Margot Robbie, Queen of the Silver Screen

How does a girl from the Gold Coast become one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed actresses? The candid star says she has no idea.

Article by Bill Wyman

Robbie at the Chanel Métiers d’Art show in New York, 2018. Photography Courtesy of Chanel.

On a video call from her Los Angeles home, Margot Robbie is talking about her production company’s films, “Promising Young Woman” (2020) and “I, Tonya” (2017). Then she pauses and moves to get up. “I’m just going to shut the door because my husband’s being really [expletive] loud,” she says. That would be Thomas Ackerley, the British assistant director and now producer, whom she met on the set of 2014’s “Suite Française”.

Such is the life of a Hollywood star in these pandemic-y times. There are scripts and budgets to look over, plus Zoom calls and a couch-based publicity tour for her latest film, “The Suicide Squad”, in cinemas in August — all while her spouse bangs away in the next room. With Covid-19 pushing back release dates in 2020, the Australian actress will appear in several movies this year, each requiring publicity. And in the midst of it all, LuckyChap Entertainment, the production company she runs with Ackerley and a couple of friends, is overseeing the rollout of two TV series: Netflix’s “Maid”, inspired by a memoir of the same name, and the second season of “Dollface”, a story about rekindling forgotten friendships.

While Robbie has drawn acclaim for her production work over the past four years, she is still best known for her film roles, which have seen her steal scenes from Leonardo DiCaprio in 2013’s “The Wolf of Wall Street”, own the title role in “I, Tonya” and deliver crackerjack performances as the delightfully depraved Harley Quinn in the “Suicide Squad” comic-book movies. When discussing her approach to the craft, Robbie is both poised and animated. “You gotta commit,” she says. “You cannot half-arse anything. That is my motto when I am on set. You have to commit 120 per cent — anything less than that ends up looking stupid.”

As an actress, she is famed for her versatility, but has the sheer breadth of roles sometimes been difficult to handle? She confesses it hasn’t always been easy: “Every character I’ve played requires something different. Some I feel I can slip into their skin a little quicker than others.” Among the more difficult characters, Robbie points to the late actress Sharon Tate, whom she played in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood” (2019). “Sharon Tate wasn’t a character where I felt like, ‘I got this. This is an easy one,’” says Robbie. “It was more about what she symbolised: all the good things in the world. Light — light — was what I worked with most: how to feel light, how to exude light. How do you portray someone if the way they need to be portrayed in this situation is to be pure and innocent and delightful?”

Louder and more raucous roles are easier, she says. “I much prefer to scream and cry and shout. Someone did something bad to you and you feel mad about it — I can get there a lot quicker.”

Making her red carpet arrival at the 93rd Academy Awards in Los Angeles, 2021. Photography courtesy of Chanel.

Robbie longs for home, having been kept away from her native Australia for much longer than she planned. “It’s coming up for two years,” she says. “There was the pandemic and before that I was on a film or two. I miss home so much.” The 31-year-old hails from the Gold Coast, where she was raised by her mother, Sarie Kessler, a physiotherapist. Asked about the origins of her visceral connection to cinema, Robbie says: “I don’t know how to explain it. My mum asks me all the time, ‘What is it? Where on earth did it come from? It didn’t come from our family!’ ” And her ambition, where does that come from? “I don’t know. I don’t know!” Robbie protests. “I wish there was a nice story.”

She does remember coming across videos and DVDs in the living rooms of her suburban neighbourhood. “I saw ‘Fight Club’ when I was probably way too young to watch ‘Fight Club’,” she says of David Fincher’s caustic deconstruction of toxic masculinity starring Brad Pitt. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days and days afterward.” This, she allows, could have spurred her preference for provocative films.

Robbie attended Somerset College in the Gold Coast hinterland and was cast in a local independent film while she was still at school. At 17, she moved to Melbourne and briefly worked on a children’s TV show, “The Elephant Princess”, alongside an unknown Liam Hemsworth. Then she landed a role on “Neighbours”. It was a small job at first, playing a high-schooler (her name appeared at the end of the credits, just above the animal trainers) but she quickly rose through the ranks and stayed on the show for two-and-a-half years. In the meantime, she was honing her skills and teamed up with a dialect coach to perfect her American accent.

On leaving the soap in 2010, Robbie flew to the United States, arriving just ahead of pilot season. There, she immediately scored a role on a TV show — much hyped at the time — about air stewardesses working for Pan American in the ’60s. “Pan Am” was cancelled after one season but it was enough to give Robbie her big break.

Robbie at the 2019 Screen Actors Guild Awards, where she was nominated for her role in “Mary Queen of Scots”. Photography Courtesy of Chanel.

That would be a wound-up Martin Scorsese flick about a louche Wall Street scammer, played by an over-the-top DiCaprio. Robbie, clothed and unclothed, matches him scene for scene, all while nailing a honking Brooklyn accent. So, how did she pull off that sensational performance? Again, she points to her commitment. “I just go in hard,” she says. “I go big. I have to go big to kinda be able to do it.” From there, Robbie considered her prospects and gradually took on more difficult parts, playing a clever con artist opposite Will Smith in the film“Focus” (2015) and Queen Elizabeth I in “Mary Queen of Scots” (2018), which had Saoirse Ronan in the title role.

Not every film has been a hit. The ageing producer Jerry Weintraub chose Robbie to play Jane Clayton in his swan song, a long dreamed of Tarzan reboot, featuring Alexander Skarsgård. Released in 2016, “The Legend of Tarzan” wasn’t exactly a flop, but it didn’t find the audience to justify its expansive budget.

In 2019, her best year to date, Robbie starred opposite DiCaprio and Pitt in “Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood”, which turned out to be one of the most acclaimed films of the year. Months later, she played a conflicted news producer alongside Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman in “Bombshell”, an unblinking account of sexual harassment at Fox News. For this, Robbie received her second Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actress.

Robbie is well known for her talent and beauty (the latter earning her several lucrative advertising campaigns) but while no-one was looking, she has also become a serious player in Hollywood’s production industry. “To be honest,” Robbie says of her work with LuckyChap, “the projects that we get very excited about are the ones that scare us — a lot. I find that in the roles I pursue as an actor and the projects we pursue as producers.”

It all began as something of a lark, an impulse project she dreamed up in 2014 with her now husband and Josey McNamara, both aspiring producers at the time, plus a friend from Australia, Sophia Kerr. Their goal: to collaborate wth female directors and screenwriters to tell difficult stories about women. “They are provocative in a certain way, they are challenging in a lot of ways,” Robbie says of LuckyChap’s films and TV shows, which she approaches with a simple question: “How do you keep engaging people and keep pushing the conversation to a place where people don’t have a quick and easy answer?” The idea, she says, is to get people thinking. “The longer we can having people doing that, then I do think that is moving the conversation forward.”

Actor and producer Margot Robbie is featured on the cover of T Australia's third edition.

For its first film, LuckyChap chose the confronting yet darkly comic story of Tonya Harding, the tabloid sensation who was the first American woman to pull off a triple axel in a skating competition. Harding, you may recall, became a household name in 1994 after her rival, Nancy Kerrigan, was brutally attacked in an attempt to prevent her from competing. The movie, “I, Tonya”, gives Harding a chance to speak — sometimes directly to the camera — and finds a certain nobility in her belief in her own talents.

Robbie, who plays Harding, received rave reviews for her portrayal of a plaintive, desperate soul. She effortlessly navigates the demands of the part, roaring through the main narrative and tackling the campy, fourth-wall-exploding elements with aplomb. “It was fun working on those different levels,” she says of the film’s complex assemblage. “I see it as a person at different times in her life.”

What could have been a low-rent docudrama became one of the most celebrated films of 2017, earning three Oscar nominations, among them Best Actress for Robbie (many prognosticators thought it had a shot at a Best Picture nod as well). Robbie’s costar, Allison Janney, received a statue for Best Supporting Actress and Robbie was seen beaming from the front row. It was a significant success for her fledgling company.

In the meantime, LuckyChap was working on an even more audacious plan: to elbow its way into the conservative world of the comic-book film with an adults-only “Suicide Squad” offshoot (granted, inroads had already been made with 2017’s “Wonder Woman” starring Gal Gadot and 2018’s “Black Panther” featuring a mostly African American cast). The pitch: Harley Quinn is on the run in Gotham City and every lowlife in town wants to rub her out, so she teams up with an all-female band of malcontents and miscreants — all done in a hip, more knowing way than “Suicide Squad”, with a lot of explosions, fights and blood-soaked set pieces in the offing.

Robbie on the set of "The Suicide Squad". Photography Courtesy of Chanel.

Unlike “Suicide Squad”, “Birds of Prey” (2020) is light on its feet; it breaks the fourth wall and features an admixture of black humour that could be described as “Deadpool”-ish (work started on “Birds of Prey” before the adult comic-book film “Deadpool” was released in 2016). “It was an ambitious idea at that time do an R-rated comic-book film — ‘Deadpool’ hadn’t been done yet,” says Robbie. “The second thing I wanted was for it to be an all-female ensemble cast. I truly believe that women want to see female protagonists — ” Kick arse? “ — in the action space.”

The vision took almost five years to realise. “I pitched it a long time before we got to shoot it — it was a long process,” Robbie recalls with some weariness. She enlisted a female screenwriter, Christina Hodson, and director, Cathy Yan, and negotiated the complex, high-stakes world of the modern superhero franchise.

She again stars as Quinn in the film and gleefully takes to her character’s appropriation of the random violence typical of male-centric comic- book genre. In an early scene, for example, Quinn, dancing on a platform in a club, spills a drink on an onlooker. After he tells her to get lost, she jumps off the platform — right onto his outstretched legs, breaking them.

“Birds of Prey” received appreciative reviews but its February 2020 release date coincided with the outbreak of the pandemic in the United States, and the film was resigned to the commercial woodchipper. It made just $270 million, but it proved LuckyChap could hold its own in the blockbuster game. “There are projects that mean to entertain in a meaningful way and interrogate at the same time,” says Robbie. “And that always feels satisfying.” Such was the case with LuckyChap’s next film, “Promising Young Woman”. Released last summer, it’s another chancy, bleakly comic work rooted in female rage and the bloody consequences. Written and directed by Emerald Fennell, the film was critically lauded, receiving five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and winning Best Original Screenplay.

You kind of know you’re in the right zone if it could go wrong. Does that make sense?” asks Robbie. With her next LuckyChap project, the actress is putting everything on the line. She’ll play the lead role in a live-action Barbie movie produced and directed by the actress- turned-director Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”, “Little Women”), who wrote the script with her partner, the director Noah Baumbach.

Robbie plays Harley Quinn in "The Suicide Squad". Photography Courtesy of Chanel.

“ ‘Barbie’ is ambitious,” Robbie says, “in that it is globally recognised. There’s ‘eyes on it’, if you know what I mean. I wasn’t necessarily interested unless it was going to be a take that felt surprising and challenged preconceptions. I do really enjoy making things that genuinely surprise people, and I think that the script that Noah and Greta wrote does that. Barbie plus Greta — that, to me, is a home run.”

After that, Robbie dreams of making a 10-episode TV series based on the plays of none other than William Shakespeare. Thus goes her elevator pitch: “Ten different Shakespeare stories in a modern or futurist setting, all different female writers and directors for every episode” — she pauses and laughs at the audacity — “and all shot in Australia, set in Australia and with Australian creatives.”

That project hasn’t got off the ground yet, but one imagines Robbie will approach it the way she always does: jump first, think later. “If I have more than five minutes to think about it, I’m going to just get too scared,” she says. By way of example, she talks about her stunt work, where there’s no place for overthinking. “Not committing is way more dangerous,” she says.

If anything, Robbie commits too much. Like when she took ice-skating lessons for “I, Tonya”, a role that required her to perform a high kick on the ice.“I was not a skater! I was learning,” says Robbie. “The trainer, she said, ‘Alright, stomp on your back foot and just throw your leg up…’ I thought, ‘OK, that looks terrifying, I’m going to do that right now!’

“Stomp — kick — and I went flying back and winded myself on the ice so bad. I couldn’t get my breath.” It turns out, the trainer wasn’t finished with her instructions. “What she was going to say was, ‘You have to put your blade right there, like that, or you’re going to go flying!’ ” Robbie says, laughing. “That is the tactic — fully commit.”

Despite the pratfalls, Robbie says her wholehearted approach has got her where she is today. “I feel like I’m pretty good at finding my feet and adapting to a situation,” she says. “I feel like I’ve found my footing; I feel like I’m on solid ground.”

A version of this article appears in print in our third edition, Page68 of T Australia with the headline:
‘Queen of the Silver Screen’
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Rosie Huntington-Whiteley on Clean Beauty

The international model has built her new clean beauty brand, Rose Inc., on three pillars: high-quality ingredients, sustainability and transparency.

Article by Lucy E Cousins

"I really look at ingredients; I question what a brand’s standards are as well as the marketing terms they use," explains Huntington-Whiteley. Photography courtesy of Rose Inc.

Zoom isn’t kind to most of us; the computer screen does nothing for our skin tone, our eyes look dull, and our hair tends to blend into our background screensaver. Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, however, seems to have been made to be seen on screen. Her skin looks clear and smooth, her hair is perfect and her eyes are laser focused. Sure, she may have been doing interviews for hours already in three different time zones, but to look at her, you’d never guess.

That’s part of the reason, of course, the 34-year-old English-born model and actress has graced international magazine covers, runways, and fashion shoots for the best part of a decade. So after playing such a pivotable role in the fashion and beauty industry for so long, it makes sense that Huntington-Whitely is now launching her own beauty range in collaboration with clean beauty advocate Caroline Hadfield (and Amyris, a leading synthetic biotechnology company).

Rose Inc. (available online and at MECCA) is a beautifully packaged, thoughtful, and sustainably focused clean beauty range consisting of nine products: a serum, a clarifying toner, a lip crayon, a brow gel, a concealer, a lip and cheek cream; two make-up brushes and a reusable cotton pad. “It’s been really important to me that we’re transparent [with Rose Inc] and that we define what clean beauty means to us as a brand,” she explains. “So, if we’re going to use certain terms, let’s speak to them with authenticity and transparency.”

Huntington-Whiteley, who is pregnant with her second child, first started thinking about clean beauty when she was in her early twenties. However, it wasn’t until she was a new mum with her first child Jack that she really considered what products she used on her skin. “They’re such pure little things; it starts to make you think ‘what about my approach to my own beauty routine?’” she says. “I just want to be mindful and understand what I’m using. I really look at ingredients; I question what a brand’s standards are, as well as the marketing terms they use. I’m a little shrewder than I used to be.”

And if online behaviour is anything to go by, she isn’t alone in wanting clarity from her skincare. A recent Nielsen survey found over 65% of people are looking for beauty products that are “clean”, and 59% seek out products that are “natural and organic”. Even that all-seeing marker of demand, Google, has registered 40% more searches relating to clean beauty than five years ago. “I think [clean beauty] is just going to be what the industry and consumers demand,” says Huntington-Whiteley’s business partner, Hadfield. “So, with Rose Inc. we focused on sourcing very high-quality ingredients from companies where we’re able to see the whole custody of supply chain.”

Hadfield brings with her years of experience in the beauty industry – she’s held high profile positions with LVMH, Sephora, and The Body Shop, and founded clean skincare company Biossance. It’s a background, she says, that matches Huntington-Whiteley’s skill set perfectly. “Rosie is just so natural and quite humble, even though she doesn’t think so. She is very modest,” she says. “And from the first time we met there’s just been an energy between us probably cause we’re both English, but also an acknowledgement of what each other can bring to the table.”

To understand the brand a little more, T Australia sat down via Zoom with Rosie Huntington-Whiteley to talk about the launch, building a brand during a pandemic and how she’d like people to feel when they wear her products.

Rose a beautifully packaged, thoughtful, and sustainably focused clean beauty range. Photography courtesy of Rose Inc.
The range consists of nine products so far. Photography courtesy of Rose Inc.

When did you first start getting interested in clean beauty?

“I’ve always been interested in clean beauty; I think it probably goes back 11 or 12 years ago. My boyfriend’s mother was an real advocate for organic food and she grew her own vegetables and that’s where I started to learn about conventional versus organic. And I had grown up on a farm as well, and it was very much ‘grow your own’ in terms of the food that was put on our plate as children. Then I made a shift over the last 10 years or so with the products that we use within our household. When I was pregnant with my son, I started to do a lot of research. It’s interesting when you hold a new baby in your hands, you are so much more aware of not only the products that you have sitting on your skin, but the products that you’re going to apply on them, including the SPF that you’re going to apply.”

Why did you choose to partner with Caroline and Amyris?

“Well, what was exciting about partnering with Amyris was the clean science, the bio-engineered technology and the bio-engineered ingredients that come from the Amyris labs. It’s just about understanding what each ingredient does and how it’s working for you (or perhaps against you).

And as for Caroline, she really encourages me to ask questions and is always there for me at the end of the phone line. She’s just a great ally to have, because it becomes such a personal relationship building a brand. You get to know each other’s families and movements so it’s important to have someone that you can really trust, and who is really supportive to what’s going on in your life.”

And what is it like launching a brand in a pandemic?

“There’s been many silver linings and there’s been many complications. When Caroline and I first set out the work we were doing, we talked about sustainable packaging, formulations, and makeup products for skincare benefits. But then we saw the shift that took place; it was a move away from very dramatic makeup looks and more towards products that made you feel pulled together for a Zoom call. So, when COVID hit, it made us go back to those initial pillars and build more equity into them.

It’s also been wonderful for us to really focus heavily on the digital aspect of our brand and the e-commerce sites, because we know that that’s just going to be super important. Covid fast forwarded the way people consume and purchase [products]. Having said that, I still love to go out and buy products in stores and retail outlets, of course, and it was super important to me that Rose inc has retail partners, such as MECCA, where you can really go and feel and experience the brand. But the digital aspect has to be there across the board as well.

Some of the challenges have been supply chains and factories closing down; I mean, every road leads to COVID at this point. Whereas we might’ve had a big flashy launch event, we’re now looking at putting that time and energy and expense into different aspects of the brand.”

What do you feel is the most underrated Rose Inc. product?

“That’s a good question. I think the brow product as people might want to initially go for something that they feel is going to give them instant results, like a blusher or bronzer. But brows are often overlooked as a feature on our face. We never really think about the health of our brows and our eyelashes, so it’s important that the products we are using on them every day are replenishing and nourishing. For me, if I don’t wear a scrap of makeup, which happens rarely, but when I head out to the gym in the morning and I don’t wear any makeup, I always fix my eyebrows. It’s just my pet peeve to have a scruffy undone eyebrows. So, I’ll always wear a clear brow gel just to get me out the door.”

How would you like people to feel when they wear your products?

“Hmmm… I want them to feel empowered and I want them to feel they can define their own beauty standards by using our products. I want them to feel nurtured and nourished; I want them to feel creative; to build their own unique looks with no rules attached. For me, there is beauty in just being yourself and being in the moment, and just taking that time to come back to yourself.”

The Sydney Artist Giving Tough Love Advice

Best known for his hot-take cartoons, Struthless has reinvented himself into a self-help guru for the young and restless.

Article by Thomas Mitchell

On original artwork created by Struthless for T Australia.

The first thing I notice about Struthless (real name: Campbell Walker) is his tattoos. Or, more specifically, a single tattoo. He’s covered in an eclectic collection of ink, but one in particular catches my eye. Two words scrawled across his collarbone in hurried handwriting: “Role Model”. “I got that a few years back,” Walker says, sitting opposite me at a cafe in Sydney’s Inner West. “But I can’t stress enough that it was, and still is, 100 per cent ironic.”

And yet, with hundreds of thousands of people regularly watching his self-help videos on YouTube, role model is precisely what Walker has become. A comment on a recent video titled “Before You ‘Quit Your Job and Follow Your Passion’ Watch This” reads: “You are so inspiring, thank you for being you!” Adds another: “This helped get me through a dark place.”

Internet fame is nothing new to Walker. Over the past few years, the 30-year-old artist’s Instagram account, @struthless69, has garnered almost 250,000 followers with its colourful mishmash of finger-on-the-pulse cartoons that cover everything from Australian identity to internet culture, political apathy and the appetite for nostalgia. But in the past 12 months, Walker has altered the Struthless trajectory, shifting from Instagram cartoonist to YouTube self-help guy. “I’ve loved comics for such a long time but one day I felt like I’d represented every idea I could represent in a single frame,” he says.

The artist, who also co-hosts a podcast and makes apparel. Photography Yasmin Suteja with illustrations by Struthless.

In early 2020, Walker posted a clip titled “The Drawing Advice That Changed My Life”. Ostensibly it was a 10-minute video about his career. In reality, it was life advice packaged as a discussion about creativity and the struggle to find motivation. “Firstly, you need to act and only then will you find your motivation,” he says in the clip, staring down the barrel of the camera. “Thinking about stuff is not doing stuff.” The video racked up more than two million views as people connected with Walker’s unflinching honesty and relaxed delivery. Fast and loose, here was Tony Robbins with tattoos.

“This guy just gave me more legitimate advice in one video than my therapist ever has,” gushed one of the 7,000-plus comments. “Best video ever!!!!!” shouted another, using all caps. Walker was hooked. “I remember someone commented, ‘This changed what I was doing and now my life is better,’ ” he says. “That was like an adrenaline shot to my heart.” It’s no secret that we live in a society hooked on self-help, an obsession that has spawned a succession of cringeworthy gurus. “We can all agree that the genre sucks,” Walker says. “It has been corrupted and bastardised. And that’s because most people are doing it for money.”

Struthless for T Australia
“They Grow Up So Fast”, by Struthless for T Australia.

Market research conducted in 2018 suggests that the self-help industry in the US alone will be worth $US13.2 billion (about $17 billion) by 2022. What sets Walker apart is that he doesn’t mimic practitioners he sees online. Instead, he tests their advice to discover what works and, more importantly, what doesn’t.

“I’d noticed on YouTube that a lot of mainstream self-help voices have this undercurrent of, ‘Look how great I am,’ ” Walker says. “But the ones that made me feel good as a viewer, people like Brené Brown, focused more on, ‘Look how flawed I am.’ And that vulnerability makes you feel comfortable.” Today, Walker’s YouTube subscribers outweigh his Instagram followers, with more than 300,000 viewers tuning in to his weekly videos. The subject matter ranges from the typical (imposter syndrome, self-sabotage) to the topical (New Year’s resolutions, life in lockdown). “It’s usually based on whatever I’m going through at the time,” he admits.

Struthless Creates an Artwork for T Australia

Like so many of his millennial viewers, Walker is both fascinated by the concept of reinvention and challenged by the paradox of too much choice. “We have a lot more choices now and that breeds anxiety,” he says, “and with anxiety comes the need to ‘solve’ all those problems.” Hence the appeal of his self-help videos.

Rather than be crippled by the tyranny of choice, Walker has chosen to embrace it. “I know now that I am somebody who needs a lot of irons in the fire to feel good about the future,” he says. Hence his latest venture: Struthless Studios, an animation studio based in Marrickville, Sydney. Since launching the business in January, he has recruited a team of animators and collaborated with the Instagram account @BrownCardigan to produce an online cartoon series “Birdz of Australia”. The studio has also been animating content for the Dallas Mavericks NBA team and has just signed a TV pilot deal with a major US network.

Also on the horizon is Walker’s first book, “Your Head Is a Houseboat: A Chaotic Guide to Mental Clarity”, to be released in September. “It’s like a journey to the inside of your head,” he says. “But it’s super quirky, kind of funny and hopefully helpful.” As our interview finishes up, I suggest to Walker that “super quirky, kind of funny and hopefully helpful” is the most accurate way I could describe him in print. “If that works for you,” he says, smiling. “Just don’t call me a role model.”

A version of this article appears in print in our second edition, Page 21 with the headline:
“Tough Love”
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Miranda Otto on Juggling the Professional and the Personal

The acclaimed Australian actor is currently starring in SBS’s “The Unusual Suspects” with her husband.

Article by Lucy E Cousins

Miranda Otto stars in SBS's "The Unusual Suspects". Photography by Joel Pratley.

Miranda Otto is undeniably one of Australia’s most prolific and talented actors. Over the past three decades or so she has appeared in global blockbuster franchises such as “The Lord of the Rings”, award-winning television series like “Homeland” and “Rake”, and grassroots productions including the upcoming “The Moth Effect”, a sketch comedy series from “Bondi Hipsters” co-creator Nick Boshier.

Despite her success, Otto has always prioritised family, something that has affected her career choices. Like most of us, she struggles to find work/life balance, and partly because of that she is surprisingly relatable. “When I first got into the industry, I loved the nomadic nature,” she says, “because I just love travelling and going to new places, but with a family it’s much harder on everybody.”

When you speak with Otto, she’s calm and engaged. Her caramel voice is subtly arresting and she’s generous with her answers, sometimes going off on tangents in the most wonderful way. “What was the question again?” she asks with a laugh several times during our conversation. Currently starring in SBS’s The Unusual Suspects, Otto sat down with T Australia to talk about family, the significance of female friendships and working with her husband, fellow actor Peter O’Brien.

What drew you to the role on “The Unusual Suspects”?

“So what really drew me to the role at first wasn’t the role so much, it was really the whole thing. I was sitting here in Australia during lockdown and, I have to say, I was super paranoid, barely going out of the house, and I wasn’t even imagining being able to work. Then suddenly this script arrived and I started reading it and I couldn’t stop. It just, like, felt so fresh and fun and light, a complete escape from everything I was dealing with. And I just fell in love with it. I also loved the whole exploration of Filipino culture in Australia. I thought that was so fascinating and such a different take on this heist genre.”

Did you enjoy shooting in Sydney and what was it like working with your husband?

“Well, we were shooting all around the eastern suburbs, so it was beautiful. My husband, Pete, would swim in the ocean then come up to the makeup truck and sit in his Speedos. It was really fun working together, playing really good parts opposite each other. It would be boring for us to play, like, a married couple or something like that. That’s, you know, too close to home, but it was fun to have this set-up of a more antagonistic relationship between these nutcases — that was fun to play out on screen.”

You’ve worked on films and television series with varying production values, do you prefer big blockbusters or more grassroots productions?

“I’m more attracted to certain types of scripts rather than types of production. For example, “The Lord of the Rings” was a huge production and that was so much fun. But, at times, because Peter Jackson had such a background in independent filmmaking, it felt like an indie film in some ways. It just felt like a big family in the way that independent film always feels like a family, trying to get it done. But I’ve really loved travelling for the movies I’ve done, and I’ve gotten to see so many countries and worked in so many places because of acting. That’s one of the great perks of the job, I have to say… but, sorry, what was the original question?”

Photography by Joel Pratley.

“The Unusual Suspects” looks at the themes of female empowerment and female friendships. When do you think you felt the most empowered in your life?

“Oh, wow. When have I felt the most empowered? Oh, gosh. That’s a hard question to answer. It’s just something I’ve never thought about. I would have to say probably my character in “The Lord of the Rings” [Éowyn, a shieldmaiden] was hugely empowering. I loved her so much. I found that a really empowering role and I was extremely lucky to play such a strong female. [The author] Tolkien wrote a wonderful character at a very interesting time and since then there have been so many fighting women characters. It’s nice to be in there with them.”

And what do female friendships mean to you? Are they important to you in your life?

“Oh, definitely, hugely important. I mean, all friendships are really important. I’ve got friends I went through NIDA [National Institute of Dramatic Art] with who I’m still really close with. They are the kind of friendships where you can be away for a year and when you see each other, you’re still close. We are still in sync with each other. And I’m always fascinated by what my friends are up to and what they’re doing. But there’s just an ease in female friendships and I think they become more important in your life as your life goes on.”

 So over the last few years there’s been a resurgence in female-led production houses and script storylines. What excites you about that?

“I love watching female characters and I’ve always wanted there to be more women in my industry. We haven’t hit 50/50 yet, but I think it’s a really important consideration in the industry moving forward. I just think we need women’s perspectives. I yearn for that.”

What has been the most challenging part of being an actor?

“Actually, the most challenging part for me these days is the nomadic nature of the job. We are constantly trying to juggle our careers and our family life — working out whether my family comes with me when I work or whether I go on my own. That decision is really challenging, particularly in the States, because you can be based out of LA, but not much of the work happens there; it’s all happening in other places. That logistical organisation has been really hard.”

“And I’ve made big sacrifices, either way at times. I’ve not taken roles I would’ve liked to take, because we just can’t make it work, and then when I have accepted roles away from my family, I’ve felt really separated from them. I’ve just found that aspect very, very hard and I’ve missed out on so much.”


Miranda Otto stars in “The Unusual Suspects”,
screening now on SBS on Demand.

Celia Pacquola on Acknowledging Her Family’s History

The Australian comedian and actor explores her “uncomfortable” heritage in the new series of SBS’s “Who Do You Think You Are?”

Article by Jane Rocca

Celia Pacquola stars in SBS's current season of "Who Do You Think You Are?". Photography courtesy of SBS.

Whether it’s her self-depreciating comedy on stage, her perfectly executed (and hilarious) deadpan acting on “Utopia”, her quick wits (and giggles) on “Have You Being Paying Attention?”, her antics on the latest season of “Rosehaven” or her struggles and wins on last year’s “Dancing with the Stars”, it’s clear that comedian Celia Pacquola is all heart. Not to mention one of Australia’s most successful comedians and actors.

Yet, when she was asked to star in SBS’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” (premiering tonight) she almost refused. But not for any reasons you might think of. She didn’t consider herself suitably prominent. “I just thought I’m not famous or interesting enough,” she says. “It also felt arrogant to do so – it felt like ‘Hey, look at my life’. But the reason I did do it was for my mother, Pam. She was totally into the idea.”

So Pacquola signed up for the adventure feeling a little nervous of what she would learn; what she found was that her family had an uncomfortable past. “I was totally bracing myself for what would come up with this series,” she says, “because as white Australians in this country, our heritage and [my mother’s] English lineage is part of the colonisation story of Australia. I was nervous of what I would find and my fears were correct.”

The Melbourne-based comedian had planned to be back on the stand-up comedy circuit this year but now she finds herself back in lockdown in her home city. She spoke to T Australia about her mother, the revelations of the show and the anxiety diaries she once kept.

Celia Pacquola was nervous about what she would learn about her family in this series. Photography courtesy of SBS.

Firstly, why did being part of “Who Do You Think You Are?” mean so much to your mother?

“Mum grew up in Sydney and both of her parents passed away by the time she was in her early 20s. I guess, the city she had come to love became a place of sadness for her. She packed her bags and went to Melbourne, so she didn’t get to spend much time with her parents and learn about their history. I’m also closer to my Mum’s side than my father’s family, who are Italian – so it made sense to explore her side and find some ancestral stories related to her.”

Your mother has a great sense of adventure herself – tell us about that?

“My Mum is pretty remarkable. My second stand-up show [in 2010] was called “Flying Solos” and it was all about her flying planes. She used to live in the Yarra Valley and felt isolated in her marriage to my Dad. She wasn’t in a happy place at the time – not that I knew back then – but one day while doing the washing, a plane flew over her head. I guess she thought ‘That would be good to try’, because shortly afterwards she signed herself up for lessons and learned to fly in secret. She never told Dad. She would go to the Lilydale Airfield to practice, and actually after she did her first solo flight, she left Dad. She hasn’t flown for a while, but I have been up with her once when I was 20. Let me tell you, it’s the most terrifying thing in the world to look across and see that the person in charge of keeping you in the sky is your mother. She doesn’t know how to send text messages but she can fly a plane!”

What was the greatest discovery you made on the programme?

“It’s complicated because I had two very different experiences with the lives of two relatives. The first is the story of my three-time great grandfather, John Rae. He was a genuine beautiful loving man who took a tragedy and turned it into something that could help the world. He also was a painter and his former home in Sydney is now a public gallery. So I can now take Mum there to see his work and that’s something we didn’t know about and can enjoy. That aspect has been wonderful and worthwhile.

The second relative we investigated [Australian settler William Sherwin] was very uncomfortable, confronting and awful; but in many ways, it was more important and affected me deeply. This story follows an ancestor who came over in the early days of colonisation and it involves stolen land. Seeing the document where he was given stolen land was heartbreaking… All I could think of was how it would feel as a First Nation person watching that. I cried so much.”

How will learning this family history impact what happens next in your life?

“Well, now I am trying to learn about the land in Parramatta that is connected to my ancestors. I also hope that doing something like this show might encourage other people to think about their own personal relationships with history in this country. You know as white Australians we continue to benefit, while First Nations people are disadvantaged. I know I am part of [the problem] and I had a feeling that my family’s past might have had a part in it. But to go there and connect with a generous and kind elder, Uncle Chris Tobin, whose ancestors belonged to the land, was one of the most overwhelming experiences of my life. In a way I felt the TV show made it easier to watch and it should have been more uncomfortable; I am still working through these feelings and how I can help.”

What did you learn about yourself by delving into the past?

“Ha! Well, William Sherwin, for all his flaws was a smart ass; I guess I can relate on that front. Artist John Rae was a jack of all trades trying a million things, which I can identify with for sure. He could also paint, write poetry, and perform poetry. He tried a bunch of things, which is certainly a lot like me. I also learned I have feelings… When I was being filmed, I did wonder if I would feel manipulated, watched or exposed, but in the moment of discovery, I really felt like I saw my ancestors as real people and that did affect me profoundly.”

Celia Pacquola with elder Uncle Chris Tobin. Photography courtesy of SBS.

What’s next on the agenda for Celia Pacquola?

“We’re in the middle of editing Season 5 of “Rosehaven” and it was the first time we filmed it in summer in Hobart, which was amazing. I’m also working on another factual series about anxiety for SBS. And prior to lockdown, I managed to film a stand-up hour at the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne; to be back on stage and have people in the same room was something I was really craving. I also plan to go with Mum to Sydney when lockdown is finished, so we can see and enjoy John Rae’s artworks together.”

You’ve never shied from discussing your own battles with anxiety and depression. What do you hope to achieve through the new show?

“Anxiety is interesting – it’s hard to pin down. The feeling of being anxious is natural and you need it and it’s useful. But the difference between being anxious and having anxiety comes out in different ways in many people. This new show is for people who have anxiety, who want to know more about it and it’s for people who don’t have it too.”

How do you deal with your own demons these days?

“I have a combination of anxiety and depression. I know when it’s happening at a not appropriate level. For example, like walking to a gig and feeling like I am walking to my own execution is the most obvious way it manifests. It’s a fear of what is supposed to be a straightforward thing. It’s an over-reaction to what I know should be different. Anxiety also stops you from doing things. I think the potential for it is always there in me, but it’s about managing it, getting better at stopping it and catching it when it comes up. It’s still there to a degree, but it was a long time ago that I felt like that.”

You kept diaries during your most anxious years. Where are they now?

“My anxiety diaries are full of jokes of me talking to myself. It all goes back to when I started stand-up and earlier. Yes, I keep everything, but every time I pick them up, I ask myself whether I can handle the content within. Sometimes I say no, not today. As a stand-up you don’t want to throw away material – there might be five minutes of gold in there somewhere!”

What will your future comedy shows look like?

“I’ve not done a show about my time on “Dancing with the Stars” last year – maybe after all these factual TV shows I’m doing, this is where I’ll go next!”


Who Do You Think You Are?” premiers on Tuesday 8th June, 7.30pm, on  SBS and SBS on Demand.