Gracing The Screen

January 19, 2016
Radha Mitchell returns home for Sue Brooks’ long-awaited follow-up ‘Looking For Grace’, and talks challenging roles and avoiding the wrong kind of industry freaks.

“That’s what attracts people to acting – you get to have a thousand different lives,” Radha Mitchell told FilmInk in 2009. Since first arriving on the local scene in TV series like Sugar And Spice, Blue Heelers, All Together Now, and Neighbours, this Melbourne-born actress has been taking on all kinds of lives, in all kinds of films, scoring a major breakthrough in the 1996 Australian indie, Love And Other Catastrophes, before going on to appear in Phone Booth with Colin Farrell; Finding Neverland opposite Johnny Depp; the video game adaptation, Silent Hill; Woody Allen’s Melinda And Melinda; The Crazies, a remake of George A. Romero’s 1973 virus shocker; TV’s Red Widow; the deeply moving Australian drama, The Waiting City; the Aussie crocodile shocker, Rogue; the Beat Generation curio, Big Sur; and the action blockbuster, Olympus Has Fallen, amongst many, many more. She recently lit up the screen in the short Whoever Was Using This Bed, an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short that screened at Flickerfest and the actress will also soon be seen in Australian writer/director Sue Brooks’ Looking For Grace, in which she plays a suburban mum in pursuit of her runaway teenage daughter.

How was it shooting back in Australia?

It was really quite special. It was wonderful working with Sue Brooks, who is incredible. It was a challenging role, and working with the accent was slightly uncomfortable because I don’t do it very often. We were working in this uncomfortable and exciting terrain.”

Did you have to work with a dialogue coach to brush up on your Australian accent?

I was just mimicking [co-star] Richard Roxburgh. [Laughs]. When I worked on Rogue, I did actually work with an accent coach. I was trying to do something in a certain kind of way that wasn’t too far, but just far enough. My character in Looking For Grace felt quite broad, so I could take it wherever I wanted to go. That was fun.

Denise is a different character for you…

There’s something very charming about her. Yes, she makes weird choices that aren’t exactly heroic, but she has this charming quality. There’s something innocent and ultimately sweet about her, which I was drawn to.

The tone of the film is unusual – it jumps from being quite comedic to something far more intense, and then back again, and then back again. Was that on the page? Could you feel that unusual tone on the set?

Yeah, it really felt like we were creating a tone. We weren’t sure exactly what it was, and we were making it as we were doing it. Again, it’s slightly uncomfortable but very exciting. It’s a measure of how much I like these kinds of stories. There’s always this space for a poignant realisation in any moment that is both ridiculous and sublime, and Sue really found that. The tone shifts a little within the story, but it gives you enough pieces to give you a sense of perspective.

Is that difficult as an actor? Do you prefer to have a very straight throughline in terms of how you pitch your performance?

If you’re doing something slightly heightened – which I don’t normally do, because I’m pretty comfortable in the realm of naturalism, which is a pretty soulful space – trying to keep that emotional integrity is even more challenging. It’s more interesting for the actors. I don’t think it makes anything better or worse, it’s just a little trickier, so it’s more fun.

Was Sue Brooks right there with you in terms of calibrating that? Did you have her, perhaps more than other directors, in your ear saying, ‘Pitch it a little higher’ or ‘Bring it down here’? Did you notice that?

She believed in the kismet of creativity. She’s open to things happening as they’re happening without having to overly articulate what she needs or what she wants. She obviously had a barometer, and ideas about trying this or that, but she wasn’t all over it at all, which was great. For her, it was a process of discovery, which is interesting.

As an actor, do you have a preference? You’ve worked with so many different types of filmmakers – do you like a director that’s very much in your ear?

I don’t like it at all actually. It’s like, ‘I’m here to do my thing.’ [Laughs]. I don’t like it. It’s a sign of an insecure person if they’re directing a movie and telling everyone how to act. I don’t like it at all. I like it if they provide assistance, of course, if you feel like you’re lost and you obviously want to be able to turn to someone who knows. The key to directing actors is that you should never be able to notice your direction; whether you’re an actor or the audience, you’ve all got to feel like it’s finding itself in the moment. If you try to reach for something specific, you don’t have that magic.

Do you get lots of offers to do things in Australia?

Not really…every now and again. Obviously, there’s only so much stuff getting made here. Certainly, it’s nice to make something here, but it’s even nicer to show it here. We showed Looking For Grace at The Astor Theatre in Melbourne…that’s where I discovered cinema when I was a kid, and I spent a lot of time there. That was very special. To show it to an audience that you know makes the experience so much more intimate. A lot of the time as an actor, you’re running around all over the place and showing it to people that you have no connection to whatsoever; so it’s very special to give it to the people that you love.

How do you choose your roles these days? Is it about the script and the director? Or do more prosaic reasons play a part after you’ve been in the industry for such a long time?

It depends what year it is. It’s like the stock market, isn’t it? Ideally, at this point, the decision is not about where it’s going to take you, but what the actual experience of making the film is going to be. Ultimately, you want to be working with people that you respect, and that you feel are going to challenge you, and whose work you admire, and who you feel that you share chemistry with, and have something to learn from. You just don’t want to be working with freaks. [Laughs] You want it to be pleasant.

Have you figured out a method not to work with freaks? I imagine that people might seem normal upon first meeting them, but within the pressure cooker environment of a film set, they might turn out to be freaks…

The problem with a lot of creative people is that they are freaks. Often, the most talented are the freakiest. I like eccentricity in creatives, but I don’t want negative energy and egos that are destructive, and there’s a lot of that in Hollywood situations. It’s a very competitive environment, and there’s often macho energy behind those kinds of projects. People find that out themselves in the process of working on them, and it’s not worth it. You hear about directors going to hospital and getting ulcers from the actors that they’re working with…it’s just so much drama. And it’s outside of the film…it’s not even to do with what’s happening on the screen. I like things to be more simplified.

You’ve done everything from Hollywood and European films all the way back to Neighbours, with American television in between. Are there any highlights that really stand out?

Everything leaves an impression. Of all the things that I’ve done, I really enjoyed working with Tony Scott on the film, Man On Fire. We shot it in Mexico City, and I worked with Denzel Washington, which was a unique, obviously never-to-be-repeated experience. That was pretty eventful.

Australians are doing so well overseas now, but you were fairly early in terms of going overseas and finding success. Is there anything that you attribute the success of Australians overseas to?

They have a back door. They can leave. They’re not at the level where people cripple themselves with their own ambition. It’s also more real here in Australia than over there, and you’re more directly connected to yourself. That helps the acting. 

You have about five or six films on the horizon…anything that you’d like to tell us about?

There’s one that I’m curious about. I made a movie in London with Gerard Butler, which is a sequel to [the action thriller] Olympus Has Fallen [in which The White House comes under terrorist attack] called London Has Fallen, which is coming out in March. I’m curious to see how it’s received, with what has happened in Paris. I don’t know…no comment just yet. I’m definitely curious, and I think that it’s going to be a big film.

Do you like getting involved in these big action films?

Yeah, I do. I’m glad in that one that I’m just the wife, so it’s not my problem. [Laughs]. But no, the theatre of it, and the excitement of it, is huge. It’s a big experience, and working with all of these people is always fun. There’s something exciting about that level of focus.

Do you critique your own work? Is it helpful to watch your performance, and perhaps think about what you might have done differently? Do you think like that as an actor?

In as much as one critiques one’s own life. ‘Why did I do that at that moment?’ But then you have to live with it, don’t you? You’ve got your next moment… it’s a little redundant to get too focused on something that’s happened already, unless you have some inspired epiphany on how to do it differently, and you have the opportunity to do it again differently. But there are obviously things inbuilt, and if you notice something, it stays in your subconscious, and so you learn constantly through paying attention. And often you’re making the same mistakes, I guess, and that’s when it’s good to have someone point it out to you, if they have that perspective.

Do you feel that you’re still learning as an actor, and that there’s always something new to learn?

That’s why you keep at it, to learn more. You’re also changing as a person, you’re changing physically, you’re getting closer to death, and your whole perspective is shifting constantly. Once you figure out how to kind of act, then hopefully you’re able to express some sort of personal philosophy through your characters on some subtle level; your perspective will come through. That comes with just feeling comfortable with what you’re doing.

Looking For Grace is released in cinemas on January 26.

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