Fascinating, shocking, beautiful and a bit of a mind-blow, Australian director Julia Leigh’s “Sleeping Beauty” was anything but a passing fancy in Cannes where it had its world premiere in May. Ahead of its red carpet debut, journalists packed into the press screening earlier in the day and after the credits rolled, opinions flared in the foyer afterward.
“It will never be released in the U.S.,” some said. “I’m ashamed to be Australian,” said another about the film that takes place down under, starring Australian actress Emily Browning.
But the film, which did find American distribution via IFC Films and is opening Friday in limited release, also had its supporters at the festival – a group that seemed to increase as time went on. While not a resounding endorsement, IW’s critic Eric Kohn observed that the film “will scare off a lot of audiences…[but] Leigh has firmly put herself on the map as a director to watch.” And while the initial round of viewers debated the film’s journey of a young woman’s “reckless descent into a shocking world of erotic desires” as the official description states, most agreed that Emily Browning’s acting was top notch.
She received a “Special Recognition” for her performance at the Hamptons International Film Festival in October where the film had its American debut. Indiewire jumped at the chance to talk with the very affable Browning at the festival who acknowledged that the film is going to divide audiences both here and abroad. And that’s OK….
When I first saw the Cannes lineup and this film earlier this year the title of course drew my attention and I’m sure others too. The film is not maybe what people expect at first glance and in fact is very divisive, is that fair? What drew you to this role?
When I first read the script for the opening scene where Lucy has the tube put down her throat, I had a really visceral reaction, I had a bit of a panic and I had to put the script down. It made me really uncomfortable. I finished the script and it made me cry and it made me feel strange. It was so beautifully written. The character of Lucy was interesting and unlike anything I’d seen before. I thought her willingness and recklessness and nihilism and her strength was really cool. The fact that it made me uncomfortable was a plus for me. I’m not particularly brave in my everyday life. I’m generally anxious, so I figured if I can be a little fearless in the work that I do, it would balance everything out.
I met Julia in Toronto at an IFC dinner. She said she thought you were really brave.
I think it’s hard to see yourselff in that way. I knew it was tough and would be more intense than anything I’ve ever done before. I had to muster up some courage, definitely. It’s hard to be objective about that kind of thing. I just loved it and I wanted to be a part of it – so I did it. All of the nudity and all the intense scenes weren’t as difficult as I thought they would be, to be honest.
So what was most difficult for you?
As far as emotionally demanding, it was the final scene. I can cry at the drop of a hat. I’ve always found that easier than laughing in films. But that kind of animalistic moaning catharsis was something I haven’t done before. That was an intense scene for me. Also, the second sex scene with the man who licks my face wasn’t the most pleasant thing to film. I trusted Julia so much that in the back of my head at all those moments, there was a voice telling me the film was gonna be great. I was so positive about it and I trusted her and that helped me. If I was having a horrible time on the film, it would have been a lot more difficult, but the fact that I really believed in it numbed me to it to some degree.
Just reading the script must have been a little shocking, though.
It’s a good thing. I’ve been working for fourteen years, since I was eight years old, and when I first started it was a hobby. It was great and fun. And I got to the point where I thought, ‘if I’m going to do this seriously for the rest of my life or for as long as possible, I need to challenge myself or it’s going to be soul-destroying if I just work to work.’ I need to push myself. I’m not saying that I just want to do anything that’s shocking, but when you have that combination of a script that’s really beautiful and extremely shocking, it’s exciting for me.
When I first saw it in May, it was a real journey for me. I left the theater and I was shocked and really floored by the whole thing. It was one of the first screenings at the festival, and it stayed with me. I noticed I was talking about it every day with people, but honestly my initial reaction was not positive. But I kept talking about it as did my friends…
That’s the best reaction.
Maybe I didn’t get it all at first. It’s not the most pleasant little ride, but it really does demand attention. There are some passionate people who really love this film, and there’s a mass of detractors. Has this been your experience so far?
Yes, definitely. I kind of like it. I prefer to make a film that people have a really intense reaction to than have a film that people feel ambivalent about. I agree with you. It’s always funny when I do a Q&A and people begin questions with “I love the film.” That’s weird to say straight away! I don’t think it’s the kind of film you see and say, “Oh, I love it!” I hope people have your reaction. You leave feeling like you don’t know what to say about that, and then it sticks with you and makes you think and then you realize you love it.
I knew from the word go that there would be people who didn’t feel comfortable with it or didn’t like it. And that’s fine. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I stopped worrying about other people’s opinions. If people love what I do, that’s fantastic. And there’s always going to be people who don’t, and if I focus on that, then it’ll destroy me. I have to just worry about my own opinion and the opinions of the people I’m working with and people who are close to me. Otherwise, it’ll drive me crazy.
You’ve worked in Australia for a while now, and people there have been familiar with your work since appearing in television programming targeted to children. I would imagine there are people who have seen you grow up and some of them are gonna see you in this film. How does that affect you if at all?
I know what you mean, and I definitely thought about that. I think you can’t be expected to stay in a hypostasis of perpetual childhood. It’s not fair on the person. If it offends people for that reason, then I’m sorry, and it sounds horribly rude, but I can’t make that my problem. I have to be able to grow in the way that I want to grow and this is part of it. There have been bad reactions, but there hasn’t been anyone saying, “Oh, you used to be so sweet! What have you done?” I haven’t gotten much of that. People who genuinely like what I do are generally understanding.
The first thing I wondered when I left the film was, “Who is going to release this in the U.S.?” One thing that worries me in this country is that we’re totally fine with violence, but if there’s a little bit of sexuality beyond the “conventional” and everyone seems to “freak out.” Were you surprised at all when it did find U.S. theatrical distribution?
I was pleasantly surprised. I was worrying on the plane the other day about what American audiences would think of the film, and Australian audiences too, because we’re kind of similar in that way. I mean, look: It’s not a film for kids to see. It’s adult content. I personally think that’s because of the nudity. There’s the other dark content. Maybe you don’t want your children exposed to strange sexual fetishes at a young age. In terms of the nudity – obviously, I’m not a mother – but when I am, I feel like I’d much prefer for children to see a normal, naked human body than people getting killed. I’ve never understood that. I find it so strange.
People come up to me and say, “Oh, the nudity is so intense.” It wasn’t the nudity that was difficult for me. It’s the content and the themes. I just don’t get why that’s a problem. Everyone’s got a body. I do understand, but that’s how I feel.
Was Lucy a sympathetic character for you?
I think that the bird man character is really the most important character in the film as far as Lucy being a sympathetic character. If he wasn’t there and you didn’t get that warmth from her, she wouldn’t too sympathetic. She’d be cold. But I think when you see her and the way she reacts with the bird man, you get an understanding of her humanity. But also, it’s easy for her to be sympathetic, because I came up with her backstory and Julia and I know exactly what happened with her in the past.
When we first started talking about the film in interviews, I wanted to protect Lucy and tell people, “Oh, but this happened to her and this happened to her.” But Julia told me to let people find that out for themselves. Hopefully, if Lucy isn’t sympathetic for people, I hope she’s interesting to watch.
You worked from the time you were younger and I read you took some time off before you were in “Sucker Punch.” Was that a time when you thought about not acting anymore?
Definitely. I did “Lemony Snicket” in Los Angeles and the film itself was a good experience, but being in Los Angeles and being around kids who were groomed for the industry – it wasn’t good for me… It made me think that maybe [acting] wasn’t good for me. It was so removed from high school and I had that inkling back then where I thought if I drop out of high school and continue to be a part of this world, it’s gonna screw me up.
What we’re supposed to do as actors is be able to portray real human beings and emotions. And if you grow up in this bubble of showbiz and you only know people who make movies, you don’t really have an understanding of the world outside. I just felt like it was really necessary for me to go home and be a normal kid, even though that term is so cliché. When I was in high school, there was a while where I thought I wanted to be a psychologist and go to university, but it pulled me back. If I don’t work for a while, I get antsy with too many emotions and I need an outlet that isn’t pouring out on friends and family. I need to challenge [emotion] into something creative. I was sucked back in. I can’t imagine not doing it.
I came across a fan site of yours. There was some quote there that your father was under strict instruction not to see “Sleeping Beauty.” Is that still the case?
My dad genuinely likes movies and likes seeing me in movies, but I said to him, “Don’t see it.” He hasn’t talked to me about it.
Have other friends and family seen it?
I told my mother not to see it, and she sort of said, “Get fucked, I’m seeing it.” She actually took my nana and my aunties and they went to the Sydney premiere of the film, and they liked it. My family’s pretty open-minded, and, you know – I honestly wouldn’t mind if my father saw it. I just don’t want to talk to him about it.
My nana made the funniest comment. I remember calling her just after she’d seen it, and I was nervous. She’s quite old-fashioned and she said, “I loved it! I loved it! I loved every moment of it, except where you offered that man a blowjob. I didn’t like that…”
So, thanks, Nana. Thanks for your constructive feedback. My family have all been pretty good about it.