“The director suggested I learn to meditate, which became second nature after a while. I just learned to shut off,” is how Emily Browning got through what have got to be some of the most gruelling scenes demanded of a young actress.
In director Julia Leigh’s modern-day reworking of Sleeping Beauty, Browning’s character Lucy is put heavily to sleep in a bed where she is visited by a catalogue of sad, lonely men under the supervision of the beady-eyed Clara. Although Lucy is unable to remember anything of her time in the room, she becomes obsessed with discovering what happens to her.
It is an intensely lonely part – was it as lonely to film?
“Filming was actually the first time I’d lived alone,” remembers Browning (familiar to audiences of Sucker Punch, Lemony Snicket). “My family and friends were far away, so I did turn into a bit of a recluse. And I wasn’t allowed any sun to keep my skin pale for the role, so I’d go for a swim in the ocean before dark, so it all got me into a dark, solitary place… kind of relaxing in a strange way.”
This combination of gruelling production and off-set solitude sounds disturbing for a young Aussie girl, whose mature approach belies her youth – no doubt because she’s been working since she was eight – but she seems relaxed enough.
“I was able to switch off after filming – go home and read a book, sit down and relax,” she explains. “For me it would be unhealthy to be a method actor, I’m not mentally stable enough for that, I need to separate my two worlds. And the crew were great in supporting me. One particularly gruelling scene, I got in the car afterwards, and a big basket of food and chocolate was waiting for me, so that all made it much, much easier.”
All of which must lead to the question – why take on such a grim, dark, potentially disturbing role in the first place?
“The script was one of the best scripts I’ve ever read,” remembers Browning. “From the first scene, it gave me a panic attack, which I thought was a good thing. I’ve worked since I was a child, and I used to do it just for fun, and now it’s important to see how far I can stretch and challenge myself.”
Plus, it gave Browning the chance to work with Jane Campion, heroine of the independent film scene, Sleeping Beauty executive producer and somebody by whom the young actress was prepared to be intimidated.
“I kind of assumed that because she’s such a legend and seems so intelligent, she wouldn’t be very welcoming,” reflects Browning. “But she’s really lovely. I only met her once before we started filming, she sent flowers on my first day and she was with us all through Cannes, where she was my rock.
“And afterwards, she wrote me a letter telling me how much she loved it, and after that, I didn’t care what anyone else thought of it, because Jane Campion was happy with me.”
Like her mentor, Browning has made the commercially brave decision to avoid the big bucks of blockbusters in favour of solely independent film-work – “which does mean I’m often out of work with very little cash. But it would be soul-destroying just to be working for money. When you act, you really have to give all of yourself, and if you’re doing that purely for money, it’s not healthy. So I’ve had to learn to keep myself occupied in other ways.”
Deciding to make only independent films is undoubtedly a tricky exercise, involving lots of crossed fingers and waiting by the phone. Two projects are currently in the pipeline for Browning, one of which is a screwball comedy, which even she admits “might be good for me after all this serious business”.