Star of 2020 Australian release Undertow

BY JENNY GALL

Curator Jenny Gall talks with Laura Gordon about starring in the film Undertow, for which she's been nominated for Best Actress at the 2020 AACTA Awards.

In Undertow, Laura Gordon (pictured above left with co-star Olivia DeJonge) plays a woman grieving the death of her stillborn baby against the backdrop of the darker forces at work in Australian male football culture. Watch a trailer for the film:

From Secret City  to Undertow

Actress Laura Gordon in a black dress standing between two open French doors

Photographer: Rebecca Hitch

I interviewed Laura recently about her career, in which she has gravitated towards playing dark, emotionally complex characters.

Embodying the character of Caroline Treloar in the series Secret City: Under the Eagle (2019) entailed extensive research for Laura. Caroline is a drone pilot questioning the brutality of weapons used against civilians.

To grasp what it’s like to be a woman in the military, as well as understanding technical and logistical specifics, Laura reached out to women in the forces, including a woman who served in the US military who shared her experience dealing with PTSD, and another individual who had been a drone pilot in Afghanistan. Laura absorbed the experiences, freeing her to immerse herself in the role.

An opportunity to play the leading role in Undertow presented another character dealing with deeply distressing issues. Playing Claire in the film represents a career marker for Laura as the female lead without a male co-lead, and also because of Undertow's female creative team.

Director Miranda Nation, cinematographer Bonnie Elliott and producer Lyn Norfor led the production and most of the heads of department were women, with an all-female camera crew (see image below). It was a collaborative and passionate environment wherein Miranda had a strong vision but was also very open to ideas and insights from the actors.

Portraying Trauma

Scenes depicting intense emotional and physical intimacy are a hallmark of Undertow. The camera captures Claire’s contemplation of her changing physicality throughout pregnancy and the loss of the baby to show us how a woman views her body. Laura elaborates:

'Miranda and I talked a lot about what the scenes meant to her and how to shoot them. It was important to be frank about that part of the film and not hold back, to really unveil that tenuous relationship Claire had with her body during such a fragile time. In order for me to feel comfortable we got very specific about how I would be framed and what would be seen. That gave me a sense of control despite the inherent vulnerability I felt approaching those scenes.'

In describing how she portrayed the trauma experienced by her character, Laura focused on what Claire was trying to achieve in each scene, her psychological state and her frustrations. There was a week of rehearsals prior to the shoot to dig into the key relationships and scenes: with the younger woman Angie (who is unhappily pregnant, played by Olivia DeJonge) with whom Claire is obsessed, and with Rob Collins, who plays Claire’s husband. Once shooting commenced, Laura lived in the moment of each scene. 

Physicality and sensuality are potent forces in Laura’s performances. Claire’s relationship to her identity and the female form is a major theme as she grapples with how her body has betrayed her at the most primal level.

Along with Stacey O’Connor, the costume designer, and Miranda Nation, Laura looked for ways to explore that relationship, depicting moments where Claire is hiding her body, rejecting it, but also the scenes where she is rediscovering that sense of her old self and her relationship to her sensuality. 

An enabling force in Laura’s success bringing her character to life is the palpable on-screen rapport with Rob Collins who plays her husband Dan:

'Rob’s a delight to work with. We shot Secret City after Undertow, and because we were playing characters who were divorced, we joked that we didn’t need to do any prep for it because we had just lived out the demise of our marriage in Undertow. There was definitely an ease and familiarity between us that was gifted to us by all the time we had already spent together.' 

Ultimately it is Laura Gordon’s utterly convincing portrayal of a woman searching for elusive consolation and fulfilment that ensures the place of Undertow in Australian cinema history.

As Guardian critic Luke Buckmaster writes, ‘Laura Gordon is a titanic presence as Claire: caring, creepy, strong, needy, obsessive, driven and yet directionless – a nuanced and thrilling performance that seems to be in a constant state of reinvention’.

Undertow's March 2020 cinema release was truncated by the COVID-19 shutdown but the film is now available to stream on Stan. The AACTA Industry Awards 2020 take place in a virtual ceremony on 27 November with the remainder of the AACTA Film and Television Awards presented in separate ceremonies on 30 November.

Main image: Laura Gordon (left) as Claire and Olivia DeJonge as Angie in Undertow. NFSA: 1575019