Miranda Otto

The LOTR Movie Site

March 1, 2000

Miranda Otto Interview
Matthew Bass

The following is an interview with Miranda Otto (Eowyn) that ran in issue 120 of Cinema Papers in October of 1997. Reprinted without permission.

More interviews with Miranda Otto are available here.

Miranda Otto, like many other young actors in Australia, is working hard. Already she has three completed films under her belt this year. She's just finished shooting The Dead Letter Office in Melbourne, is about to start work on another in Port Douglas, with still another to shoot immediately after that.

With such a busy schedule, time for reflection and retrospection is a luxury, but recently she made the time to talk family, career and philosophy with Margaret Smith.

How were you drawn into acting?

I come from a family of actors. I've been around the theatre all my life. Even though I didn't live with my father [Barry Otto], I spent a lot of time with him on holidays. At school, and in my holidays, I did shows with friends. It was always an all-encompassing experience: it wasn't just acting, it was the whole show, making costumes, programmes, things like that.

It has only been the periods in my life where I felt that I had to give it up that I've actually found how much I love it and how much it is a part of my life.

What was the influence of your mother and father in terms of their acting?

My mother's name is Lindy Otto. She acted in Brisbane years ago. My father has been a huge influence in that I've seen him do so many things. I remember seeing him in Uncle Vanya and being incredibly moved by that.

I think you go through a period as a teenager of being quite cool and unaffected by things, being able to divorce yourself and look at people crying at films and say, "What are you doing? Why are you crying?" I used to say that to my mother a lot. Films came on the television and she would cry. But I remember being at Uncle Vanya and just bawling, crying and crying and gradually pulling myself back together, then coming downstairs to meet all these actors afterwards and them saying, "What did you think?"

Did he help give you courage, as an actor, because he often took his roles to the edge?

Yes. Dad does take a lot of risks, I think, and certainly that has been an inspiration. As an actor I think of myself as separate to my dad. He has often given me advice and I talk about things with him, but I don't feel how could I put it? that I have studied his style and taken that on in any way. I feel like I've very much developed my own thing, and I think we are quite different as actors.

I'm probably more cerebral about things, where Dad is maybe more instinctive and off-the-wall than I am. At school I was more the academic student, and I think that sometimes comes into how I've approached acting.

Is it safer for you in the long term? Doing films back to back, as you seem to be doing, you would have to find time to heal yourself between each film, to find yourself again, if you were too on-the-edge.

I find that anyway. I find that I get very lost in certain things and that it is hard to let go. Often, certain characteristics stay with you from characters.

You went through NIDA and that would have directed your acting in a certain way. What do you think you came out of there with?

When I did my first film, Emma's War [Clytie Jessop, 1988], which was when I was still at high school, I very, very quickly realized it was all about truth and life and reality. It wasn't about playing big characters.

For the two years before I went to NIDA, I just worked off myself, tried to be as truthful as possible and just answer back to the other actor in the way that I felt. That was well and good the truth is so much of it but I think going onto NIDA helped me explore characters much further away from myself. Trying to change one's physicality broadens you enormously.

I think it takes a long time to settle in, or it certainly did for me. It was scary at first trying to play people who were older than me, people who were very different. I still find it a bit scary sometimes, but it definitely broadens you. It takes a long time to work in; I think that the work I did there is only just coming to fruition.

How would you describe Emma's War?

It's a film about a young girl, Emma, growing up during World War 2. I was 17, but I was playing 13. The story is about her mother her father is away at the war and Emma, who develops a crush on a conscientious objector, played by Mark Lee. My mother was played by Lee Remick.

Basically, it was a fairly simple, joyous kind of story.

The Last Days of Chez Nous [Gillian Armstrong, 1992] was probably where you were really able to make your mark in Australia. Is that right?

God, does one ever really make one's mark? Maybe that's more for other people to judge.

Chez Nous was an interesting experience because I felt very over-awed for about the first four weeks of shooting by the company I was in. Everybody had done such amazing things before Lisa [Harrow], Bruno [Ganz], Kerry [Fox], Gill [Armstrong]. It took me a long while to settle into it, to feel worthy enough to be there. I was quite inhibited by them at first. I gradually found a place to kind of mark my space, if you know what I mean, to stand my ground.

How did Armstrong help you?

I remember doing a scene at the end of the film when JP [Bruno Ganz] leaves. In one of the rehearsals, I was crying and, when we went to do one of the takes, it didn't happen. Instead of her saying to me, "You should cry, try and cry", she would say, "Let's do another one." I thought that was incredibly clever, because I think as soon as you speak these things they become much harder, more forced.

What did you learn from working with Lee Remick and Kerry Fox so early in your career?

Working with Lee Remick I was, once again, over-awed by the whole experience. I really wasn't at the stage where I could watch other actors and pick up what they were doing. I didn't think of studying in a conscious way what she did. I do remember that she was an incredibly professional and lovely woman, and so generous. I'd never acted before, it was a very small-budget picture, and she was so lovely.

It would have been good if I could have learnt that, but I don't think I have learnt to be particularly lovely [laughs].

You don't know what she was like when she was young.

I just had this feeling she was always like that.

Acting-wise I must have subconsciously picked up on things, but I never thought about working out exactly what she was doing.
And from Kerry Fox?

I'd seen Kerry in An Angel at My Table [Jane Campion, 1990] before we did Chez Nous. I thought she was incredibly fantastic.

It is hard sometimes to see how other actors are working when you are working with them, if that makes any sense. Often when I'm acting with an actor in a scene and they say, "How did you think that one went?", it is really hard for me to tell. I can say I think the scene went well, it felt good, but I'm not really watching other actors from a point of view of watching a performance. I'm just acting with them.

In The Nostradamus Kid [Bob Ellis, 1993], you were working with a talented and eccentric director, and with Noah Taylor.

That was a very fun film. I had an extremely good time.

Afterwards, I felt that I'd had too good a time, hadn't really worked hard enough and that there was a lot more to the character than what I had done. I once again stuck too closely to myself, instead of really branching out more into the character, putting more humour in it. I felt, looking back on the film, that I missed it. But I had a wonderful time, and Bob was a great person to work for.

The Nostradamus Kid also tells a story of your parents' generation.

I'd always had a big thing for the '60s. When I was about 18, I used to dress up in '60s clothes. I was fascinated by that period and the people who came out of it like Robert Hughes and Germaine Greer. Having hung around [Sydney] university myself about 1987, I thought, "Where are those people? How come they came out during the '60s and during this period there are very middle-class people without much opinion?" It just appeared to me to be like that, not that I was ever really at university; I was just hanging around the drama group and pretending that I was a student.

From Nostradamus Kid you went onto Love Serenade [Shirley Barrett, 1996]?

I did Brilliant Lies, the play.The one thing that I like about acting is that it happens for a short burst of time and you can throw everything you have into it. Whereas if you throw everything you've got into something that goes on for nine months, it is very draining, very hard to keep going. I'm much more erratic; short bursts of energy.

I think film likes me better than the theatre does for some reason. I would very much like to go back to the theatre and do a classical role, something that is a wonderful play in itself, not so much as doing a new play.

I've done quite a few plays and have been through terrible periods early on at NIDA of having no idea what to do with my arms. In film, you don't have to move if it is not needed; with stage, there is a sense of needing the action on the stage; needing things to happen; having to generate activity. In film, it is much more like: "Here is a table and a chair, walk in, sit down and then walk over there." Theatre, I think, is a little more constructed, and great theatre actors have those techniques that, when they do things, they make them very interesting. In film, you can be more subtle and just let things happen.

In Love Serenade, you play Dimity, a naive girl who fell for the first stud who came to town. How did you prepare for that role?

We were cast a long time before the film actually started, so I had a long time to think about it, which was great. That is the ideal way: to let things drop in as you are walking down the street, think about it and develop it over a long period of time. Shirley, Rebecca [Frith] and I got together on a few occasions, did a few rehearsals and spent a few days just talking about it.

We went to Robinvale and started rehearsing there. We did a lot of improvisation with the characters: trying to lift the characters off the page, take them out of the script, really flesh them out and then put them back into the script. We improvised walking down the street. We spent days and hours in character, pretending to fish. Rebecca was fantastic, and we seemed to really work well off each other.
You must have been grateful for that time.

Being cast at the last minute is really hard. You have to work very quickly and I like the time for reflection.

I like working intensely, then going away and thinking about it, working out why it didn't work and then coming back to it. It makes the work richer, I think.

True Love and Chaos [Stavros Andonis Efthymiou, 1997] was also a big challenge for you, wasn't it? Mimi journeys from innocence to a young woman. She has to come to terms with a lot of stuff: her boyfriend, Hanif [Naveen Andrews]; her boyfriend's friend, Dean [Noah Taylor]; and finally her father [Hugo Weaving]. All of which brings up her understanding of her mother [Genevieve Picot] and herself. How did you cope with the challenge of that part?

It was a very interesting experience that one, because I found the way Stavros worked very difficult to get my head around. I've got to work really spontaneously and he likes to throw things out at the last minute. If it is not working, he will tell you that it is no good which is a good thing but I think you have to develop a thick skin. You have to not be so personal about your work, you have to find a way of taking the criticism in a professional way that is not personal.

I found that very difficult, and I wasn't very easy to get along with. It surprises me when I look at the film that I look so light. I always felt the character, in the beginning and for most of the way through the film, should be a very light person, and it surprises me that she is, because I was a very heavy person during the filming.

It is interesting that Efthymiou didn't give the other characters a back story. It is only you and Hugo Weaving's character who really have a back story, so we only really get interested in you two.

Is it the back story that makes people interesting?

Yes, because we don't know where they come from, we don't know much about them. They are played very well, but we aren't told why or how, especially Hanif [Naveen Andrews], who just drops in from nowhere.

But there is a sense of him as a character who doesn't really belong in Australia, an outsider in some ways, and that works for me.

As far as the character and how it developed, it developed despite me, I think. I don't know where it came from; him [Efthymiou] pushing and pulling me in certain directions. When he was editing, Stavros said to me, "There is a development of the character there", and I was totally surprised. I had no idea what I had done with it [laughs]. I just turned up every day.

There are points like when you drive the car off without them and when you reject Hanif in bed where you are empowered. You had to be, otherwise you would have gone under.

As a character, she is probably surprised by the strength that she has, and frightened by it.

Did you use improvisation for that film?

In rehearsal, no, because we didn't really rehearse as such. We got together and chatted and fooled around, went away for a weekend, raved on, listened to music, stuff like that.

We did improvise when we were actually working. If things weren't working, if Stavros didn't like the dialogue or the way we were doing it, he used to say, "Okay, we'll throw it out, do it in your own words." A lot of dialogue in it is improvised; no one made up the stuff in the back of the car, or the stuff about Jackie Collins, The Tempest. That was very funny.

And how did you prepare for your character, Patsy, in Doing Time For Patsy Cline [Chris Kennedy, 1997]?

Costumes had a lot to do with that character; costumes, hairdos and make-up were really the beginning. I was very flummoxed by the script and how to play this character. I had no idea, because basically it seemed to depend on her being very seductive and beautiful and alluring, and I thought, "How can I play that?" Chris Kennedy said to me, "We wanted Marilyn Monroe for the role but she wasn't available." So I thought, "How do I do that? I'm nothing like Marilyn Monroe!"

Once in the script the word "exotic" is used, and in the end that was the place that I leapt from rather than from trying to be sexy. I had to develop an idea of her life and back story based on that.

You were working with 'hot' stars of the moment, Matt Day and Richard Roxburgh. What were they like to work with?

Fantastic. I'd known Matt before; he was a friend of a friend and we had been out socially quite a bit over the years. I didn't really know Richard very well. We had met occasionally, but it was a hoot, you know; the three of us got on so well. In between the scenes, we would be sitting in this Jag cracking jokes. It was a really good atmosphere, probably one of the few times I've worked with two actors who are very close to my age.

Do you think they represent a new group of actors who are very professional about their work and also know how to have fun. They approach it in a balanced way, whereas the work of some of the older actors have gotten out of balance.

I don't have any opinions about that. People ask me all the time, and I don't know! I'm meant to have theories, like I'm some kind of professor on the Australian film industry. People keep asking me that question and it drives me crazy.

I didn't mean to ask you such a big question.

It's just a frustration. "What do you think of this new brat pack? How do you feel about being called a brat pack?" I don't know. It has nothing to do with what I do. That is all out there; it is there for other people.

You are being hit with tabloid-journalism bi-lines of what you are doing because you have suddenly become a star.

Every time I make comments about this I read them back and I think, "What a load of shit am I talking about?" You know, questions like, "We went through a period of making these sort of films, and now we are making these sorts of film. Is that a reaction against ?" How do I fucking know? I don't know; things just develop. I don't mean to be rude.

You're right. I was only interested in the way they approached their work.

Young actors are serious about their work and don't take any time out from it. I'm very serious about my work; there are probably only two films I've done where I had a really good time.

I really enjoyed doing The Well [Samantha Lang, 1997] and I'm very proud of it. I wouldn't say that the experience was fun, even though it was a great experience.

Love Serenade was a fantastic experience, but I was depressed as hell the whole way through it. It sort of depends on the film, I think. Patsy Cline is a very fun film. Maybe Richard and Matt have a much better sense of humour and a better balance in their lives than I do, and maybe it rubbed off on me for once.

Was it hard preparing for your part in The Well?

I had a very strong response to the script as soon as I read it. It sort of began on me automatically, whereas with other things I skirt around and think for ages about where to start. We had a two-week rehearsal which was very good; we went through a lot, talked about the characters. I like to have the space to talk, to rehearse. It developed out of that.

Having such a young director must have been a help for you because she is not that much older than you.

Eight days older than me. Sam [Samantha Lang] puts herself in the characters, I think. As a director, she's very emotionally-based; she thinks of herself in those roles as well. I felt that she understood Katherine from the inside. She is very strong and indefatigable, she keeps going and that is what you really need from a director. You need someone who is constantly there, strong, always having ideas. She doesn't settle for second-best. She pushes on, even if it's using a lot of film, until she gets what she thinks is right. I knew from the audition that it was going to be a really good experience with her. I felt we had similar ideas about what we liked in film and in performance.

It was your second time with DOP Mandy Walker. Is there any difference to you when you are working with female directors and female DOPs?

One thing that I've gradually felt from all of the women I've worked with is that they have a great eye for detail. I don't know if that is just the women I've worked with or whether that is a general thing with women. They are very good with the detail of the film.

But, you know, every director is completely different. The women I've worked with have been completely different, as the men have been. It is not like all women are the same and all men are the same, and men and women are different. Tabloids like to put it that way!

Did you read Elizabeth Jolley's novel as well as the script?

Yes, I read the novel and Palomino before that.

As an actor you are looking for any clues you can find -- detective work.

If there is a book that the script came from you have to read it, you have to see what you can get out of it: mood, back story and things that may not even be in the film. They kick off your imagination and broaden the character, I think. You try to get stuff from anywhere that you can.

And you've just finished The Dead Letter Office [John Ruane].

It is quite different to other things I have done, somehow closer to myself. Alice is a complex character, but she didn't feel like a character that needed a particular physicality. It was working from a different place again, more from myself, I think, which can be more scary actually. You think, "I'm not doing anything here."

It was harder playing this character after playing characters who have a particular way of moving, of speaking, with all sorts of idiosyncrasies.

Do you get afraid about what you reveal in your character if you are drawing on yourself?

I don't mind revealing myself, but I think film basically is at its best when it is magic and things aren't all worked out. You come in with a lot of work done on the character that basically lets things happen. But the best things are the surprises. The best things are the things you didn't expect to say or do, but when it happens it is so right that it just hits you in the stomach. You get nervous about trusting in that magic, about just trying to let things happen. Those moments in film are very rare, but that's what I strive for. It is hard because it is a matter of letting go, really.

The work beforehand is very much about grabbing a hold of things, anything you can get a hold of. When you come on set, it is much more a matter of letting go of things, letting things happen.

Especially to see what happens to the other actors?

Everytime I get myself into a corner and make a mess of things, get really strung out if a scene is not working, it is always because I've lost contact with the other actor. It is when I spiral off into my own thing, worrying that I'm not going to get there.

As soon as you turn around and see the other actor, it all falls into place.

It could be a stupid thing to say, but people should realize that it is easy to get concerned about yourself and to lose contact.

That sensitivity probably carries over into your life, as well. Is it hard to cut off and be normal when you're not working?

There are all sorts of things about being an actor that stop you from being normal. There is the fact -- which is sort of appalling, I think -- that when things are really terrible, when I'm having an emotional breakdown, part of me is thinking, "This is very interesting. I must remember this, catalogue this."

Sometimes it is good because you think, "Even though I'm going through terrible things, maybe it has a purpose. It is going to help me portray somebody else at some time."

I get terribly guilty all the time about not doing the right thing, and I do sometimes get very sensitive to people's moods over-sensitive.

What are you doing next?

From The Thin Red Line [Terence Mallick] I go straight to In the Winter Dark [James Bogle], based on a Tim Winton novel, which I think is really fantastic.

I wrote James a letter about a year ago and I said, "Please consider me for the part. I'll audition, I'll do anything." The character is pregnant and I almost wrote and said I'll get pregnant for the part! I didn't say that it is totally appalling to say that I just thought it! He wrote back and said it was already cast, but then by the time it came around the person who was cast wasn't available.

It is a hard story to describe because a lot of it is mood, fear and landscape. It is a psychological piece about what happens when you let fear take hold of you, when you let your mind go.

Are you getting offers from overseas?

I didn't want to go over there with my suitcase and try and set up shop with nobody having seen anything that I'd done. Having had The Well and Love Serenade at Cannes, and with Love Serenade opening in America in a minute, I feel I will go over now.

People interested in meeting me have been ringing.

With the work I'm doing, I can't fit it in, so I'm going over later in the year. It feels like the right time to do it, and it will be interesting to see what happens. To work internationally would be fantastic. England is very interested as well, and other countries if I could speak the languages! But it is always a case of trying to find a good script and good roles.