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Actress Essie Davis made her name inhabiting charismatic women, from detective Phryne Fisher to The Babadook’s Amelia Vanek. She speaks about being born to act, breaking her ribs on set and learning piano for her new film, Babyteeth. “I do love going to the cinema and having a really good cry. It can be a really profound experience to be that moved in the darkness … It’s very hard not to feel sentimental about every scene [in Babyteeth] because they’re quite moving.” By Steve Dow.

Essie Davis’s honour roles

Essie Davis in Babyteeth.
Credit: Lisa Tomasetti

It’s a baking hot summer’s day in St Ives on Sydney’s north shore, and Essie Davis gives a half smile as she breezes past in dark glasses and a blue kimono during a break in filming Babyteeth, a movie adapted from an Australian play about love, loss and addiction.

Inside, between takes, a huge portable airconditioner flushes cool relief into a large room surrounded by floor-to-ceiling glass sliding doors on all four sides, looking onto the kitchen and lounge at opposite ends and hallways on either side. It’s an ideal layout for manoeuvring cameras and equipment and accessing rooms, likely why the lowline Modernist house also found favour with the creators of the drama series Secret City as the home of a doomed signals analyst.

The atrium skylight is blocked off today, the roof covered in tarpaulin to turn day to night. Davis is playing Anna, the mother of Milla (Eliza Scanlen from Little Women), a teenager whose leukaemia has returned. Davis lies now on the sofa a few metres from a grand piano by the door, arms folded across her chest.

Bare-chested young actor Toby Wallace (Acute Misfortune), who plays Milla’s opioid-addicted boyfriend Moses, takes Davis’s place on the sofa. In an earlier scene he broke into the home to steal a prescription pad from Anna’s psychiatrist husband, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn). “Shooting,” someone calls, as Davis exits and re-enters the room in character.

“Are you sleep-talking?” she asks sotto voce, out of frame, as the cameras close in on Wallace. The young man changes the topic to the scent of the bedsheets. “Moses, does your mother know where you are?” Davis presses, gently. A lawnmower or leaf blower, somewhere nearby, mars the take.

The scene is repeated, the cameras now aimed at Davis, seated on the piano stool. She curls herself under the piano, holding on to a piano leg, where Milla would sleep as a child. While her character made a pact with God to stop playing the piano if her daughter got well, Davis had made her own pact with the Babyteeth producers and director Shannon Murphy just seven weeks earlier to learn to play the piano for the film.

Twelve people are crowded into a nearby bedroom, watching the filming on monitors. “There was a great spot there, you just kind of whizzed through it,” a male voice advises Davis in the next room. “Okay,” she replies, magnanimously. The camera is still close up on her face as she sings impromptu a Rose Royce hit in a mellifluous tone, rich like her speaking voice: “You abandoned me / Love don’t live here anymore”.

Davis is now eating lunch in her cooled caravan. On the cusp of 50, she is busier than ever: she has sent off her sensual 1920s Melbourne detective Phryne Fisher from the TV series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries with a movie; played Sister Iphigenia in the Foxtel series Lambs of God; and gone all rough and tumble as bushranger Ned’s mum, Ellen, in the movie adaptation of Peter Carey’s novel, True History of the Kelly Gang, directed by her husband Justin Kurzel.

It’s a list of credits to which Davis can now add piano player – she kept her promise to Murphy. “I thought by the lack of interest in teaching me any earlier that they were just going to have shots over the piano where you couldn’t see my hands, and I wasn’t concerned at all about acting it,” says Davis. “Then they gave me three pieces of music and my piano lesson the week before Christmas. I was like, ‘Are you for real?’ They were like, ‘Yes.’ ”

There was a pianist double on set but, to Davis’s credit, the filmmakers didn’t use her. “I don’t know if that’s because they ran out of time,” Davis says and laughs heartily, “or because I hit the right notes.”

There’s something about the Davis laugh. “You get the full might of it every time,” Justin Kurzel told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2015. Even on a long working day like this, it’s a fixture: “She’s completely in the moment, emotionally, of what she’s experiencing,” Kurzel said. “She just sinks into life and embraces it and screams and yells and laughs in ways that are very honest.”

Kurzel’s description makes Davis sound like an extrovert, but she insists, “I’m not an extrovert”, with a pleading lilt in the “not”. Still, she says, “I don’t hide; I’m not very good at hiding my feelings … It’s really interesting to be directed by someone [Kurzel] who’s saying, ‘Don’t give it away, don’t give it away, don’t give it away.’ ”

Davis knew Babyteeth writer Rita Kalnejais as an actress but hadn’t seen the film’s original stage-play incarnation at Belvoir in Sydney. Part of the challenge of the role is to portray not only a woman whose child is facing death but also one whose husband has prescribed her a lot of calming drugs. “I do love going to the cinema and having a really good cry. It can be a really profound experience to be that moved in the darkness and I think that their biggest problem with Milla falling in love with a seedy drug addict – apart from that it’s their child’s first love – is that they’re both on drugs themselves.”

It was hard for Davis, who is mother to teenage twins Ruby and Stella with Kurzel, not to cry when she was curling up under the piano like her on-screen daughter would do. While there is “heaps of comedy” in Babyteeth, she says, “It’s very hard not to feel sentimental about every scene because they’re quite moving.”

 

In February 1996 at Belvoir, Arthur Miller’s play A View from the Bridge was staged. Sydney Morning Herald reviewer James Waites noted there was a “spare, semi-industrial set by gifted newcomer Justin Kurzel” in this “by and large excellent production”, while Sun-Herald reviewer Pamela Payne said Kurzel and his design collaborators “place these characters in a world that offers little respite or hope; but is not without love”.

The love was happening offstage too: a mutual attraction between Kurzel and the Hobart-born Davis, who was playing the niece of tough waterfront worker Eddie Carbone. Payne wrote that Davis’s performance as Catherine in the play was “fiercely sweet and generous”. Six months later, when Davis returned to Belvoir as the golden-hearted Stella in Patrick White’s Night on Bald Mountain, Waites reviewed her work as “glorious”.

In the intervening months, Davis and Kurzel had begun a relationship. They married in 2002. “He was a brilliant set designer,” says Davis. “He still is, you know; he’s got an amazing eye for detail.”

This eye would prove invaluable when Davis and Kurzel were filming True History of the Kelly Gang at Clunes, 139 kilometres north-west of Melbourne. The movie was released in cinemas briefly in January before being streamed on Stan later that month. The men in the film wear frocks at one point, the wild violence mixed with anarchic anachronisms, stirring up audiences. “Even when the budget got so constricted in trying to finance Kelly Gang,” Davis says, “Justin was like, ‘Okay, if we can’t do it accurately, build the log huts the way they would have, then let’s imagine the whole thing from inside Ned Kelly’s helmet, and shoot it like that.’ He’s got a real problem-solving brain because he will always go, ‘If I have to make compromises, I want them to be artistic decisions.’ ”

Davis says Ellen Kelly is probably the favourite of her acting roles, and she laughs all the harder about the “broken ribs and crazy pain” she sustained. “She’s a cut snake, she’s wild, she’s gorgeous, she’s fierce, she’s a survivor. She’s super tough. She can punch as hard as any man.” Did Davis have fight training? “No, we winged it,” she laughs again, “which is why I ended up with broken ribs in a three-person forward roll with George MacKay and Earl Cave [who played Ned and Dan Kelly, respectively], trying to keep the boys apart.”

Single-mindedness has been an Essie Davis trait since growing up the youngest of seven children to her father, George, an artist and draughtsman who still exhibits and turns 90 this year, and her mother, Mary.

Davis speaks fondly about her parents. “Dad said, ‘You can be anything you want to be; you can be a doctor, you can be a lawyer.’ But when I said this [an actor] is what I want to be, he was quite worried about it, I think because we were so poor and he felt like he’d chosen the easiest thing he could possibly do, which is just rubbish, because I see how hard he works and how much science and maths and draughtsmanship and vision goes into his work.

“They always came and saw everything. Mum made costumes for me and drove me all over the place. I never wanted to leave home because I love them so much; they were like, ‘Go, go, go, go, go!’ And as soon as I earned any money I would fly them to … come and see me in theatre in London or in New York or on set, wherever.”

Davis hadn’t known any actors when she was growing up in Hobart, but that didn’t get in the way of her ambition. She would eventually study at Sydney’s prestigious National Institute of Dramatic Art. “I had every expectation that it was perfectly possible, and that it would be much easier than it is … The only reason that I still am an actor is that I was born to be an actor, and that’s all I ever, ever wanted to do. I mean, there have been other things that I’ve wanted to do, but I’ve gotten to act a lot of them: being a vet.” She laughs again; Davis played veterinarian Orla in Billy O’Brien’s 2005 science-fiction horror film Isolation.

“It’s a very complicated career and it’s a very tricky industry and even if you’re broken and hating every minute of it, it’s still the greatest joy to be someone else or be in high emotional [states] or high comedy or super-quiet stillness. I love it.”

The long-running role of Phryne Fisher would sometimes prove both a “bane of my existence” but also a “wonderful place to escape to”, Davis has previously said. “I wanted it to be a piece of genius,” she tells me. “I have very high expectations, and I don’t like being boring or repeating myself. But gosh, even though it was one of the hardest jobs that I had last year doing [Miss Fisher and] The Crypt of Tears, gosh it was just joyful to go back to someone … with that much energy and joy. It’s just like, ‘Oh, what a relief to not be in tears or in fear. Just to be brave and bold and go where no gal has ever gone before.’ ”

Her role in the grief allegory horror film The Babadook was lauded by critics but emotionally draining, although she would work for Jennifer Kent again “in a heartbeat”: “I would have to say, being terrified is one of the most exhausting experiences your body can go through. For days on end it’s, like, wipeout.”

Davis, Kurzel and their daughters were living in Hobart during her blush of Australian work, but their bases have also included London. This has meant Davis has had to be as multiskilled in life as in her art – neither of which is ever short of stimulating, even if the combined impact edges out relaxation.

“There is no time to decompress. I’m with my family all the time, so that’s, you know, life. Other people are more important, always. There’s always someone [who] needs looking after more than I do. So, I’ll just fall in a heap and crumple and cry. I go,” Davis lets out a deep moan that is best transcribed as: “eyeyiyaaaaaraaahaaHAA”.

Her voice returns to its normal pitch: “… have too much wine and then get up and do it again!” Davis smiles, and another booming laugh proves all too infectious.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 18, 2020 as "Honour roles".

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Steve Dow
is the 2020 Walkley Arts Journalism award recipient.

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