Imported from Australia, The Sapphires is a film of about a quartet of soulful Aboriginal girls (Jessica Mauboy, Miranda Tapsell, Shari Sebbens, and Deborah Mailman) who travel to Vietnam in 1968 to perform for American troops. They are managed by the raucous Dave Lovelace (Chris O'Dowd) who gets them to drop their original country music act, and embrace the sounds of Motown. Co-written by a descendent of the group, the film is based on a true story, which was first turned into a stage production. Sapphires director Wayne Blair played "Jimmy" in the production alongside Mailman.
This is the first feature film to be directed by Blair, and the second to feature singer Mauboy as an actress.
In an exclusive interview, I talked with Blair & Mauboy about their film, the unexpected singing voice of Chris O'Dowd, what it's like to get a ten-minute standing ovation, and more.
The Sapphires opens in Chicago on March 29.
I heard that when 'The Sapphires' first premiered last year at Cannes, it received a ten-minute standing ovation. What do you do for ten minutes when that happens?
Wayne Blair: You acknowledge the clapping.
Jessica Mauboy: I've never experienced anything like that. I didn't know what to do. I was just trying to be still as possible. I remember looking at everyone else and asking, "What do we do? Is this it?"
Blair: Harvey [Weinstein] had a speech for us earlier that day, and then he talked to me privately because it was my first time at Cannes. It was just about being a director walking into the Palais Lumiere, etc. He told us many things, like that the audience may not clap, or you might hear a lot of people getting up from their seats, and not to be offended.
Mauboy: I think that's what scared me the most.
Blair: And then people stood up and started clapping, and it just kept going. It was good, because then the camera is on you, and then you acknowledge the cast and crew. I think that's why the applause increased, because they loved me, and then they saw the four girls there and increased the clapping. In terms of talking about this film, is it at all refreshing to the conversation to bring this work stateside? You've been doing press for this film for almost a year.
Blair: It is. It's a new audience. Ever since Cannes was in May, and then Cannes is coming up soon, and that's where we have started our journey, and now you feel old, like you saw your friend's kids. It's a new audience, and it makes it exciting. To talk to the British and the French press were good, but the in the movie girls were falling for American troops; there is a bigger connection to Americans. [Americans and Australians] were such allies in the war.
There is a moment in the foreign trailer for the film that shows a scene not in the version I saw. It involves 'The Sapphires' actually interacting with Vietnamese troops, and it doesn't seem like they sang for them ... What happened to this scene? Can you explain why it was cut?
Blair: It was mainly a language issue, and some test audiences were a bit confused. Not by the language, but it sort of did throw them from the path of the film. We wanted to keep the story over here much more clear, and succinct. It wasn't a big deal, I think it was just something that I wanted to try. That's it really.
The odd man out in the movie is your male lead, Chris O'Dowd. Did either of you know he could sing? Did he audition with any song in particular?
Blair: I think he laid a track down from New York - "Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch."
Jessica: I remember when I heard that, because I think we were in the middle of filming. And I got the MP3, and I was like, "Who's this?" It was such a roar of raspy, sexy voice, and they said it was Chris I said, "He can sing?" But I don't think they put that on the soundtrack.
How quickly did you know he had soul?
Blair: I think everyone's got soul. It just needs to be untapped, or given permission to come out somewhere.
Jessica, this is your first leading acting role in a film, and only your second time acting overall. What was your experience like in making 'The Sapphires'?
Mauboy: I remember when starting the film we only had six weeks to shoot. I felt that I was really lucky, and was quite honored to have Wayne on my side. The lead-up to it was coming around really quickly, so I worked with Wayne really loosely. I found it difficult because Julie was such an aggressive character, she was one of those "silent but deadly" types, she'd just kind of sneak up on you. For me to really get into the character was quite a process. There were moments when Wayne got really serious and said, "You really need to focus." It really made me feel like an actress, and it was like, "You're going to act now." It was very important. I think as an indigenous Australian woman, someone else's story was really important to me. I wanted to play Julie as best as she was. It was such a great educational process; so much advice and so much homework that he provided for me, as well as the other girls.
Wayne: For a six week shoot, we had to be prepared, and we sort of had a sense of play. It was a tight schedule, and we just had to be good with that time. Chris traveled back twice in six weeks to shoot This Is 40. We made it work, but with a sense of six weeks, sometimes with that sense of play, everyone is having fun, and Chris is making them laugh, but I'm in the corner just sort of intense.
Are either of you two interested in pursuing American projects in the near future?
Jessica: That'd be amazing, if that opportunity came around. I'd love to take that opportunity.
Wayne: I'm with Jess. It's just around the corner.
Quick Questions With Jessica Mauboy & Wayne Blair
What did you have for breakfast this morning? Blair: Poached eggs, avocado, tomato, and a little bit of ham. Mauboy: Egg white omelet with spinach and bacon.
Favorite fruit? Blair: Either watermelon, or banana. Mauboy: I'd have to say mango, or dragonfruit. Pretty tropical, eh?
If you could be somebody for 24 hours? Blair: Prince, just before Purple Rain. Mauboy: If I was Mariah Carey ... it would be like "Fantasy," "Dream Lover" days. "Music Box" is my album.
Age of first kiss? Mauboy: It wasn't a pleasant one, it was my first kind of tongue kiss. I hated it. It was in a foreign country, so it was like, "I'll never see you again." I was 16. Blair: Mine was in a foreign country. I can't remember, but it was either eight, nine, or ten.