By Claire Bueno
As an actress Essie Davis is a chameleon, but there is one thing she cannot disguise her indisputable talent. Whether it’s Amelia Vanek in The Babadook, or the formidable Ellen Kelly in the True History of the Kelly Gang, or even as Maggie in The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, she has the ability to disappear into a character. Without doubt Davis never fails to deliver a captivating and authentic performance. That authenticity extends to her as a person. She has an natural warmth that instantly disarms you and there’s a kindliness and grace. It truly was a joy to interview the dynamic Australian actress as we discuss her next compelling role as ornithologist Nancy opposite Andrew Lincoln in Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities spooky episode The Murmuring.
Watching the Cabinet of Curiosities the episode you’re in is so full of nuance and it’s such a rich story I don’t know where to begin. But what was it that attracted you initially?
Well number one Jennifer Kent who I worked with on The Babadook. I think Jennifer and I work really well together, and we have a short hand that makes working together easier in a way. I trust her implicitly, and I know that whatever she asks of me, and requires of me, it’s in order to tell the story exactly how she wants to do it. And I trust her quality of work, it’s going to be great no matter what she asks me to do, I will do it for her (laughs). And I found the story so powerful when I read it. I find murmurations a phenomenon, those massive flocks of swirling birds in the sky, [they] have this omnipotence and spooky, eerie feeling. I feel that the world of two ornithologists studying the murmurations of birds, you already know that this has a world that’s eerie and spooky and has a otherworldly presence around it.
It really does, and your character has had something happen to her that makes her emotionally raw, but there’s this really stoicism about her. Do you think with the ghostly occurrences that happen that she is spiritually more attune because she’s in this emotionally raw place where she is potentially more open and susceptible?
Well, I do think the similarity with The Babadook is that there is this repressed grief in Nancy. She doesn’t want to feel all the feelings she feels. She’s trying to power on and get on with her life, and not acknowledge her own loss. I think because she’s an ornithologist she has to have an incredible amount of patience. And as a female scientist at the head of her abilities and ahead of her game, she has a dexterous mind, incredible patience, and the ability as a bird watcher to sit quietly and observe the tiniest little details. And I think that her scientific brain, natural patience and sensibility opens her up to those more intangible experiences and vibrations around her. And that’s also one of the things I love about the story is this butting of heads. How can a scientist believe in anything otherworldly? How is it possible to call yourself a scientist and have people trust you, if you are seeing and hearing things that other people cannot see and hear?
Exactly, integral to the plot which makes it much more than just a horror story, is this beautiful relationship between you and your husband played by Andrew Lincoln. They are in a delicate situation within their relationship, but just watching the interaction between you as actors, there’s so much hidden depths, so much going on, you don’t have to say anything, it’s just how you look at each other, it’s magnificent to watch on screen. Can you explain how you worked together, because he’s such a sensitive actor as well isn’t he?
He’s fantastic. I loved working with Andy so much, it was such a pleasure. He is so present and I think he is such a magnificent actor, and a lovely human being. We shot this in the midst of COVID and we had all kinds of regulations and distances to keep (laughs). We actually rehearsed on Zoom for the two weeks we were in quarantine, when you [first] enter a country. So we both arrived in Canada together, then Jen, Andy and I rehearsed everyday on Zoom (laughs), and then we had three days together before we started shooting. Jen has a great ability as a director during rehearsal to help us as actors create a history of our relationship. And over the three days, Andy and I basically went through a 20 year relationship (laughs). And just having found all of those moments together through our history in that time, we reached a point where we could just look at each other, in whatever our given circumstances (laughs). [So] whatever the scene, we knew what we thought the other one was thinking (laughs). We had this whole history together that meant that I could just look in his eyes and wouldn’t have to say anything.
And we are now living in an age where we are encouraged to talk about our feelings, but the show takes place in 1951 when you weren’t. Yet feelings do bubble under the surface and you get the impression that a volcano needs to erupt between you both. But the respect you have for each other and your relationship which is so beautifully played out on screen, is preventing this. I felt it was respectful not only to the characters, but authentic to the age and how it was for people back then?
Yeah and I also think that they are both contemporary ornithologists. Together they are both interested in studying the same species, and luckily have found each other through their love of birds. And yet although Nancy, when you first meet her she’s lecturing. ‘She’s’ lecturing and giving a presentation about the dunlin, and her husband is showing his amazing photographs of the murmurations, and some of the footage that he has filmed with a camera that they have been given. And yet at the end of that lecture every male in the audience (laughs), everyone; male and female, there aren’t many females, go and congratulates the man, and asks him all the questions. Even though he says, ‘Oh Nancy’s the brains.’ (Laughs). [So there’s this] whole thing of woman a having to be better, be more masterful, be on the top of her game, just to be seen as an equal. I think that’s also a part of Nancy’s fear of expressing her emotions, or trying to share the things she’s feeling and seeing; because maybe she is mad, or maybe that will make her less of a scientist.
And sound is a core element in the show, your character Nancy records sound which very much triggers the supernatural elements of the show, but a lot of that sound design will be added in post-production. So for an actor where acting is reacting, how did you emulate what we the audience will hear?
Those moments are written in the script, and Jen and I would talk through it before I would be doing the scene. Going through all the actions, rewinding and listening, rewinding and listening; we just knew when they were happening, and what kind of sounds they were going to be. Or I imagined what they were going to be (laughs). Sometimes Jen would go, ‘now you hear it.’ (Laughs). So she would sometimes talk me through [it] because we knew that all of the sound as we were recording it, was very, very important. But also there would be work on the sound, so that they could always cut Jen out (laughs) and replace it with a child or a bird.
This may be more of a Jen question but this is based on a Guillermo del Toro short story. Was this script based on his original short story? Or was this left for Jen to write an incarnation of her own?
Well that’s a good question [and] I don’t know the answer to it. I think my understanding is that Jen was [given] completely free range, writing the script from an idea that Guillermo gave her, but I don’t know how detailed that idea was.
One of the joys of being an actor is that every job you have there’s an opportunity to learn something new, in this story you’re ornithologists. I’m absolutely terrified of birds, so this was particularly scary for me (laughs). Alfred Hitchcock eat your heart out!
(Laughs) Oh no! Oh the tiny little birds, the dunlins. They’re very, very cute, super cute. But I love that when they are in a murmuration and there’s a massive flock of them, that all powerful, thrilling emotional impact of seeing that many birds is something quite different to watching a little shore bird digging away in a pond.
And another theme of the show are the different connotations of freedom and what freedom is?
Yeah. I think that’s also the wonderful thing when Nancy is able to help others be free, she’s finally able to be free herself.
Essie, you also have made a film called The Justice of Bunny King can you tell us more about that?
The Justice of Bunny King is a film I made with a female director Gaysorn Thavat. It’s her first feature, it’s a New Zealand film and it’s already on streaming platforms or the BFI in the UK, and it’s only just in the cinemas at the moment in the US. It is a fantastic story about a woman Bunny King, who I play, who is a squeegee bandit (laughs). She washes windows at intersections on main roads, trying to raise some money as she couch surfs, staying at her sister’s house, looking after her sister’s children, and her sister’s boyfriend’s elderly mother; whilst she tries to raise some money to get her own home, to get her children out of foster care, and back in her care. She is super hopeful and full of ideas. She’s just an incredibly poor woman on the poverty line, trying to make things happen. And the hoops the government and people make her jump through to prove that she is a worthy mother, or that she is capable of caring for her children. I think it’s a fantastic story, particularly about a group of women who have not got a very loud voice in our world at the moment.
And I imagine for you as an actor to play a part that is all about the tenacity of the human spirit, that if you’re knocked down you bounce back up must have been an attractive proposition?
Absolutely, she’s so hopeful and she’s a real problem solver, but quite often she gets pushed into corners and has to fight her way out of them. But she’s not afraid of fighting (laughs). She’s a really good parent, she’s done everything to save her children, and now the authorities are keeping them protected and safe from Bunny because she can’t provide them with what they need; a home. She can’t get a job, she can’t get a house; it’s this kind of crazy, terrible circuit that goes around and around. Particularly nowadays where people can’t get ahead, and the more they can’t get ahead, the more people become homeless and can’t get work, or a house. The more people distrust them and think they must not be good people if they haven’t got a home, or a job, or their children are in foster care, then something’s wrong with that person. And I think it’s really questions, hopefully; makes people question their own judgement of people in poverty, and the situation that women find themselves in, particularly if they have survived domestic violence. But what I also really love about this film is that Bunny is hopeful, and she’s really spirited, and I got to do a lot of naughty things (laughs). I think a lot of people in a situation where they have to be extremely well behaved to prove that they’re worth getting the dole, worth getting their children back, and they have to behave in authority; I think a lot of people watching will be just cheering on going, ‘Yes, Bunny! Vandalise that car!’(Laughs)
In the UK at the moment we’ve got inflation rates going sky high, financially the country is a mess, so maybe a contemporary story like this is relevant because it shows us just how vulnerable we are in this current financial climate and this could happen to anybody.
Yes, absolutely. And that maybe there has to be a more compassionate way of dealing with people, and less judgement involved, [and] the risks that people will take to defend their children, or to defend young people. Bunny puts her own homelessness and housing situation on the line to rescue another young child from a precarious situation, and takes her on the most crazy adventure in order to get her out. Thomasin McKenzie plays my niece Tonya, who Bunny rescues from a very awful situation with her stepfather, and then she takes her on a road trip that she wasn’t planning in order to throw a birthday party for her little daughter, who has been moved by the authorities to a place that Bunny can’t find her.
Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, THE MURMuRING
now available on NETFLIX
THE JUSTICE OF BUNNY KING now available to stream, buy or rent
Photographer: Emily Abay
Production Stills: GDTCOC Netflix ©2022, TJOBK - © Firefly Films
With special thanks to PERSONAL PR