As an actress on the rise, Angourie Rice is determined to find roles beyond the cookie-cutter teenage girls. Here, she talks about the importance of female representation, working with Kidman and Coppola, and frocking up for The Beguiled.

By Romy Ash.

Angourie Rice on staying real in Hollywood

Angourie Rice.
Angourie Rice.

A chain of publicists takes me from place to place in the honeycomb of Crown Metropol Melbourne, until I’m at Angourie Rice’s door. “Her mum is there, just because she’s soooo super young,” the last publicist emphasises before sashaying into the hotel room and depositing me in front of Rice, a 16-year-old in a pretty dress and black high heels.

“Can I take my shoes off? Is that rude?” Rice asks, discarding the heels in the first five seconds and jumping down onto the couch, tucking her feet under her.

Rice, who has had an agent since she was six, appeared in her first feature film, These Final Hours, in 2013. She was 11 years old when it was shot. She plays the good girl, Rose, who is saved by James, played by Nathan Phillips, a man intent on self-destruction in the last 12 hours the city of Perth has before a global inferno engulfs everyone in it. I ask if her mum gave her any advice, a 10-year-old about to step into the world of feature films. While it wasn’t yet Hollywood, that was to follow in the wake of These Final Hours.

“Give me some advice; give the world some advice,” Rice teases her mother, Kate, sweeping her arm to encompass the hotel room with the city of Melbourne stretched out below us, and the world beyond. The flared sleeve of her dress – it’s a ’60s sort of thing – flutters. Her mum is sitting silently on the opposite couch, ostensibly ignoring us, but actually listening closely. She looks up from her phone and says, “No…” Not needing to finish her sentence, she suggests with the raise of her eyebrows that this is serious. There are two publicists sitting outside the door of a hotel room that has been hired specifically for the purpose of media promotion, but Rice, despite the intense professionalism she gives to the rest of the interview, is still a teenager who’s in year 11. This year, she’s juggling promo for the release of two films – The Beguiled and Spider-Man: Homecoming – and the filming of another.

She explains the advice her mum gave her when she was 10: be yourself, don’t take it too seriously, it’s not about dresses and parties but about hard work. She says Nathan Phillips also gave her some advice: “I know that on the first film I did, These Final Hours, there was one day where I was just feeling so frustrated and just tired. I was sick of it all. My tolerance probably wasn’t very high. Never work with children, they say. My co-worker, Nathan, who is the star of the film, said, ‘Use it, use it in your performance.’ And that’s probably one of the first pieces of acting advice I got, and it’s one of the most valuable. Every time I think, ‘Oh, man, I’m tired’, or ‘I’m hungry’, or ‘I don’t really feel like doing this right now’, I just go, ‘Okay, how can I use this in the scene so that I don’t feel like I’m being fake?’ ”

I watch Rice’s face as she talks. She’s got straight blonde hair, blue eyes. She’s wearing make-up that looks like she’s wearing no make-up at all and she holds herself like someone completely at ease in her body. On the couch, she’s languid. It’s the kind of face that fits perfectly with the teenage girl trope, looking scrubbed clean, a face she’ll have to fight against to act beyond the love interest, the wife, the girlfriend. Cardboard cutout female characters that she tells me she doesn’t want to play.

She says it’s weird if she auditions for a role and doesn’t get it. “I’ll see the girl who got the role, and I’ll think, ‘Oh my gosh, she also has blonde hair and blue eyes, that’s kind of weird.’ It’s just a bit bizarre. It’s like that scene in La La Land – I loved it, I loved it – there’s a scene where she goes into casting and everyone there is red-headed. I’ve had experiences like that – casting for Australian things, you walk in and there’s a bunch of blonde-haired, blue-eyed 13-year-olds sitting around you and you’re just, like, ‘Oh my gosh, these are all like my doppelgangers.’ ”

In a script, Rice is looking for a lead, a strong female character who does something interesting and a story that captures her attention. “I’m looking for a great story that has a great character and, yeah… and that’s it. I feel like it’s so simple, but it’s a hard criteria to meet,” she says.

When Rice was 13, she landed the female lead in The Nice Guys, alongside Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe. She tells me about arriving in Los Angeles on the day of the final audition. “I had a shower and then I went outside and got some sunshine and then I came inside and I was completely jet lagged and they said, ‘Okay, now you’ve got to do your audition.’ I went in and everyone was on one half of the room and it was the director, the producer, the writer, and Ryan and the casting director, all on this one half of the room, and then there was one chair in the middle of the room that was for me to sit on. It was so daunting.” Rice plays the daughter of a bumbling private investigator (Gosling). She shines in this role, out-acting a lacklustre Gosling and Crowe.

“I think with the increasing amount of female-driven and female-directed films people say, ‘Oh, this is it, this is the end, it’s fixed now, we have one female superhero movie or Sofia [Coppola] was the second woman to win best director [at Cannes], that’s great, it’s a win.’ Yes, it is a win; however, we still have so long to go. So, so long. I did a speech about this at school and the statistics are shocking, absolutely shocking, about the amount of films that are female directed, or have a female protagonist, and I think it’s so important for young girls to see themselves represented,” she says.

Rice is about to shoot Every Day, which is based on the young adult novel of the same name by David Levithan. “I read the book before I knew anything about the film, about the project. I just picked it up at the library and thought, ‘This looks cool’, and I really loved it.” She plays the lead role, Rhiannon. She says, “I’ve played female leads, but this is the first lead, which is very exciting for me.”

I watch Rice in The Beguiled, the new Sofia Coppola film for which Coppola won the aforementioned Best Director in Cannes this year. It is set in a seminary for young ladies in Civil War-era Virginia. Rice’s hair is braided in a golden crown. She has presence, though not many lines. She plays one of the younger girls, in a film that showcases the talents of its leads – Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning. The women play out an unsettling drama of seduction and jealousy when a wounded soldier, played by Colin Farrell, breaks the school’s seclusion. Intensely atmospheric, The Beguiled is Coppola’s reinterpretation of the 1971 film of the same name, starring Clint Eastwood as the wounded soldier. In this film Coppola revels in the female gaze, bringing to the fore the women’s perspective, leaving Farrell little space to go beyond the object of the women’s desire.

I ask Rice what it was like to play one of these young ladies. “I remember in the costume fitting for The Beguiled,” she says, “putting on the corset and the petticoat and then the dress that comes up to here” – she gestures to her neck – “and down to your wrists and ankles. You look in the mirror and you don’t see yourself, you see the character – which sounds so dumb, but that’s how I visualise it. And I think visualising it, for me, makes me feel like the character. I think a lot of it comes from putting on the costume, especially for things where the costume is so specific to the time and place. When you put it on you feel like a different person.”

The main location of the film is a former sugarcane plantation in Napoleonville, Louisiana, and the 1846 mansion known as Madewood Plantation House is a location some viewers may recognise from Beyoncé’s 2016 film Lemonade. The plantation house becomes Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary, an eponymous girls’ school run by Kidman’s character. The plantation is surrounded by oak trees dripping with Spanish moss and shrouded in mist. Apparently, Rice tells me, the plantation is haunted by a small white dog.

This fictional seminary’s second floor was actually turned into a schoolroom for Rice and the other three under 18s who appear in the film. They all had to do school studies together. “Even if we weren’t filming we still had to come in and do schoolwork,” she says. “We looked hilarious sitting there with our laptops in our period costumes and, you know, with our hair all braided.” She describes how confining the corsets were, how she couldn’t take hers off throughout the day for fear of being unable to get it back on after lunch. “The evening dresses on The Beguiled were very fun, too,” she says, “because we’re all waddling around like massive cupcakes. They didn’t hold them up using hoops – it was layers and layers of petticoats. It was super heavy. I had to shed multiple layers to sit down and go to the toilet. It was hard to do everyday actions.”

Rice says of working with Coppola that the director has a “tranquillity about her that she passes onto everyone else”, that she’s “soft spoken” while still getting what she wants from a scene. “She’s going to talk to you and figure stuff out with you, have a conversation,” says Rice. “She creates – along with the cinematographer and the lighting designer and the production designer – she creates beautiful atmospheres. Because it was all shot on film they have to be very specific. So you block it out, the scene, and it’s all kind of in the dark and there’s not much lighting and the furniture is sort of everywhere and when you come back, it’s like a candlelit dinner with smoke in the air and it’s just so beautiful and there’s a stillness in the air that you feel like you don’t want to disrupt, especially in those still, quiet scenes in the first half of the movie. She creates that vibe. It’s all from her brain. She makes this atmosphere and it makes it so easy for me to just step into that world.”

Rice and Nicole Kidman were in Cannes for The Beguiled; Kidman for three other projects as well. Rice tells me, “I asked her, at the photo call, when you have to stand in front of a wall of photographers and smile for like three minutes – it’s really bizarre – ‘Are you used to it?’ And she said, ‘No, I’m not used to it. I’m better at it.’ She knows how to control her nerves now, but she said it’s still a bizarre experience. I guess it’s nice to know that we are all kind of in the same boat together.” But Rice doesn’t see herself as a movie star. She says, “I see myself as a teenager who does acting.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 8, 2017 as "Golden Rice".

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Romy Ash is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.

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