Shari Sebbens, The Heights

BY Will Cook 

With roles in The Sapphires and Redfern Now, Shari Sebbens is fast becoming one of Australia's most accomplished actresses. 

The Logie Award winner is now starring in the ABC's bold new production, The Heights. 

Billed as a soap for a smarter Australia, The Heights could well be country's most diverse scripted series ever. In the 30-part drama, Shari plays Leonie, an independent career woman with a family who is unsure of her Indigenous heritage.

A prominent advocate for the Indigenous community in Australia, the role forced Shari to unlearn everything she is a proponent of. 

Will sat down with the actress and advocate to talk everything The Heights, Australia's changing creative landscape and why it's time for morning television hosts to be schooled. 

I’ve seen the first four episodes of The Heights and absolutely love it. For those who haven’t seen it, can you introduce your character? 

I play Leona, who is an independent woman. Just like Destiny’s Child says. She is a high achiever and is a bit of a control freak in a positive way because she needs to keep everything running smoothly. 

The Heights is a melting pot of established and a new talent. How did you find working with such an eclectic team in front of the camera? 

I love it. You are not constantly working on screen in Australia unless you have signed a long standing contact. I always feel like I am starting from scratch whenever I arrive on set, so I always feel like the newbie. There is no hierarchy. It is really nice to see a bunch of emerging talent. Everything is fresh for them. Those 5am starts, annoying as they are, are in inspiring in a way. 

You say that the emerging artists give you energy. Did you find anyone particularly inspiring? 

I really love Calen Tassone and Siria Kickett who play my son and daughter. They are so fun and care free and talented. Just really great instinctive talent. Bridie McKim who plays Sabine and Carina Hoang who plays Iris Cheng are my faves to watch in the series. It is really cool to see people have their shot straight out of drama school or even primary school. Then there is Carina who was picked up on the street in Perth.  

Soapies have a bit of a thwarted reputation, what makes The Heights different to other Aussie soaps?   

I found myself asking what sets us apart during shooting. We do have really high stakes in the lives of the residents. It needs to be. But there is a lot of stuff that is grounded in truth. The confrontations that teenagers have with each other and the family dynamics and secrets are relatable. The everyday stuff is treated with care. The dramatic stuff keeps you coming back but ultimately there are a lot of truthful portrayals of family and community life. And then there is the diverse cast. I think it is the most diverse cast we have had in an Australian show. There is a Vietnamese family, an indigenous family, an Iranian family. Bridie McKim plays a character who has cerebral palsy. So the representation is there but it isn’t just to tick the boxes. The writers are representing their Australia.  

While there is obviously have a fair way to go, the representation of Indigenous people on screen is rising. Does this excite you? Do you see yourself as having an influence over young creatives? 

It has definitely changed a lot in the ten years since I have been out of drama school. I have felt the benefit of what everyone else before me sewed. In terms of influencing I am certainly conscious of how every bit of work I choose represents my people. But you are right, we do have a long way to go. Our dramatic stories have come so far but the mainstream media are struggling to catch up. For example, there are people like Kerri-Anne Kennerley making ridiculous comments without any understanding.  

You have worked on some landmark and light-hearted Indigenous stories, including the sketch comedy Black Comedy and musical feature The Sapphires. Are you finding that the roles you are being offered are more diverse?  

Absolutely. I think in the last 15 years there has been an amazing movement in Aboriginal filmmaking where the white lens has been taken away. For example, the ABC show Redfern Now was created by indigenous people. It allowed us to go this is us. It stopped being an Aboriginal story and became a human story. It is just as important to have diversity behind the camera as it is to have it in front. Whether that’s disability, religion, gender. 

You referred to comments made by Kerri-Anne Kennerley on a morning show. How do you see your role as a creator to change such a perspective in society? 

In every role I take on I first ask myself how does this represent aboriginal people and women. I am fairly confident in saying that I feel everything I have done so far have been truthful depictions and layered. I get frustrated with comments like Kerri-Anne’s as I am just an actor and there is only so much I can do. There are people on the frontline within domestic violence services dealing with things that Kerri-Anne would have no idea about.  

How does Leonie’s experience as an Indigenous woman compare to that of other characters in your filmography? 

Leonie would be the character who is furthest from myself in terms of the characters I have played. She only knows that her mother was an Aboriginal woman. The circumstances through which her mother died prevented her father from being able to share anything about her history with her. So in that sense we are very dissimilar. I was born and raised in Darwin and I visit family in Broome often. I know my grandpa’s country. I know my grandma’s country. It just so happens that i am really white so people think i know nothing. So it was really interesting having to let go everything i am proud of and imagine I am someone who doesn’t have that connection at all. It is really sad but it is also not her fault. It is the same case right across Australia because of horrible laws that have existed.  

There are over 30 episodes of The Heights, what are you hoping the reaction will be from Australian audiences? 

There is a common mistake to dumb down our audiences. I hope Australian audiences love it. I think it is the smart, funny and touching soap that we deserve. It is offering a hell of a lot that we don’t see on other channels. Australian audiences are smart enough. 

Read Will's review of The Heights HERE