NFSA Presents: Inspired is a collection of conversations that dive into the creativity, the inspiration and the success of Australian cinematic talent. Hosted by film journalist Jenny Cooney, the video series complements the exhibition Australians & Hollywood, which was on display at the NFSA from January 2022 to January 2024.
In this episode, Jenny Cooney interviews actor Emily Browning (Sleeping Beauty, Legend, American Gods). Emily talks about the unique Australian sense of humour, why our best films are dark and really funny, and how Rachel Griffiths helped her when she first arrived in Hollywood. Watch here:
Jenny: I'm excited to hear all about your Aussie journey. Let's start with your first and most influential Australian cinema memory.
Emily: You know, what's interesting is that I was probably making Australian cinema before I was really paying attention to watching it. Because I started acting when I was 8 years old.
In terms of something that's stuck with me, I remember watching Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975) when I was probably way too young to watch it. And I think the tone of that film, the darkness of that film, has maybe stuck with me and inspired the kind of films that I'm attracted to.
I also remember watching Priscilla [The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Stephan Elliott, 1994]. I watched it with my mum when I was maybe 9 or 10, and I remember asking her, 'Mum, what's ecstasy?. She's like, 'Ummm... it's a happy feeling'. I was like, 'OK, so he's bringing a happy feeling on the bus, that's good to know'. But that film is still like, definitely top 5, not just favourite Australian movies of all time, but just favourite movies ever of all time. That film's still amazing.
Jenny: Are there films or music or stories that you find yourself coming back to over and over again?
Emily: The Castle (Rob Sitch, 1997) is another one that I think – I mean, I've always loved, but I think especially being away from Australia for as long as I have, there's something... I mean, it reminds me of my family and it just is like... the cosiest. Like I watch that film once a year, easy.
Australian comedy, I think, is mainly what I always want to come back to just because I feel like it's not... I sometimes feel my jokes don't really land here in LA or in the States, and I'm like, 'Mate, I would be killing back home'. Like if you knew how funny I was back home. There's something about our sense of humour that just doesn't always necessarily translate here.
Jenny: That's so true, isn't it? It's probably why The Castle was not a huge movie overseas.
Emily: It's true, but I've shown it to a bunch of Americans who love it and think it's funny, but they don't... There are certain parts where I'm like pissing myself laughing and they're like, 'I don't...?'. Like 'Dale dug a hole'. They're like, 'Why is that funny?' I'm like, 'I can't explain to you why it's funny. I can't but it just is.'
Jenny: So what do you think is the secret sauce to Australian cinematic success?
Emily: I think we do best, in terms of making films, when we don't try too hard to appeal to a global audience. I think the best Australian films, and the most interesting Australian films, are the ones that are the most Australian. I mean, I'm thinking of Mad Max (George Miller, 1979) or something. That movie is fucking weird. There's this weird manic energy. It's like a very Australian feeling. I don't know why that would appeal to a global audience, but it just does.
Like one of my favourite Australian films... one of my favourite films ever is the Jane Campion movie, Sweetie (1989). You know that film?
Jenny: Oh yeah, great movie with Genevieve Lemon.
Emily: Yeah. It's such a perfect balance. I mean, it's dark. There's a lot of darkness in that film, but it's also heartwarming and just kind of batshit. It’s really strange. It's just a very odd film. And I think that's what we do best, leaning into the humour as well. I think when we try and get too slick, it's not the same. I think there's a weirdness, there's something that's a bit off.
Even something like Chopper (Andrew Dominik, 2000), another one of my favourite films. The way that it's shot, the colours in that film, it's green and kind of sickly. Like it shouldn't work, but for some reason it's perfect and it's insanely funny, even though it's incredibly dark. I mean, there's not really anything heartwarming about Chopper, but it has those elements – it's really dark and really funny. I think that's when we make our best films is when we have both of those elements there.
Jenny: Well, you've been acting a long time and I wonder, when you reflect on your career, what does the word ambition mean to you now?
Emily: It's interesting. It's something that I've actually been thinking a lot about lately because I don't think of myself as a traditionally ambitious person. I've never really been the kind of person who's like, 'I want to be successful'. Because it just has never felt, I don't know, it's never felt true to the way that I was raised.
But I think, because of that, it's sort of meant that my own personal ambition has really just been to have as interesting a career as possible. It was never about being the best or being really famous or making a bunch of money because that always just felt a bit like not OK.
I think Australians have, we've always felt like we're not allowed to be proud of ourselves, and I think that's ridiculous. I think we have to be able to be proud of ourselves. We have to take a little bit of that American kind of like, 'I'm doing great, I'm awesome and I love myself!', you know? That's something Australians don't say, but we should be able to say that, I think.
Jenny: So who currently inspires you now?
Emily: I just watched Mare of Easttown (Brad Ingelsby, US, 2021) and the daughter, Angourie, is that how you say her name?
Jenny: Angourie Rice.
Emily: Yes. Unbelievable. Like, so good. Flawless American accent. I feel like the Australian invasion in Hollywood has been going on for a really long time, and it doesn't feel like it's going to stop anytime soon. There's so many incredible young Australian actors.
Jenny: Were there any Aussies that helped you out in your early days of your career that you remember?
Emily: Yeah, actually, I did a mini-series called After the Deluge (Brendan Maher, Australia, 2003). When I was 12, maybe. And Rachel Griffiths played my mum in that. When I came to the States and did my first big American film, Lemony Snicket [A Series of Unfortunate Events, Brad Silberling, US, 2004], she actually came to the premiere. Which was very sweet. I was incredibly nervous and she was on the red carpet with me. And she has just this attitude of like, 'Fuck 'em, who cares?' Which is great for me to see at that age.
And she actually introduced me to her manager, who became my manager, and still is both of our managers and is one of my most important relationships here. I feel I would have been completely lost, and I maybe would have ended up being a Nickelodeon-Disney kid if she hadn't been like, 'No, no, this is the person to talk to'. She was an incredible help.
Jenny: So finally, what's your advice to Aussies watching this who are sort of dreaming of making it in Hollywood?
Emily: Don’t sleep on Australian films, like don't just think about getting to Hollywood. I think making Australian films is a really good, not just good place to start, but a good place to stay, if that's where you decide to stay.
But I think the most interesting Australian actors are not – I mean, it's the same as the most interesting Australian films. They're not trying too hard to appeal. They're not trying to become American or appeal too much to a global audience. They keep that... whatever that Australianness is. That little hint of cynicism and a good sense of humour.
But be ambitious because we want to do that now. That's important. Don't hold on to that old-fashioned Australian thing of like, 'Oh, don't get too big for your britches'. I think we're done with that now.
Interview transcript edited for length and clarity.
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