Elsa in Excelsis

Whether embodying Edenic domesticity or duelling with villains on set, Elsa Pataky brings a singular energy to everything she touches. Now, having completed her most gruelling film to date, she’s finding her flow in Byron Bay — canteen duty and all.

Article by Helen Hawkes

Elsa PatakyGucci jacket and pants, Emporio Armani blouse, and Kenneth Jay Lane earrings (vintage). Photography by Pierre Toussaint.

There’s a pivotal moment in the thrill-packed film “Interceptor” (now on Netflix) when the script demands that the actor Elsa Pataky demonstrate heroic pluck of “Die Hard” proportions. Resplendent in fitted combat pants and kick-arse boots, her triceps glistening and singlet soaked in blood and sweat, she hurls herself between the rusty rungs of a missile interceptor in the ocean. It’s classic action film territory: one jaded lone wolf — in this case, the tactical military hand Captain JJ Collins — risks everything to defeat the bad guys and save the world from imminent nuclear destruction.

For the Madrid-born Pataky, who has played the trophy wife, the mistress and the siren, it is a welcome opportunity to show that her skills extend beyond being an object of desire: that she can also be a take-no-prisoners hero. “You planned for every possible outcome,” she spits at her opponent, played by the Australian actor Luke Bracey, “but you couldn’t plan for me.”

“When my daughter [India, 10] says her dad [the actor Chris Hemsworth] is a superhero, I want her to be able to say, ‘My mum is, too,’ ” Pataky tells me, clearly delighted to be playing the lead in an action film — a career first. “I was always a bit of a tomboy, competing with boys to be as strong as them,” she confides, though her delicate bone structure, perfect waves and heavily lashed green eyes make it difficult to imagine. When she says “strong” — strength being one of her favourite themes — she pronounces it with an apicalalveolar trill (the rolled “r” used in Spanish), giving the word its own charming strength. (Pataky also speaks Italian, Romanian, Portuguese and French, and, no doubt, executes a sexy r-roll in all four. The Australian author Matthew Reilly, who co-wrote and directed “Interceptor”, says: “People may not realise that English is not Elsa’s first language — in the months before we filmed, she did an enormous amount of dialect training.”)

So, is Pataky a feminist? She hesitates for a second as she chews over the f-word. “I have boys [twins Tristan and Sasha, eight] and a girl, so I have to be equal and careful in what I say,” she says. “I do make sure my daughter feels she is capable to do whatever she wants to do.” Pataky does feel that women are achieving equality, though “little by little and, like a lot of things, we have to fight for it.

“But I still believe in a strong man,” she continues, “and I still want to watch movies where the man saves the woman, and I don’t want men to be afraid to express their feelings with a woman.”

Pataky wears Zimmerman coat, Dior shirt and tie, Bulgari earrings, Gucci gloves and Roger Vivier boots. Photography by Pierre Toussaint.
Pataky wears Zimmerman coat, Dior shirt and tie, Bulgari earrings, Gucci gloves and Roger Vivier boots. Photography by Pierre Toussaint.
Pataky wears Zimmerman coat, Dior shirt and tie, Bulgari earrings, Gucci gloves and Roger Vivier boots. Photography by Pierre Toussaint.
Pataky wears Zimmerman coat, Dior shirt and tie, Bulgari earrings, Gucci gloves and Roger Vivier boots. Photography by Pierre Toussaint.

A fan of action movies as a child, Pataky admits she once dreamed of being Indiana Jones. She recalls watching the films with her father, the Spanish biochemist José Francisco Lafuente, who shared her interest but wanted her to have a stable career — not necessarily to follow in the footsteps of Harrison Ford. But when he sees her latest cinematic outing, Pataky says, “He will feel very proud his daughter is the lead in an action film.”

At almost 46, Pataky has a flawless complexion, the only mark an old-Hollywood-style beauty spot above her lip. She’s grateful Reilly wanted “a mature woman” for the “Interceptor” role, but she tempers this by saying, “there are so many more amazing roles now for women, not based around age”.

Reilly tells T Australia: “We did consider several actresses, Elsa included, for the part initially. But we kept coming back to her. I can’t imagine any other actress in the role.

“The way she got into physical shape for the part,” he continues. “The way she imbued JJ with certain mannerisms, a singular inner strength and character …” He’s clearly a fan.

Reilly says that Elsa, like her character, possesses “a deep well of gritty determination”. He elaborates: “First, just taking the role was a brave thing to do. This is a tough role: a full-fledged female action lead who is in almost every single shot. Whoever played JJ would be carrying the whole movie.” Secondly, he says, Pataky is “physically very strong, very fit and very, very athletic. When, in the movie, you see JJ leap across a wide gap using only one arm, that’s Elsa doing it. Fights, leaps, jumps, punches and rolls, Elsa did them all.”

Pataky, a yoga devotee and the author of “Strong: How to Eat, Move and Live With Strength and Vitality” (2019), has always subscribed to peak fitness. She and Hemsworth have their own healthy lifestyle app, Centr, and her taut 1.61-metre frame has graced magazine covers from GQ to Cosmopolitan. For “Interceptor”, she began training with the extreme adventurer Ross Edgley six months out from shooting, upping her regular workouts to a daily strength training program that saw her trading pain relief creams with her stunt double. “I had to learn 800 different moves for the fight scenes,” she says. “It was really double the work of a normal movie.”

In one scene, Pataky’s character — cable-tied to a chair, at the mercy of the villains and almost certainly going to die — gives one of the miscreants a speech about respecting women. Reilly recalls: “Elsa did the lines then called me over and said, ‘Matt, I think JJ should do something at the end of this speech to really cap it off. I think she should headbutt him.’ So there I am, with the whole cast and crew watching, thinking about this suggestion. It was a good one, so I said, ‘Yep, let’s do it.’ We did it. It was awesome.”

“Captain Collins is a woman who has been through all of life and it has made her strong,” Pataky says of her onscreen persona. “That’s what life does to you — it makes you stronger. You have been through so many things and nothing can destroy you, in a way.” It’s a theme she returns to often during our interview, dismissing the suggestion that her life, from the outside, appears to be almost perfect — or at least without challenges.

“It is totally not true that I don’t have the same obstacles,” she says. “I have my moments of overwhelm, or having a hard time. It is not human not to have that. One of the most difficult times was when I first moved to Los Angeles from Spain. I was by myself and knew very little English and I felt so lonely. I was also in back-to-back auditions, which was very challenging having to do in broken English.

“Being in the film industry really is the ultimate test of resilience,” she adds. “You need to believe in yourself, your ability and never give up, as you’ll get so many knockbacks before that one door opens.”

Elsa Pataky
Sportmax jacket, blouse and skirt, Ahlem sunglasses, and Bulgari watch. Ring, Pataky's own. Photography by Pierre Toussaint.
Elsa Pataky
Alex Perry blazer, and Louise Olsen for Dinosaur Designs earrings. Photography by Pierre Toussaint.

Born Elsa Lafuente Medianu, Pataky adopted the surname she goes by today as a way to honour her maternal grandmother. Her parents divorced when she was young, something that had a profound effect on her. “They didn’t have a good relationship, which was hard to witness and experience as a child,” she says. Pataky recently told Jones magazine that staying positive — perhaps overly so — was her coping strategy. “You can either be sad about it and get stuck in it, like, ‘Why did it happen to me?’, or you can try to make the best of it,” she said. “And I decided in life that I just wanted to get the best of it.”

In part to please her father, Pataky studied journalism at CEU San Pablo University in Madrid, but she also took acting classes, relying on her grandmother to tell her if she had a future in the industry. “My grandfather was a theatre actor and my grandmother was always supporting him,” she recalls. “She would watch him and then tell him, ‘Hmmmm, I did not like this.’ I invited her to my first theatre play [Pataky was a member of Ángel Gutiérrez’s company, Teatro de Cámara Chéjov] and I thought, ‘OK, if my grandmother says I have talent, I will keep going.’ She came and she told me, ‘You have a lot to learn, but you have talent.’” Pataky pauses at the memory of her grandmother, who is now gone. “I thought, ‘That’s all I need. I’m going for it.’”

And go for it she has. In the “Fast & Furious” film franchise, which has grossed more than $8.4 billion worldwide at the box office, Pataky played a Brazilian patrol officer and Diplomatic Security Service agent recruited by Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) to track down wanted criminals. The action films introduced her to a mainstream audience, but Pataky was already a major movie star in Europe — long before Hemsworth’s own meteoric rise to fame — having appeared in more than 10 Spanish films, among them “Di Di Hollywood” (2010) directed by Bigas Luna. Other credits include “Snakes on a Plane” (2006), the Italian horror film “Giallo” (2009) and the Russell Mulcahy-directed “Malone” (2009). Small-screen projects include “Queen of Swords”, a Canadian action-adventure series of the early aughts, and the 2018 Australian crime/fantasy Netflix series “Tidelands”.

The latter, in which Pataky plays the mystical seductress Adrielle Cuthbert, marked her re-entry into the acting world, having taken a hiatus to raise her three children. She and Hemsworth met in 2010, married the same year and moved from Los Angeles to Byron Bay in 2014. Pataky has previously admitted that dealing with global fame and a young family in the first few years of their relationship wasn’t easy. “We did everything very quickly — I don’t know how we survived as a couple,” she told Vogue Australia in 2018. “We were married and then, a year after, we had kids. It puts a lot of pressure on a marriage, but we came out good because there is a lot of love between us and we are very strong personalities but love each other so much.” On the subject of her relationship, she tells me: “Marriage always has ups and downs. You learn so much and have to put so much work into it.”

Now that their children are older, Pataky says she’s excited about having more time for her career. “Women who manage to combine work and family are my heroes,” she says. “But I never wanted to miss big moments and I was lucky I had the choice. I take the kids to school every day — I didn’t have my parents do that and I really missed them. I want to hear how their day was, give them a kiss. I just decided I wanted to be that annoying mum.”

Implausibly, she’s also a canteen mum, rostered fortnightly at her children’s school, and is apparently treated like any other mother by Byron locals, who are used to seeing Zac Efron at the coffee shop and Matt Damon on Main Beach. “It is quite private here and I love that,” says Pataky. “I can go on with a normal life with no pressure.”

Elsa Pataky
Christopher Esber jacket and pants, Gucci shirt, Prada tie, and Sener Besim earrings. Photography by Pierre Toussaint.
Elsa Pataky
Beare Parke coat, Hermes jumpsuit, Kenneth Jay Lane necklace (vintage) and Roger Vivier boots. Photography by Pierre Toussaint.

After a lifetime in cities, Pataky says she can no longer live in one. The realisation came to her while the family was temporarily staying in Sydney; she was shooting Reilly’s blockbuster and Hemsworth was on “Thor: Love and Thunder”. “I don’t feel in my place there; I don’t feel at home,” says Pataky. “One of my dreams [when I was younger] was that I wanted horses; I wanted to ride.” Today, her family’s idyllic property in Broken Head, about 10 kilometres south of Byron, is home to no less than eight horses, and all of the children ride, her daughter competitively. Recently photographed with the family’s pet bearded dragon on her shoulder, Pataky tells me that the Hemsworth-Pataky sanctuary also counts rabbits, birds, chickens, guinea pigs, a cat and two dogs among its residents. “It’s becoming like a little zoo,” she says. And, yes, you can find her outside mucking out guinea pig cages or even helping with the birth of a foal — something she did recently, sharing a video of the event with her 4.9 million Instagram followers — as well as sorting the recycling.

“We are very conscious about sustainability day to day,” Pataky says. “The droughts, the fires and [recent Northern Rivers] floods are something the children talk about. We can make little changes, but we have to pressure the government for big change for the next generation.” She and Hemsworth have been working with WildArk on a project that aims to boost Tasmanian devil numbers, and they’ve also collaborated with the nonprofit Oceana on marine conservation campaigns. This interest in sustainability, plus a fascination with local botanicals like finger lime and Davidson plum, has also fuelled a new venture: the dewy-skinned actor recently became a co-founder and shareholder in the skincare company Purely Byron. The brand’s natural range leans into science and delivers what Pataky describes as an “experience” — a piece of Byron — rather than just a routine. Actives in the collection include a phytoretinol designed to boost collagen, the vitamin C-rich Superox-C to improve luminosity, the kangaroo paw-fuelled Skinectra to reduce the appearance of wrinkles and Wildberry Harvest to stimulate the skin’s natural production of hyaluronic acid.

While the brand’s promotional material features Pataky looking glowy and gorgeous, her role is much more than spokesmodel, it emerges. She has been involved in product development and branding, as well as creative and marketing initiatives, alongside Purely Byron’s general manager, Jacqueline Rosen Weisz, who previously worked for Jurlique, and the company’s brand and product director, Kate Norbiato. “I had strong ideas about how it should be 100 per cent natural, recyclable and sustainable, as well as have the spirit and radiant energy of Byron in the products,” says Pataky. The brand supports the local community with economic and employment opportunities, a mission close to Pataky’s heart. (Initially, all products will be sold online.)

Elsa Pataky
Fendi jacket, skirt and bag, and Bulgari earrings, rings and watch. Ring on ring finger, Pataky's own. Photography by Pierre Toussaint.
Elsa Pataky
Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello jacket, pants, belt and boots, Louise Olsen for Dinosaur Designs earrings. Photography by Pierre Toussaint.

As for the big screen, the multitasking mum is set to appear as a poker dealer and confidante to Russell Crowe’s character in the thriller “Poker Face”, which features Chris’s brother Liam Hemsworth and the American rapper, record producer, actor and filmmaker RZA. “I met Russell through Chris, but when he called and wanted to talk to me about the role, I was like, ‘Whoa,’” recalls Pataky. “He said, ‘The dealer needs to be very dexterous and I want a video to see how you are with the cards.’

“At the time, I was at a [riding] competition with my daughter, but I asked a friend to buy a pack of cards from the local petrol station for me,” says Pataky. “I sat on a fence, shuffling and dealing — I had a few tricks I had learned when I was in Spain — and [I was also] taking a video of it at the same time as I watched India compete. When Russell watched the video, he was very impressed and I got the part.”

Crowe has always been one of her favourite actors (“The movie ‘Gladiator’ was very big in Spain,” she notes) and Pataky was determined to win over the star. “Every night I had to practise with the cards,” she says. “It was really fun working with him and I learned so much just watching.”

It seems the admiration is mutual, with the Australian actor and director telling T Australia: “Elsa’s focus is exemplary and she can riffle and deal cards like a casino pro.” Plus, Crowe adds, “Elsa is good company. She brings a lot of energy to the set and a great sense of humour.”

Despite her growing list of accomplishments, Pataky says she has never had an overly ambitious game plan. “I always say, ‘Make little goals and make them happen, and that will give you the strength to keep going,’” she says. “I never dreamed of being a huge star; I wanted to be an actor.”

But with her star once again on the rise, Pataky declares: “Success is what feels right for you — makes you feel confident. For me, my family is also success.”

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our seventh edition, Page 52 of T Australia with the headline: “Elsa In Excelsis”