The Sleeping Beauty star chats about her whirlwind year so far.
Aussie starlet Emily Browning isn't one to shy away from a challenge. Barely six months after stepping out from the pigtailed blitzkrieg that was Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch, the 22-year-old has landed another head-turning lead role, this time in Julia Leigh's provocative drama Sleeping Beauty. LWLies sat down with Browning recently to chat about her whirlwind year so far.
LWLies: We just saw a quote from Jane Campion that read, 'Emily Browning is Flawless'. That's quite an endorsement.
Browning: Yeah [laughs]. She's been fantastic, she was kind of mentoring Julia before the film. I think it was one of those deals where she was only going to put her name to it if she liked it, so it's kind of nice to see that she's really enjoyed it. But yeah, she's been great – she was with us in Cannes and she's been really helpful throughout the whole process; making me more comfortable. Knowing she liked it made me feel like I didn't care if no one else did.
We first saw the film in Cannes...
...I wasn't at that first screening, but I heard it was very divided. Our screening was pretty good, though.
Yeah, it's funny because it's been six months, but it seems to be growing on people.
I understand that, I get that it's definitely not to some people's tastes. But for me I think that a lot of the dislike for it is rooted in this idea that the old men are disgusting, and I don't really... I mean, I'm aware that I look very young but I'm an adult, and I just think that there's this idea in society that only young, hot straight people have sex, and have sexual feelings. The idea of fetishes is pushed to one side and I think that's kind of ridiculous. I find something really touching about the idea that these guys want to be with someone who can't see them, because they're afraid or conscious of their aging bodies. They just want to hold on to something young. Obviously the second man is quite disturbing in what he chooses to do with Lucy, but the other guys... I don't know, I guess I feel like they want to just hold onto something young before they come to the end of their life. So I don't really see it as disgusting as other people do.
They're ordinary guys, ultimately?
Lucy consents to what happens to her, but she later burns the money she makes. How much do you see her actions as being her way of satisfying her own fetishes or desires?
I definitely think that she has this kind of perverse fascination with allowing these things to happen to her. I wouldn't necessarily say that she's self-destructive, I don't think she's going out of her way to harm herself, but she's somewhat nihilistic. There's definitely something perverse within in, and that's something that's very interesting to me. It's about her asking, 'How far can I go?'; 'How far can I push myself before I lose myself?' And I think that at the end when Birdmann dies, that's her last finger on the cliff and she completely loses herself in that moment. And in terms of the money – Julia and I discussed this a lot – I think it's something that she does need but ultimately the scene where she burns the money is her releasing this frustration. She doesn't want to be controlled by the money. It's her most rebellious moment, she's very passive and I think that it's really just... I've had that feeling before; that feeling of wishing that I wasn't bound by these material things.
When you first read the screenplay what stood out?
I read the first scene and I had a panic attack. I had to put the script down and couldn't read it for about two hours, it felt too physical to me. It all got a bit too much. But that, in a weird way, drew me to the film even more because it's a level I've not really pushed myself to before. And what I liked about her is that she flips the idea of the victim on its head; she's allowing herself to be objectified because she has this kind of twisted addiction to being in danger and just staying still in the face of danger. I just found that really interesting because I've never really read a character like that before. And also I was just really sucked in by Julia's writing. She's an author and just something about it was really mesmerising. There was something about the script that meant I knew exactly what it was going to look like. It was so... she described it so well and it was so cinematic in the way it was written.
Often you read a book and think, 'I'd love to see this made into a film', but here it's almost the opposite. You want to read it, because it's quite sparse in terms of the dialogue.
Yeah. It's probably my favourite script that I've ever read. I had this visceral reaction to it, especially the Man Two scene when she's burnt with the cigarette, I remember crying when I first read that scene. It's a world I knew nothing about but I just felt touched by it in this really profound way. I've said before that I'm not particularly brave in my day-to-day life and if I can just be fearless in the work that I do then that balances everything out a bit. So I guess I'm tempted a little bit by seeing how far I can go.
How did you prepare yourself mentally for some of the 'sleeping' scenes?
Well, in terms of the sleeping scenes Julia actually suggested that I learn to meditate, which actually really helped because... People have asked whether those scenes were difficult but the thing is I wasn't really present for them.
How do you mean?
In that I'm asleep. I just learnt to focus on my breathing. I didn't need to be reacting to people, I just need to make sure I don't blink and don't react to anything. That actually made those scenes a lot easier for me, I think it was a lot more difficult for the men in those scenes.
Did you look up the real-life sleeping chambers on the internet?
I didn't, although I'd heard of them, because I didn't want the character to know any of that was going on. I didn't want to see it from an outsider's perspective. The last scene we filmed was the one where Lucy wakes up and I sort of almost wanted... I remember going into the sleeping scenes feeling very relaxed, I'd just go in and get on the bed and close my eyes immediately. But when we filmed that scene, which was the most difficult to film, it became more intense. It tired me out so much because for that first time in those scenes I had to be emotionally, mentally and physically present. It made it more real for me, because those sleeping scenes, for me, aren't about her, they're about the men wanting and needing to project themselves onto her. I got back from the set that day and there was wine and all these biscuits waiting for me because I think they realised how completely fucked I was after doing that scene.
Do you see Lucy as an innocent character?
Maybe not innocent, I'm sure she has an idea of what's going on, but I don't think many people would have seen those videos of the sleeping girls and I think she more just fascinated by what's going on. She's very aware of what's going on but she's allowing herself to be objectified. Being a young woman in this society she can't avoid being objectified so she decides to allow it on her own terms. There's something radical about her, it's like radical passivity. She's so aware of it and she's almost just watching everything around her.
But she has to make a point of being radical by burning the money, etc...
Yeah but I think it definitely... at the beginning it's that she is fascinated by it but the point that she burns the money is the point where she feels she's losing control, and she has to regain it somehow. And then when Birdmann dies she realises that she's fucked and she's pushed herself too far into being this still object. That's why I love the end scene so much because I think she should be dead, you know. Julia has said that she's 'death haunted' and I think you feel this feeling that she's going to die all the way through the film. It's interesting to see her claw her way back from that.
It's quite a calling card movie. What's next for you?
I don't have a career plan set out to be honest. If I like something I'll always want to be a part of it, but right now I'm looking for something different because I have tended to play the kind of quiet girl with the dark past a lot recently. Lucy is different but she also has similarities with a lot of the characters I've played recently. But I could never be, like, the love interest, I couldn't think of anything worse. But I'm starting to do rehearsals on and English film, a comedy, and that makes me nervous because I think comedy is really hard. But it's not laugh-out-loud comedy, it's more naturalistic, so hopefully it will be okay.
You could so easily play the straight up victim, but you seem to be drawn to stronger characters.
Yeah, I think I played that victim character a bit when I was really young... I don't know, I guess it can get a bit boring after a while. The whole damsel in distress thing really isn't for me.
Have there been more of those roles sent your way since doing Sucker Punch?
Yeah. I'm very aware of the fact that I look young and innocent, so I don't want to keep doing that. Baby Doll and Lucy look fragile and feminine, but I'm interested in playing the complete antithesis of that. Victim roles are often just a little bit boring.