Radha Mitchell Melinda and Melinda

Radha Mitchell Melinda and Melinda
Radha Mitchell/Melinda and Melinda Interview by Paul Fischer in New York.

Radha Mitchell is appropriately glamorous as we meet in a large, New Yorkhotel room in which she is spreading the news about her starring role inWoody Allen's latest comedy/drama, Melinda and Melinda. While Allen evenadmits having been unfamiliar with Mitchell's work prior to casting her, theAussie actress says she was somewhat surprised when the veteran directorliterally gave her the call to star in his latest film. "It was a littlerandom. I mean normally you have your agent call the other agent, and allthe agents talk and then finally you get a phone call and you hear somemisrepresentation of what someone else had to say," Mitchell says,laughingly.

Allen's latest film combines romantic comedy and drama in a waythat Woody Allen, unique among filmmakers, likes to contrast, with twoalternating stories about Melinda's (Mitchell) attempts to straighten outher life. "I don't know how he got my cell phone number, but he had it andmy phone was ringing," Mitchell recalls. "I had just come back fromAustralia on the plane and I thought it was my mum and it was Woody Allenjust checking to see if I wanted to be in his movie." It was an offer theyoung actress couldn't refuse but had little time to decide. "I was given anhour to read the script at some point, which was delivered and I wasn'tallowed to tell anybody what it was about."

What was unique for the actress, was the opportunity to give the samecharacter a both a tragic and comic twist. She admits that that she foundthe former, more of a challenge, at least initially. "Both were interesting,but I was actually sort of judging the tragic side for a while. It took mea while to connect to it because it seemed a little farfetched andridiculous to me and I just thought 'Ah, come on, get over yourself'. That'san interesting tone to the piece because there's definitely a cynical kindof humour that runs through there," Mitchell explains. "Here's somebody whojust got out of a mental asylum who killed somebody and tries to killherself, which seems a little farfetched. But in playing it really straightI think it develops its own kind of weird humour, and that was somethingthat Woody was really conscious of, that this had to be completely kind oflike a sober, straight performance." Radha says that "unfortunately" forher, she can relate to both Melindas in Woody's complex tragi-comedy. "And Ithink we all do and I think New York in a way functions as another characterwithin the story, as it does within most of Woody Allen's stories. Thiscity does have an affect on the people who live in it, and after a while youdo find yourself ranting on and talking about yourself, a lot, and you feelinsecure. I don't know why that is but I think it is part of theexperience."

Actors who have worked with Woody Allen have described his approach as beingrelatively unorthodox, rarely giving too much insight into an actor'sperformance. Mitchell pauses when asked for her description of Allen'sdirectorial approach, breaking into laughter. "It's a hands-off approach,"she begins. "There's not a lot of rehearsal so you kind of arrive on set anddo your thing. For the first week I don't think he said anything to anybodybut just kind of let them say their lines, so we all thought we were gonnabe fired, especially me," she says, laughingly. "That was just sort of hisway of creating the tension and anxiety that you often see depicted in hisfilms; I mean he just takes the piss out of that, but has to create itfirst and then when everybody is more familiar with what they're doing. Westarted to talk about what we were doing and he would always give me a veryspecific direction which was just 'say the lines' which I actually think isa really good direction. I would try to keep that in mind next time."

In a relatively short time, Radha Mitchell has emerged as another shiningAussie export, appearing in diverse films from Hollywood's mainstream,through to independent. An Australian actress who began performingprofessionally while still in high school, Mitchell got her start in theAustralian TV series "Sugar and Spice" and followed up with credits in thepopular soap opera, "Neighbours" as well as other TV productions including"Blue Heelers", "Phoenix", "GP" and "The Flying Doctors". Mitchell alsoplayed the leading role in the Australian stage production, "Desire" The actress enjoyed a major career breakthrough when she made her featuredebut in Emma-Kate Croghan's engaging romantic comedy, "Love and OtherCatastrophes" (1996), playing Danni. Mitchell's follow-up film and US debut,Lisa Cholodenko's "High Art" (1998), was a different, much more dramaticfilm. After a turn as a house guest who won't leave in the Indie"Cleopatra's Second Husband" (also 1998), Mitchell moved more intomainstream fare with the science-fiction horror of "Pitch Black" (2000), thethriller "Phone Booth" (2003) and as Dakota Fanning's mother in "Man onFire" (2004), and more recently acquired her best role yet in "FindingNeverland" (2004) as the disconnected, alienated wife of "Peter Pan" creatorJ.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp). Meanwhile the actress wrote, directed and starredin her own labour of love, the Indie "Four Reasons" (2002).

Mitchell will next be seen in another Indie, which she describes as acomedy, Mozart and the Whale. "Josh Hartnett and I play two people who areautistic, fall in love and then struggle."

As to whether she plans to return to work in her native Australia any timesoon, Mitchell says that is a distinct possibility. "I might be doing amovie in Australia in the next month or two", but won't reveal more thanthat. "I have the offer but I'm not sure who the rest of the cast is goingto be at this point or anything like that."

Mitchell has survived the highs and lows of a Hollywood career, and saysthat since breaking out in this town, her perceptions of Hollywood havechanged. "I'm much more cynical than I used to be," she says, amidst pealsof laughter. "Doing Melinda, I was just appreciating somebody like WillFerrell who is very much about just the teamwork and the work. So you dohave people who sort of blow up, are big and are still very grounded, andthen you have people that don't - so what do you make of that, I don'tknow." Asked what keeps her grounded, Mitchell merely quips "I drink carrotjuice." But she further admits that on occasion, being Australian helps togive her a sense of humour about Hollywood. "Sometimes it seems veryserious. For instance, I was just at the Oscars going to all the parties andeverything in L.A. and I was standing outside the Four Seasons cause I'd hada meeting there and there was this woman on this cell phone screaming like,'Oh, my God, you saved my life. Thank you, thank you', and you could hearall these people muttering 'what happened, what happened', and we'rethinking like she had a kidney transplant, something really important wasgoing on. Then I heard her say, 'Oh, my God, you really got me off the hook,I got the tickets', and it was somebody's publicist," recalls the actress,laughingly. "There's a complete kind of commitment to the idea that theparties are important, that the photograph is incredibly important, that thedress is important; and I guess on a certain level it is. After all it'smarketing, someone is making money out of it, but beyond that I'm not sureof its significance, and it seems kind of sad if that's its onlysignificance."

Now that Mitchell has the lead role in a Woody Allen film, she can afford tobask in her success and begin turning down the wife roles that come her waymore often than not. "I definitely don't like the wife roles and I thinkthey should just be written out of movies, but hey seem to continue to writethem and sometimes you just have to do them because that's all that's goingon. However I'd hope that this would lead to less wife roles in thefuture."

Asked finally whether she believes, as Woody Allen suggests, life to be acomedy or a tragedy, Radha merely smiles, adopts a deep Eastern Europeanaccent, and drolly exclaims: "Life is neither comedy or tragedy; life iswhat you make it. That's it!"