Ladies in Black is back, this time in Sydney in 1961, with stars Miranda Otto and Debi Mazar at the helm (2024)

When Ladies in Black director Gracie Otto first stepped up to direct her famous half-sister Miranda in 2023's The Clearing, she was more than a little bit nervous.

"Luckily, Jeffrey Walker was the set-up director, because I probably wouldn't have been at a stage where I felt ready to set up actors like Miranda and Guy Pearce," Otto says of working on the 2023 miniseries, which was loosely based on creepy real-life cult The Family.

"I came on and did the middle of the show when the actors were already so well oiled, and it was a really supportive environment."

By the time Miranda Otto stepped onto the fabulously realised set of Goodes department store — halfway through shooting this latest adaptation of Madeleine St John's 1993 novel, The Women in Black — it was also a smoothly oiled machine.

"Miranda's as organised as I am in a completely different way," Gracie Otto says.

Picking up two years after the events depicted in Bruce Beresford's 2018 film of the same name, Ladies in Black is set in 1961. Miranda Otto depicts imperious Brit Mrs Ambrose, who has just arrived from Harrods with a supercilious sneer, looking down on Slovenian immigrant Magda (American star Debi Mazar replaces the film's Julia Ormond).

Magda lost the top gig after plans to open her own boutique fell through, and the kind-hearted Fay (Jessica De Gouw, replacing Rachael Taylor) is caught in the crossfire.

"I just love when she lets loose," Gracie Otto chuckles. "Her character's super-intimidating.

"As soon as Miranda puts that wig on and I see her from behind the monitors, I'm thinking, 'Oh God, she's scary,' but Mrs Ambrose is one of my favourite characters because she's so enjoyably mean."

Ladies in Black is back, this time in Sydney in 1961, with stars Miranda Otto and Debi Mazar at the helm (1)

Meanwhile, teenager Lisa (Clare Hughes, in the Angourie Rice role) is now at uni and harbours grand ambitions of becoming a journalist in a time still very much pushing back against women's rights.

Back at Goodes in a part-time role, she's rebelling against her mum, increasingly interested in boys and experiencing tension at work with new character, Angela — a Lebanese Australian teenager secretly working as a double agent, stealing designs for her brothers' cheap knock-off business.

Angela is depicted by Lebanese Australian model-turned-actor Azizi Donnelly, who flew down to Adelaide to film the show alongside co-star Hughes.

"When me and Clare were talking about working with Miranda, Debi and Jessica, oh my God I was so excited," Donnelly says. "I got to learn so much. They're just such competent, strong women, and it was really cool to watch them work."

Working with the big names

Despite a long and successful career that has seen Debi Mazar appear in everything from films such as Goodfellas and Empire Records to TV series Younger, the cast agreed the star had no Hollywood airs and graces.

Ladies in Black is back, this time in Sydney in 1961, with stars Miranda Otto and Debi Mazar at the helm (2)

"She's met Basquiat and Warhol and had a lap dance with Madonna, she's one of the most incredible people I've ever met, and yet she's such a beautiful, thoughtful person," Otto says. "She just loved being here and would introduce herself to all of the extras.

"She's obsessed with birds and went off one weekend to visit a bird sanctuary in Penrith," Otto adds. "She's kept in touch and leaves me 14-minute-long WhatsApp messages, so it's like having a podcast."

Donnelly loved Mazar's company, too. "She's an icon who's in incredible films and TV shows, and yet she's the most humble and down-to-earth, funny person."

Having five women in the lead roles — with subplots focused on the immigrant experience and young women beginning to push back against still stringent societal expectations, alongside a greater focus on First Nations and queer characters — appealed to Donnelly.

"It was eye-opening because I didn't really experience any of the challenges that came with being an immigrant in Australia," she says. "I was actually telling my mum, yesterday, that it felt like I was playing a mix of her and my grandma.

"My grandma was an immigrant from Lebanon and was in her early 20s in Australia during the 60s. Whereas Mum was an established Lebanese Australian fashion designer, so I really appreciate that aspect of the show."

Ladies in Black is back, this time in Sydney in 1961, with stars Miranda Otto and Debi Mazar at the helm (3)

Setting the scene

Getting the look of the show was a massive undertaking.

"It's definitely one of the best-looking things I've ever done, and we didn't have a Disney-sized budget," Otto says.

"The brilliant Marion Boyce was on costumes, and not only did she have to create the lead characters' looks and all the extras, but also whole new collections, including spring racing season, plus make duplicates in six different sizes to hang on the racks."

The grandly curved set was a delight. "Seeing that being built and grasping the magnitude of the scale was amazing," Otto says. "Michael Rumpf in the art department and Simon Ozolins as director of photography did an amazing job creating the look."

Ladies in Black is back, this time in Sydney in 1961, with stars Miranda Otto and Debi Mazar at the helm (4)

There were tricky lessons for Donnelly — handling then-British pounds, plus working the old-school tills — but these flourishes helped her find her character.

"When the carpet and the chandelier and all the details got put in, it was so impressive, with every detail incredibly thought out," she says.

"As soon as I put on the ladies in black dress, I immediately was like, 'Oh, cool, I'm Angela. Even when she's chilling at home, she's wearing a skirt.'"

Otto notes those skirts may get a bit shorter if Ladies in Black is picked up for a second season.

"So many huge cultural shifts happened in the 60s and things are about to start changing for women, but we're not quite at the 'Swinging' stage yet," she says.

"We're gradually edging towards that, throwing things at walls in the writers' room and seeing what sticks."

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Ladies in Black premieres on ABC iview at 830 pm on Sunday the 16th of June. You can also find the Ladies In Black audiobook in the new collection on the ABC listen app.

Ladies in Black is back, this time in Sydney in 1961, with stars Miranda Otto and Debi Mazar at the helm (2024)

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