Interview: Caitlin Stasey; star of Tomorrow When The War Began.

Although many Australian films fall by the wayside, Tomorrow When The War BeganStuart Beattie’s film adaptation of the first novel in John Marsden’s beloved Young Adult saga – reignited teenagers’ interest in local cinema. The film grossed almost AUD$14 million at the box office. Sure, it wasn’t enough to recoup its AUD$27 million budget, but still a higher tally than that for films such as The Social Network, Jackass, RED, and Eat Pray Love. TWTWB tells the story of a group of teenagers – led by Caitlin Stasey’s Ellie – who take on an invading army, while simultaneously navigating their rampant hormonal urges. I spoke to Caitlin back in November; the day after she picked up the Best Actress prize at the IF Awards, and before Stuart Beattie revealed he was officially working on a sequel. Candid and energetic, she discussed with me her relationship with Neighbours, getting told off on the set of the film, and finally, whether she would prefer to do battle with an invading army or a horde of zombies.

SM: First up, congratulations on your win over the weekend at the IF awards.

CS: Thank you so much.

SM: I understand you live in L.A. at the moment, so do you get to see many Aussie films?

CS: Unfortunately, this year has been my worst year for seeing Australian films; I’ve wanted to see everything but I’ve unfortunately not been around. I was in London first, and then I came back here for the premiere obviously – so I’ve seen my film constantly – and then I went to L.A., so I’ve not seen any, but I’m definitely going to have to check out the DVDs.

SM: That’s fair enough. Was it difficult to make that decision to move overseas for work?

CS: Yeah, but I think it’s something every actor knows they’ve got to do eventually. Even in America, they have to move from their little hometown to L.A. to eventually do something. It’s just a transition you’ve got to make.

SM: And how have you found the experience so far?

CS: Yeah, it’s fun. Look, it’s hard and you’ve got to be patient, but I’ve had a really great time. I’m having a good experience, because I live here with my boyfriend; my best friends all live in the same complex with me and as far as I’m concerned I’ve kind of got my own family over there so it’s been an easy transition. I mean … look, it could take ten years for me to ever work again. It could never happen. But for now I’m quite content to … you know … bumble about over there.

SM: See how it goes. That’s ok! Well, let’s discuss how you got into acting. Do you remember seeing a film or a performance when you were younger that inspired you?

CS: I used to love Wuthering Heights, and … actually probably The Little Mermaid! I always thought I’d love to be a mermaid, but hadn’t yet had the opportunity to. In what instance could I be a mermaid? Well, actors! They get to do that kind of stuff. And Gone With The Wind and all those really brilliant old films. My mother’s always really loved Audrey Hepburn and so I’d always watch those old films with her. Pride and Prejudice I loved as well; the TV movie that they made in England with Colin Firth. Things like that. Of course, I never knew what they were saying! But the dialogue was so emotive and I didn’t understand a word of it, but I loved the way they spoke. I’ve always just wanted to do something like that.

SM: Does that appeal to you? Maybe starring in a Jane Austen or a Bronte adaptation in the future?

CS: I’d love to do that but I don’t think I quite look the part. I don’t think I could be part of an English period film. If they’re going to do a period film, it has to be set in Italy or Spain, like Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.

SM: They could do a reimagining of Pride and Prejudice.

CS: Absolutely. Something like that. But I’d love to do a period piece; even something set in the 70s or 60s would be really cool.

SM: You appeared on Neighbours for a number of years. How do you find the association with that show? Is it a kind of cultural currency that you’re proud of, or is it something of a burden?

CS: No, it’s sort of a weird combination of the two. It was a lot of fun; I learnt so much and I’d never speak badly of it, because it’s where I learnt everything that I took with me to my next job, and you can’t be ashamed of where you come from, because to go anywhere you have to start somewhere, obviously. And I wouldn’t have been able to achieve what I have so far without the aid of Neighbours, and without their support, and their having taught me to have a great work ethic and work quickly, and to be professional. I was young when I started and when I left I was 18. I grew up so much. In the same respect, when you read things, I think people use it with negative connotations. They say “Caitlin Stasey, ex-Neighbours star wins IF award” in a sarcastic context. And it’s sort of like, “Well, I didn’t win it for Neighbours; I won it for a film I just did which you’re neglecting to mention”. That’s fine; people can be like that if they like. They love a bit of controversy; they love a little bit of sarcasm. So do with that what you may, but it doesn’t change the fact that I made a film, and people like the film, and it’s water off a ducks back if people speak ill of Neighbours. As an actor, you’ve got to take every opportunity that you can. Some great actors are doing commercials or doing voiceovers for train companies, because work is so sparse now. You’ve got to just work wherever you can. People who turn up their nose at something like Neighbours are just ignorant, in my opinion.

SM: Well let’s talk about that film they’re neglecting to mention – Tomorrow, When The War Began. Tell me about getting the role of Ellie. What was the auditioning process like?

CS: It was just like any other. It was nerve-wracking, but I always had a really good feeling about it. I don’t quite know why. Not that I’ve ever had an inflated ego; I’ve always been very anxious about my own work. But for some reason I feel like … I’m not a particularly spiritual person; you know when you’ve done a good job, and you can make an educated guess about what you think your chances are. And I sort of knew I didn’t look the way Ellie was supposed to look, but thankfully Stuart Beattie thought otherwise. You know, we managed to come into each other’s lives at the right time. This was his first feature film; it was my first feature film. I will always be grateful to him for that.

SM: I understand you were the first one cast?

CS: Yeah, well the story is told from Ellie’s perspective, so you need to cast around her I suppose. It wasn’t a case of “Caitlin, do you approve of this person, or that person?” It happened, basically, at the same time, but I was the first one announced … I think. It was probably their main priority – getting Ellie right. Just like with any film, they’ve got to get the lead – well, Ellie’s not the lead, there are eight leads, but the film is told from her perspective – so they need to get her right before anyone else.

SM: Of course. Well I ask if you read with any of the other cast while they were auditioning.

CS: No, no, not at all. I wasn’t involved in that. As far as I know, I think they must have all been cast a day or so after me. As soon as I spoke to Stuart for the first time the day after I’d been cast, he said “We’re getting so and so, and we’ve got so and so”. It was a bit of a quick process for some people. They were cast and a week later they were filming.

SM: Interesting. A lot of the film is obviously built around your relationship with them, so did you do anything to bond before production began?

CS: We didn’t do any line readings before filming; we just went on daytrips together. Denis [Akdeniz] and I – Denis who plays Homer – we went ice skating, and Rachel [Hurd-Wood] and I – she plays Corrie –went to Manly for the day. We just did lots of little things like that. We’re all quite young; I felt like we wanted to bond, and we had a lot of affection for each other, because for a lot of us it was our first feature film experience. Yeah, we got along like teens do. We had to.

SM: There’s obviously a lot different between Neighbours and TV work and an effects-driven action movie like Tomorrow When The War Began. Was there anything you learnt in your early projects that translated to the film here?

CS: Look, they employed a bunch of teenagers, so often we were a massive pain in the arse. We mucked around a lot. But the main thing we had learned was to be humble and grateful and to be gracious and easy to work with. In Australia, it’s quite funny, because people always assume there’s a hierarchy where actors are at the top. But that’s not the case. I feel like actors – particularly when you’re a young actor – you get told off by the crew quite a lot. You muck about, and you feel like you’re a kid at school. And actors are like at the bottom of the rung in terms of powers that they have on set. Which is fine! It’s kind of fun. I felt like I was at school again, and not in a bad way, in a constructive workplace kind of way.

SM: One of the most interesting aspects of the film is its depiction of the invading army, and there are obviously a lot of parallels between Ellie and her friends with the relatively young army they’re fighting. I’m interested in what your thoughts are, your motivations and feelings, when you’re preparing for that role?

CS: Obviously I can’t empathise with what Ellie went through. They’re just regular teenagers; they’re just like myself and any of my friends, but thrust into this really remarkable situation. So you just have to think “How would I react?”; “What would I do?” It’s kind of like with me being the voice of the film in a sense –as it’s told from Ellie’s perspective- an enormous pressure and weight on my shoulders to get it right. To do Ellie justice, and to do John Marsden proud, I suppose the pressure for getting the film right was what fuelled me to empathise with Ellie in terms of her having to rescue everyone and save their lives (laughs).

SM: Do you ever think about hypothetical situations where Australia is invaded?

CS: Yeah, I think I would run and hide. That’s all I would be able to do.

SM: Would you rather defend against an invading army or a zombie attack?

CS: Zombies are scary though. No. Zombies want to eat you. At least with people they just want resources, they want land. They don’t want to just outright kill you. Whereas zombies need your brains, which you need to function.

SM: Sure. You can’t reason with a zombie.

CS: You can’t reason with a zombie; they’re unreasonable. They’re illogical.

SM: It’s really rude of them. There are a number of books in the Tomorrow series, and a couple of spin-offs with Ellie. I read that it was the plan to make two more movies and then a TV show, but this was all dependent on the first film’s success. Do you know where that plans stands at the moment?

CS: At the moment it’s as it was before. We have to sell the film before anyone can even think about making sequels. We need to just … make more money. It’s all the really difficult stuff that I’m not involved in. As of now, we’re still at the same place as before the film was released. We need to just figure out what we need to do.

SM: And would you be eager to return to the role of Ellie if that was to go ahead?

CS: Absolutely! I had so much fun. So much fun. The cast were great. I can’t remember a point in time where I wasn’t laughing hysterically. So of course I’d love to come back.

SM: Pending future Tomorrow When The War Began films, what’s next for you?

CS: At the moment, I’m just having meetings and stuff. Auditioning with people, and just waiting to hear back for things. That’s the generic response you’ll get from everyone who’s an actor (laughs). But I’m doing that; doing the rounds, just trying to find someone else to employ me. I’ll do just about anything.

Tomorrow When The War Began arrives on DVD and Blu-ray December 30, 2010.

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