Jan 2024

Running her own race

Miah Madden is a young actor who's looking at the big picture and, as Courtney Thompson learns, is already wise beyond her years

PHOTOGRAPHY by GEORGES ANTONI

STYLING by RACHEL WAYMAN

Miah Madden has always been a bit of an old soul. As a child, rather than spending time with kids her own age, she preferred hanging out with her grandparents drinking tea and looking for satellites. “My dad died when I was two and I just had this massive family, but I was only living with my mum and my little sister,” the 21-year-old explains, unprompted with disarming candour. “I think having this really tight relationship with my family was really, really important for me. And I felt like I never really got to just be the little naive kid who got to be mad at their mum and walk away.”

Madden’s father, a Gadigal and Bundjalung man, Lee Madden, passed away after a fatal car crash in 2004. Her mum was 24 and pregnant with her younger sister, Ruby, at the time. “When I look back on my childhood, it is such a beautiful time because my mum made the most of our circumstances and gave me just the most amazing childhood,” she says with warmth. “And it sort of felt like we grew up together. When we look back now, it's nostalgic for both of us because we were both growing up and even in the moment, even though I was a kid, I felt like I knew that then, too.”

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This old soul mentality is partly what drew her to acting. Her first role was in an anti-smoking government television ad, which her mum had heard about from another parent at school. “They were looking for two Indigenous kids to be extras, so they put me and my sister forward,” she says. “Ruby really didn't gel to it, but I thought it was so fun.” She went on to appear in The Sapphires and ABC series The Gods of Wheat Street before landing starring roles in The Unlisted and The Dive Club. “I found it really easy to be a child on set,” Madden tells me.

“I felt really comfortable around adults as a kid, more than I did with my friends. I felt more sort of nervous around kids because I knew that, a lot of my friends at least, hadn't experienced what I went through. So being at home with them on play dates and stuff always felt a little bit weird, like having a two-parent home and things like that. So then going to set and just hanging out with other adults who have also had some, you know, traumatic life experiences, it really felt like, ‘Oh wow, okay, maybe these can be my people and we can tell these stories together.’”

"I just have this innate need to be able to give back to the community.”

But family has always been the centre of gravity for Madden, and her lineage is steeped in artistic and political significance. She has four half-siblings from her father’s previous relationship with art curator and writer Hetti Perkins, who have all carved out impressive careers in their respective fields. Thea Anamara Perkins is an award-winning artist, Lille Madden is an environmental conservationist and First Nations Director of Groundswell Giving, Tyson Perkins is an award-winning cinematographer and Madeleine Madden is a fellow actor. Miah’s younger sibling, Ruby, is now at college in the U.S. for sports. “It's been really amazing seeing everybody do so well in their given field and like all of us doing such different things which is amazing,” Madden says. “But when you go back and look at my dad's life — he was an actor, he was a casting agent, he was a runway model in Paris, he was also a Wimbledon tennis player — you realise everybody got a piece of our dad.”

Being surrounded by a family of political and artistic activists has meant Madden always looks at the big picture. So rather than singularly going after acting, she’s quietly been completing her law degree on the side as well. “It's just always been at our forefront to want to make things better for our community in any way,” she explains. “And I think that having such a great education and feeling such a privilege to have gotten an Indigenous scholarship at a private school and be able to juggle it with work and make the most of my education, I just have this innate need to be able to give back to the community.”

She continues, “There needs to be more Indigenous people representing Indigenous people. So it is really important that I not only do acting, but get this degree so that I can work with Indigenous kids and adults and work in law reform. Because as we know with the really disappointing outcome of The Voice referendum, there just needs to be more change. And in my head I'm thinking, okay, maybe you just need to be as qualified and as powerful as the white man making the decisions. You know what I mean? To be able to actually make that change. And I think that change comes with education. It's how we close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous kids. And if there's anything that I can do from a legal perspective to help my people, that will be way more fulfilling than any acting role in my opinion.”

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HAIR Kyye MAKEUP Linda Jefferyes

Her most recent role was in the show, Paper Dolls. The eight-part series (available to stream in full now on Paramount+) follows a fictional five-member pop girl group named HARLOW who were assembled via reality tv show, Pop Rush. They’re thrown into a house to live together as they work on their debut music, with cameras following their every move. Set during the turn of the millennium, the series opens with a declaration that everything in the show is “fictitious”. But anyone who was a fan of Australian pop group Bardot growing up — as in the group of five girls who were assembled via reality show Pop Stars — will discover more than a few uncanny parallels. Not to mention one of the executive producers is a former member of Bardot, Belinda Chappell.

Contentious real-word parallels aside, it’s an examination of the misogyny and abuse that went unchecked in the music industry for decades, told via the stories of the five girls. Maddens’ character, Charlie, is the nepo baby of the group. The daughter of the record label boss, she’s bristly and guarded, fast to react and not exactly nice. But of course, this is all just an act; concealing the truth of her struggle with self-harm that’s inextricably linked to her father’s neglect. “Even though I couldn't relate to Charlie's story, I really understood her,” Madden explains of how she approached playing the complicated role. “I could understand why she did the things that she did, why she is that way, why she’s so closed off and why she has this weird connection with her father. I was like, I actually understand that. So I think naturally I felt really lucky that I sort of had this innate understanding of who she was.”

To prepare, she watched shows like Euphoria which explored difficult stories about young women. “I knew I needed to treat this story with a lot of sensitivity because of the self-harm themes and the issues with their father and things like that, which a lot of girls who watch will be able to relate to,” she says. For every role she plays, Madden makes a playlist of music that she listens to during production in order to tap into and then remain connected to the heart of the character; each song unlocking a different emotion. “I'll listen to the songs and they'll make me cry or like make me sad or make me happy,” she explains. For Charlie, that playlist consisted of songs such as ‘Dark Red’ by Steve Lacey, ‘Gilded Lily’ by The Cults and ‘Never Felt So Alone’ by Labyrinth. “For the end of episode seven, that really resonated with Charlie,” Madden says.

Now, when you’re working on a television show about the toxicity of show business, how women have been routinely mistreated and institutionally manipulated, things can get a bit meta. “There were some moments where life was sort of imitating our, like, not so much like on-set of Paper Dolls, but just in my own experience as a young female actor where I was like, wow, things haven't changed,” Madden says. “And this show was set 25 years in the past. Like that is insane. Growing up as a young actor, you know, I’ve had times where I felt uncomfortable on set, as lovely as it was. Doing a show like Paper Dolls, we were so lucky to have the most amazing crew, which just held so much space for all of us young girls. Because obviously a lot of us are navigating our way through the industry doing a job where, you know, you are wearing tight clothes and putting yourself on the line. And it does feel a bit weird to be surrounded by a crew full of predominantly men. But we had a really beautiful space and a beautiful crew, which I was actually quite nervous about going into. But as soon as I met everyone I was like, okay, like I have nothing to be worried about.”

At the heart of Madden’s purpose – whether it be through her law degree or acting – is a desire to tell stories as a means of education and activism. “There's a really important part of the entertainment industry in sort of educating people and raising awareness by telling stories,” she explains. “Although we aren't where we need to be in terms of diversity in the stories that we're putting out there, it’s really important that we tell stories that represent Australia and the world…people have a lot more sympathy and empathy when they are able to visually see a story.”

Pursuing both paths is important to Madden; she doesn’t feel the need to choose. “In doing my degree at the same time as acting means that one, I'll always have a backup – because working as an actor isn't always consistent – and two, it just mentally keeps me away from trying to be competitive in either field. I don't feel like I need to compete with other actors or other law students because I'm trying to do both. So for me it's just about having two things, but putting no pressure on it and just seeing how it goes.”

Paper Dolls is streaming now on Paramount+.

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