In Ed Gass-Donnelly’s unnerving new Tribeca premiere, “Lavender,” Abbie Cornish plays Jane, a wife and mother with a huge secret to hide. The twist, however, is that she’s not even aware that she’s hiding anything. Jane only knows that there’s something strange that’s pulled at her memory since she was a child, perhaps the same thing that has compelled her photography career, which consists of oddly creepy photos of abandoned homes. After a car accident triggers a flood of terrifying memories, Jane and her family find themselves visiting one of those housese, which just so happened to be the place where she grew up — and where her entire family was murdered decades earlier.
For Cornish, it’s a different sort of role. Though she’s been acting since the late nineties in a range of films and television shows (from an Aussie soap to the “Robocop” remake to Jane Campion’s “Bright Star”), “Lavender” is her first truly chilling, horror-centric feature, and one she pulls off thanks to her keen continuing interest in developing characters. Cornish hasn’t always snapped up every role she’s wanted, though, including “one that got away” that she still recalls fondly.
Indiewire sat down with Cornish at the festival to talk about her terrifying new film, whether she prefers indies or blockbuster and the aforementioned part that she didn’t quite snag.
This film is very different from other work you’ve done in the past.
I feel like it definitely came at a time for me where I was opening up and looking at how do I stretch myself, how do I experiment and how do I sort of take leaps in different worlds and different characters? It felt like the perfect environment to do it within, because it was still a character-driven story.
How did the filming process help you get into character? With a film as small as this one, it seems like you were probably all very immersed into it together.
Yeah, it was small. It was intimate. I enjoyed the travel time to work and back. Ed and I lived really close together, so it was kind of fun, because we would finish a shoot day, and we would hang out and watch dailies and we would talk about what we were creating. It would really help set the mood, and Brendan [Steacy] the DP would come over, and it was really collaborative and everyone liked everyone,and everyone enjoyed the process. It was quite a fun film to make, even though it is a scary movie.
What other scary movies helped get you in the mood for this?
“The Others” was a really pivotal film for us, because it had the same kind of tone, and also the lead character goes through the same journey, in the way of experiencing life, the line is blurred between what is real, and what is supernatural.
Do you think your acting process has changed over the years?
Yeah, for sure, on every job. Sometimes people ask me, “Where have you learned?” I say, “I learn. Every job is my teacher, and every film is a lesson.” I am always excited. When I finish a movie, I just want to go to another one, so I can put all those lessons into the next one.
I can’t really think of anything that is like, “Oh yeah, I learned this and that, and this and that.” You know? It is easier for me to look back 10 years ago, 11, 12. Maybe those lessons are delayed reactions, in a way.
Your career has run the gamut between indies and blockbusters. What’s your preference?
I like them both. I like mixing it up. I get a real kick out of making big movies, and it is really fun for me, and really enjoyable, and I always feel really excited and it ignites the child in me. I also love the grassroots, and the sort of instinct that comes out of making an independent film or an arthouse film. I think because I began in that way too, there is something for me that is like going home.
For a couple of years in your career, you kept popping up on short lists for big budget films, like “The Great Gatsby” and “Quantum of Solace.” Did you actually go out for any of them?
The Bond movie I didn’t go [out] for. That was, I guess, a “fudge list.” “The Great Gatsby” I did audition for, and that was amazing. I auditioned with Leonardo DiCaprio and Baz [Luhrmann] here in New York. Carey [Mulligan] is a friend of mine, so she got the role, but I remember I was so excited and happy for her, because I felt she was really right for that role. It totally made sense.
Sometimes you go for a role, and you get that phone call, “You didn’t get the role.” You are like, “Oh, who did?” They are like, “This person,” and you are like, “Well, of course they did. You know? They are perfect for the role.”
“The Great Gatsby” is true, but the other one, I didn’t go for.
Have there been any other roles that you were up and that you didn’t take or you didn’t get that you regret?
I auditioned for Alfonso Cuaron, for “Gravity,” and I flew to London, and I spent a half a day there with Chivo and Alfonso. Oh my gosh, it was so much fun, and it was so simple and stripped back.
There was no hair, and no makeup. They basically said, “Come with no hair and makeup,” and then they just did not do hair and makeup. I was like, “Is this really… ?” They were like, “No. This is the look of the film.” And I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is fun.” Instantly, I knew that this was a real movie, and this was something that would be a journey, and really simple.
All of a sudden, there I was in front of one of my favorite directors, and one of my favorite cinematographers…Just no makeup, no hair, and out in the middle of space. That, for me, is just like many ticks [checked off]. It was just a really beautiful experience, and I had such a great day with them, and it was one of those auditions where I left feeling like it was not about getting the job or not. It was about the fact that I got to have that experience with these people.
So then it was like, “You didn’t get the role.” “Who did?” “Sandra Bullock.” Oh, right. Okay. Cut. This is one of those moments where…I was so grateful I even got to do the audition.
Not every audition leaves such an impact.
Honestly, if I could get that reel, and have that to show my children, that would be my dream.
“Lavender” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.
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For more from another title in Cornish’s filmography, check out the trailer for “Bright Star” below: