The indie drama The Girl features Australian actress Abbie Cornish in a tragic, heartfelt and ultimately hopeful performance as Ashley Colton, a single mother in Texas who is struggling with the loss of her son to Social Services. When her path collides with a young girl from Mexico, she finds herself in the middle of a life-changing journey that forces her to confront and deal with the cycle of her past.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, Abbie Cornish talked about how she came to be a part of this film, how easy she found this character to relate to, learning to speak with a Texas accent and in fluent Spanish (for which she had three months of lessons), how quickly she bonded with the young actress who plays Rosa (Maritza Santiago Hernandez), how intense the entire experience was, and the way she thinks things might have turned out for her character. She also talked about how fun the experience of making the RoboCop remake was, told a funny story about co-star Gary Oldman in the airport, what it was like to work with paparazzi trying to get photos, how she hopes to shoot Fellini Black and White (about Federico Fellini) next, and what her dream role would be. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
ABBIE CORNISH: I think someone else was attached to the project originally, and then that didn’t happen, so the role was open. (Writer/director) David Riker wanted to cast me in the role, and he met with me and we got along really well. It just clicked. It was one of those meetings where you get 20 minutes in and I was thinking, “Oh gosh, this is perfect! I really hope he casts me in this role.” We got half way through the meeting and it felt really, really right. I was already invested, but after meeting him, I was like, “I really hope he offers me this role!” And then, he did and it went from there. But, it was an interesting experience ‘cause it came off the back end of W.E. I had a little break, and then went into this, and it was like night and day. I went to Mexico and spent three and a half months there, in little villages and sleeping in cabins. Something about the experience was a little bit beyond just being an actor in a movie.
With this character being so different from you, was it difficult to find ways to relate to her?
CORNISH: I found her easy to relate to. When you research that world and speak to women that lived a little bit like this and speak to young mothers who are in similar circumstances, it starts to build. It’s interesting to develop a character, in that way. There are so many different ways to develop a character – physically, mentally, spiritually and all of that – but the research was really beautiful. I love the process of finding a characters because, in the beginning, it’s really unknown, and then, by the end of it, all of a sudden, you’re walking and talking like that character. It’s very strange. So, there were things that I could relate to, from my personal experiences, and then also some things I had to conjure up. But, she’s a very distinct character, so I really had to go there to play her. I don’t know if that makes it easier or harder, but it felt like it was a nice leap. She felt different to me. She definitely consumed my life, for a few months. I didn’t have a social life, or anything like that, but I enjoyed that.
CORNISH: It was definitely a challenge, but everything about it was so beautiful. The experience was just so amazing. I have to admit, my Spanish has become so bad. I haven’t kept it up. If I talk to friends of mine that speak Spanish, I realize that it just gets worse and worse, every week. I’ve really got to get back into it. But, learning another language for a moment was a dream. The subject matter of the film and just spending time in Mexico was a life changing experience.
Because you had to do the Texas accent and speak in Spanish, was that something you always kept up, throughout the shoot?
CORNISH: I was lucky that I was forced to practice the Spanish, just because we were sometimes in villages that were quite remote and, in some of those villages, people don’t speak English, at all. The only way I could communicate was to speak Spanish. Some days, if I was really tired, my brain [just wouldn’t work]. My security guy while I was there, who also became one of my best buddies, looks after Gael Garcia Bernal, and he’s the sweetest, loveliest guy, would go running with me. Wherever we were in Mexico, we would go and find a local football field or even just a big piece of land that we could run around in. It was always funny because we’d go find places and, if it was a half-decent running track, we’d be [excited]. Other times, we’d be jumping rocks and ditches. It was just crazy. We formed a really close bond, so I tried to speak with him in Spanish, but sometimes I was just so burnt out. I would be like, “Man, I know I should be speaking in Spanish right now, but is it cool if we speak in English?” I was lucky because I had both of my dialect coaches there, and it became fun. It wasn’t work anymore. We’d just walk around, talking to each other [with the Texas accent]. And then, all of a sudden, you can’t talk to each other normally. But, it’s all fun. It’s all just a game. It’s a lot of hard work, though. I definitely put in hours and hours of work, but I had a lot of fun doing it.
CORNISH: I had about three months of Spanish lessons, just with a Spanish teacher and not a dialect coach, about four times a week. And then, when I got to Mexico, in the three weeks leading up to the shoot, I did quite an intensive amount of time with a Spanish dialect coach, which really took it to another level. The biggest thing was whether I was meant to speak Spanish with a Texan accent and what that would sound like. Her Spanish was learned off the street, so it was actually with a Mexican accent, but we had to find the same tone. That was a bit of work. It was fun, though. It felt like something I could never relax on. I felt like something was always chasing me. The first day on set, as soon as I got it out of the way, I was good, and then I relaxed a little bit. But, I knew it was the biggest thing that I had to get right, and that I could fail, if I didn’t get that stuff right.
This is a very specific story, but it also feels very relatable because this woman’s story is probably not all that dissimilar from women living in places like this. Was it emotionally draining to live in that mind-set while you were shooting this?
CORNISH: Maybe it was. I don’t know. What I can tell you about the experience is that it was incredibly intense. I was totally consumed by it. I never rested, ever. We had a few nights where we really enjoyed ourselves, but I never rested. I was in a strange place and sleep felt very methodical, but I remember that I would dream a lot because my brain was very over-active. There was no internet for me, no friends and no family, and no social life. It was just work, work, work. But, it was so fulfilling.
CORNISH: Yeah, we bonded really quickly, actually. David wanted us to bond and we were kind of concerned about that. But, by day two, we were running around, holding hands. It happened, really, really fast, and I guess that’s good casting, on his part. He chose the right people and got it right. I just adored her. Even when I think about it now, I do feel a little bit emotional because she’s not here and she’s not around. She came from a very specific way of life. She’s not an actor. She came from a very low income family. The first time she had ever slept in a bed with sheets and stuff was when we were in rehearsals, and the first time she went in an elevator was when we were in rehearsals. She wanted these pink converse that went all the way to her knees, and she got those. It was really special. I just adore her. We had scenes together where we cried together, and to cry with a nine-year-old child was just so intense.
Did you give any thought about what might have happened to your character, once the movie ends? Living in her skin, did you ever wonder about whether she did or could have ever gotten her child back?
CORNISH: In real life, I’m pretty much an eternal optimist. In my version of the story, she gets her son back, she gets a good job, she gets out of the trailer park, she turns her life around and she breaks the mold. It’s funny, I totally had the golden ending. I had the perfect Hollywood ending for her. I got really affected by the stories, in real life. I love people who really turn their lives around. I think it’s such a wonderful human trait. I love it when I meet a woman who was poor as a child and maybe had an abusive family, and broke out and found the one and they’re married with a very healthy home and children, and they’ve let go of regret and their past and decided to embrace their journey and what that stands for. I’m so moved by those people, in my life. In that regard, that’s what I had in my mind, while making this story. I’m telling a lot of other people’s stories, that I’ve met in my life. For lack of a better way of describing it, they’ve gone from the dark and into the light. I was like, “Gosh, I so want to tell that story. I really want to be a vehicle for that.”
CORNISH: To be honest, I enjoy all different types of films and experiences. RoboCop has been so much fun. The people are great. The cast and crew are great, and I’ve met some incredible people. I’ve had a great time with Joel Kinnaman, and I adore Gary Oldman. I would adopt him, just to be a part of my family. He is an absolute gem, that man. He is hilarious! I’ve had so many moments with him because, a lot of the time, we’d travel back to L.A. together. We’re at airports and on planes together a lot. One night, we shot until 5 a.m., and then we both had 20 minutes to get our bags and head to the airport to get on the 8 a.m. flight. He is the funniest guy! I had my kitten with me, and it was quarter past six in the morning and we both hadn’t slept for 24 hours. You have to weight the carrier, so that they know how much the cat weighs. We checked in together and [the lady] was like, “Can you put the cat on the scale, please?” So, he put the cat on the scale and she said the weight, and he went, “Oh, my gosh, she’s put on weight!” At quarter past six in the morning, to have Gary Oldman like that was just so classic. The guy is just so funny. His comedic timing is incredible. He always makes me laugh. And he’s one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with, for sure. And I think (director) José Padilha is a genius. He’s the reason why the movie is going to be really good. He’s the one that’s going to make the movie great.
Is it weird to make a film like RoboCop and have paparazzi all over, trying to get a shot of the suit?
CORNISH: It’s funny, you’d actually be amazed that it was only really like that once or twice. The rest of the time, we were in a ghost town. I actually thought it would be a lot worse. It had nothing to do with myself. It was just because it’s RoboCop, with the suit and all of that. It was just that first week. Once they got the pictures of the suit, no one really cared. There wasn’t really anything else to get. There were no scoops. It was just a bunch of actors making a movie with a really great crew. There wasn’t anything else for them to photograph.
CORNISH: Now, for sure, I’m open-minded. In my late teens and early 20’s, I didn’t really have much of an idea, in regards to that sort of stuff. I grew up on a farm, not watching television or movies, really. I watched foreign films and short films, and I always loved movies, but I just grew up on 170 acres and it was a different life. So, I grew up a little bit unknowledgeable about film and television, and all of that stuff. It’s taken me awhile to really broaden out my vision and broaden out my idea about what I want to do, as an actor in the industry. To be honest, it’s really only come to fruition for me in the last few years. Before then, all my choices were entirely based on instinct, character, story and director. RoboCop is different because I grew up on RoboCop. It’s a very nostalgic film for me and brings out the kid in me because I remember it. I watched it a lot. My brother loves it, and all my friends love it. Maybe eight years ago, I would have just gone, “Oh, I’m not going to do that.” I was in a different place, creatively. Somewhere, I felt like I needed to develop a career as an actor and not as a movie star. I wasn’t interested in fame or fortune. I was interested in being an actor and being creative. I was very adamant about that. It’s different now. RoboCop has absolutely been one of the best experiences I’ve had on a film, which has broadened my perspective, as well. I gave something new a go and got to be Mrs. RoboCop. It was a little bit like a kid in a candy store. It’s been amazing! It’s really opened a lot of doors for me, personally, and that’s cool. I gave it a chance, and it was well worth it, for sure.
CORNISH: At the moment, there are a couple things on the table, but nothing is totally set. We’re hoping that Fellini Black and White is going to go. Wagner Moura is going to play Fellini. Wagner Moura was actually in Elite Squad, which is José Padilha’s film. We’re meant to do a film together, hopefully in the first half of next year, about Federico Fellini, and it’s a really great film. Henry Bromell is directing that, and the characters are just awesome. It’s such good material, as an actor. I’m definitely attached to that, it just depends on when it goes. And there’s a couple other things floating, but I won’t mention them because they’re not really set yet.
Is there a type of role that you would love to do, if given the opportunity?
CORNISH: Oh, gosh! You know what I’d really love? Martin McDonagh, who directed Seven Psychopaths, feels like he’s written one of the best female roles in the last couple of decades. It’s for an older actress to play, but he’s 100% certain that it’s one of the best female roles, ever. And I would love to play one of those roles that, in a way, mirrors some of the great male roles that we’ve seen in history. A female’s career as an actor is very different from a male’s career as an actor. That’s just the way it is. So, I’m fascinated by really strong male careers that have inspired me, and also really incredible male roles. For example, look at a couple of the roles in The Godfather. Could you imagine getting to play those roles? That’s insane! It’s an abstract way to answer your question, but I would love to have that role come my way where I feel like it’s almost as though gender has been thrown out of the water and it transcends the idea of a male part or a female part because it’s just a great part. I think I’ve been lucky, getting to play Fanny Brawne in Bright Star and playing these amazing roles in amazing movies, but that’s what I would say.
The Girl opens on December 14th for a one-week, awards-qualifying engagement, followed by a full theatrical release in March 2013.