Melbourne was home to the world premiere of “Ride Like a Girl” this weekend, the directorial debut from renowned Australian actor Rachel Griffiths that follows the true story of Michelle Payne; the first woman to win the Melbourne Cup.
Teresa Palmer stars as Michelle Payne alongside Sam Neill, Sullivan Stapleton, Magda Szubanski and Stevie Payne, Michelle’s brother who plays himself in the film.
We spoke to the stars, the inspiration and the director herself about bringing this film to life.
Why this story and why now
Rachel Griffiths: It’s hard to articulate – when my brain gets on fire, you just can’t put it out. It just didn’t go away. I thought this was one of those great ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ films – like “Hidden Figures” was. It’s so important that women have the opportunity to see heroines like Michelle that are unconventional, that have a dream in a man’s world but also realising the toughness, the resilience, the tenacity that’s required over a long period of time to realise it.
An actor’s director
Rachel Griffiths: I definitely think working with the actors was my talent. I think Teresa [Palmer] and Sam [Neill] give the best performances of their careers in this film. Stevie [Payne] had never acted before. I’m so proud of all of them. I think on my first day I had eight actors who had never acted on screen before. And I had a lot of people from the racing industry doing scenes and saying lines and they all nailed it. I’m particularly proud of that.
Sophia Forrest (Cathy Payne): Rachel knew exactly how to talk to an actor on set to get the right moment out of a scene. So every day on set was like a master class in acting [laughs]. Even if you only had one line, Rachel would give it as much respect as a two-page scene. It was great.
Zara Zoe (Maree Payne): She’s such a mega star, you know, but you she just made everyone feel comfortable. Everyone could just walk on set and feel like it was a creative, collaborative atmosphere. It was really nice.
Teresa Palmer can do it all
Rachel Griffiths: Teresa Palmer is spectacular in this film. One thing the industry has said is ‘oh my God I didn’t realise she could do that’ and I said ‘well no one’s given her the opportunity’.
On whether she always had Teresa in mind for the role. “Always.”
Michelle Payne: We spent some time together. She is just the most beautiful soul you could ever meet in your life and I was so happy she said yes to playing my part. And as an actress she has just absolutely nailed it. It’s just hard to believe there’s someone so good at their job – her and Sam Neill and everyone, the whole crew, I was just blown away by the cast that they had and I’m so proud of it.
Honouring their real-life counterparts
Sophia Forrest: I think it was definitely nerve wracking because you just want to do that person justice in telling their story. But the script was written with such deep respect and sincerity I feel like it carried the film from start to finish.”
Zara Zoe: There was a bit of pressure there as there always is in playing a real-life person but everyone was so warm and welcoming, it never felt tense, it felt like an accepting and wonderful environment. And the Payne family was so wonderful and open with us all.
Michelle Payne: This is the story of perseverance and resilience and believing in yourself. That’s anything is possible if you stick at it. Obviously, there’s going to be some tough times along the way and I think you really have to believe in yourself and follow your dreams.
When asked what was more nerve-wracking, racing in the Melbourne Cup or attending the premiere of a film about her life, Michelle did not hesitate: “Racing in the Melbourne Cup!”.
“Ride Like a Girl” gallops into Australian cinemas 26 September 2019.