HQ Magazine (Australia) | September/October 1997
Story by Amruta Slee
At 29, with a string of stage and screen hits behind her and what promises
to be a burgeoning career ahead, Miranda Otto has a certain self-confidence.
Enought not to care that debris from a recently devoured salad sandwich is sticking
to her front teeth or that her green animal print shirt gapes open to the waist
every time she leans over the tape recorder.
Nevertheless, she identifies more with her ugly-ducking roles than with the ones where she's required to shimmy and shine. She hesitates to refer to herself as a woman rather than a girl, and her gait - in big black high heels - has an endearingly clumpy quality to it, as if she's dressed up in her mother's clothes for the day.
A viewing of Otto's films provides the same set of contradictory impressions. For The Nostradamus Kid she was the picture of twin-set poise. In Love Serenade she ducked and weaved as the awkward Dimity. In Daydream Believer she was a horse. No wonder critics praise her range and diversity. Now two films are testing her spectrum to the full: the recently released The Well, the only Australian movie in competition at the Cannes Film Festival this year, in which she plays a blurry-around-the-edges rock chick called Katherine, and Doing Time for Patsy Cline, released nationally in September, in which she is Patsy, the object of male fantasy.
Both roles were gruelling for different reasons - Katherine because she was so full of mixed motivations, and Patsy because, sometimes it's hard to be a woman.
"I went through a huge thing about Patsy." Otto says. "A lot of women, when they play that part these days - characters who are party sex-object - they're always doing a really tough-talking short-skirt-wearing, punchy, sexy kind of American thing. She was really gentle and passive and retiring and sexual in that way. It was a part of myself I hadn't really used because I'd been a more aggressive character in life, more cerebral, nutting things out, and argumentative - that's who I am as a person, and then this other thing came out which was soft, protected."
With a hint of apology, she adds, "Um, I ended up quite liking it, yearning for something we've lost, gentleness. In my life I had been trying to make a career and earn money and be taken seriously. It was quite nice not to be taken seriously for a change."
Otto delights in the role-playing and chance to try on different guises. She states her fascination with other people's circumstances, with having "a completely different logic it's interesting to take your mind there". Observation is her game. Shirley Barrett, the director of Love Serenade, reports that Otto came in to audition with "a total confidence about the way she wanted to play Dimity, down to the way she would walk. She watches people and files stuff away."
At the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), where she spent three years studying her craft, Otto was known as "the Flagellator" for her tendency to worry and fret over a role till she got it right. She recalls going about "banging my head against walls" until she realised that it was destructive on people around her. These days her methods are less dramatic but no less intense - she will mine others for their experiences, use her mother as a sounding board and spend hours on the phone with a few close buddies going over her strategies. She confesses that she often takes more than she gives; the best portrayals she has seen of her own profession are in Woody Allen's movies, where actors are exposed as the gloriously self-absorbed creatures they are. She includes herself in this category.
The payoff is that Otto is in big demand. Since she graduated from NIDA in 1990 she has worked almost back to back and always to critical acclaim, scoring roles other young actors would kill for. Right now she has a part in The Thin Red Line, a film by Terrence (Badlands) Malick, with Hollywood heavyweights George Clooney, John Travolta and Sean Penn. Next up, In the Winter Dark, based on a Tim Winton novella and co-starring Richard Roxburgh and British actor Brenda Blethyn (Secrets and Lies).
Sandra Levy, producer of The Well, says Otto's success should be no surprise to anyone who has watched her performances. "She's brilliant," Levy says. "All the best actresses let the camera be in love with them, they're open to it. Miranda's one of those people - she can do anything on film."
OK, she did have a head start. Her father is the respected and well-connected actor Barry Otto. When she was a teenager, John Bell, the then director of Sydney's Nimrod theatre, let her put on plays downstairs with his two young daughters. David Williamson wrote his play Brilliant Lies with her in mind for the lead. To top it off: her looks; even nursing the flu she seems translucent, all clear skin and bright eyes, under a shock of peroxided pinkish-blond hair.
Otto doesn't attempt to deny her advantages. So far no-one has accused her of nepotism or privilege (at least not to her face) except one ex-boyfriend who, she says, used to tell her, "Oh, you got everywhere because of your Dad." She will point out, however, that she grew up mostly in Newcastle with her mother and that she had a fairly normal life going to the races, doing ballet and working at the clothes shop that her mother, once an actor herself, owns. Otto's associations with the theatrical world were confined to the weekends and holidays spent with her father. "The thing with my Dad - in the end it cam only get you a look-in," she says. "Hopefully, I've proved myself by this point."
She has just done her first film with her father - Dead Letter Office, in which she plays a young woman searching for her father. It bears no resemblance to reality (the two Ottos are close), but she says she can relate to the idea "because we all have such unresolved relationships with out parents". She describes the parental bond as "the third most important relationship in a woman's life". And the first two? "The one you have with the person you're with and the one you have with your children." After a quick pause she amends this, giggling: "And your agent, I imagine. Maybe I should put my agent at the top."
There is nothing of the theatre brat about Otto. Professionally, she has a sterling reputation. In person, she isaccessible, given to shouts of laughter, and terribly nice. It's a facade, she insists. Several times she mentions her "moodiness" and "short fuse". People who think she's sweet are mistaken. For example: "When I'm driving I scream at people." And get this: "This morning when I couldn't find my way to the studio I stood in the middle of the street screaming my head off. I hate being late, that makes me cranky." It is only at the HQ photo shoot that something else emerges. The photographers want her to lose it in front of the camera. Otto agrees, paces up and down quietly while the lights are being set up, then pours out a sudden, shocking stream of invective complete with guttural sounds, legs spread wide to support her, veins popping on her forehead. When it's over, she snaps back out and returns to the lounge to sip mineral water and check the messages on her mobile phone.
Otto's original career plan was medicine, but it was never a serious consideration. "Scholastically I had the marks to do it," she says. "I didn't have much idea what I wanted to do." At 15 she was cast in her first film, Emma's War, but there was no blinding flash of destiny.
Acting evolved slowly, growing out of her childhood penchant for dress-ups. She still takes costume seriously; it's a way for her to get a handle on a character. For Love Serenade, she spent as much time thinking about what Dimity would wear as how she would be: "I couldn't describe exactly the look I wanted - would she buy her clothes from an op-shop? No, no. In the end we decided that her clothes would be bought by her sister from K-mart. That sort of thing is important, we all do it every day, put on certain things that say, 'I'm confident' or 'I'm feminine'."
Since leaving NIDA, Otto has moved between film and theatre but drifted more towards the former. "They've both got their difficulties," she says. "In film there's all these people really close to you and you're pretending they're not there, whereas in theatre you've got the protection of the fourth wall." But the act of standing on stage can be tricky.
"When I left NIDA I went through a really bad patch of not knowing what to do with my hands. I was pressing my arms all the time or having them dangle by my side." She has not had stage fright - "not in the real medical condition sense of paralysis" - but is prone to attacks of nerves.
"I always need to go to the toilet a lot before the first preview; the first preview is really scary. I remember being on stage in a play at the Wharf; I was playing a very confident woman and I looked down at my hand and it was shaking. The glass of wine I was holding was going everywhere. Things calms down after a while."
Doing a play night after night - Brilliant Lies ran for nine months - is exhausting, and when she has a part, Otto doesn't allow anything else inside her head, not books, not other movies or other plays. Such single-mindedness can play havoc with the rest of her life.
"Going out with actors is difficult," she says. "It's such an obsessive career when it's happening and when it's not you're down. You can get involved with another person and then you get a job and have to say: 'I'm going to Melbourne now for two months.' I don't mind, I like giving someone the freedom to go and come back and tell me all about it, but it's evry hard for someone to bear." Currently, Otto is seeing another actor, Richard Roxburgh, who was her co-star on Doing Time for Patsy Cline. The news caused a stir: Roxburgh is high-profile and glamorous, and Otto is still getting used to the interest. "I've had boyfriends before," she comments. She is willing to put up with a certain amount of curiosity, but says she likes her private life to stay private.
The Well represents a leap forward for Otto into more complex roles. The story revolves around the lonely Hester (Pamela Rabe) and her claustrophobic relationship with Otto's waifish Katherine, onto whom Hester projects her dreams of freedom. Kathy responds with a mixture of emotions - at first neediness, then feverish excitement, resentment and, finally, a tumble into madness. Part lovestory, part horror-fable, the film, which caused a sensation at Cannes, has been labelled "Australian Gothic" and there's something to the description: Otto's pale eyelashes and milky skin are used to spooky effect, as are the pitiless landscape and the rattling corrugated iron cover of the well.
When the script arrived, Otto almost refused to read for it, for fear she wouldn't get the part. Katherine, who is meant to be 18, was too young for her, she felt. But, during the audition, Otto says something worked, she was able to find a way to get inside Katherine's head. In retrospect, she thinks the intricacies of the character transcended the age considerations.
"It would be very hard for someome who was 18 to do that part," she muses. "To break it down and work out what all the different parts of it are. When she first arrives she's kind of nutty and you can't tell who she is. But then she's fostered by Hester, given a safe place, money and things she's never had. She develops this personality where you realise she doesn't have the same grip on reality than other people have." With the protective instincts of an actor for her character, Otto sees Katherine as confused rather than calculating: "She had grown up in homes and never been allowed much room to move. She's quite withdrawn and she becomes sensually greedy - she brings that out in Hester."
She approached Katherine, as she does all her roles, by methodically breaking her down into smaller parts. Trying to articulate the process, she says it varies between being cerebral and physical and comes down to asking a lot of questions about why someone would act in a particular way. Then she tries to find the same feelings in herself. "Katherine's desperation and sensuality were the things that were touched off in me, that was the place to jump off from." It doesn't always work. "I probably do look for a character's motivations but each script is different. I was reading an interview with Tim Roth where he said some characters you have to know everything about, some you just turn up and do the bits and it doesn't matter. I thought, 'Oh thank God someone said that.'"
The novel hints at a physical relationship between the two women but never becomes explicit. It's a subject which interests Otto; she once posed half-nude for a shoot in Black and White magazine with her best friend, actor Rebecca Hickey, whom she finds beautiful. She hasn't kissed another girl, "not really", although "Rebecca kissed me in the middle of the shoot. It was an amazing moment but they didn't get it on film. I think they got quite a shock."
She shrugs at the thought of doing an explicitly sexual role with another actress - "whatever" - and notes that "it's all becoming terribly trendy these days".
Heterosexual sex scenes - that's another story. In the past few years Otto has gone through a few theories about nudity and sex on film. "I think what scares me is having to take your clothes off and be 'sexy'," she speculates. "Having to take your clothes off and do normal [things] is great, like the scene in Short Cuts where she's having an argument and she's got no pants on ... but if people are going to use your body as a means to turn the audience on, I feel uncomfortable. I want the scene to have credibility. If it's funny or different, like in The Piano when they were naked, it had a certain truth about it rather than 'whoah, cor!'"
The worst line Otto has had to say in a sex scene has to be the one in The Nostradamus Kid where she turns to the character who's meant to be Bob Ellis and tell him he's the best ever.
At the mention of it she disolves into giggles. "That was nice for Bob, wasn't it? It was sort of enhance memory because I said to him, 'Did that happen, did you really make her come in the shower?' and he said, 'No, but in the film, yes.'"
Of the orgasm scenes obligatory to every actor's career, Otto grimaces: "Yeah, that's a hard one." So far she has only had to do one, in The Nostradamus Kid. "The first time you do it, though, it's very technical - do you want my arm there, that's not working, do you want me to scream louder, that sort of stuff. It's hard, cos it's not something you've seen other women do, so you're scared that you'll do something that gives you away as really strange."
Or really boring. Even worse, we both agree.
A couple of years ago Otto had a crisis about the whole notion of acting. "I thought, 'What have I done, how did I ever drift into this? I don't know if I've got the strength you need to get through it.'"
She was not getting the parts she auditioned for and underwent a loss in confidence. Deliberating and drifting, she went home to Newcastle and painted her mother's house as a way to escape.
The feeling lasted for nearly two years. It lifted partially when she was offered a part she loved in Love Serenade, but, even then, she was not wholly convinced that this was what she wanted to do with her life.
Producer Sandra Levy speculates that Miranda Otto will grow to become one of Australia's best actors. A star? Levy hesitates: "I don't know if she's a 'star'."
Time spent with Otto illustrates the point; the obvious energy for acting is balanced by an undercurrent of doubt. She willingly submits to interviews and photography but remains indifferent to self-promotion. You get the sense she could throw the whole game away as quickly as she took it up. A word which comes up often in her conversation is "honesty"; she places great value on leading a normal life while being engaged in the most artificial job of all.
"In some ways, acting is am incredibly honest profession because at the bottom is a search for truth," she says. "But, then, so much of it is lies and pretend. In some ways it's an outrageous profession - it could be seen as playing around and having fun.
"Great films, great art, make you see the honesty within the artifice. As an actor, you become other people with all their idiosyncrasies and differences, and then you point out what makes people so similar. You come to certain realisations about the way other people behave. If there is any point to it, that's the point - to try to illuminate other people's experiences. To try to promote understanding."