Dark drama, impressive cinematography, unsettling emotional trysts — it’s not exactly your average week of Australian cinema. Ahead of Rachel Ward’s Beautiful Kate releasing August 6, we caught up with the movie’s two stars — Ben Mendelsohn and newcomer Sophie Lowe — to discuss their experience on the film its director has fittingly dubbed “Australian Gothic”. As Ned, a writer who returns to his estranged father’s outback house to find the old man dying, Mendelsohn carries the audience on the film’s emotional journey, navigating a tricky course between empathy, humour, and some potentially disturbing revelations about his family’s past. Ned’s flashbacks revolve around his teenage years and his late sister, Kate — played by Lowe, in a brave debut feature performance — and a secret that holds the key to father and son’s reconciliation in the present. For Mendelsohn, who came to audiences’ attention a generation ago with another coming-of-age — 1987’s The Year My Voice Broke — the role was a challenging one, even for a seasoned veteran, while 19-year-old Lowe couldn’t have picked a more difficult, or rewarding, part for her movie bow.
How’s it all going?
Ben Mendelsohn: It’s going pretty good, you know. The reactions we’ve been getting are good, which is nice.
Ben, how’d you get involved with the film?
BM: It was out there as a script. They [Rachel Ward and Bryan Brown] were looking at a few people and at the end of the day it went to me. That’s the way it happened: I read it, wanted to do it, thought I could do it better than anyone else… all that sort of stuff.
From what they told me I think they were obligated to go to Tom Cruise first, you know — for commercial purposes.
BM: [Laughs] Well yeah. You know, that’s the way it works and that’s the reality of the situation.
What did you think of the character? This is quite a complex role, to say the least.
BM: You just don’t wanna fuck it up; whatever it is. You just want to try and give it the breathing room and the dignity, and give it the right stuff. And you want to do enough stuff that you go out there and make enough space for yourself and arrive with the feelings and make them hit the celluloid.
Was there any pressure on you, being as it was Rachel’s first film? I mean, you’ve worked with Bryan before…
BM: Any shoot is going to be primed to its own idiosyncracy and difficulties and joyous fun bits and stuff like that, and there’s no exception to this. We had a few things that were difficult, but I say that as someone who’s been at it for a long time. I don’t know — [to Sophie] Did it feel like there were difficulties for you?
Sophie Lowe: No, no.
BM: But I’m an animal of this, you know? I’m an old and seasoned campaigner, so I arrive with various kinds of ideas about how things work. The most difficult films often turn out the most rewarding.
How about you, Sophie — how did you get involved?
SL: I just auditioned. Well they saw a short film I did ages ago, and that’s how I got an audition.
You auditioned with a bunch of people?
SL: Yeah, and then Rachel chose me to read with all these boys. So I was auditioning to all these boys and she was asking, “What do you think of this one?”
You helped cast them?
SL: Yeah… if we had a connection.
What did you think of the script when you read it? There’s a lot of dark stuff there — plus the nudity.
SL: It was really intense but I wanted to do that role, because it was going to be so challenging. It’s a dream role for any girl.
You weren’t afraid of jumping in the deep end on your first film?
SL: Oh, yeah I was — I was afraid. But I just thought it’d be so much fun to do. And as soon as I met Rachel she just made me feel so much more comfortable about it. Her vision was really powerful. She showed me pictures and everything of how it’s gonna be. So I felt so safe and comfortable with her.
BM: It’s the spirit of the piece, too. I think that there’s always a gap — there’s a big gap between what you actually take from an experience watching something and what it’s like to do it.
Did you know Bryan and Ben and Rachel were involved?
SL: Oh yeah, when I met them I was in awe. They were all so welcoming — like family.
BM: We all settled in pretty quickly. There wasn’t a lot of extraneous stress.
The film feels very isolated, almost out of time. Was it like that on set?
BM: That’s very much what that part of the world feels like. There’s a crew, but in terms of people around there was just us and a few people that live out there. It’s tough — it’s a classically beautiful, harsh Australian environment.
Have people been commenting on the controversial subject matter? How have you responded to that?
BM: Yeah. Well I think the best thing to do is just let it be there, floating around. I think that’s the line that we’ve been taking. It’s there, you know — and people have either got an idea about it or they don’t. I mean, there’s enough space in there for people to get in and have their feelings and interpretations of it — and I think that’s one of the good things about it. It’s not a didactic piece in that way. And our job is to not fuck that up for people.
BM: And that’s part of the participatory process for people who are watching.
Audiences seem to like you as a character, which is important in something like this.
BM: Yeah. I think for a character like Ned, who’s going through something like that, you have to be able to feel something about the guy — and it’s alright if that’s complex. A large part of acting is the ability to charm in one way or another. It doesn’t matter what kind of thing you’re doing, it’s about having a sense of enjoyment; even when that’s painful or sad. That’s the gig in my opinion. So if you can do that, generally people are gonna respond.
Taken together with something like Samson and Delilah, do you see this as perhaps a resurgence in a new, or more original, kind of Australian filmmaking?
BM: Well I think that one thing that’s important for us to do is the ability to tell a story that is seriously engaging and attractive in some sort of way. I think that Samson and Delilah smashed the ball out of the park with it, and it’s a wonderful thing. And this is a dark story in a way as well, there’s a lot of stuff going on and that’s a very good approach — because it’s very powerful. And we love this shit. If you look at it there are so many different parts to the banquet of storytelling, and the dark stuff is always fantastic.
Rachel said she wanted a film that made people come out talking.
BM: Oh and they’ll talk. They will. And you know, there’ll be a few reactions, there’ll be a bit of an uproar here and there but fucking whatever — it’s all good. We’re a funny old group — we’ll have different phases, we’ll have our ‘What the fuck’s going on?’ sort of stretches.
The media beats it up though — there are always good films around, even in alleged bad cycles.
BM: Oh yeah, I mean, I think you have to remember what a remarkable achievement it is for a country of our size. We put out a lot of good stuff and we’ve got plenty of people who stride very, very large and leave very large footprints.
What are you doing next, Sophie?
SL: I’ve got a film, [Anna Kokkinos’] Blessed coming out. I’m really excited about that.
BM: Oh you worked with Ana? I love her stuff.
SL: And Road Train, I just finished filming that in Adelaide; that’s by Dean Francis. That comes out early next year some time. And The Clinic, by James Rabbitts…
Will you make the Hollywood pilgrimage?
SL: Yeah I hope so. I might be going to LA some time at the end of this year. I’ll just go with the flow and see what happens.
Who would you most aspire to work with?
SL: I love Sofia Coppola.
BM: Which one?
SL: Marie Antoinette
BM: Who are your actors?
SL: Oh it changes all the time. I really love Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted… and Cate Blanchett in that Bob Dylan movie — that was amazing. It changes all the time.
BM: that’s the thing — you have a thousand acting crushes.
Beautiful Kate opens nationwide Thursday, August 6.
Read RT’s interview with director Rachel Ward and producer/star Bryan Brown here.