Reaching for the Moon tells the tale of an unlikely romance between two extraordinary artists, legendary American poet Elizabeth Bishop (Miranda Otto) and architect Lota de Macedo Soares (Gloria Pines). Hoping to find inspiration, Bishop travels from New York City to Rio de Janeiro, where she finds herself in a tempestuous relationship that spans decades and forever impacts the life and work of both women.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, actress Miranda Otto, who gives a beautifully complex and layered performance as Elizabeth Bishop, talked about how she received an offer for the role via email, what made her want to play this woman, how Bishop’s poetry helped give her insight and an understanding of her she was, and why she needed time to decompress after doing this role. She also talked about working with Tommy Lee Jones, as both an actor and a director, on The Homesman, what attracted her to I, Frankenstein, her role in the new Fox TV series Rake, starring Greg Kinnear, her involvement with the Locke & Key pilot, and her desire not to be pigeon-holed. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
MIRANDA OTTO: This was an email. I was in Australia, working on the movie I, Frankenstein. I was getting close to finishing that, and then on a Saturday morning, I got this email in Melbourne saying, “Here’s a script. This is an offer. You have to make a decision by Monday. It’s shooting in Rio and New York. Read it by Monday.” So, I read it that weekend, not really knowing anything about anything, but being extremely fascinated. I just loved the script. I didn’t know Elizabeth Bishop. I didn’t know Lota de Macedo Soares. I didn’t know any of the story. I found it really fascinating. And then, I kept wondering if my agent had accidentally sent it to the wrong person. This is such a good role. Those roles usually get snapped up as quickly as possible. I didn’t know how I received the role in an email on a Saturday morning. I just got really lucky.
Is this one of those types of roles that, as an actor, you’re always waiting to get to sink your teeth into?
OTTO: Absolutely! As an actor, I would call it a role where you get to stretch out a bit. There are a lot of things where you think, “Yeah, that’s something I can do.” But when I took this one on, I thought, “I don’t know. I think I can do this.” It was frightening and challenging. It was such a last-minute thing. I basically had to go within a week. And then, when I was there, we had three weeks to read through the script. It was sort of rehearsal, but it was more about them working on the script and anything they wanted to change, and there were wardrobe fittings and hair and make-up tests. It was a very quick turn-around. I usually try to get a lot more time than that to prep for something. There were a lot of challenges to be taken on really quickly, but at the same time, it’s just so exciting to get a role like that where there are just so many different things you get to try. There was the accent, the aging from earlier to later, the whole relationship, which was interesting and challenging, the idea of trying to bring a poet to the screen, which is not always easy, dealing with the reading of the poetry and understanding who she was, as a poet, and the fact that you’re dealing with real characters and trying to read as much as possible about them to know them.
OTTO: I thought the lady who did my make-up and the one who did my hair were fantastic. The talent of the people in Brazil was extraordinary. I thought all of the hair and make-up was really fantastic. The aesthetic there is really something to behold. They just have such a great sense of taste.
Did reading her poetry give you any insight or understanding of who she was and help you portray her?
OTTO: Yes, it did. The best thing that I read, in terms of trying to find out more about her from people who knew her, was the book Remembering Elizabeth Bishop: An Oral History, which was basically people from all different periods in her life. It started with her childhood, and then it was her school years, and then her high school years, and then Vassar, and then New York, and then Key West, and then back to New York, and all these different periods with various different people that had known her. All of these people had been interviewed and this book had been put together over a very long period of time. They all had such different opinions of her and told such different stories, as would happen with anybody. It was a really incredibly multi-faceted view of her that was really helpful. But, the poetry itself was really helpful. As much as she was someone who was very private and she didn’t believe that you should air your dirty linen in public, and she didn’t, a lot of her personality does seep through her poetry, in very little, subtle ways. You can sense her great love of travel and her love of nature and her ability to take a very small idea, and pull that into a very profound idea about the world or human nature.
OTTO: Oh, I love that! Writers would hate me saying this, and I love words, but I have to say that cinema exists, on one level, for the power of the big image and what that image does. You do remember things that people say in movies. You remember particular lines and things that are funny. But, you also remember really strong images. Images have a way of bypassing your brain and hitting you emotionally. There are so many things from movies that are remembered, that are just looks on people’s faces or incredible vistas or beautiful pictures. That is a very important part of cinema. There was a film in Australia, a few years ago, called Samson & Delilah, and there was very little dialogue in it, but it was so powerful with just these huge close-ups of these two young people. It was amazing how much was said without words.
When you do a movie like this, that seems like it would be completely immersive, do you look for the next project right away, to pull yourself out of one and throw yourself into another, or do you need time to decompress before you focus on the next thing?
OTTO: I really needed time to decompress after this one ‘cause I really got kind of sick when I was in Brazil, toward the end of it, and I needed some time to recover for that. It was quite intense. We were working six-day weeks. They had a very short pre-production. They went into production because of Gloria Pires’ availability. They’d been talking about making the movie with Gloria for 17 years, and there was a window there to do it in. That meant that, when we were shooting, there were still a lot of things that were coming together. You’d be asking, “Where are we shooting that scene tomorrow?,” and they’d be like, “Well, we’re still working on that.” But somehow, they always seemed to manage to work it out. For a lot of it, they were trying to piece it together a bit, as we went. If you don’t seize that opportunity, then you can lose it. It’s tricky. Ideally, you’d like more time, but you have to seize it, or it will just never happen.
OTTO: He was terrific. He was fascinating to work with. I’d never worked with an actor who’s directing, at the same time. That was a first for me. He’s an amazing actor. I would watch him directing, and then they would just roll the camera and there was no moment between directing and acting. It was a seamless thing, where he didn’t seem to have to work himself into anything or do anything. He has such an incredible natural quality. I look at him in films and he’s so dynamic, and yet he doesn’t take five minutes to think himself into it. He’s just right there. I found it astounding, to be able to wear both those hats and transition between them so effortlessly. It’s a great story. I think it will be a really wonderful film. And the relationship between Tommy and Hilary [Swank] is terrific. Hilary is really wonderful. You couldn’t think of a better person for that part than her. She put all of herself into it. She really did.
What attracted you to I, Frankenstein?
OTTO: I thought it was a really fun idea. I liked the idea of playing this powerful woman who is the head of all the gargoyles. I really admire Stuart [Beattie], as a writer, and he was a gorgeous director to work with. I do like to keep it different. I hate being pigeon-holed into anything. To me, the best thing is when the next job comes and is completely different to the one that I just had.
Has it been hard to achieve that, or has it come surprisingly easy, as far as people not really seeing you as any one specific thing?
OTTO: I haven’t found it too hard. There have been periods where there haven’t been as interesting things. And you certainly go through different transitions at different ages, and there are different types of roles in each age bracket. I think sometimes people haven’t really quite worked out how to peg me, or exactly what it is that I do. In that way, I feel lucky that I can get to play different things still because they haven’t quite decided what I am.
I have to tell you that I absolutely loved the Locke & Key pilot that you were in, and was so upset when the show didn’t get picked up to series.
OTTO: Oh, my god, why didn’t that pilot get picked up?! People ask me, “Why didn’t that pilot get picked up?” People have even said to me that the standard of the pilot was too good and the network was worried that they wouldn’t be able to reach that bar, every week, because it was quite a conceptual show. One rumor I heard was that they were concerned they couldn’t make it look that good. But, it was only going to be 13 episodes. It was going to be a summer show. When I signed on, that was the idea of what it as gonna be. We took real time to shoot that pilot and we had a really good director (Mark Romanek). It looked like a movie. We were shooting on the Alexa camera and it was getting dark because it was the middle of winter and it was snowing everywhere. There was no light in this big room, and I thought it would be at least half an hour before we were shooting the scene because they would have to light it. They said, “Picture’s up,” and I said, “What?! It’s so dark in here.” And then, I looked at the monitor and it looked like the most beautiful movie you’d ever seen. That camera was amazing. They did such a great job on it that it was such a shame. I thought, “Why can’t they shoot some more and make it into a movie?”
And now they are working on making it into a movie.
OTTO: It’s a great idea. The books are amazing. And maybe, in some ways, it is more a film than a TV show, just conceptually, with doing things like taking memories out of people’s heads. You really need a lot of time to art direct that and get the special effects done to work out exactly how you’re going to bring something that is so strongly told in the books. So, I wish them luck.
You’re also in the TV series Rake for Fox, right?
OTTO: Yeah, that’s what I’m in the middle of doing, at the moment. That’s a huge amount of fun. Whenever I mention Greg Kinnear’s name to anyone, they always say, “Oh, love him!” He’s a really terrific actor, and very funny. With TV, the most important thing is just to get people to turn it on. You have to get people to be interested enough to happen to watch it. You can make the best show in the world, but if people don’t actually turn it on and see it, they’ll never know it’s the best show. So, it’s great to have Greg playing the lead, when there are so many people who just adore him and adore his work. That bodes very well. And the show is coming along really fantastically.
What was it about that story and character that drew you back to TV?
OTTO: This was a series in Australia, originally. I had seen the series in Australia, and I actually know some of the writers of the show. When I watched it there, it’s a fantastic role and the actor in Australia did a really brilliant job and it’s been a huge success for him, but what I really liked about what he’d done, when he set up the show with the writers, was that he made the women around him very strong. As a character, he was so clever and witty and tragic, and all of these amazing qualities, and he’d actually given the women around him a lot of really intelligent and funny and strong storylines and comebacks. I really liked that all of the other characters were so strong. I thought that was great. If they want to, people can be greedy and take all the best stuff for themselves. But with this show, I really feel like they’ve given the women a strong voice and made them almost like they’d been written by women, but they’re actually written by men.
Reaching for the Moon is now playing in theaters.