, she hopes that will lead to more opportunities for other minority groups.

It was a thrill for her to work alongside Taika Waititi on a Screen Australia-supported director attachment on Thor: Ragnarok. She marveled at his ability to ensure each day on set was a happy and inspiring workplace despite the massive scale of the production.

She plans to direct two short films as well as directing stage plays and, by the end of a seven-year plan, hopes to have her first feature film as director in the can.