Miranda Otto is among Australia’s best-known actors for her work on stage and screen. She was the warrior maiden Eowyn in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy and starred opposite Tom Cruise in Steven Spielberg’s remake of War of the Worlds. Otto returned to Australia to attend the NIDA Foundation Trust Fundraising Gala dinner before she relocates to the US to shoot the US adaptation of TV series Rake with Greg Kinnear. I caught up with Otto to talk about her coming films, how she prepares for a role and working with Tommy Lee Jones.
What are you up to at the moment?
Unpacking and repacking. We just got back from three months in the States, I’m heading off to Brazil [this month] for the opening of a film I made there, then back to Sydney, then to LA in September.
Tell me about your coming films.
I, Frankenstein comes out in January. It’s a supernatural action movie with Aaron Eckhart and Bill Nighy, shot in Melbourne. Reaching for the Moon is set in 1950s Brazil, about the relationship between Elizabeth Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares. The Homesman is with Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Meryl Streep, set in 1854, about a claim jumper and a pioneer woman who take three insane women across the plains from Nebraska to Iowa.
How do you prepare for a role?
Different every time. I always take notes the first time I read a script, as I’ll never have that fresh take on it again. Often I will come back to those first notes. If it’s a real person, I will try to find out as much about them as I can. When I played Elizabeth Bishop I read her poems, her letters to Robert Lowell and an amazing oral biography. I listened to recordings of her reading poetry and studied photos of her. I researched Brazil at that time … and then I used my imagination. On The Homesman I was playing a woman in 1854 in Nebraska who loses her mind. I researched that time period in America, I looked at photos from that time and place, I read several first-hand-account novels on various forms of mental illness and I spoke and worked with a psychiatrist. Sometimes it’s maybe just one little thing that opens the door into the character for me.
Do you ever go home in character or do you make sure you switch off before leaving the set?
I switch off before I go home but I think it still affects my mood. It changes your internal chemistry a bit.
What has been your biggest character challenge to date and why?
Playing Bishop last year in Brazil. She was a fascinating, deeply talented and complex woman and technically the role required so much – a 15-year time span with different wigs and ageing make-up, east-coast accent, speaking Portuguese. I only had two weeks to prepare. And to me the hardest part is the responsibility of trying to bring a real person to the screen with all the integrity they deserve.
What has been your biggest career highlight so far?
On stage playing Nora in A Doll’s House. It was a role I always wanted to play. And I met my husband.
Who is the most interesting person you have worked with?
Tommy Lee Jones. I’ve never worked with an actor who was directing at the same time. I found him a fascinating actor and deeply insightful director and I loved watching him glide seamlessly between those roles. I kept trying to catch the exact moment he was changing hats.
If you could play any role, who would it be?
What is next in the pipeline?
The pilot I did for the American version of the ABC show Rake has been picked up, so I’m off to work on that. There’s also a film here that I’m hoping will be funded soon.
You studied at NIDA. What is your favourite memory of your time there?
Being told I had inarticulate feet. I’ve been working on that ever since. It was nice to revisit the school for the gala, too. I had a great night.
What is the best lesson you learnt from NIDA that you still use every day in your work?
Will you relocate to the US for the filming of Rake?
Yes, [I’ll be based in] Los Angeles. The show is set there.
What do you miss most about Australia when you are away?
The coffee, the humidity and the sense of humour.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Read, hang out with family, travel. In 14 weeks in the US we managed to visit 15 American cities around my shooting schedule.
Do you have a secret talent?
My feet are somewhat articulate.
WE WENT TO ARIA, Circular Quay.
WE ATE ARIA Catering’s NIDA Foundation Trust Fundraising Gala menu of yellowfin tuna and Alaskan crab parcels with udon noodles, soy and wasabi; jamon with celeriac remoulade, pickled beetroot and walnuts.
WE DRANK Sparkling mineral water.
I WORE Dion Lee skirt and top.
MIRANDA WORE Maje dress, Carl Kapp jacket and Isabel Marant shoes.
Photography: Dallas Kilponen