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Essie Davis

Australia’s Essie Davis is an acting powerhouse that you need to take note of.

With a career spanning almost three decades, the actor has starred in some fantastic projects over the years and is arguably best known for her roles in 2014’s startling horror film The Babadook and the Australian TV series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. Yet this somewhat underrated creative has a gift for delivering performances that are emotional, uplifting, and complex. Throughout her profession, Essie Davis has lent her hand to a multitude of different genres with ease. The Tasmania native has landed parts in blockbusters like Assassin’s Creed and Game Of Thrones and starred in smaller film projects like Nitram and 2021’s The Justice Of Bunny King to name a few. The latter of which in my opinion is Davis’s best leading role so far. Her performance in the harrowing and hopeful film, The Justice Of Bunny King, was incredible and cements the artist as a truly great actor. Most recently, the Aussie has reunited with The Babadook director Jennifer Kent on Guillermo del Toro’s highly anticipated anthology Netflix series, Cabinet Of Curiosities.

1883 Magazine’s Cameron Poole sat down with Davis via Zoom call to discuss her involvement in The Murmuring episode of Cabinet Of Curiosities, what she’s most proud about The Justice Of Bunny King, and fan pages on social media.

 

 

Essie! Thanks for chatting with 1883 Magazine. We’ve got a lot to talk about, let’s start with your involvement in Guillermo Del Toro’s Netflix anthology series, Cabinet Of Curiosities. Apart from reuniting with Director Jennifer Kent and starring alongside Andrew Lincoln, what drew you to the character of unravelling ornithologist, Nancy Bradley?

The major drawcard was that it was Guillermo Del Toro’s anthology–I’m a big admirer of his work–but of course, immediately, it was Jennifer Kent, we have a great rapport. I love working with her because I know that whatever she creates will be an outstanding piece of work and I know whatever she requires of me are for a good reason [laughs].

When I read it, I just thought it was a really beautiful, intense story. Personally, I find murmurations–the mass movements of birds–wonderful, omnipotent, and a little bit otherworldly which I thought was a really brilliant, spine-tingling setting for the story.

 

When it comes to the genre of horror, as an actor you don’t tend to get scared as you know the script and the team you’re working with. But out of curiosity, as someone who’s somewhat traversed the genre from 2014’s standout film The Babadook to Cabinet of Curiosities, has anything ever spooked you at all on set?

Oh, definitely. To play a character who is in great fear, you actually do get all your adrenal glands going. You put your body into a state of fear at the start. When we were shooting the basement scene in the Babadook where Amelia’s son is kind of trying to exorcise her, that basement was a very, very old basement in Port Adelaide and we both felt a pretty ominous, spirit force down there, it didn’t feel very nice. 

You do also have that heightened awareness when you’re playing those scenes where you don’t know what’s going to come around the corner.

Putting myself back into filming now, I’ve got goosebumps going up over my arms.

 

It’s important to point out to any reader that isn’t familiar with your work yet, you’re an extremely versatile actor. One key film example is your leading role in The Justice Of Bunny King. A moving drama about a tenaciously spirited and flawed mother trying to win her kids back from social services and trying to protect her niece. The climactic scene where Bunny talks to her kids on the phone in the social office is heartbreaking. Bunny faces such adversity and clearly has had a hard life but no matter what problems she faces, there’s always a glimmer of hope. Could you share the lasting impact this role has had on yourself or what you are most proud about it?

I think it’s a really important film. It’s a film that gives a voice to women on the margins who often don’t have their voices heard. It was a very low-budget film we made in New Zealand and a lot of people who worked on the film, a lot of the extras, it was their story. Women are in poverty, women are homeless, and it’s getting worse so it felt incredibly important to tell although it is a story of a woman who gets into more and more dire circumstances.

Bunny is such a fighter, she’s so hopeful. She comes up with solutions for problems and she’s incredibly resilient. She’s jumping through hoops to prove that she is a worthy parent and that she can be the best mother because she’s already done the worst thing in the world in order to protect her children.

What I found while researching, preparing, and doing it was that we all make instant judgements about everyone in the world, rich and poor, instantaneous judgements. If you hear there’s a woman staying on her sister’s couch whose kids are in foster care you think ‘oh, what’s wrong with her? That’s a bit dodgy’. I hope the film opens people’s eyes to go ‘oh, actually, maybe we could do something about this? Maybe we could stop judging and start helping.’

Bunny creates this feeling where she feels like she should be rallying the audience to get behind her and go ‘Yes! You can do it!’. Trying to get this kind of sports team, arena, type of support and then she does some outrageous things. A lot of people might not do these outrageous things because they’re trying to be well-behaved in order to get what they want but she’s just reached an end. She’s been so well-behaved so she just decides–in her moments of problem-solving–that she’s going to have to shoplift. Then, when she discovers what her sister’s boyfriend is up to, she takes joy in vandalising his car.

I think a lot of people out there who don’t have a voice will be going ‘Yeah!’ it’s like an outlet. It’s an outlet for a lot of people. I just love her so much because these things really do happen and everything she does she does out of goodness. She does it all for the right reasons, she really is a good person. She’s doing everything in order to be with her little girl and boy and give her daughter a beautiful birthday.

I just love it as a story, I think it’s a great story and I’m really proud of it. It’s so hopeful and although The Murmuring is spooky and a bit scary, both films are about bigger things than the darkness of life. The Murmuring has a woman scientist in the 1950s trying to be seen as equal and having to be above and beyond and therefore negate her feelings, in order to be seen at the top of her game along with the men. And Bunny, she’s full of jokes, she’s a real nurturer. She’s in her gear that she can live on in the streets and feel safe and kind of protected but when this fantastic volunteer service they have in New Zealand comes into her life, she has to tick another box and go and get an outfit to see if someone will give her a lease on a home. She looks at all these conservative clothes and does “I don’t want to be one of those people, I just want pants” so when that volunteer helps her find the suit, she puts it on and it’s like a magic suit of armour, an invisibility cloak. It’s like John Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever. The empowerment Bunny feels by putting on a different layer of skin and suddenly being seen by people as worthy and valuable, is a real experience. It’s an empowering experience.

 

Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities. Essie Davis as Nancy Bradley in episode “The Murmuring” of Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities. Cr. David Lee/Netflix © 2022

 

I think you’re right, wholeheartedly Bunny is a good character. Yes, her methods might not be potentially suitable sometimes. But from the moment from when she kicks down the garage and starts hitting the stepdad, you know she is a good person. She sacrificed a step closer towards her dream of being with her kids by doing the right thing. It was the right call but it obviously wasn’t an easy decision to make. It was a great film, I’m glad you’re very proud of it anyway.

It is an interesting thing because she could stay quiet, she could keep her head down and have a home but she can’t allow that to happen. She can’t allow her niece to live in a house with that person, nor would she want to or let her children anywhere near him. She does some pretty bad stuff for some pretty good reasons.

 

You’ve just finished filming the Netflix TV adaption of David Nicholls’s 2009 romance novel, One Day, where you play the role of Dexter’s Mother. As the novel has been previously made into a feature film back in 2011, in your personal opinion, what new life does the Netflix adaption breath into the story?

I’ve never seen the film, I didn’t even know it existed so I read the novel when I was asked to do it. The novel is just so beautiful, it’s heartbreaking, hilarious, and so romantic. There are parts of it that I’m sure nearly all of us have experienced in some way or another in terms of unrequited love or deep friendships that maybe should have been romances. There’s a lot in it for our particular society and I think because the story is set on one day, this same day, every year for 20 years, it lends itself to a much more episodic, televised, chapter-storytelling and the scripts are magnificent. They’re hilarious and heartbreaking.

Ambika Mod and Leo Woodall are perfectly cast, Ambika is hilarious and Leo is as deep as an ocean, it’s just beautiful casting with wonderful scripts.

I think people will love it, it’s something that you’ll be able to have little bites of. Every episode is slightly different in length and there are 15 episodes, I think. It’s going to be excellent. I don’t feel like it can fail.

 

It’s really refreshing that you’re not big on social media as you don’t have any accounts. Are you aware of the numerous fan pages there are in dedication to you?

I know about one as they’ve contacted me a couple of times because people write to them thinking they’re me. I did open a couple of social media accounts a couple of years ago in order to do some fundraising for a thing that I did called ‘The Edge’ where I abseiled off Hobart’s tallest building to raise money for medical research in our Royal Hobart Hospital Research Foundation. I’m just not very good at posting, it takes too much time and effort, I don’t know how people have the time to do it.

There is one account that I know of because there are these two beautiful women who created it whom I met on the red carpet once. They actually met each other through their love of my work and then got married, so I know a little bit about them. They’re the ones who every now and again will send me a message to say “Hey, this person has got lots of information about salmon farming” because I’m an anti-salmon farmer. I should really be on social media trying to spread the word but I think I only had six followers, I’m just not good at it.

I do find it quite toxic also, it’s very dangerous and it’s a massive part of our industry, it’s a massive part of how younger people consider are considered valuable in casting by how many followers they have. It’s extremely dangerous.

 

The reason I brought it up is that I know you’ve dabbled in music particularly singing for the soundtrack on Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, and more. But one fan page claimed that you used to be in a band years ago–is this true?

I have actually been in a couple of bands. I was in a band in matric because a good friend of mine there said “Hey, let’s put a band together” for the Arts Festival that was in Tasmania at the time. We did it and we were pretty good actually, I couldn’t sing with my eyes open though, I had to keep them shut [laughs]. They were very eclectic pieces of music, I think we had three original songs and then some covers. We did a set every night for a week at a festival which was really good fun.

Then when I was an exchange student in Norway–it takes a long time to get to know people there–one of the boldest girls who was head of our year at XXX came up to me and said: “can you sing?” So I said “yeah” and she said, “You’re going to be in our band, we have a review every year and you’re going to be our singer”. I did some good songs but stood at the back of the band. They were in front of me and I sang at the back. We were then on Norwegian radio and I got some really good feedback for our review. 

When my brother-in-law, Jed Kurzel, started a band I tried to hop on that but I was just too nervous. I would definitely like to play a role where I get to sing some songs that are actually my taste and in my range though–as opposed to some of the other stuff that I’ve done.

 

You previously talked in-depth in a past interview about one of your film projects, Nitram, which was based on the massacre that happened in Port Arthur, Tasmania, in 1996. You commented on how anyone outside of Australia born after this time might not have heard about it compared to other tragedies, and how it was such an important story to tell. As this was such a close-to-home story for you, your partner & the film’s Director Justin Kurzel, and screenwriter Shaun Grant, as an actor how do you navigate the complexities of performing in a film that has subject matter so personal to your own lives?

It took a lot. We talked about it for a very long time before we decided to go ahead and do it. It was very, very close to the bone for many people and it’s still a taboo subject but it is the event that changed Australia’s gun laws which was a wonderful thing that the Government did. It happened within 10 days and is often referred to by groups when yet another mass shooting happens in America, they go ‘What about Port Arthur? Can’t we learn from that? Let’s change our laws to get guns out of civilian’s hands, now.’

Although it was daunting to approach–and Justin is a very sensitive filmmaker–it felt like a story that we needed to tell. The character that I play in it was a real person but she was physically very different, much older and essentially, just a different character to the one I portray. She was a Tattslotto heiress, she had 59 cats and 27 dogs–we could only afford 10 for filming–. She was eccentric, she collected really expensive cars and fur coats and she was an outsider. 

She lived in a mansion that was filled with animals and bought steaks from the butcher to feed her multiple dogs. She had been in amateur theatre and had been in The Mikado. So we had all this information about her and lots of people knew her because she was quite an eccentric person on the streets of Hobart. Shawn had written an amazing script but the original character of Helen was quite gregarious and sort of, ‘come into my life, here, let me play you some music’ and also quite flamboyant so it felt like too big of a character for this story. I went and got all of the Gilbert and Sullivan music for it, and helped the development of the character with the beautiful Caleb and Justin, we were just working together in our little COVID bubble during the film’s shooting. It was just done with sensitivity and care and a real gentle touch.

 

Following that question, are there any other moments in Australian history (good or bad) that you think deserve to be crafted into a film? Is there anything you would like to work on?

The saving of the Franklin River in Tasmania is definitely something I have been keen to tell the story of and Justin certainly wants to be a part of it in terms of telling the story of Bob Brown.There was also another drowning of one of the world’s greatest, most magical wonders of the world, Lake Pedder. It was flooded by a Hydra-electric pump in order to make electricity, so I really want to tell that story. 

There are so many things…I would love to tell Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech. There are lots and lots of wonderful, amazing moments but also terrible atrocities in our history.

 

Finally, what is something you want to manifest for yourself in 2023?

I want to star in something hilarious that captures people’s laughter and makes people laugh their heads off. I want to do something funny. 

 

Watch Essie Davis star in The Murmuring episode of Cabinet Of Curiosities on Netflix now.

Interview by Cameron Poole

Photography of Essie Davis by Emily Abay

 

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