Miranda Otto – Reaching for the Moon

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“Reaching for the Moon” chronicles the tragic love affair between American poet Elizabeth Bishop (Miranda Otto) and Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares (Gloria Pires). In her home country of Australia, Mandy sat down with Miranda Otto to talk females in film, World Cup disappointments, the Australian film industry and “Lord of the Rings”.

Congratulations on the film I really enjoyed it. There was a study recently that only 16 per cent of protagonists and 29 per cent of main characters in the top 100 films last year were female…

Miranda: That’s grim figures isn’t it? And last year was a good year for females in film. So that’s on a good year!

Yes! So it was so refreshing to watch a film where not only the protagonist but the main characters were female. Is that quite rare when you’re reading scripts?

Miranda: It’s really rare. Really rare. Yes I would say the three main characters in this film are women. They kind of exist in a world where they’re not even talking about men or what men think. We’re not even wasting our time with that [laughs]. There’s two male characters but they only have a little bit to do in it. There is Treat Williams played by Robert Lowell who is at the beginning and the end. But yes I found it refreshing and I thought ‘why are these characters so great on the page?’ And I thought, well because usually the men get to play all the great characteristics! And so in this script when you’ve got all the main women they let you be some of the things that men generally get to be.

I heard there’s some readings in Hollywood where actors and actresses perform a famous film script, and on one occasion they reversed the roles and actors played the female parts and the actresses played the male parts, and all the men were so bored because they didn’t get any of the good material…

Miranda: Yes I’ve heard of that and the men were like ‘I can’t stand this and why would I do that?’ And well it’s because you’re the third billed and the woman and you have to say whatever to make the storyline work for the man. That’s how you do it’ [laughs].

So was it fabulous to get this script then?

Miranda: Yes it was fantastic. I couldn’t really believe when I got the script at first that it was actually for me because I thought it was such a good role. Usually those roles get scooped before I can even get a chance at it. And also someone who is for Americans a very famous poet – on the East Coast she is very well known. Not well known everywhere but certainly well-known there and I would have thought an American would have felt very patriotic about playing her. But I’m glad, I’m happy with that.

I really enjoy films like this because I had (sadly) never heard of Elizabeth Bishop before…

Miranda: No I didn’t either! I didn’t know anything about her when I got the script so it was a real revelation for me reading the story.

It must be very hard playing writers and poets because the process is so internal and just from what I’ve seen of her poetry it was not of the confessional style, it was quite distant and objective. 

Miranda: Yes it is. There was quite a lot of things to work from. I was working from biographies and pictures and recordings of her reading of her poetry so I found lots of material that I could source. But there was also great material seeing the way that she wrote on the page – see the corrections she made – and the poem that we used, ‘One Art’, at the beginning and the end of the film I found online this whole thesis on the 16 different drafts of that poem and the original notes that it came from and then how it slowly started to take form. So there was a lot in there and I really get a kick out of that kind of stuff. I love all that nerdy research. Give me give me give [laughs]. I much prefer that to sort of playing a character on the page where there isn’t much and you have to sort of make everything up. It was really detailed and there was lots to sink your teeth into. It is hard to get the writing process across on film and we really workshopped a lot of that and I was really happy with what we ended up doing with that, just to get a sense of how you find the words and how you use the rhythm. Just the whole process of it was really fun to get across.

I loved that she came across as, well, unfriendly to put it nicely, but I felt that you were with her the whole way. 

Miranda: Oh that’s nice, yes people do find her edgy. And in the script there were a lot of things that she had to do that were edgy. Automatically being an alcoholic it sets a difficult thing in a relationship for another person so a lot of sympathy will be for Lota having to deal with that. But I just really liked her, I thought that she was someone who comes across on the surface as someone who was quite cold and distant but that’s really because she’s so sensitive underneath that she’s very frightened to expose that. She would just fall apart if she didn’t have this veneer a lot of the time.

It was interesting with Lota as well, at the end, I think Mary actually says ‘no one is that confident’. She was also I guess hiding a bit of insecurity?

Miranda: Yeah I think that when we talk about loss in film there’s a bit of an idea that Lota is someone who has always won. She achieved everything she set out to do. She’s been able to get anyone she saw across the room and decided they were the one. She just had her way, particularly in the film. She had her way most of the time. And so to deal a loss was inconceivable and completely throws her. Whereas Elizabeth spends her whole life having to let go of things and losing and never really completely accepting being in anything because she’s worried she’ll lose it.

I thought it was fascinating this home life set up with Elizabeth and Mary and Lota, that even though it was in the 1950s it was really quite modern…

Miranda: It’s very modern. That’s what struck me within the first ten pages of reading I was thinking ‘this is amazing, it’s the 50s in Brazil and it was really really modern’. They just solved things in their own way, there was no convention. We’re still trying to solve these things and we’re still sort of entrenched in the nuclear family and it was so interesting what they come up with.

What was it like filming in Rio?

Miranda: Really really beautiful. I really recommend going there. The people in particular are really amazing, just incredibly warm in a very physical way but without being sleazy. It’s hard to explain but you meet people there and you become very close to them very quickly. They’re very gentle. And the aesthetic is amazing. Everything on that film is quire incredible from the cinematography to the costumes and the sets and the architecture.

Even your desk!

Miranda: Even my desk! Everything was a very special object. Every object on the wall and in the office and on the shelves was so beautiful. That was so right for their world because both Lota and Elizabeth loved beautiful things and collected beautiful things. Not necessarily expensive but things they found very pleasing. It was so great that the environment was so beautiful and particular.

And that was an actual house you filmed in?

Miranda: The house that we shot in was actually an Oscar Niemeyer house, it was not their real house. The real one I believe is owned by a women who I believe wasn’t very keen to have a film crew traipsing through it [laughs]. And that house that we got was fantastic as you could see it had the other little house at the end of the lake. And then we build the studio. We put that in ourselves and then we had to take it out which was sad as it was such a beautiful studio. We had to return it back to how it was.

I loved the scene, well it was sad, but the birthday scene when Elizabeth is getting drunk and dancing around by herself, I thought that was a great insight into the character, how did you approach that?

Miranda: That was quite hard actually because I particularly wanted it to be not very good and I really enjoy dancing. When the music came on I wanted to be a little bit unco so that it would look like I was drunk and I was older so it was a hard thing. And it was one of those things where we just had to bang it off at the end of the day really quickly, we didn’t have a lot of time to spend on it. But the birthday scene is beautiful, some of the lighting in that is incredible. My daughter said to me the other day, we were at a Q&A and she said ‘I wanted to ask why haven’t you let me see the movie’ and I didn’t let her see the movie because one day I had a few of the dailies from the film and it was the birthday scene. She had the DVD in my computer and I’d been watching the dailies and I’d gone to have a shower and I came back and she’d turned it on and watched it and she was sitting there sobbing. Because she was so upset that no one had come to my birthday party. And then I thought I can’t let her see it because she’s going to get so upset because she thinks on some level that it’s me. She knows it’s the character but she’s upset for me everything that happens. Of course worse things happen to me in this movie so I don’t think she should see it!

Was she with you a lot of the time during filming?

Miranda: Yes she and [husband] Pete came over for a fair whack of the time actually which was great, it was a great experience for her to travel there.

Were you going for Brazil in the World Cup?

Miranda: I was! I would have loved to have seen them win but I think they’ll be happy that Argentina didn’t win. If Argentina had won that would have really hurt.

I’m sure! The nut allergy that Elizabeth had that ended up putting her in hospital and extending her stay initially – did that really happen?

Miranda: Yes that actually did happen. There’s a couple of other things that are very much dramatic license but the nut allergy was absolutely true and Lota kind of nursed her back to health. She ate this cashew fruit which was basically a nut. She was also asthmatic and had a lot of illnesses.

But it strangely kind of worked out for her…

Miranda: Yes it did!

And what was it like working with Bruno Baretto?

Miranda: Terrific! He had such a great idea of what he wanted to do with the film and we tussled a bit over the time but I actually really enjoyed that. I liked sort of being protective of my character and being that engaged with someone. He had really strong idea that he didn’t want the film to be just a bio pic type of thing and he was so right. That it was important that it was a love story. He brought in so many amazing people to work on it and make it look so beautiful. He had a really strong sense of how he wanted it to be. Which was great. And I was just haranguing him with ideas and things that I thought should be in there [laughs].

I’m sure he loved it. It all worked out. And Gloria [Pires] who plays Lota is very well known in Brazil I understand?

Miranda: Extremely well known. People said to me she’s like the Julia Roberts of Brazil. People have grown up with her. Novellas, the television industry there is huge and she’s been on television from a very young age but has also done a lot of movies. People feel like they know her, that she’s a member of their family. She’s a fabulous actress. Really fabulous.

She seemed a real force of nature. 

Miranda: She is. She is.

Now you’ve had a very diverse career in the types of characters you’ve played and genres you’ve been a part of, how have you avoided being pigeonholed and been able to go from fantasy to action to period films…

Miranda: I guess I just get attracted to different things. I’m someone who can get bored pretty easily so I do one thing and then I do something almost as an antithesis to that. You play someone very introverted and you’re going to get stuck there for a bit and then you think ‘oh I need someone a lot more extroverted than that’. You just get pulled in different directions. And I think having been to drama school and all that a lot of it is about trying to extend yourself and do things a bit different to what your innate personality is. I’ve always enjoyed that part of acting – trying to take on people who are different to me. And working in Brazil was very different to working anywhere else I’d ever worked. The film set ran different. It was at times, and in the same way for Elizabeth, it was at times confronting for me to deal with the way they worked. It’s so much looser. I’m one of those Australians who’s really organised [laughs]. It was a challenge for me to try and let go of that.

So was it kind of ‘oh we’ll figure out the next scene when we get to it’?

Miranda: Yes! And we’ll pull this scene out today and do this one instead. And there was no sense of having to get through things, and sometimes they didn’t know the next day if they’d found the location. Maybe because they had such a short pre-production time because they had to get it done before Gloria was due to start this other job. So it was a real time crunch.

But it all came together. 

Miranda: It did! That’s what I discovered, magically it all comes together.

And your hair and make-up and wardrobe was incredible. It worked so well over the period of time was is it a long time getting ready and did you have a say in how it was approached?

Miranda: Yes we all had a say. We were there for three weeks for a rehearsal/script writing process where Matthew Chapman the writer was there trying to finesse things that he wanted to change in the room with us. But we also spent a lot of those three weeks in hair and make-up doing tests for different things and trying different hair styles and putting that whole look together. And also working out in the script where we wanted to make the jumps, the timeline of it was quite difficult because Bruno on the one hand didn’t want you to be aware of any timeline. He didn’t want to be like ‘oh now it’s this time and that time’ but at the same time we had to work out at what stages the hair would get greyer. But I had a really great team of people working on it and I was really happy with the results.

Yes definitely, sometimes the ageing process doesn’t work so well on screen…

Miranda: And the ageing was very important because, without putting up timecards all the time, you get a sense that these people have been together for a long time and what that means. The depth that a relationship grows to in that time.

You get a real sense that Elizabeth changes throughout the course of the film, that in the beginning she seemed very lonely and lost. 

Miranda: Yes and then she regathers herself as time goes on. I noticed that in the recordings of her voice that from early on she had this very high pitched kind of unsettled sound. Her later recordings she had a much deeper more gravelly, more at peace with herself, a gentle edge of irony in it. Much more settled.

It was interested that it said at the end of the film that she would rather be known as one of the top 16 poets than one of the top four female poets. Why do you think that was?

Miranda: She just didn’t want to marginalised in any way. She didn’t want to be pigeonholed. She was a poet that’s it. I think that’s why she was very discreet about her life. She didn’t want people knowing much about her life to inform her work. She would have dreaded being called the ‘lesbian poet’. Not because she minded being gay or deep down really mind if people knew that but she didn’t want it to inform what she wrote. She really wanted the work to stand on its own – have a clean slate when people came to it. She was known by other poets but she wasn’t known a lot by other people – she lived in Brazil for 15 years and sort of disappeared there.

Do you have any favourite characters that you’ve played looking back on your career to date?

Miranda: The character in “Love Serenade” – Dimity. I loved that film, I loved working on it. I also did another film with Shirley Barrett, “South Solitarity”, I played Meredith who I really loved as well. And “Lord of the Rings”, Eowyn, I miss her [laughs]. She was a great character. Great to play.

And it seemed like it would have a great filming experience in New Zealand. 

Miranda: It was a great experience. Once again incredible detail like there was on this film. The same kind of preciseness with everything.

And you’ve got “The Homesman” coming up next?

Miranda: Yes “The Homesman”, I think it’s coming out in November in the States so I imagine it would be somewhere around the end of the year here as well, December or January. It’s one of those sort of Oscar type movies.

And that’s Tommy Lee Jones…

Miranda: And Hilary Swank. Yes, Tommy is acting, directing and wrote it as well with two other writers.

Can you tell us a bit about your character?

Miranda: The basic premise of the story is that Hilary Swank’s character is a women who has set up a farm in the new territories in Nebraska and the conditions are incredibly difficult. And she gets told that there are three women who have lost their minds for different reasons, basically the hardships, but different specific reasons, and someone needs to take them back to Iowa across the plains. And all the danger and difficulties that that ensues. She picks up Tommy Lee Jones quite early and enlists him to help her. So I’m playing one of the insane women.

Was that fun to sink your teeth into?

Miranda: It was fun! The backstory, you get to see the flashbacks of the different women’s stories and what drive them to it was really fun and then in the main story we’re almost a lyrical chorus at times. We’re there but it’s not like lots of huge crazy acting behaviour if you know what I mean.

With Tommy both acting and directing, was that a different process, have you worked with a director like that before?

Miranda: No I’ve never worked with someone who was doing both things at once. It was fascinating to watch him do that.

Surely just behind the camera is hard!

Miranda: I know! He sort of moved from one to the other, from director to actor, without you even realising that he’d done it. And he’s such a wonderful actor that you don’t even realise he’s begun. He’s still talking and then you go ‘oh we’re in the scene’. And him being a terrific actor he would give you great ideas, ideas that he would have if he was playing a role so he would give these little gifts when we were working on scenes. He was a terrific director because he gives you very clear notes and keeps them to a minimum and lets you do what you do – he trusts you a lot to do your thing.

Look forward to it! I was interviewing Eric Bana a couple of weeks ago and he mentioned that he’s noticed the industry has changed a lot in the last few years and that  a lot of great scripts would come through and they used to go straight into production, and now the great scripts come through but they’re not really going anywhere. It seems to be there’s the big blockbuster and the small independent films and there’s not a lot of in between anymore. 

Miranda: No there isn’t a lot of in between. And also the smaller budget films seem to need huge names just to get their little budget. You’re not as much in the little films in America seeing new faces which is a shame as well. We’ve lost that midline film a little bit I think. I don’t go and see a lot of the big blockbusters…

Yeah, honestly, there’s only so many times you can watch a city being destroyed. It’s getting to kind of ‘oh great we’re up to the destroying the city part, awesome, what will it be this time, a monster, a bomb, a superhero’? [laughs]. So it’s really lovely to see films like this. Maybe Australia can do some more of the mid range films but it’s very difficult here as well. 

Miranda: Well it’s very difficult to get funding here as well to get money for it.

We have a small population. 

Miranda: That’s a problem, the big problem is that we speak English really. If we spoke our own language I think we’d have a more protected industry. When you look at the French film industry and how many movies they make. It’s great for me and people like me who have gone to work overseas because it’s so much easier to transition if you speak the language but at times for our actual industry it would be easier if we were Spanish speaking or something [laughs].

That’s a really good point. 

Miranda: It’s so easy to just bring all the American movies here. So easy.

“Samson and Delilah” they submitted as a foreign language film with the indigenous Australian language. That was a great film. 

Miranda: Yes that was a beautiful film wasn’t it? Devastating.

Do you think you’ll be able to stay in Australia for a little bit?

Miranda: That’s a good question. There’s a couple of things that have come up, something I was attached to for a long time that I didn’t realise was going to happen. So now I’m trying to work out what to do because I’m meant to go back to Sydney and my daughter’s meant to go back to school so once I finish this press tour I need to work out what I’m going to and how I’m going to juggle everything. And that’s what our lives are always like. Pete’s here working on something and I was going to go back and do the whole school thing and now I’m trying to think ‘what do we do?’

Well that’s a good dilemma, so many options. 

Miranda: Yes, high quality problems! [laughs].

Does your daughter have an interest in acting? Would you be happy if she followed in your footsteps?

Miranda: She definitely has an interest. So we’ll see what happens from there. I’d like on some level for her to do stuff in kids’ theatre where you’re just mucking around and having fun with it to start with. But yes. She’s very interested. Very interested. [laughs].

“Reaching for the Moon” is now in cinemas in Australia.