PREVIEW: 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 PatakyPhotography 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 apical alveolar 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.”

Elsa Pataky
Photography by Pierre Toussaint.
Elsa Pataky
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.”

This is a short extract from our newest issue. To read the full story, pick up a copy of our new issue in newsagents nationally, order online or subscribe to receive T Australia straight to your letterbox. You will find it on Page 52 of Issue #7, titled “Elsa In Excelsis”.