Essie Davis Continues To “Raise The Bar” With ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’

Now out on Digital Platforms and Cable VOD, True History of the Kelly Gang centers on the life of 19th century outlaw Ned Kelley (1917’s George MacKay). Essie Davis delivers a gutsy and unfliching performance as Ned’s mother Ellen, and she talked to us about the immersive experience behind the feature.

[From left to right] Essie Davis As “Ellen Kelly”, Russell Crowe as “Harry Power”, Orlando Schwerdt as “Young Ned Kelly” and Director Justin Kurzel in Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

During the interview, Essie Davis talked about working with her filmmaker husband Justin Kurzel on True History of the Kelly Gang and her continuing quest to raise the bar in whatever project she tackles. Davis also briefly discusses her work with filmmaker Jennifer Kent (The Babadook) and elaborates on why Dancer in the Dark is one of her favorite movies.

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From your up close and personal vantage point, what makes Justin Kurzel a unique director?

He is an extraordinay filmmaker. He’s one of the greatest directors I’ve ever worked with. He is a person who has such integrity and bravery and an extraordinary eye for detail and for the truth.

(Justin) approaches work like no one I have ever met. What I have found from being around the other cast and crew that he has worked with – he’s a problem solver and he always ends up with – I don’t know if this true of every film, but there is always some budget problem or compromises. There are always compromises that have to be made and his way of solving those compromises is always mindblowingly not the way that anyone else I know thinks.

Even in the development of this, we were ready to go into filming about eight months earlier and the budget fell through. It had to be rewritten to cut out more and more of the kind of magic realism that is a part of the novel. As the budget got smaller – it’s an epic cast and an epic story. He was like, ‘Well if we can’t afford this many authentic police uniforms and we can’t afford to build the actual period wooden huts for this many people, then let’s reimagine this as if we’re inside Ned Kelly’s helmet.’

Here’s part of my audio interview with Essie Davis, and the full chat is available for our CinemAddicts Patreon members:

(Justin) inspires that ultimate thinking in everyone around him and his first film The Snowtown Murders when he was working on that – he wanted to become a film director for quite some time. He was a production designer when we met. When this script finally came into his hands and he worked on it for so long, he said ‘I don’t think I’m going to use actors because I don’t believe any of them would be able to pull it off.’

He went out and cast in the community all of the people who were in that film and brought in one actor who had never done film before to play this outsider who comes into this community.

The performances in (The Snowtown Murders) are extraordinary and the actress (Louise Harris) in that (film) won best supporting actress in our awards that year for her performance. She’s just a girl he approached in a shopping mall because she was having a humdinger of a fight with her boyfriend (laughs).

That kind of bravery – what is the point of making something safe? What is the point if you’re not aiming for the highest quaility and the greatest way of storytelling? Then why make something?

He’s so incredibly brave and in True History of the Kelly Gang we had this manifesto; each actor has a manifesto of what they should do to prepare for their role. It is shape shifting. It is watching, listening to trying on, buying new boots and wearing those. It’s what to eat and what to watch. Who to emulate, who to befriend. It’s a manifesto that’s five pages long of what everything you could do to prepare for the role.

Three weeks before shooting, the boys had to pick up an instrument, form a band, write some punk songs and perform a gig. He booked them into a music venue three weeks later. He said ‘What’s the name of your band? You better get to writing because you’re going to be on in three weeks (laughs).’ They did it and Ben Corbett who plays Red Kelly, Ned’s dad, he’s a punk musician of his own band 6ft Hick, and he does this incredible, jiu-jitsu self-flagellating performance (where he’s ) dancing, splits, (and) singing.

And we were doing that together. Dancing in rehearsals and he was teaching Orlando (Schwerdt), George (MacKay) and I how to move to this kind of music while the boys are writing songs. Two of the songs are in the film and they performed. They put on their dresses. There was a real, live audience who went to see this punk band. They were exceptional. It was a phenomenal performance and an amazing night. And then they became this kind of untouchable connected gang that was so empowered by having done this performance and written this music together.

He’s an extraordinary filmmaker. And his Macbeth is one of the greatest Shakespeare films that was ever made as well. You should watch them all I have to say! (laughs)

Nicholas Hoult as “Constable Fitzpatrick” in Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release
Speaking of bravery, movies like this and The Babadook are just a few examples of how you approach your own work. Has that type of courage been a part of who you are or did you grow into that as an actress?

I think I’m always growing as an actor. I think there’s a level of bravery you get with everything you try. I think I always had that in theater and I had a pretty substantial theater career before I really moved into film. But I think also the nature of the roles that I have been given opportunities to play are so different from the nature of the film roles that were available to me when I was starting my career.

Because people have seen my bravery on stage, they’ve said ‘actually maybe this is the role for Essie’ in (The Babadook). Jennifer Kent (director of The Babadook) and I knew each other in drama school – she was a year ahead of me at NIDA and she’s an extraordinary actress herself and I trusted her implicitly. When you trust someone, you can be even braver. My aim is always to be brave. Acting can be excrutiating and embarassing and debilitating (laughs) but that’s my job. You just have to feel the fear and do it anyway (laughs).

After True History of the Kelly Gang you traveled to Morocco for Miss Fisher & The Crypt of Tears? How did you find the energy to work back to back on ambitious projects?

Fryne Fisher is such a joyous and energetic character within herself. The vivaciousness in which she lives life is kind of infectious. It’s all exhausting. It’s all hard work but there is joy in creation and I think the more you put into something, the more you get out of it in everything that you do in life. If you’re really committed and pour yourself into something, it gives you great energy and satisfaction in the creation of it.

Creating itself is like a life force so you just get inspired to make things better and better and better. That’s my endeavor is always to raise the bar and just try and inspire everyone to work hard with love and passion and make it better. Be bolder. Aim higher. Strive harder (laughs).

Can you name one of your favorite films and what is it that still resonates with you today?

I’ve got a lot of favorite films. I’m going to say Dancer in the Dark. I think Lars Von Trier is an extraordinary filmmaker. I’ve always loved his films. Breaking The Waves would probably be my first, favorite, favorite, favorite film and I think it is brilliant and extraordinary.

Dancer in the Dark is not only brilliant and extraordinary. (Lars Von Trier) writes films that are from a female perspective the most incredible powerful stories about the woman’s ability to survive and the genorosity of the female spirit. Bjork in that films is extraordinary. The fact that it’s a musical set in this industrial kind of world.

It’s very realistic. It’s not a fantasy. It’s like a reality lived in music and dancing that is the most heartwrenching thriller and devastating story about female sacrifice. And I think it’s extraordinary.

True History of the Kelly Gang is now available on Digital Platforms and Cable VOD. The ensemble also includes Russell Crowe, Nicholas Hoult, Charlie Hunnam, and Thomasin Mckenzie.