Miranda Otto on the Ladies in Black – and the lost art of customer service (2024)

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Miranda Otto laughs when I compliment her on her excellent wig work in Ladies in Black. Slightly stiff, with its flipped ends up, it gives her a matronly air, that of a woman not quite ready to move with the times. “It’s such a look,” she says, laughing. “I remember when I was at school in the ’80s and there was one mum who still had a beehive. Eventually, she had to let it go, but it was like, wow, that is a lot of work to keep such a set hairstyle. And do you do it fresh every day or does it stay overnight?”

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Otto’s hair is of note because she is the newest addition to the Ladies in Black universe, which began with Madeleine St John’s 1993 novel The Women in Black, which was then adapted into a musical by Tim Finn in 2013 and retitled Ladies in Black, and then turned into a film, directed by Bruce Beresford, in 2018.

All three iterations follow the women who work in the “model gowns” section of upmarket Sydney department store Goodes in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Otto plays Mrs Virginia Ambrose, who has been imported from Harrods as the dour and intimidating new head of model gowns. “Is harsh lighting an Australian thing?” she quips, on first inspection of the pink-hued department.

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“She’s somebody who really believes in service, who really believes in class, she really believes in discretion,” says Otto. “She sees fashion really as a way to blend in and be a part of things and be discreet and be able to talk in a certain way.

“It was really important to me, coming into it, that it wasn’t just about her wanting to assert her power – she really does believe that fashion is a tool that people use to be a part of certain groups, and that’s very much a service that she was looking to bring to her customers.”

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Mrs Ambrose is one of several new characters created for the TV series, which begins six months after the end of the book and film. Young Lisa (played in the TV series by Clare Hughes and in the film by Angourie Rice) is now at university, but she’s been saddled with the tag of “the Bexley virgin” while setting her sights on the editor of the university newspaper; stylish immigrant Magda (played by Debi Mazar in the series and Julia Ormond in the film) is ready to leave Goodes and strike out with a boutique of her own; while Fay (played by Jessica de Gouw in the series and Rachael Taylor in the film) is discovering married life with new husband Rudi is not so easy.

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It’s this focus on the women’s stories, and their relationships with each other, that makes Ladies in Black stand out (apart from the fact it’ll make you pine for a well-staffed department store with customer service). It highlights their experiences when it comes to work, money and sex, all at a time of great change for women in Australian history. In other words, it well and truly passes the fabled Bechdel test, where two female characters must have a conversation about something other than a man.

“It is a rare thing,” says Otto. “The big one in that test is that even if they [the women] are speaking, it’s usually about men. And it makes me laugh sometimes, when I read things written by guys, what they think women actually talk about, it’s hilarious to me.

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“And that’s what attracted me to it so much. Even originally, in the movie and the book, it’s the idea of when you go to a workplace, and you work with a whole lot of different people, and you’re all brought there together because you’re working there.

“And perhaps you’re interested in fashion, some people may just be working there for a job, so many different cultures come in, so many very different belief systems, and different age groups, and all these different personalities who have to find a way to work together and then also learn from each other along the way.

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“And that’s what’s fascinating about this world, it’s a period of great change in Australia. And you’re seeing their different points of view on that kind of change and what is their ability to adapt and be part of that.”

Ever since Otto returned to Australia from the US in 2020, at the start of the pandemic for an initial 18-month stint that has since blossomed into her becoming a mainstay on Australian TV, she has become quite adept at playing sharp-edged women.

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She was terrifically funny and unlikeable in SBS’s heist comedy The Unusual Suspects, while in The Clearing on Disney+ she donned another terrifying wig to play cult leader Adrienne Beaufort, as well as starring in Stan’s fantasy series The Portable Door and ABC drama Fires. She also squeezed in cult Australian horror film Talk to Me, and last month appeared in a very moving episode of SBS’s ancestry show Who Do You Think You Are? Australia with her actor father Barry Otto, who now has Alzheimer’s.

Ladies in Black also marks a reunion of sorts for Otto and her sister Gracie, who directs all six episodes of the series. It’s the second time they have worked together, after Gracie directed Otto in The Clearing.

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“It’s such a pleasure to be directed by someone a second time,” says Otto. “They’ve already directed you before, so you already feel like there’s trust, a shorthand, no matter whether it was my sister or not. I love that Gracie keeps a really great energy on set. She just keeps things moving along, she’s really buoyant and super ready for everything and I love how stylish she makes everything look.”

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When I tell Gracie that Otto felt more relaxed working with her this time around, she laughed.

“Good to know!” she says. “Yes, she’s amazing. I think I’ve learnt with Miranda that you just need to let her come and do it. She researches and thinks deeply about her character and prepares so well, but she can also in an instant be adaptable or left field with an approach, which is always exciting, and it’s really just a pleasure to watch her at the monitor and if anything suggest a few tweaks or alts.”

As for whether the Otto sisters would shop at a department store such as Goodes – because the store and everything it stands for is as big a character as the women in the show – or instead pick out clothes online, their answers reflect a longing for something a bit more old-fashioned. And less lining up at the post office.

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“I’m not really an online shopper,” says Miranda. “I’m very much someone who, with clothes or anything like that, likes to go in and feel the fabric. And it’s more trouble to send the thing back, you know, the postage and all that. It’s so much easier to go into a store and try it and buy it.”

Says Gracie: “There is something about online shopping that is great because you don’t have to talk to anyone, and you can spend hours just choosing. However, there have also been times in stores where I’ve met incredible salespeople who have found something out of the box, or made me feel really confident in an outfit I might not have if I had bought online and been of my own opinion. I would love to be served by Magda – she has such individual style!”

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Ladies in Black premieres on the ABC on Sunday, June 16, at 8.30pm.

Find out the next TV, streaming series and movies to add to your must-sees. Get The Watchlist delivered every Thursday.

Miranda Otto on the Ladies in Black – and the lost art of customer service (2024)
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