The Australian Women's Weekly | July 2003
Doing it her way
by Sue Williams
Lord of the Rings star Miranda Otto is on the brink of international
stardom, but that hasn't stopped her putting love and her personal life ahead
of her career.
After the break-up of her last serious relationship, The Lord of the Rings star Miranda Otto vowed that she'd never go out with an actor again. They can be too high maintenance, too insecure and, sometimes, far, far too competitive. Yet, five months after tripping down the aisle with fellow actor Peter O'Brien following a whirlwind romance, she can only shrug and laugh ruefully. "Rules," she exclaimes happily, "are there to be broken!"
"Marriage? It's just great!" she says now, talking publicly about her relationship for the first time. "It feels so nice to have made that commitment to somebody and be able to move on with the rest of your life. It's a great feeling that you've formed a partnership and are always ready to work through things together."
The love affair smouldered in a slow start for the chameleon-like star of Australian films such as Love Serenade (1996), Doing Time for Patsy Cline (1997) and Dead Letter Office (1998), who has gone on in the past few years to forge a successful international career, topped by winning the strongest female role in the second and third films of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Working opposite 2003 Silver Logie award-winner Peter, one of the stars of Network Ten's hit series White Blue Collar, in the successful Sydney stage production of A Doll's House last year, she found herself attracted to him. Yet she had determined never again to go out with an actor after the end of her long-term liaison with fellow thespian Richard Roxburgh.
On the day the play closed, April 28 last year, Peter, 43, asked Miranda, 35, out.
"I hadn't even know if he liked me!" says Miranda, smiling softly at the memory. "I didn't want to get involved with someone I was working with, as it can spoil the dynamic on stage, and I'd said I'd never go out with another actor. I did like him, but I had no idea he felt the same way.
"Yet if you meet the right person, it's really very easy. From the beginning, we discovered we had so much in common. We feel the same way about things, and we like so many of the same things. We were also both at a stage in our lives where we weren't going to say, 'I'd better keep shopping around. I might be missing out on someone else.'
"We were both ready to commit to somebody, but it did feel frightening. I'd been on my own for two years and it had been fantastic. I'd got to the point where I thought I'd never have another relationship. But then Pete came along ... "
An engagement soon followed and, just eight months after their first date, on New Year's Day this year, they walked down the aisle of Sydney's St Mary's Cathedral.
Even as her own career soars, with the much anticipated The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King due to be released this December, and her latest movie, the new Australian comedy Danny Deckchair - in which she plays the stunning romantic heroine - opening on July 31, she's reached the stage of thinking about starting a family.
"It's something I want to do, but it is a little scary," she confides. "Having lived so much of my life by myself, it's something I will do, definitely, but it's such a big thing, it's so long-term. Being older, I think about it now and imagine finding it hard to keep up by the time they're teenagers. But then I know nothing can really prepare you for it."
Miranda gazes thoughtfully at the salt cellar on the table of the cafe we're at in Sydney's eastern suburbs, not far from the home she shares with Peter. A slight, waif-like figure in blue jeans and dark T-shirt, with a cascade of strawberry blonde curls, she's just devoured a huge mid-morning plate of scrambled eggs and toast. She doesn't usually eat this much, she explains apologetically, but she's due at the gym soon and felt she had to prepare for the endurance test ahead.
Although filming of the three The Lord of the Rings epics in New Zealand finished quite some time ago, she is about to fly back over the Tasman to re-shoot some scenes. It means that a self-confessed physically lazy person such as Miranda, who hasn't so much as looked at a dumbbell since the first shoot, is thrown straight back into a heavy gym regimen in order to match her previous physique. With her character, Eowyn, involved in so much swordplay - "It's wonderful for releasing aggression, particularly since I have such a bad temper!" she purrs sweetly - that training is vital.
"But it is a bit of a shock to the body," she adds, sighing.
"When I was in New Zealand for the six months of shooting, I di somethine every day, so I got really fit. Now I'm trying to regain that, but it's a year since I've been for a run."
Yet it's precisely that kind of challenge on which Miranda thirves. She's never gone for the easy options.
Growing up almost in the theatre as the daughter of award-winning actor Barry Otto and former radio and theatre actor Lindsay, she would have known the life of an actor wasn't a comfortable one. "But I think it was in her blood," says her dad, who worked opposite her for the first time in Dead Letter Office."She was exposed to so much of it at an early age, it was easy to get the bug. Yet she kept it secret from me for a long time that she wanted to act, although I'd never have tried to talk her out of it. Now I've seen her develop wonderfully as an actress into such a beautiful, charismatic figure, I see she has so much going for her."
When her parents seperated after seven years of marriage, Miranda went to live with her mother in Newcastle, and spent her time after school devising little plays with the children of other actors in their circle, such as Lucy, the daughter of John Bell of the Bell Shakespeare Company. At 16, in her HSC year, she took her first starring role in the movie Emma's War, as the daughter of an alcoholic played by Lee Remick. She never looked back, attending the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in Sydney, then winning role after role in film, television and on stage.
She has often been her own toughest critic, however. "I was looking at an old tape the other day of something I must have done 10 to 15 years ago, and all I could think was, 'Thank goodness I went to NIDA after that!' " she says, laughing. "I had no idea what I was doing - and it showed. But I've never regretted any of my roles. Even if the work was bad, I might have met amazing people or been to an interesting place. You learn something from every single experience."
After roles in so many Australian movies, including The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992), The Nostradamus Kid (1993), True Love and Chaos (1997), The Well (1997) and In the Winter Dark (1998), in which she played opposite former beau Richard, she spread her wings overseas. She was John Cusack's wife in the western The Jack Bull (1999), she did the thriller What Lies Beneath (2000) with Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford, there was Human Nature (2001) with Tim Robbins, Patricia Arquette and Rhys Ifans, and a diamond commercial kissing Brad Pitt.
In among them were a few more eccentric choices. She went to Namibia for the drama Kin (2000) and to Italy for The Three-Legged Fox (2001). She didn't realise the film was to be in Italian, since her script was in English. In the end, she learned a smattering of Italian, then worked on the film, amazed by the degree of chaos on a Naples film set. "We'd been talking about the film for two years, but it wasn't until much later that I learned they'd translated it all for my benefit, and even I would be speaking Italian," she says.
The Human Nature role came up after she narrowly lost out to Cameron Diaz for a lead in Being John Malkovich, and there she became good friends with Rhys Ifans, the Welsh scene-stealer Spike in Notting Hill. Last year, he was cast as the lead in Danny Deckchair and asked the producers to consider Miranda fpr the part of his love interest. At first, she refused. She'd been working solidly for two-and-a-half years and desperately needed some time out.
Eventually, however, she agreed, both because she'd enjoyed working with Rhys, and because she loved the story of Danny the dreamer, who escapes his humdrum life by floating off on a garden chair tied to helium balloons.
Miranda plays Glenda, a tough, country-town parking inspector, whose garden Danny crashes into. While staying with her, he manages to reinvent himself into the local hero, while bringing out a side of Glenda no one realised existed, as she is transformed into a bewitching woman.
Producer Andrew Mason says Miranda was perfect in the role. "I think you should cast as the female lead someone you could be in love with yourself," he says. "Everyone ended this film in love with Miranda. And she's got such a great laugh, the kind that makes you know there's some amazing, wicked fun happening that you really want to be part of."
The role is perhaps another unconventional move for a woman on the brink of international stardom, but it's this kind of endlessly varied, unpredictable, restless career that Miranda has always craved. She doesn't particularly like the limelight or the glamour of fame, preferring to choose unusual projects, a heady mix of film, TV and theatre, or parts that she feels sure will challenge her.
She has just returned from a three-week trip to the US, where she looked at scripts, but didn't like most of them. "I find it difficult to find stuff I like in the States, and I can't do it if I'm not interested in it," she explains. "But I don't get so many offers from there. I don't seem to have that hard edge that a lot of women's roles there have. I'm not really into that whole star stuff, either. That's a very strange world full of assistants, managers, lawyers, trainers and dietitians, and you have very little control over your own life. I want the kind of career where you work in different places, and do small things, then occasionally big films, then some theatre. That's the kind of career I have, and I'm happy with it."
Also somewhere in the mix is Miranda's resolve not to do anything that would seperate her and her new husband for too long. Planning a trip to London together, where they could both work for a few months, they have agreed only to accept work on their own terms when they return.
"Being in a partnership changes you," Miranda says. "You realise it isn't worth going away unless something's really good. There's no point in being apart just to earn more money or to travel. I only want to do something if we both feel that it's worthwhile, and it works within our marriage."
Miranda smiles, "I love good work, but my life is very important as well."
Danny Deckchair opens across Australia on July 31.