Sydney Film Festival – Interview: Rachael Blake (Sleeping Beauty)

Interview: Rachael Blake (Sleeping Beauty). By Simon Miraudo.

Sleeping Beauty is set to become one of the most talked about movies of 2011. Julia Leigh’s first feature film made its premiere at Cannes, where it played in competition beside the likes of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. It has since come home to Australia, where it made its local debut at the Sydney Film Festival, and quickly became the film on everyone’s lips. The picture tells the story of an enigmatic young woman (Emily Browning) who takes a job as a ‘sleeping beauty’ prostitute for an equally enigmatic madam (Rachael Blake). We spoke to Blake about working with Leigh, her concern for Browning, what it’s like to play such a mysterious character, and her five favourite films of all time. (Check out our review of Sleeping Beauty here.)

SM: I always like to begin by asking if there were any films or performances you remember seeing growing up that inspired you to get into acting?

RB: Well actually there are films that I loved growing up, and strangely they were always musicals. Like I really loved Jane Powell in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. It’s completely undramatic, but I just love that stuff. And West Side Story. It was always musicals that I loved when I was younger. And now that I’m older, it’s all sorts of stuff.

SM: Do you still revisit those musicals?

RB: Yeah, I haven’t for a while. It’s probably been a year or so. But when I go home for Christmas, my mum loves them. Maybe, that’s where I got it from. We watched Brigadoon and Carousel and those kinds of great films.

SM: Classic Rodgers & Hammerstein.

RB: Classic, classic films. You know, they always look off into the distance and a song comes upon them.

SM: Sure, that happens all the time.

RB: (Laughs) Yeah.

SM: I understand you lived in Los Angeles for a short time, and also in London, and you recently returned to Australia. Can you tell me how the film and acting communities have differed?

RB: Have differed…

SM: Say, in London compared to Australia.

RB: I suppose in London, it was really unknown whereas in Australia I knew the acting community, and London I didn’t so much. It was just incredibly exciting; London has such talent – as does here – I suppose for me it was about learning how to be English for a bit, or something. I can do an accent, but it’s where you sit with it. You’ve got to take yourself with you. And so I learned how to do that for six years. But actually it was quite a distant relationship with me and the English acting community. That’s why I’m loving being back so much; I feel like I’m part of a community again, and I like that.

SM: Can you tell me a little bit about meeting Julia Leigh and getting involved with Sleeping Beauty?

RB: I got the script; I think it was last year, might have been the year before last. And actually there was no sort of fanfare. It was just, ‘here’s the script’; I got sent the script and I read it. I was so amazed it had come out of Australia. It really is a script I would have expected to find in London, coming out of Europe, because it’s left of center in a certain respect, and there’s an economy in the way that [Leigh] writes that I love. I love that we keep film ‘film’, and television ‘television’; television can be quite talkative, and film is about those silences. So I got that, and I read it, and I wanted to know who she was and who was directing it. It turned out she was directing it, and I thought that was interesting. And I just loved the character that they approached me for – that was Clara – and I wondered what it was like to be inside that world. Which is always why I started watching films in the first place; why I fell in love with musicals. It was such a concrete world, and if I watched it I could be in it. To be in the world of Sleeping Beauty, for me, was something I was just really fascinated by.

SM: Well Clara is definitely an interesting character. Like you said, there’s an economy to the screenplay, but she’s perhaps the character with the most dialogue, yet in a sense is the most mysterious, which is no mean feat in this film. When you approach a character like that, do you build your own back story, or do you prefer to approach it with just what’s on the page, and keep her a mystery to yourself?

RB: I don’t really tend to go into back story. I did a lot of research in terms of the work she might have done; she probably was a Sleeping Beauty, she probably did a lot of that sort of work, and has built a business. So really and truly, by the time Clara came to me, she was a business woman. I read a lot of Madam books; one book called Whip Smart, which came out of New York, which was about a girl who worked in a brothel and slowly built her own business. So I did a lot of that, but ultimately it comes down to ‘on the day, with Emily’. It’s always that human thing that I’m much more interested in, then say, having a chronology of that character’s past life. You know what I mean?

SM: Definitely. Well, it’s often how she says what she’s saying, rather than what she’s saying. The poise and the accent. Was that also on the page, or something you developed with Julia?

RB: It was something that Julia and I developed together actually. We were looking at…I think there’s a phrase that describes her as ‘elegant with monied privilege’. So, we were sort of looking at who that someone would be, and the aesthetic that would go with her. And this idea that she could be everything to someone. You know the idea of a ‘nebbish’? A ‘nebbish’ is someone who walks into a room, then walks out, and no one knows they’ve actually been there. There’s just no wake. In a sense, Clara’s like that. When she’s there, she’s offering something. But when she’s gone, we didn’t want any trace of her. We wanted it to always be about Emily and those characters. We looked at that, and we looked at the idea of her being someone that offers a service, and while she’s there she’s a tender ear to whatever is required, but ultimately she’s a businesswoman, and very good and it’s about money, really.

SM: Interesting. Emily Browning; it’s a very physical performance for her. And not just in the sense that she spends so much of the film naked, but just in a physically grueling manner. She’s thrown around a lot and is treated a bit like a dead weight. Were you there to offer any advice to her, or were you concerned at all about her performance in the film? Not ‘her performance in the film’, but what she had to go through?

RB: I would never presume to offer anyone advice on set, but I suppose I did get concerned actually. In those sort of scenes, I think it’s far easier for an actor to be inside them, because you can make it about something else in your head. It’s only outside that it’s…whatever is going on. I suppose every now and again I’d get concerned about her and her welfare, but the thing is about Emily, is she has an incredible resilience. She was very clear in what she was doing; we were all very clear about what we were doing and the film we were making. In a way, that lent her great fortitude. And while I had concerns, they weren’t about Emily. It wasn’t that I was seeing anything in her that, ‘Oh, I should be worried now’; that was just me being concerned. I go, ‘Oh God, is she alright?’ Of course she is. She was fine. She was great. She was in it boots and all.

SM: I mean, I was concerned, watching her.

RB: Which is great, because that’s the idea.

SM: The film was selected to play at Cannes, and in competition, which is a tremendous honour. Can you tell me about taking the film to France?

RB: It was an extraordinary – like you say – honour and privilege as filmmakers. I mean, they are craftspeople, and to be amongst their number, I mean it’s just… have you ever been?

SM: No. One day.

RB: One day you must go!

SM: Probably not in competition.

RB: In whatever capacity, go. But why not have the lofty idea of competition? That’s the thing about Cannes. It’s open. Here we were, a fully funded Australian film – the first time in 10 years – with other films like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and films from China and Israel. Really, those festivals are about global storytellers, and it was just incredible to be there. It was dazzling actually. It’s such an event.

SM: I can imagine. Well, in that same respect, how does it feel to bring it to the Sydney Film Festival?

RB: Amazing. It’s bringing it home, isn’t it? It was shot at Fox Studios; I’ve been a Sydney girl, I trained here. So to come back here with this festival and to be in competition is just great acknowledgment of the film really, and great for Australian films to be in Australian festivals.

SM: What has it been like to sit with an audience, and to experience it with a crowd?

RB: Well it’s incredible actually, because films change according to audiences. That’s where they live; how you think about something. I don’t know. For me it’s a great source of pride, because filmmaking is, you’re creating something out of nothing. The fact that it’s been knitted together out of a creative endeavour, and whimsy in a way, and it’s up there [on the screen], to me is extraordinary. It’ll be interesting to see how it goes.

SM: I’d like to end with a question many have come to dread…

RB: Oh really! What an invitation!

SM: Exactly, right? I should open all my questions like that. I’d like to ask what your favourite films are; your five favourite films. Do you have a selection of all-time favourites, or recent favourites, or five that inspired you while you were making Sleeping Beauty?

RB: OK. There’s a film from the 70s called Harold and Maude that I’m in love with.

SM: Hal Ashby.

RB: Oh! Hal Ashby exactly. Another Hal Ashby film, Coming Home, with Jane Fonda. Great film. Oh, there’s so many great films. I love Krzysztov Kieslowski’s Three Colours, Red White and Blue. Polish filmmaker. Such complex themes tied in with such beauty. That’s actually five there.

SM: It is. Very economic of you.

RB: There you go!

Sleeping Beauty arrives in Australian cinemas June 23 2011.

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  1. Sydney Film Festival – Video Interview: Rachael Blake (Sleeping Beauty) | Quickflix® DVD & Movie Blog - June 19, 2011

    […] spoke with Rachael Blake, one of the stars of Sleeping Beauty, at the 2011 Sydney Film Festival. Check out our chat […]

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