November 2009

Abbie Cornish Poetry in Motion

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The ascending star reflects on her farm girl roots, her inner beast—and her turn as John Keats’ bewitching muse
by Leslie Gornstein / photographs by Ruven Afanador / styling by Hayley Atkin / produced by Kim Pollock

The next Nicole Kidman? Meryl Streep? Critics have been keeping a close eye on Australian actress Abbie Cornish—as much for her intense acting style as for her striking looks. The honey-colored eyes and (usually) blond hair first garnered international attention in 2004, when Cornish deftly carried Somersault, the story of a teenage runaway in sexual limbo.

She weathered a siege in the tabloids, when gossips cited her as a key reason behind Ryan Phillippe’s divorce from Reese Witherspoon two years ago. (The two starred in Stop-Loss and now live together in Los Angeles.)

It’s an experience that would have left tire marks on the back of even the most veteran celeb, but the 27-year-old has always been firmly on track with star­making turns in serious-actor films, including the obligatory period piece (2007’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age, which starred Cate Blanchett) and the equally mandatory addiction flick (2006’s Candy, costarring Heath Ledger).

In her latest project, Bright Star, Cornish channels Fanny Brawne, the 19th-century seamstress who unwittingly stole the heart of Romantic poet John Keats. She has also seduced the critics, who have begun to drop the “O” word. Next up, it’s guns, green screens and martial-arts moves in the surreal Zack Snyder movie Sucker Punch, currently filming in Canada.

Leslie Gornstein: Part of the job in taking a role like Fanny Brawne in Bright Star has to be a kind of ambassadorship for Romantic poetry—helping an audience come to value that art form. Is there anyplace for verse in a world obsessed with flat screens and Wii?
Abbie Cornish: Definitely, whether that changes in shape or form—with emails or texts replacing writing letters—there’s still room for poetry. I also love hip-hop and rap, and that’s really a contemporary form.

Brawne is essentially a 19th-century fashionista. You have been seen at parties for houses like Calvin Klein—is it a prerequisite these days for an actress to love fashion?
I don’t think it’s a prerequisite, but it helps to enjoy fashion when part of our job is to dress up. I really love Toni Maticevski, who designed my dress for Cannes. There’s something very sensitive and feminine and wearable about his clothes. He has an old-school, classic feel, which I love, but at the same time, he’s very much on the edge.

Traditionally, a muse is all about inspiring someone else. But Fanny is the centerpiece of this story. There’s something almost artistically naughty about that.
  From the moment I read the script, I always knew Jane [Campion] was seeing Keats through Fanny’s eyes. In a way, sometimes the muse doesn’t always know she’s the muse. There is no intention of being a muse—it just happens, and that’s the way I felt about Fanny.

We’ve all heard of the British school of theater—master the body, and the mind will follow—and the American school, which puts the mind first. Is there an Australian school?
People are always asking me, “What is it about that country?” I grew up on a farm, and I felt so connected to nature, animals, the stars in the sky. Even though I was in an area where there wasn’t a lot around me, there was definitely a sense of so much more in the rest of the world. I don’t know whether the landscape inspires that sort of connection to every living thing—the thought of what it is to be alive or what is across the ocean—but that’s the only thing I can tie it back to. What it feels like to be in Australia is so different from anywhere else.

Australian actresses are starting to rival British ones in the “distinguished” category. Does the reaction change when people learn you’re from Down Under?
I don’t know that the reaction changes. No, I definitely don’t see things that way, but it’s great that so many people have carved the path. It’s no longer a crazy thing to have an Australian actor in Hollywood films. It seems pretty normal now.

Critics have called you the next Meryl Streep or the new Nicole Kidman—does the acting world benefit from having a “next” someone?
I don’t think anyone really benefits from having a “next.” Sometimes that’s just a term used to compartmentalize or explain when you’re trying to figure someone out.

Three years ago, right after you filmed A Good Year with Russell Crowe, you told a reporter you didn’t really have a home, that you moved from place to place and enjoyed life as you went. Has a need for a home base kicked in since then?
There was a space of about five years where I was moving and traveling a lot, and I wouldn’t stay in one place. Lately, I’ve been thinking, Where am I gonna put my bags down—put my feet on the ground? And I did find a home with my boyfriend in Los Angeles, so that has been really nice.

You were named by PETA as one of Australia’s sexiest vegetarians, and clearly you love animals. Does promoting “sexy vegetarianism” do anything to bring attention to animal rights?
Anytime anyone asks me that, I cross my fingers and think, I hope so. It creates press, and people who might not usually read about animal rights might take a look. It’s crazy, but I guess that’s the world we live in.

In signing on for Sucker Punch, you jumped from Jane Campion—pretty much the queen of understated—to Zack Snyder. Does your approach change when you’re working with such an over-the-top visual director?
We filmed Bright Star on location, while in Sucker Punch, 80 percent of what’s around me is fake or green screen, and that’s a whole different world. You have to rely on your imagination, your ability to find answers. Even when you’re fighting, kicking and punching, you’re still acting—you’re still a character. And yes, Zack is such a visual director. When it comes to tricky filmmaking, he’s the master.

You said you did Sucker Punch because you wanted something “really trippy” where you could do crazy things. Sny­der now has you using mixed martial arts and guns. That crazy enough for you?
We trained for three months before we began shooting. The three of us—me, Jena Malone and Emily Browning—became stunt girls for a few months, you know? I feel like I’m using parts of myself in my acting I’ve never used before. I’m finding the fight within me. The girls have been calling it the Beast. It’s that place in yourself where you can do all this wild stuff—fire off guns or drop into a castle of orcs and knights and battle your way out.

Where will the Beast go when the film wraps?
Well, it was always there—it will never leave.

Hair: Robert Vetica
Makeup: Matthew Vanleeuwen
Fashion Assistant: Rachel Kolar
Manicurist: April Foreman
Set Design: Ron Zakhar
Studio: Smashbox, Culver City