Abbie Cornish is one of the most talented and interesting young women working in film today. She was introduced to the world in Cate Shortland’s Sommersault but broke through in Jane Campion’s Bright Star. It is her ability to be still and convey tons of emotion that set her apart. She takes on the role of Ashley a struggling young mother in South Texas right on the Mexican border who has lost her son to the system and lost herself in the process. She is willing to try anything to get her son and herself back. Her attempt has tragic consequences and in the aftermath she learns a lot of important lessons which help her on her road to get her life and her son back.
She spoke from the set of her latest film the remake of Robocop.
Women and Hollywood Talk a little bit about what drew you to the script of The Girl.
Abbie Cornish: A lot of things, actually. I really, really loved the script. I read it towards the end of making W.E. and it was the first script I’d read in a while because W.E. was very consuming but I remember reading it and it felt like such a breath of fresh of fresh air. I’d never read anything like it and I was pretty unknowledgeable about Mexico and the culture. I’d never been to Mexico. I loved the connection between a younger American mother who was holding a lot of anger and regret and resentment and the connection that she forms with a young Mexican girl from a totally different culture and a way of life who is very free and vibrant and the collision of those two worlds. And for me the script was so beautiful because it was not only an intimate story, but it was also a political story. I think it deals with issues that are very large.
WaH: Like the politics of immigration and class issues and poverty?
AC: Yeah, all of that and the border. And the history between America and Mexico. It just deals with a lot of stuff. It deals with it in such a specific way in such an intimate story that those images they come across in a different way. And you’re really left as an audience member to make your own decisions and have your own experiences. There was something very poetic about the film and something that was sort of nonjudgmental about it too. The film doesn’t tell you what to think or feel. You’re left to figure that out for yourself.
WaH: It was a very interesting look at immigration. Was it hard for you to imagine this young woman’s life?
AC: It wasn’t actually. I did a lot of research about to her situation and her history, her lifestyle, her income, her location all that sort of stuff, and motherhood. A lot of my research involved speaking with mothers. Because I don’t have a child and as much as you can sort of imagine it it’s always nice to hear from all different walks of life what motherhood is like and what that feels like. And particularly young mothers. And so that really informed that character a lot. I think the character sort of feels like she’s been dealt so many bad cards in life and she’s just not happy about that. She hasn’t yet realized how to take control of her life and how to love herself. Meaning that you can’t love someone else until you truly love yourself. And so that’s her journey a lot in a way, too, because she despises herself.
WaH: Talk about what was it like working with Maritza.
AC: It was incredible. She’s an absolute gem. We met each other at a plaza one day in Oaxaca, and I knew straightaway that we would get along and that it would be an amazing thing. She was just a girl after my own heart. She’s such a sweetheart. The first time we hung together my Spanish wasn’t so good, and so we didn’t really talk much. I understood the basics of what she was saying but we just kind of hung out and walked around. It was really sweet. David (the director) was really lovely throughout the filming because she and I had a really strong bond and she would really listen to me and I think she felt very safe with me. And so that feeling was lovely. To be working with a non-actor, who’s a child, who trusts you and looks to you when they don’t know what’s going on or how to do, it’s such a warm feeling. And it’s lovely because it makes you very selfless in a way. That whole film to me was like that. It was a life changing experience and I knew when I left that it was going to be really special, but I had no idea why or how. I came back a different person. It changed my life.
WaH: What did it change?
AC: I don’t know if I can pinpoint it exactly, but I know it gave me an incredibly unique experience. Three and a half months in Mexico sometimes going to very remote villages, living amongst the people, learning about the people and the culture. The experience of shooting in that environment—the crew was very wonderful – one of the best crews I’ve ever worked with. It was an incredibly soulful experience. That’s probably the best word for it.
AC: Yeah. I think every day we were all presented with life, and all its darkness and all its beauty and all its chaos. It was just so vibrant. There was never a dull day, never a dull moment. Just really a very energetic experience too. I just remember feeling so filled with energy, and sleep was something that I just had to do so that I could get through the next day, but I don’t remember sleeping very much. Because it was a lot of work, obviously the dialect and the Spanish. I was just so happy to come to work. Even though in the film I know my character comes across as sort of angry and carrying a whole lot of baggage, every moment outside of that I was just filled with laughter and smiles.
WaH: You’re a relatively young woman, and one of the things I’ve noticed about your career, beginning with your Somersault with Cate Shortland, is you’ve worked with several woman directors, and there are some people who have never worked with a woman director. Firstly, I don’t know if that was intentional or not, maybe it was the material, but have you noticed any difference between male and female directors?
AC: I think there are differences, but I think also every director is different, so I it’s a little hard to measure. It’s like anything in life, really. The guy at the corner store, one block east is different from the guy at the corner store one block west. You know? But they both hang behind the register at the corner store. So it’s a little hard to say. Like, I mean me—yeah. I mean, it’s funny because I’m almost hesitant to go there. Because for a second, I’m thinking of Jane Campion.
WaH: So go into Jane Campion. I mean‚ there are not many people in the world, male or female, like Jane Campion, and what’s it like to work with, you know, a master?
AC: Incredible. And, to be honest, my experience with Jane Campion, a lot of the lessons that I learned from her actually sunk in after the fact. And it’s something I expressed to her. I’ve been so lucky as an actor, and I really know that, too. I’ve had a lot of really, really, really special experiences that have affected my life a lot and Bright Star was one of those. I mean you make a film with Campion about the poet John Keats and with an actor like Ben Whishaw, it’s inevitable that it’s going to be an incredible experience for so many reasons. Jane is a master. She has a very particular way of working. I think she has so much heart in what she does. Every time I think of Jane I kind of imagine a really beautiful, ancient tree. Like very deeply rooted and kind of enchanted. That’s how I imagine her. She’s like that. A very wise director but it all comes from the earth. She’s super connected, very spiritually connected, very emotionally connected. We would do a scene and you would turn around and she would be totally within that scene. She would have the same expression on her face as we would have on our faces, and it was just so lovely. She’s a special one.
WaH: You’ve done some large budget movies and a lot of smaller budget movies.What’s the difference for you when you work, whether you have a good trailer or you just kind of sit around with everyone together?
AC: You know, it’s funny that you ask that because RoboCop has actually been the best filmmaking experience that I’ve ever had. It’s a really wonderful cast and a really wonderful crew and a really warm environment.
AC: RoboCop, yeah, the film I’m shooting right now. And it’s interesting because I didn’t really know what it was going to be like, I mean I knew Jose—I knew working with Jose Padilha was going to be awesome because he’s a genius. His history is in documentary filmmaking. The most famous one is Bus 174, but then he moved into features, and he kind of brings this very real, very raw edge. So he made RoboCop so deeply rooted in the story and in humanity, and it’s wonderful. And it’s been a really great experience. And there’s more money involved. I have a really nice trailer with a fireplace. There’s no trailer like it. I called my agent and said, “You won’t believe what’s in my trailer. I’m like, I don’t even need to go back to the hotel, I’ll just stay here and wake up and go to work.
WaH: That’s great.
AC: You know, it’s really fun it’s like being a kid in a candy store, to be honest. Because you do films like The Girl when you have a tiny little trailer that you can barely even get changed in, and you don’t want to hang out in there because it doesn’t do anything good for your psyche. But still, you’re having the time of your life. It doesn’t matter. And I think the point is that, of course it’s really fun to hang out in a big trailer and have a fireplace in your trailer, or stay in a nice hotel or whatever. But at the end of the day some of the most amazing experiences aren’t measured by any of those things at all. I’ve had some incredible experiences on RoboCop and also had some incredible experiences on The Girl in San Juan Chico where the village is totally self-sufficient. We had to stay in cabins that only had cold running water. What matters are the people that you’re working with, and the work that you’re doing, and everything else is variable.
WaH: You come off as such an incredible joyful person on the phone and the parts that I’ve seen you in you’re very intense. I’m like smiling because I kind of didn’t expect it. It’s so nice to hear the joy in what you do and in your life. What was the biggest challenge for you in making The Girl?
AC: I think at first definitely speaking Spanish. I haven’t spoken another language before in a film—I think I had one or two lines in French before, but that doesn’t really count. And so to do 75% of the movie in another language was so daunting. Very exciting, but very daunting. I’m very studious as an actor, I like to do all my research, I’m kind of 24/7, and become consumed It’s a lovely thing to want to put all that work in, so I kind of freaked out a little bit about the Spanish. I started Spanish a few months before, and I had a Spanish dialect coach when I was there. Both the Texas accent—using English with a Texas accent and Spanish learned from the streets. So I was speaking Spanish with a Mexican accent, English with a Texas accent. I had so many conversations where I was like do I bring a Texan twang into the Spanish? Eventually it all clicked and I found the voice. And so then I was like, okay cool. I’m ready to go. But it was that—I think honestly, that was the scariest thing for sure.
WaH: The voice is much lower than you sound on the phone. In the movie.
AC: I think the Texas one makes my voice go a little bit lower. But I wanted to make her like she had to fend for herself. She never really had a father, and her mother’s totally absent. And I think she hangs out with the guys, and I kind of wanted to make her seem like she’d been able to look after herself for a long time. And her femininity hasn’t done any good for her. Looking good and trying to be a sexual being, it’s just a disaster for her.
WaH: It has not been something that has taken her any place good. So speaking of sexuality, as a young woman in Hollywood, there is so much pressure to act and look and be a certain way. How do you deal with that?
AC: I just do my own thing, you know? It doesn’t really bother me, any of that stuff.
WaH: Do you think it’s because you’re from another country?
AC: Yeah, I guess it’s just like how you choose—I think it’s the same with anyone in this world, it’s what you choose to read, what you choose to indulge yourself in. The films you watch, the music you listen to, the television programs, the magazines. All of these things inform and affect your life. Your environment, the company you choose, it’s all of that stuff that affects who you are. So if you’re conscious of that, I think you’re okay.
The Girl is opens in NYC today.