Five Favorite Films

RT Interview: Clare Bowen Talks Dead Man's Burden and Nashville

The Australian-born star also chats about driving cattle and living in the desert.

by | May 3, 2013 | Comments

Australian-born actress/singer Clare Bowen is best known for her sudden rise to stardom as Scarlett O’Connor on television’s Nashville with Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere. Now, in Dead Man’s Burden, Ms. Bowen plays a different sort of young woman: one with a long-range hunting rifle. Bowen’s lead character, Martha Kirkland, is a badass in a smokin’ new western. RT got the opportunity to chat with Clare, and we wanted to hear more about Martha (Dead Man’s Burden) and Scarlett (Nashville), and what it’s like to film in the desert. Here’s what Clare had to say:

RT: You’re making quite a name for yourself now, and it’s exciting you have an indie movie coming out, called Dead Man’s Burden. I saw it, and it’s amazing to me how different your role is from one to the other, because in Nashville, it’s such a sweet, sweet role, but in Dead Man’s Burden, you’re a badass. What was it like preparing for that kind of role? How was it different?

Clare Bowen: Nashville‘s like the biggest thing I’ve ever done. It’s all about empathy, I think, having empathy for your character and what they’re going through. I don’t know how you’re supposed to understand, when you haven’t lost your entire family, to try and put yourself in the shoes of somebody who has, somebody who’s trying to survive. So I just equate it to a wild creature trying to survive, and everything that she was doing was for survival, whether it was right or wrong or horrible or sweet.

Going out into the desert with everyone, that was really special, because the environment is a kind of character, and so it absolutely is. It’s a beautiful, beautiful place, but it can turn harsh very, very quickly and it can just kill you in an instant. I think that was something that really helped. I don’t really know much about my own process; it just kind of happens. I just go do it. Which probably sounds really unintelligent, but I’m actually a very simple creature. [laughs]

Some people work in a way of writing everything down and I do that a lot now, you know, working through a really set method that somebody else has created, but I think I’ve taken lines from a lot of places. It appears to be… it’s just the way I work, and I’ve tried different stuff for a long time. But for me, it’s just whatever comes out of me.

RT: Yeah, a lot of the greats say things like, “I don’t know. I go on set and I say the lines,” and it comes out amazing.

CB: It’s just about listening to the other person, which means talking to them, communicating. If you don’t have anybody there, be with yourself and be with that character and try to own it. How would you feel if everybody around you was dying? You need to try and get there, and different people have different ways of doing it.

RT: Had you shot a gun before?

CB: Yeah. I rustled cattle and occasionally you have to shoot something. I’ve never actually shot anything, I don’t think. [laughs] But it is something that you have to know when you’re working out in the bush.

RT: So that wasn’t new to you, but it was so cool to see.

CB: Oh, thank you. It’s a beautiful, beautiful instrument. I mean, I don’t particularly like guns, but that was one of the things that… it is your survival. That’s part of what my job was before acting; you have to — if your horse breaks a leg and you’re out in the middle of nowhere, you have to end its suffering.

RT: What were you doing before?

CB: I use to walk the cattle, in inland Australia. We’d drive them from one station to the other and walk back. Not that many people do it any more. I ended up working on a couple of ranches. Riding horses every day was so much fun during the film, and I ended up working as a wrangler a bit, because we were short-handed. That was one of the most fun parts of it. [laughs] I made wonderful friends, and I learned a whole lot about a completely new environment. It was beautiful.

RT: The opening of the film is very strong, seeing you with that gun right away.

CB: I think that [the guns] have this presence. The weapons that we use in the film, they each have their own character, and there’s not too many of them. I dunno; I really don’t like guns, but being in that environment, they needed them. That’s one of the things that I really liked about the film.

RT: Did you end up having to show some of the guys how to use their guns?

CB: [laughs] No, I’d never shot a handgun before, so they taught me how to use the Colt. I’d only ever shot rifles before. I sort of knew what I was doing. You feel the weight of the Winfield in particular, and I’m a very short person — I’m only 5’2″ — and the thing is practically taller than me, so getting the stick down inside it to pack down… You have to learn to do it really, really quickly. And it was an interesting insight into what people who were fighting with these things under heavy artillery, like cannon fire, trying to avoid that… That was one of the biggest things, imagining yourself panicking and trying to load the thing, and then dropping. There’s something about Martha’s character that’s developed through this weapon. And I didn’t expect that either.

RT: It’s so powerful. And it’s gotta be a bit of an art, I would think…

CB: Well, because it’s complete muscle memory, and you just try and act really calm. When everyone is just standing around and there’s a camera pointed at you, it’s easy, but if you were in a life and death situation, you hope that your muscle memory holds up.

RT: You were all working really closely in the desert for a while.

CB: Yeah, it was a couple months, I think. We all lived in the same house, put up in a lodge thing with a bunch of rooms. We all had breakfast together in the morning and it was really supportive. You know what? It wouldn’t have come off the way it did if everyone hadn’t been really gung-ho about it. We had actors driving four-wheel-drives to set — like David Call driving four-wheel-drives out there — because there were a few people who couldn’t, on the crew; and he knew how to do it. Just everybody sort of pitching in. I was helping with the horses. That’s why it came off the way it did. Everybody had ultimate faith in Jared Moshe and what he was doing, and we all stuck together.

RT: And that was something that you were sort of already used to out there.

CB: Yeah, kind of. It’s a different desert with different, you know… I mean, the bush is a really dangerous place when you think about it, and it’s really creepy. It’s interesting, though; New Mexico has this energy about it. Really wild; very, very cool. I like being outdoors, I like sleeping outdoors. And snakes don’t bother me.

RT: Really?

CB: [laughs] I was bringing one of the horses down to set and we were walking down this little road. I was riding him, and he sort of tugged me to the left, quite suddenly turned left, and went in this right angle square and kept going. Where was he going? I don’t know. And there’s this gigantic tarantula walking down the middle of the road. And the horse is like, “I’m not walking over that; I’m going around it.” [laughs] It was that kind of environment.

RT: I don’t know if I could be out in the desert for that long, though.

CB: It’s no great feat; it’s just the way you’re brought up. It’s not anything special at all. If you’re used to being outside, you’re used to being outside. I don’t cope very well in the city. I think New York is an amazing city. I loved it when I went to visit it. I don’t belong there for an extended period of time. That’s all. It’s nothing special.

RT: Each city is very different, too. LA and New York are completely different.

CB: Yeah. Oh, gosh, they’re totally different. They’re both, you know, wonderful places. I like it out here in Nashville; I can sort of disappear , you know, for about fifteen minutes.

RT: Yeah, I’ve never been to Nashville. But I feel like I have now, after watching the show. So you’re still filming?

CB: Yeah, we’re still filming.

RT: The first season is coming to an end, and it’s doing really well. People are loving it. How did you get the role? How did that work out?

CB: I came out for pilot season and I got this amazing script, and I couldn’t believe that a collaboration between Callie Khouri and T-Bone Burnett hadn’t happened since Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, I think. I think; I could be wrong. But anyway, I saw their names on the script and R.J. Cutler, the director; I’m amazed at his work, as well. I went in thinking, “There is no way I’m going to get this.” I was about two hours late because it had started to rain in California. It never rains in California, apparently, except for the same time every year it rains — people should probably get used to it — and so everyone forgets how to drive. So traffic was horrible, and I rang and said, “Look guys, please can we reschedule because I don’t want you to wait for me,” and they said, “Well, we want to wait for you. So get there.” And I turned up looking like a drowned rat, in Scarlett’s accent, and within, like, 35 hours my life had changed. It happened that quickly. They said, “Can you come back in the morning?” And then I think I saw them again that evening, and then they said, “Okay, you’re going to Nashville.” Really, really weird. Apparently they’d had trouble finding Scarlett . It was just amazing, and everything changed. To do exactly what I’ve always wanted to do, I feel so, so fortunate.

RT: Getting to sing as well on a TV show is very cool, getting to do it all. Do you also write music?

CB: Yes, I do.

RT: Are you recording? Do you have albums out?

CB: No, I don’t have any out yet. That’s something I left behind for acting. I got a little taste of it in Spring Awakening. Music, again, you kind of, I think, really know that… I got told by a couple of people that my voice wasn’t good enough. So I got told I couldn’t sing, and bla-bla-bla. It’s just people’s opinions, but I was really young when I got told that, so I believed them. But then, Cate Blanchett asked me if I had thought about going to Los Angeles; she was part of the casting process for Spring. So that was a bit of validation for me. I couldn’t believe it, me getting that role. And she said, “Have you ever thought of LA? Well, you better get over there.” And I did. When Cate ever tells you to do anything, just do it. Cuz she’s right. All the time.

RT: Yeah, don’t think about it. Once you think about it, you’ll talk yourself out of it sometimes. Well, that’s terrific, and it’s such a great show. Scarlett’s had a couple boyfriends on the show. That must be fun; I know it’s work, but fun to watch.

CB: She’s kind of being tossed around, I think. She’s got to stop and figure what she actually wants, because she always does what everybody else wants to do. So she’s at this kind of turning point now, which is fun. She’s been just a delight, she’s great. She’s just this happy little creature that just wants to make other people happy.

RT: And choreographing intimate scenes can be really difficult, I know, but you all know each other pretty well by now, I imagine.

CB: Yeah, it’s just like, I don’t know, you just do it. I’m terrible with the process thing. Like, what would you feel for the person that you really love? You do a strange version of that. [But] there are nine guys staring at you, with a huge camera pointed at you, and sometimes somebody’s like, “Now put your hand on your face,” and na-na-na-na. I don’t know; I have no complaints. [laughs] It’s so awkward, and you just laugh your way through it.

RT: So, aside from Nashville, what are you working on next?

CB: Um… [laughs] It hasn’t been announced yet, so I can’t tell you, but I’m really excited. I’d love to be able to tell you, but I’m not sure, I don’t think they’ve put the announcement out yet, so I think they’re waiting on that. But I’ve got some really, really exciting stuff coming up, and I’m working on an album — T-Bone will be producing that. I’m just really grateful for where I am.

Dead Man’s Burden opens in limited release this weekend.