Off camera, Miranda Otto and Teresa Palmer are a fascinating pairing: Otto with her signature red mane and regal poise, every inch the award-winning acting legend, and Palmer radiating a natural charisma that is evident in her string of Hollywood movie roles. Both women live in Los Angeles, but their paths, until now, have hardly crossed. It’s taken the chilling tale of a Melbourne cult accused of abducting and brainwashing children to finally bring the two Australian acting exports together. Now, on the small screen, as mother and daughter, they are forever bonded, at least in streaming history.
Otto plays the cult leader Adrienne Beaufort with an unnerving undercurrent of malevolence in “The Clearing” (now streaming on Disney+; all episodes available from 5 July), an adaptation of a loosely fictional 2019 book by JP Pomare. The thriller takes inspiration from cults and their leaders throughout history including The Family, led by the yoga teacher Anne Hamilton-Byrne, who drew followers from Melbourne’s elite in the 1960s and ’70s with a mix of Christianity, Eastern mysticism and apocalyptic prophecy.
While Adrienne seems the epitome of evil, Otto tells T Australia: “I try not to judge characters. You really have to just be inside it, seeing it from their point of view.
“I found her fascinating as a totally self-made person,” she continues, “who completely reinvents herself into the person she wants to be. She keeps herself away from a fair amount of the ugliness of the situation but, yes, there is a lot of weight in what’s going on.”
Palmer plays Freya, a woman forced to face the demons of her past in order to stop the kidnapping and coercion of children. As a mother of four, Palmer says she grew to understand her character. “I could relate to her in terms of just wanting the best for your children,” she says. “This is a woman who’s picking up the shattered pieces of her life to try and tend to her son, and grappling with these gaping wounds of her past.
“I love that both fragility and strength coexist within her while she’s putting one foot in front of the other,” she continues. “And I found that a beautiful thing to put on screen — this woman trying her hardest to change the narrative for her son and to create something that she was never afforded.”
Otto is assisted in her role not only by a formidable acting pedigree, but by costuming that includes a distinctive white-blonde wig and an unexpectedly covetable retro wardrobe. Says Guy Pearce, who also stars in the series: “We were surprised each time she turned up in some new vision of ’70s glamour.”
“In finding characters, I really rely on costume designers,” explains Otto. During her childhood in Brisbane and Newcastle, with her mother, Lindsay, and father, the actor Barry Otto, she designed costumes for scripts that she wrote with friends. “I feel that if you can look it, you can pretend to be it,” she says. “It can give you enormous confidence.”
Not that the actress needs twin sets and pearls to convince anyone that her star shines brightly. She is, according to Pearce, “the ultimate professional, utterly prepared always but, more importantly, alive with instincts and awareness that can’t be taught”.
Palmer’s approach is slightly different: for her, an effective performance has roots in the personal. “You can’t help but draw on your own ways of being when you’re colouring a character,” she says. “So much of it stems from who you are and the way you see the world.”
Off screen, Palmer says she seeks out “authentic, intimate, revealing conversations where you can be vulnerable”. The actress now lives in the Beachwood Canyon area of LA, but she comes from more humble beginnings. Her parents separated when she was three, and in the years after that Palmer mostly lived in public housing with her mother, Paula, whom she calls her best friend and “the sweetest, most generous, innocent person you’ll ever meet”.
As for becoming an actress, Palmer once told Vogue Australia: “I think my dream was born out of escapism, because I grew up in a really loving environment, but my mum had some mental health challenges and I just channelled a lot of my emotions through acting.” Her big break was winning a talent contest in Adelaide in 2003, before being cast in the Australian independent film “2:37”, about a high-school suicide, for which she was nominated for an Australian Film Institute Award for Best Lead Actress.
On the day we talk over Zoom, Palmer is doing double duty, discussing her acting career while nursing her sleeping daughter, Prairie Moon — something she manages to make look both effortless and oddly glamorous. She and her husband, the actor and director Mark Webber, have three more young children — sons Bodhi Rain and Forest Sage, and daughter Poet Lake — and share custody of Isaac Love, Webber’s son from a previous relationship.
Palmer is also the co-founder of the wellness supplement company Lovewell and the parenting website Your Zen Mama, which gives her a platform to talk to other women about fertility, pregnancy and conscious communication with children. “I love that part of my life; it sparks joy in me,” she says.
The family eats a plant-based diet, she tells me, and then laughs when she recalls the time a film crew came to her property and she insisted on rescuing snails from a garden path before allowing the crew to enter the pool area. Of her daunting schedule, Palmer says: “It’s always a juggle. Mark and I tag team and my mum is often with us. We also have non-negotiables: I need one hour alone without anyone asking me for anything, and I usually use that time to have a bath. I’m tired a lot of the time, but I wouldn’t change any of it for anything.” In fact, she says: “I’d have more children. I’ve always wanted a really big family, but I’m in a season of work right now and I’m lapping up every minute of opportunity.”
Over the past decade, Palmer has starred with Liam Hemsworth in “Love and Honor”; Billy Bob Thornton in “Cut Bank”; Christian Bale in “Knight of Cups”; and Chadwick Boseman, Luke Evans and Alfred Molina in “Message From the King”. Next year, she will appear opposite the heartthrob Ryan Gosling in the big-budget action movie “The Fall Guy” (she describes him as “such a beautiful, kind person”).
Her husband is a long-time advocate for the homeless and the couple helps raise funds for the cause, which is also championed by Webber’s mother, the American anti-poverty advocate Cheri Lynn Honkala.
Otto, who has been happily married for two decades, has said little publicly about her husband, Peter O’Brien, a fellow actor she met during a Sydney Theatre Company production of “A Doll’s House” (she told one media outlet, “I knew we were right for each other”). The two have a daughter, Darcey, 18, and live in West Hollywood, though Otto admits she isn’t a fan of the paparazzi’s invasion of everyday life and the obsession with “presentation of self 24/7”.
Her long and successful career has involved sharing the spotlight with such actors as Jim Caviezel, Harrison Ford and Tom Cruise in such milestone movies as “The Thin Red Line” (1998), “What Lies Beneath” (2000) and “War of The Worlds” (2005). Otto worked with O’Brien on “Through My Eyes” (2004), a television miniseries about Lindy Chamberlain, and, more recently,
on the crime caper “The Unusual Suspects” (2021), in which their daughter also stars.
Asked if Darcey may follow her parents into acting, Otto says: “Having grown up with two actor parents, she sees the business quite realistically. There’s never any secure, absolute certainty. You have to have a strong sense of yourself and you have to be really passionate about taking it on.” But, she adds, “What I find really encouraging is that Darcey doesn’t just see this business as a place where young women end up as actresses. She’s interested in directing, or editing …”
Now that Darcey has almost finished school, Otto is discovering the benefits of her own new-found freedom. “I’ve turned down roles because I felt I couldn’t miss the last months of Darcey’s schooling,” she says. No more. Otto has just wrapped the fantasy-adventure film “The Portable Door” — again with a knockout wardrobe — alongside Sam Neill and the Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz, under the direction of Jeffrey Walker, of “The Clearing”, whose other credits include the television hits “Lambs of God” (2019) and “Modern Family” (2009–2020). (Otto’s half-sister, Gracie, joined Walker and the mostly female cast and crew to co-direct “The Clearing”.)
In July, Otto will appear in the Australian horror film “Talk to Me”, the directorial debut of the YouTube stars Danny and Michael Philippou. Then there’s the Kenji Kamiyama-directed prequel to Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” film trilogy, “The Lord of the Rings: The War of the Rohirrim”, to be released in 2024. For Otto, it means revisiting a “hugely empowering” role that required her to ride into battle swinging a sword. She won a SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture for her portrayal of the shieldmaiden Éowyn and still
has the original sword at home.
Both Otto and Palmer believe that the battle for women’s equality in the entertainment industry is slowly being won. “Television, even more so than streaming, has had a huge effect on a wider range of women’s roles,” says Otto, who, in the past two years, returned to Australia to star in the critically acclaimed ABC drama series “Fires”, about the 2019–2020 bushfires, and in the Netflix comedy series “Wellmania”, in which she plays a celebrity sex therapist. “Shows that allow characters to develop over one or many seasons mean really good, meaty roles that are more creatively exciting than playing somebody’s wife,” she says.
It was Otto’s mother, a fashion designer and retailer, who taught her that women should not be valued for their looks alone. “She’s a self-made woman so I have seen her as someone who could stand on her own feet, and that’s the kind of thing that fills you up with confidence,” says Otto.
Palmer concurs that roles for women today are “not always just playing the love interest, which I think was most of my roles in my early 20s”. One of her favourites: portraying the jockey Michelle Payne in the 2019 biopic “Ride Like a Girl”, directed by Rachel Griffiths, her co-star from 2016’s “Hacksaw Ridge”. “I love being directed by females,” says Palmer. “They just have a different perspective. And I love watching films with a strong female lead. I still get stopped on the street by people saying what an impact that movie made on them.”
In the British television series “A Discovery of Witches” (2018–2022), Palmer and her co-star, Matthew Goode, enjoyed “favoured nations”, an industry expression for equal contractual terms. “I am hearing more about situations like that, so I feel like the narrative is changing,” she says. “Although we’re not there yet.” Another example of progress Palmer notes is the careful supervising of sex scenes by “intimacy coordinators”.
Playing opposite Otto has been a career highlight for Palmer. “I’ve always been a huge fan of her characters and her work ethic, and I’ve heard so much about her through the years because I’m friends with Gracie,” she says. For her part, Otto says Palmer is “such a great casting for Freya because she seems to carry the weight of this past history of the character, but she doesn’t let it weigh down every scene”.
Although the women have arrived at the same place via their own distinct paths, their beliefs about the nature of success are strikingly similar. “It’s finding the things that really light a fire in you and make you happy, and being able to pursue those,” says Otto. “On some days, for me, that’s just managing to make my way to work or complete a recipe and it actually turns out, and the other days it’s finding a way to make a scene or a particular character work.”
For Palmer, it’s “getting to be a mum but also getting to do what I love as a career … The fact that they coexist is wonderful and every day I feel grateful for that.”