Tag Archives: Essie Davis

Being other people

From starring in punk western True History of the Kelly Gang to reprising the beloved role of Phryne Fisher in big-screen adventure Miss Fisher & The Crypt of Tears, Australian actor Essie Davis tells DQ why she loves stepping into other people’s shoes.

While television has long been touted as the usurper of cinema, few people can have a clearer idea of how the two mediums can work together than Australian actor Essie Davis.

Both of Davis’ most recent projects – True History of the Kelly Gang and Miss Fisher & The Crypt of Tears – started life as movies destined for the big screen before transferring to streaming services or traditional channels.

Now at home in Tasmania amid the coronavirus pandemic that has shut down production on films and TV shows around the world, not to mention closing cinemas, the actor is reflecting on the fact that people will still be able to see both films somewhere, somehow.

“It’s a strange time, but luckily I’ve worked a crazy amount over the last couple of years. And even though it’s very sad that nearly everything I’ve done is meant to be in the cinema right now, it is a time when people really need entertainment, and they have the opportunity to access it in their own homes,” Davis tells DQ. “So hopefully everything I have been able to do will contribute to a happier or more fulfilling times.”

Essie Davis

In the meantime, her director husband Justin Kurzel is continuing to work on new scripts while Davis is also looking at potential new projects in preparation for such a time when production can ramp up again. “There’s been a lot to do, but nothing that is imminent, because no one knows what’s going to happen,” she notes. Another film starring Davis, The Justice of Bunny King, was due to be touring the festival circuit this summer.

One thing that’s guaranteed is that when filming does begin again, Davis will likely be starring in projects that continue to push her out of her comfort zone, with ABC television series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries proving to be her longest recurring role. Davis played the 1920s detective over three seasons before its feature film spin-off.

“One of my favourite things in the world to do is to step into other people’s shoes and to step into shoes I’ve never worn before,” says the star, whose other credits include Game of Thrones, The Babadook, Lambs of God, The White Princess and The Slap.

“I love challenging myself and not repeating myself. I love stretching myself and being stretched by others. I really endeavour to tell new stories and from perspectives I haven’t seen before. That is something I always have sought in my life. I never fancied being typecast and, somehow, in the roles that I have managed to earn and win and play, I have always managed to shake it up.”

Launched at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival before rolling out on Australian streamer Stan, True History of the Kelly Gang is an epic, stylised, fictionalised retelling of the life of legendary bush ranger Ned Kelly that reveals the influences that shaped the notorious icon’s life. Kurzel directed the movie, which was inspired by Peter Carey’s Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name.

The film spans Kelly’s younger years to the time leading up to his death, with the fractured and powerful love story between Ned and his mother Ellen, played by Davis, at its centre. The cast also boasts George McKay, the breakout star of Oscar-winning war film 1917, as Ned, plus Charlie Hunnam, Nicholas Hoult and Russell Crowe.

Davis says playing Ellen was one of the greatest experiences of her acting career, describing the real-life character as a mercurial, strong and wonderful woman.

“Justin and I have always wanted to work together on a substantial project. As he was reading the novel, he was constantly saying, ‘This is a great role for you.’ And when I read it, I knew it was too,” she says. “It is such a brave film. It’s really not a historical biopic. It’s such an alternate take on Ned’s story. It’s someone seizing back their story and saying, ‘Hey, everyone thinks they know my story. But this is my story. This is the true history.’

“It has this punk element to it as well, even though it’s an incredibly dramatic story of a young man who becomes an outlaw because of the way he’s been treated by his crooked oppressors and raised by his amazing mother, who is training him to survive in a country where survival is all you can do.”

Though the film’s title contains ‘true history,’ that assertion is immediately undermined by a title card that reads, ‘Nothing you’re about to see is true.’ Regardless of whether the film can be considered the real story of Ned Kelly, or a particular perspective of that story, Davis brought plenty of research to the role, which included filming in the real Melbourne jail where Ned was hanged after finally being captured.

Davis as Ellen Kelly in True History of the Kelly Gang

“It’s a tiny little jail and it’s [built with] cold stone with tiny holes for your window,” she says. “Ellen did marry George King [her second husband, in 1874], a young man who was the same age as Ned, and she went on to have three more children with this guy and lived until her 90s and outlived most of her children. She was a renowned horse rider and clearly a sexy woman if she’s marrying someone her son’s age, so there’s a lot of fact in this, even though it says nothing you’re about to see is true.

“We thoroughly researched all the history books but we were inspired by Peter Carey’s novel, which asks, ‘What do you really know about someone?’ This is their history from their point of view. What if things had been different? What if the police had not been constantly harassing the Kelly family?

“Ellen didn’t want her child to grow up to be one of them, because they’re bad people. I love her spirit. I know that she’s manipulative but, to me, Ellen is doing everything right by her family. She’s teaching her kids to survive and to not want to follow a path of going into the law, because the law was corrupt. She’s certainly not a quaint, sweet lady in period costume. Ellen is a woman on fire, desperate to survive, and she’s going to make sure her children survive and that they stay with her and are loyal to her. I love that.”

Ellen Kelly is certainly a far cry from Phryne Fisher, the adventurous ‘lady detective’ of 1920s Melbourne who first appeared on television in 2012. Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, based on Kerry Greenwood’s novels, ran for three seasons, ending in 2015, before being resurrected this year in a feature-length movie, Miss Fisher & The Crypt of Tears. Having debuted in theatres earlier this year, it has since aired internationally on Acorn TV in the US and Alibi in the UK, following deals with distributor All3Media International.

The story sees Phryne unravel a decade-old mystery concerning priceless emeralds, ancient curses and the disappearance of a forgotten tribe.

Davis says that while returning to Miss Fisher was a completely different prospect from playing Ellen Kelly, similar levels of work and commitment were needed. In particular, Miss Fisher & The Crypt of Tears “required so much extra because everyone needed to be reminded we were not making a television episode or a TV movie, but we were making a feature film and we really had to step up a level.”

She continues: “That was a lot of work in terms of making sure the script was at a reasonably high level to be able to take on an Indiana Jones-type story with a much lower budget than Indiana Jones. It still had to be a crafted story that required a lot more of myself in many other roles than just playing the character.”

Part of the film was shot in Ouarzazate, Morocco, where the production was able to film story elements set in Jerusalem and Palestine in locations and on sets previously seen in The English Patient and Kingdom of Heaven, against the backdrop of the Sahara Desert.

“It was hard work in a completely different and exhausting way,” she continues. “What we went through in Kelly Gang was brutal. We had floods and freezing snow and we were windswept. We were doing big fight sequences and breaking ribs and pulling out hair, but loving each other in amongst it all. Miss Fisher was completely different but still exhausting, and satisfying in different ways.”

A film wasn’t always on the cards, despite talk of taking Miss Fisher to the big screen early in the life of the series. Part of that stems from Davis’ own love of the cinema and the exuberance of the character, “an amazing heroine who is so naughty, gorgeous, capable, independent and dexterous and can speak any language, fly a plane, scale a building, dance a tango, flirt with the rich and support the poor,” the actor says.

Parts of Miss Fisher & The Crypt of Tears were filmed in Ouarzazate, Morocco

“She’s as wonderful and glorious as Indiana Jones or James Bond, so why not have a feature film? That’s what I always thought, and never say never.

“It’s a beautiful world. The costumes are beautiful, all the men are dressed beautifully. There’s always a wonderful chemistry between Phryne and whatever suitors she may have, as well as her darling Inspector Jack Robinson [played by Nathan Page]. There’s nothing quite like watching people fall for each other. It makes you, as an audience, lean in. It’s a little piece of joy that people like watching.”

With a passionate international fan base continuing to follow Miss Fisher’s adventures, there would certainly be a clamour to see more of her exploits, in film or television. But Davis says any follow-up would be based on the reception to Crypt of Tears.

“Hopefully, people will watch it and love it – and who knows? It depends on the scriptwriting and the stories they can produce. It’s quite expensive to make an international adventure set in 1929, which is action, adventure, romance, comedy and murder mystery. Although we did it on the smell of an oily rag, it would require a little more to be as adventurous as I would like.”

Being an associate producer on Miss Fisher has certainly fuelled Davis’ ideas of pushing into new roles off-camera, with a desire to direct and produce. But she is unwavering in her commitment to acting.

“I would like to direct and I certainly want to produce. Even though I’ve never seen myself as a producer, I feel like I want to be able to facilitate and make the stakes high and make things better,” she adds. “However, my true love, my greatest love, is acting. I love it so much. I want to do it until I’m a little old lady.”

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Opening the Crypt

Five years after her last appearance as 1920s private detective Phryne Fisher, Essie Davis returns to the role in big-screen outing Miss Fisher & The Crypt of Tears. DQ follows the adventurer to Morocco.

Located in south-west Morocco, south of the Atlas Mountains, Ouarzazate is known as the Door to the Desert. The city is also notable for the volume of movie productions that are attracted to the stunning landscapes that surround it, with Lawrence of Arabia, The Living Daylights, The Mummy, Gladiator and James Bond film Spectre among those to have filmed there.

More recently, Ouarzazate also welcomed the cast and crew of Miss Fisher & The Crypt of Tears, a big-screen spin-off from the hugely popular Australian television series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries that has aired in more than 120 countries and territories around the world.

The period drama first aired on ABC in 2012, centring on the personal and professional life of Phryne Fisher, a private detective in 1920s Melbourne. Essie Davis (The Babadook, Lambs of God) takes the title role as Phryne, a charming and determined “lady investigator” who has a habit of solving murders, much to the frustration of the local police force.

Three seasons were produced by Every Cloud Productions, the last coming in 2015. Five years later, the series has made the leap to the big screen, with feature-length Miss Fisher & The Crypt of Tears making its debut in cinemas in Australia and the US earlier this year. All3Media International, which distributes the series, secured deals with US streamer Acorn TV, which will release the film to subscribers today, and Alibi in the UK, where it will air in early April.

Essie Davis as Phryne Fisher in Miss Fisher & The Crypt of Tears

It’s October 2018, just days after the start of production, when DQ is taxied out of Ouarzazate and into the desert towards Oasis de Fint, where green shrubs and trees stand against a backdrop of red rocks and mountains that stretches for miles all around. From a unit base that comprises two large tents and an assortment of lorries, a track leads down into the valley where a number of crew members, scattered on the mountainside, slowly come into view.

Beside them, a Bedouin village set has been constructed. Extras sit in huddles in front of mud huts and tents that circle a well, with palm trees standing beside a small stream. Sand and straw cover the ground.

It’s here where some early scenes from the story take place, featuring a young Bedouin girl called Shirin and her mother, played by Nicole Chamoun (Safe Harbour, On the Ropes). What follows is murder, mystery and mayhem as the story takes Phryne between London and Palestine.

After freeing the now grown-up Shirin from her unjust imprisonment in Jerusalem, Miss Fisher begins to unravel a decade-old mystery concerning priceless emeralds, ancient curses and the truth behind the suspicious disappearance of Shirin’s forgotten tribe.

Rupert Penry-Jones (Spooks), Daniel Lapaine (Zero Dark Thirty) and Jacqueline McKenzie (The Water Diviner) have joined the band of returning series regulars, which includes Nathan Page (Underbelly) as Detective Inspector Jack Robinson, Miriam Margolyes (Call the Midwife) as Aunt Prudence and Ashleigh Cummings (NOS4A2) as loyal assistant and maid Dorothy ‘Dot’ Collins.

The oasis forms just one part of the filming schedule in Morocco, with shooting also taking place in Erfoud, an oasis town in the Sahara Desert. On set, many of the crew are already taking regular shelter from the blistering morning sun, with director Tony Tilse (Serengoon Road, Wolf Creek) and cinematographer Roger Lanser (The Magic Flute) inside one tent watching the camera feeds on two monitors.

Writer Deborah Cox (left) and producer Fiona Eagger

“Part of being a cinematographer in Australia means we’re used to this sort of harsh light,” Lanser says of working in the desert surroundings. “But the difference you get here is you get these lovely contrasts with the costumes, the flesh tones and nature providing reds and earth colours for all these massive wide shots.

“We’re working with such beautiful actors and Essie’s a real trooper. She’s open to whatever makes it work for the shot. She’s happy-go-lucky and very much aware of how cinematography services her part in the show. She has to wear hats a lot – the hats are deliberately modified so that the face is framed beautifully. The costumes, the flesh tone, the make-up and the production design are all elements that come together to get the show this great look; it’s not just one single thing.”

Based on the novels by Kerry Greenwood, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries was created by producer Fiona Eagger and writer Deborah Cox, who are also executive producers. They conceived The Crypt of Tears as a standalone story after the series, though one that retains many of the themes and relationships that have made the original series so popular. They also launched a spin-off series, 1960s-set Miss Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries, last year.

“We wanted to do sort of an Indiana Jones-type story with a bit of Romancing the Stone,” says Eagger of their ambitions for the movie. “Miss Fisher is a mix of adventure and murder mystery, and this film is probably tipping a little bit more into adventure. We’re still trying to satisfy the murder-mystery audience and the audience that want to come for the romance between Jack and Phryne.”

Both Eagger and Cox have experience in features, with Eagger noting that the size of the Australian television industry means many actors and crew operate in both mediums. Their preparation included looking at other TV-to-film crossovers and seeing where they both failed in order to avoid similar traps. So, after a few drafts of the script, Eagger and Cox sought advice from John Collee (Hotel Mumbai, Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World) about what to focus on in the transition from television to film.

The relationship between Phryne and Jack (Nathan Page) is a big part of Miss Fisher’s success

“Writing for television, you write for ongoing characters,” Eagger says. “You have progression in a relationship slightly, but you really want your characters to be the same. Whereas in a film, you’re doing a much bigger arc for your character. It’s the emotional world of finding Jack, and where do you take that? So with the television series, you could make that last for eight hours or 13. But in a film, you have to give a complete experience.”

Davis is certainly impressed by the scale and ambition of Miss Fisher’s move to the big screen. In costume as Phryne, with her trademark haircut, she says returning to the character is “like getting on a bicycle,” though the script will swap pedal bikes for motorbikes, camel rides and a set piece on top of a moving train carriage as it hurtles through the Palestinian countryside.

“She’s full of joy,” the actor says of Phryne. “She’s a fighter for the underdog, she’s a changer of rules. She’s super naughty, and her naughtiness is often on behalf of someone else. She drives a fast car, she can fly a plane, she can speak lots of languages, she can dance any dance that needs to be danced. She’s a great lover of men and a great fighter for women’s rights and human rights but in a very positive way.

“She’s such a joyful life force, and you do get completely influenced by the character you’re playing. To be her is to be in joy and to be curious and to be interested. She’s a fun person to be around so she’s a fun person to be inside.”

Davis is also an integral part of the team behind the scenes, working with Cox on the script and offering opinions during casting. “Even though Deb is the writer, we’re all wrangling, changing ideas, pulling characters out, merging characters and changing how they’re how relationships work,” she says. “It’s a pretty low budget to do a period action film, so there’s been some fantastic, amazing parts of it that have had to go. But then, all of a sudden, there’s just nothing there, and that’s just not good enough – so we go, ‘What can we do?’ and I make lots of suggestions and they say we can’t afford it.”

Parts of the movie were filmed in the Moroccan desert

As Phryne’s professional and personal sparring partner Detective Inspector Jack Robinson, Page is equally effusive about returning to the world of Miss Fisher and fanning the flames of the pair’s affectionate but often contemptuous relationship.

“They just can’t click back immediately into the world we left them in [several years ago], so they come together but they’re not expecting to be here under these circumstances,” Page explains. “Things get pretty dire out in the desert. There’s going to be some tension, which inevitably there has to because you can’t just go for the frisson alone. That’s the wonderful thing about these two characters, that there is that tension and one of them has to bend a little. Usually it’s Jack.”

Page says he has been surprised by the international success of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, revealing fans of the show have travelled to Australia to watch him in theatre shows. Notably, the A$9m (US$5.6m) budget has been boosted by A$1m raised through a crowdfunding appeal, which offered fans from all over the world the chance to become an extra or join the cast read-through. But why has it struck a nerve with audiences?

“Number one, it’s the era – it’s beautiful,” he says. “It has that nostalgia to it. You’ve got that scenery. I don’t think it takes itself too seriously at all; there’s a certain kitsch to it that works. But it’s still manages to address some issues here and there. The Phryne-Jack frisson is one of the key elements, so you’ve got all this action taking place but then you’ve got this side thing going on.”

A new face alongside the regular Miss Fisher cast is Izabella Yena as the grown-up Shirin, who joins Phryne to help solve the mystery at the centre of the story.

“Shirin is a soldier who has been through unimaginable trauma,” she says. “It just becomes so much for her that, a decade later, she’s risking her life to find out what happened. That takes incredible courage and bravery. That political backbone she has is there throughout the whole film and it really defines her.

Davis describes her character as a ‘joyful life force’

“Like Miss Fisher, she’s a feminist, and that is what the series has always championed. Shirin fits that really well and speaks to a really contemporary audience base and young women. It’s the kind of role I’d want to watch on TV and be like, ‘Yay, there’s a young girl my age who looks like me, who is changing things and making a stand and has a voice and isn’t being silenced because of her environment.’”

The film marks one of Yena’s first screen roles, the actor having graduated from drama school in 2016 before appearing on stage in Melbourne. She first auditioned at the beginning of 2018 and, after a callback, was told she had secured the part. With filming now underway, she describes Davis as her “guardian angel” on set, welcoming her into the show’s family.

“She knows the world better than anybody so as soon as you step on set, she’s there, Miss Fisher’s there, the world of Miss Fisher’s there and you just step into it,” she explains. “On the first day of shooting, I was first up and I was a little bit nervous. This is my first film, so it’s a baptism by fire. We were in the make-up van and she grabbed my hands and was like, ‘You’re going to be great. Just take a deep breath. You know, no matter what happens, just do your thing. Know that you know the character better than anyone, and just relax.’ So that was really calming.”

With The Crypt of Tears forming part of what could become a trilogy, Eagger says the film’s ending is left slightly ajar with a view to what might follow, with her dream to set the next film in India during the British Raj. “If this is successful, then we could do more films as Indiana Jones has,” she adds. “We end with the beginning of another potential journey.”

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