CS Interview: Essie Davis on True History of the Kelly Gang
ComingSoon.net got the opportunity to chat with Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and The Babadook star Essie Davis to discuss her role in the upcoming western historical fiction film True History of the Kelly Gang, in which she stars alongside George MacKay (1917) in the titular role. Click here to rent True History of the Kelly Gang on VOD!
Based on the 2000 novel of the same name by Peter Carey, the film tells the story of legendary outlaw Ned Kelly (Mackay) as he leads a band of rebel warriors to wreak havoc on their oppressors in this gritty and veracious western thriller.
Mackay, who led the Oscar-nominated war epic 1917, is leading an ensemble cast that includes Oscar winner Russell Crowe (Gladiator), Nicholas Hoult (Dark Phoenix), Davis, Sean Keenan (Puberty Blues), Jacob Collins-Levy (The White Princess), Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit), Charlie Hunnam (The Irishman) and Claudia Karvan (Newton’s Law).
Justin Kurzel (Snowtown, Macbeth, Assassin’s Creed) has been developing the script for four years, starting shortly after completion on the adaptation of the Ubisoft game franchise, and is directing on a script from Berlin Syndrome‘s Shaun Grant.
Davis looks back and recalls how adapting Carey’s novel “became such a passion project” for Kurzel, her husband in real life, who was feeling homesick and looking for something “that reconnected him to home” and that her joining the film stemmed from a desire on both of their parts to “work together on something really meaty and unusual and fantastic.”
“The whole time he was reading Peter Carey’s novel, he was like, ‘There’s a great role for you in this, there’s a great role for you in this!'” Davis warmly recalled. “Ned Kelly is such an icon of the people of Australia that Peter Carey’s novel sort of peels that back out of the clutches of how people feel and goes, ‘This is a young man who died at the age of 25 with a bunch of teenagers who were trying to fight for their own equality and rights.’ It was the nature of the great writing and of Peter Carey’s story along with the opportunity to work with Justin, who is one of the greatest directors I’ve ever worked with, that attracted me to the role; he has an amazing way of working and it was great to be a part of the incredible cast.”
In the film, Davis starred as Ellen Kelly, mother to the iconic bushranger played by MacKay and she found that in developing that connection with him, she learned the 28-year-old star is a “gorgeous, beautiful, kind and dedicated person and actor” and revealed that he came to live with herself and Kurzel in Australia prior to the start of filming in order to help prepare.
“Justin has this wonderful way of working with each actor. He gives each actor a manifesto of things to learn and read and and watch and try and emulate and music that you have to listen to,” Davis explained. “One of the things George had to do originally was learn how to chop wood and ride horses. He came to Australia and stayed with us before filming and each of us went through our manifestos with Justin to become our characters who are strong, lean and mean, but filled with a deep love for one another. It was actually great that we held each other’s hands as we ventured into the film, he’s a wonderful actor and what we brought together and what each member of that ensemble brought to it is quite extraordinary.”
Kurzel spoke in our previous interview about his desire to highlight a number of unfilmed and untapped areas of Australia that have rarely been shared in the popular culture for global audiences and in getting to explore some of these areas for filming, Davis found it to be an “amazing” experience.
“We were very fortunate that the aboriginal community let us film in Winton Wetlands and we were given profound welcome to the country,” Davis described. “It’s an extraordinary landscape, with trees that had drowned and it was quite desolate from the floods and rain; we’re not talking waist-deep flooding, but ankle-deep, walking through mud and rain into the Kelly House. The terrain was filled with cockatoos who made this screeching Australian sound that definitely became a part of the soundscape of the film because they just take everything. They’re tearing the trees apart and they’re getting everything they can from them. After the devastation of bushfires in a place that was rebuilding but still in extreme weather, it was really wonderful to show that Australia is not all beaches and desert, it’s a very diverse and magnificent landscape and I think that world is amazing to see in this film. Beautifully shot as well by Ari Wegner.”
Having grown up in the island state of Australia, Tasmania, Davis looks back brightly at her time in primary school in which she and her fellow classmates would learn about the time period of the bushrangers, which she was “pretty sure must have been the teacher’s favorite subject” as when they came around to it, their reaction was “Oh now we get to teach about something cool, the Australian bushrangers!”
“There were many of them and Ned Kelly was probably the most notable internationally because of his helmet and armor that he made,” Davis noted. “It’s quite interesting that that Robin Hood, outlaw image is spoken of so passionately and excitedly when the facts show he is a criminal and a killer. That kind of celebration of the bad guy was sort of a big part of primary school in Australia and as a single being, he and his helmet been interpreted to mean whatever someone wants them to mean and a symbol of Australia, much like the kangaroo, or the Sydney opera house or Harbour Bridge. The name of Ned Kelly is used as an icon for Australia, whether it’s on a beer or a barbecue set, it could mean anything for anyone. What I love about Peter Carey’s novel and this film is that it’s taking back that iconography and going ‘Hang on a minute, this is a young man who died and was hung at the age of 25 and what he went through and who he was is surely his own story to tell.’ He has been interpreted by so many people to mean what they want him to mean.”
In addition to seeing the premiere of True History of the Kelly Gang this week, Davis is reprising one of her iconic roles in the upcoming mystery adventure film, Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears, which she found “so much fun” getting to tackle, especially given its fan-backed funding through Kickstarter.
“That was great fun. We got to film that in Morocco, in the Sahara desert where they filmed The English Patient and the outdoor sets where Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven was filmed,” Davis excitedly described. “We had such an incredible time bringing that to the big screen. We were just about to launch that in America when the virus also shut down all the theaters, so hopefully people can have that big international escapist romp with romance, action adventure and murder mystery for the joyous escapism. It’s an appropriate time for it.”
Despite having starred in the blockbuster fan favorite Matrix sequels and 2006’s live-action adaptation of E.B. White’s iconic children’s novel Charlotte’s Web, most international audiences first learned of Davis with her lead role in the acclaimed 2014 horror drama The Babadook, with the actress loving “that it has such a wide and ever-growing audience,” even if she feels a little different about its genre placing.
“I think it’s a great movie and I’m extremely proud of it. The director, Jennifer [Kent], is one of my dearest friends, and I’m deeply proud of the work that I give in it as well,” Davis said. “What I didn’t realize, of course, is that it’s not only a great film, it’s a really good horror film. It has an annual life that comes around Halloween that I didn’t realize, I guess films associated with a specific time of year get rewatched and offered up much more frequently than a film that has no objective season attached to it. That in itself is amazing, but I also think it’s not what I would even call a horror film. I feel like it’s a film that explores mental health and grief and repressing your feelings and parenthood and isolation and lack of support and living, learning to live in control with the worst side of yourself. Acknowledging that it’s there and living with yourself, I think it’s a beautiful film and hopefully it’ll continue to grow amongst audiences.”
True History of the Kelly Gang is now available on VOD!