The Emily Browning Story
The first thing you realise about Emily Browning is how striking she is: limpid eyes, impossibly full lips, cheekbones that bring evocative angles to life. The 20-year-old Australian actress has an ethereal beauty, an otherworldly invocation that sits outside tired contemporary standards. She has the kind of face that Renaissance masters wanted to immortalise.
The second thing you realise about Emily Browning is that she has no idea about any of this. "I'm five foot two, pale and have got big ears," she says by way of describing herself. "I'm okay with that."
Sitting quietly at a table in the lounge of a Melbourne hotel, Browning is merely happy to have escaped the sun. Outside her hometown of Melbourne is struggling through a four day summer heat wave where the January temperatures will repeatedly hit 110 degrees Fahrenheit [43 degrees Celsius]. She's enjoying the hotel's air-conditioning because it's a luxury she does not have at home, a principle she picked up from her mother. Instead Browning and her boyfriend are making do with a fan and a spray bottles full of refrigerated water. "Hillbilly air-conditioning," she says with a laugh.
It is five years since the world has seen Browning on a movie screen, when she brought to life Violet Baudelaire, one of the orphaned children whose precarious existence in the ramshackle and sinister world of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events helped create a worldwide hit in 2004. Violet was self-possessed, inventive and determined, all qualities that may also apply to Browning, who spent a year in Los Angeles making the film and then came home to finish her high school education.
Diplomas received and adulthood obtained, Browning now returns in The Uninvited, a creepy and unusually resonant horror film from debutante English directors Thomas and Charles Guard (officially the Guard Brothers, just Tom and Charlie to Browning). Adapted from the 2003 South Korean success A Tale of Two Sisters, The Uninvited is both frightening and unnerving; it makes you jump, but it also gets under your skin. You'll think about it - and Browning's crucial central performance - long after it's over.
"It's like there was almost two different stories and you're playing both of them - you're playing one with the audience, with the real story always in the back of your mind," she explains. "You need the audience not to guess, but then be able to think about what they've seen and get it. That's hard. There were times we had to pause before shooting a scene to make sure we didn't reveal something we shouldn't."
Browning plays Alex, a teenager whose life turned a corner the night her ill mother died in an explosion that destroyed the family boathouse. Traumatised by the event and yet unable to remember what she saw, Alex has been under psychiatric care since a despairing suicide attempt. After much treatment she's finally been placed in the custody of her father, Steven (David Strathairn), a successful novelist, who brings her home to a waterside house that's nominally the same.
The boathouse may have been rebuilt, but Rachel (Elizabeth Banks) has gone from nursing Alex's late mother to living with her father, a development that has already upset Alex's sister, Anna (Arielle Kebbel). Bad energy and mistrust surges through the house, a situation only exacerbated by a series of supernatural events that appear to be the work of spirits trying to communicate a burning truth to an uncertain Alex. The horror here is underpinned by an exploration of the way women relate to each other.
"On one hand there's the horrible bitchiness between the way Anna and Rachel relate, while Anna and Alex are almost creepily close," notes Browning. "It's weird. I feel like Anna is obsessed with Alex because they love each other so much."
The movie is an exceptionally cast ensemble piece. Strathairn brings with him a consummate reputation and a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for 2005's Good Night, And Good Luck, while Banks has had a slew of diverse, high-profile credits in recent years, stretching from Judd Apatow's The 40 Year Old Virgin to Oliver Stone's Presidential biopic W. Kebbel, like Browning, is a highly rated young talent, making the transition to adult parts.
"Myself and Arielle got on like a house on fire. It would have been a long four months if not. The first time we met, at an audition, we rubbed each other up the wrong way. When I first meet people I'm super quiet and nervous, whereas she's nervous and really loud. She was terrifying to me and she probably thought I wouldn't even talk to her. But in Canada we had dinner the first night and ordered the same things and just talked non-stop for three hours. I think after the while the directors and producers got worried about how close we were, because we'd rewrite lines so they felt more real to us," recalls Browning.
"I didn't get to do that many scenes with David, which is a shame because he's an amazing actor. He's such a sweet guy. He offered my boyfriend and me his car for the weekend so we could go away at one point because he thought I'd been working harder than him. David's this rad guy who's been nominated for an Oscar and he's just so normal. Elizabeth is hilarious. I didn't know how she'd do the role and she just killed it. She was so creepy, yet so likable. We were lucky to have these people."
Browning may well have been fated to do The Uninvited. At the conclusion of shooting on A Series of Unfortunate Events powerhouse producers Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald (whose numerous other joint credits include Gladiator, The Ring and Men in Black) told Browning that one day they would cast her in a horror film. They were true to their word, although at first Browning was cast as Anna, but the producers and the Guard Brothers asked her to take the central role of Alex once she'd arrived in Los Angeles to help audition potential co-stars.
Typically, when informed that she would no longer play Anna, Browning assumed she was being fired before the film even started. She has a calm acceptance of the travails involved in pursuing a career in Hollywood and does not define her life by what roles she does and does not get.
"A lot of actors make movies back to back and they like that; I would like to make one good movie every two years and read books and read my bike - and go to university - the rest of the time. There are a million other things I want to do, acting isn't the only thing," explains Browning. "If I ever felt I was getting rejected a lot and acting didn't seem to be the right choice for me, I wouldn't do it. I love doing it when I do work, but I wouldn't be absolutely devastated if it dried up.
A good part of this stems from her upbringing. Browning, who has two younger brothers, is the product of young parents who were more interested in rearing a responsible, environmentally aware than raising a child star. They were, admits a thankful daughter, the polar opposite of pushy stage parents. They were pleased that she put her acting career on hold to finish high school, although Browning herself was awfully tempted to break her exile when she read the script for Juno and fell in love it.
These days she lives in a townhouse in Carlton, a pretty, bohemian inner-city suburb just to the north of Melbourne's Victorian era meets 21st century city centre. She's an obsessive reader, currently consuming the works of Japanese master Haruki Murakami, although she worries about not having seen enough movies. Her partner is studying film, so lately she's had a crash course in zombie films. A pescetarian (a vegetarian who eats fish) her specialty dish is vegetarian chili ("very good and very cheap," she advises).
"I don't have my driver's license; I ride a bicycle my boyfriend made for me as a birthday present from the spare parts of 1960s bikes. I live in a tiny rental house. I don't care about flashiness, but I do spend money on clothes. I don't buy expensive things, but I buy so many items. And food, too. I love going out to eat and my mum taught me to always buy organic food."
Despite shooting a Hollywood blockbuster alongside Meryl Streep and Jim Carrey at the age of 14, Browning never studied drama at high school, nor has she taken an acting class. Her instincts and techniques are purely natural, ever present but not easily understood. Given her lack of ego, she's more comfortable explaining her faults than describing her strengths. She's convinced, for example, that she lacks the scream to do The Uninvited justice.
"It's my second worse thing," she insists "The only thing I'm worse at is trying to fake laughter. I don't know why - maybe I'm not a good actor! I always think I can't do it and then the moment comes and I can scream. You feel so silly and over the top when you do it, but everyone will remind you that it's an important part of a genre film."
She was game for most anything the film demanded. The Guard Brothers plotted much of the picture on her exquisite, empathetic face, shooting the kind of extended close-ups that separate the genuine actors from the mere starlets. At the same time she was free of child labour restrictions for the first time, so she put in four months worth of 16 hours days. At one stage she spent three days straight shooting a fight scene with Banks. Her revenge was to jokingly insist that she had more experience than the filmmakers. "Well, boys," she would declare, "this is how we did it on my other films…"
The Guard Brothers took it in good spirit. "We hung out together constantly," recalls Browning. "Off-set Charlie, who is younger, was a bit louder. But when they were on set it was as if they thought exactly the same thing, so you had one person but it was just more efficient with two of them. One of them might be looking at the shot on the monitor while the other one would be talking to me."
She's not sure what comes next. "I'm in a transition phase," she says, quite happy to have no pre-determined destination. A teenage interest in psychology waned because she didn't have the mat and science skills required to pursue it. Browning is convinced she has dyscalculia, a form of dyslexia involving numbers. She could read at age three, but couldn't tell the time until she was 16. When Browning tells these self-deprecating stories she makes you laugh out loud and then joins in.
Her interests will eventually take her to university, where she'd like to pursue literature, philosophy, women's studies and, given her predilection for scouring second hand stores looking for vintage bargains, fashion. Browning supports her hometown designers - she may intern with one to gain design experience - and would be flattered to make Worst Dressed lists.
"I love the idea of doing more films so that I can wear things afterwards that freak people out and disagree with the trends," she enthuses. "I'd love to have the fashion reputation of a Chloe Sevigny."
Hollywood, however, will not be going away. But then Browning will not be easily swayed. After she finished shooting The Uninvited she was asked to audition for Twilight, the supernatural adaptation that would go on to become a phenomenon. Author Stephenie Meyer, had previously nominated Browning as the ideal choice to play her heroine Bella after seeing A Series of Unfortunate Events.
"I was pretty much ready to do the first one, but you had to sign on to do all three and I couldn't do it," says Browning without a trace of regret. "Some people can handle that, but I couldn't. I was in the city recently and I saw a big billboard for it and a friend of a friend said, 'That could have been you'. I was so glad that it was not."The Emily Browning Story - www.femail.com.au/emily-browning.htm
Emily Browning The Uninvited Interview 1 - wwww.femail.com.au/emily-browning-the-uninvited-interview.htm
Emily Browning The Uninvited Interview 2 - www.femail.com.au/emily-browning-the-uninvited-interview2.htm