Mention Judy Davis, and immediately many women (and men) will say “My favorite actress.” I’m one of them. Born in Perth, Western Australia, her explosive debut at 23, straight from Sydney drama school, was the lead role in Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career (1979), the story of a 16-year-old aspiring writer determined to get out of the bush. The movie launched both their careers, and instantly etched Davis as a unique screen presence. She represents the quintessential woman of her generation—firebrand existentialist defining herself on her own terms, striving not to mold herself to another’s image. Which is, of course, a paradox for an actress, but one from which, through her masterly acting skills, Davis is able to draw an electrifying tension. As the lead again in Armstrong’s High Tide (1988), about a back-up singer who’s reunited by chance with her long-abandoned teenage daughter in a coastal trailer park, Davis thrills with her portrayal of powerful complex emotions.
Not surprisingly, in spite of international acclaim, Davis’ aptly selected supporting roles show a preference for auteur films—Harriet in Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, Burroughs’ slain wife and a Jane Bowles pastiche in David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, a ghostwriter-lover in the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink. They also show a decided literary bent—the repressed Adele Quested in A Passage to India, (for which she received an Oscar nomination), Harriet Herriton in Where Angels Fear to Tread, the intransigent George Sand in Impromptu. On the screen (I didn’t get to meet her in person) Judy Davis’ face rivets with its lunar pallor and full-lipped sensuality. Yet a Judy Davis character—strong-willed, high-strung, contrary—radiates an emotional intelligence that’s always on the qui vive, edgy, subtle and intense, with an inner truthfulness that compounds her erotic appeal.
After a number of American films, Davis’ lead role in the current Children of the Revolution, also starring Sam Neill and Geoffrey Rush, seems ideally suited for her. It won her the Best Australian Actress Award for 1996. In this epic satire, set over four decades, Davis plays Joan Fraser, an ardent Australian communist who pens impassioned letters to Stalin (F. Murray Abraham). Her visit to Moscow and tryst with Stalin engenders a monstrous offspring who becomes head of the biggest law-enforcement agency in Australia, driving the country to the brink of civil war. Earlier this spring, seemingly eons after Communism’s global capitulation, I resignedly spoke long-distance to Davis in Los Angeles about this film’s revolutionary swan song and other matters pertinent to our full-blown capitalist times.
Liza Bear Did you fly in straight from Australia?
Judy Davis Yes, I did, yes.
LB From shooting a movie?
JD No, from my home in Sydney.
LB I haven’t seen your latest films, Blood and Wine or Absolute Power, but I saw Children of the Revolution at Sundance.
JD Did you like it?
LB Oh, I loved it. I thought it was a hoot . . . Do you like it?
JD Yeah, I do. I love it too.
LB But you don’t like all the films you’re in?
JD No. Not all of them necessarily work in the end. That’s to be expected, really.
LB Do you think Children worked all the way through?
JD Well, it’s very ambitious. This was Peter Duncan’s first script and first directing job. Logistically, it was very challenging.
LB How so?
JD He had nine weeks to film it in. And yet he had to somehow give a sense of two countries, Russia and Australia. And he had to stretch from the 1950s through to the present. He had to go through anti-war demonstrations, have all his key characters aging. It was almost epic in its scope. And on a really tiny budget, maybe $5 million. Given what for me would be utterly daunting obstacles, I think he managed sensationally.
LB What was your reaction to the role of Joan Fraser when you first read the script?
JD (pause) I was surprised that a young man—he’s 34—had written such a role for a woman. A woman who is as vibrant, if not more vibrant when she was older as when she was younger. Woody Allen writes really wonderful roles for women, and doesn’t seem to have a prejudice about age, but mostly writers lose interest in women as they get into their fifties and sixties. They don’t find them as potent. And in Peter’s case, I think he actually found Joan increasingly potent. In the script she was meant to represent the revolution. When the [Berlin] Wall comes down, it’s only a matter of time before Joan herself will die. There’s really nothing left for her. She crumbles as well. Perhaps the director was free in his approach to Joan because her character is based on his grandfather, who was a Stalinist.
LB The time transitions were beautifully done. Did you find Joan a challenging role?
JD Oh yeah, really challenging. I wasn’t nervous about the aging. I was as nervous about being young Joan as being old Joan. I don’t know how old I looked, but I was trying to play somebody in her late twenties when Joan went to Moscow. I was trying to get that sense of naiveté, which can be quite a difficult thing to catch when you’re forty and getting a little bit cynical. I found that quite as difficult as being older. But the opportunity to be able to play an old woman who wasn’t a cliché, who was this gnarly, potent, ferocious creature, was just the kind of older woman I’d longed to see on the screen.
LB You get to be a parent and a fighter—the role brings out two extremes. Did you try to keep a tension between the two aspects of Joan’s character?
JD Ummm . . .
LB Well, I suppose it’s not terribly developed in the film since the film’s a comedy rather than a character-driven film. Do you relate to that sense of fighting for the revolution?
JD Me personally? No. Not at all. No no no, I’m not a political animal in that way. Although I admire people who are. I feel rather envious of people who can believe so utterly in something. I can’t, myself.
LB You mean, you can’t believe in something outside yourself.
JD Yes, like a religion or a political belief.
LB I thought the script was rather subtle. There was a constant ambiguity about certain lines of Joan’s that could apply to one’s own personal revolution. Like, “Do we want a discreet revolution?”
JD Yeah, yeah . . . so you’re asking whether . . .
LB I mean, do you feel you’re constantly fighting for your own terms in your life, in your work?
JD I think probably when I was younger. There are so many preconceptions about what a young woman should be like, how she should speak—what her attitude should or shouldn’t be. When I was in my early twenties in Sydney, working in the film industry . . . It’s different now, but then it was very male-driven, and I found it very difficult.
LB Were people condescending?
JD No, it was more that some men that I came across found me rather shocking, and I puzzled over that. There really is nothing shocking about me. And I came to the conclusion that in some instances they were shocked because I expressed opinions about things.
LB About your role, for instance?
JD Yes, I suppose. The way I questioned things, or perhaps suggested improvements during the making of the film. The [film] industry then wasn’t used to that. And sometimes it became difficult. Not always. But I’m thinking of one director in particular whom I would rather not mention. He actually accused me once of being self-opinionated, which I suppose is very condescending. It assumes that because you’re a young woman you shouldn’t have opinions. Or if you have them, you should keep quiet about them. And I found that truly shocking, that kind of attitude.
LB So this was in the late ’70s?
JD More 1980.
LB Well, some people don’t get it, do they.
JD (laughter) It was a very backward view, yeah.
LB I checked Peter Duncan’s biography on the Internet and I noticed he had acted in three films.
JD Oh yeah? I didn’t know that. He was great. He was remarkably open for being a first-time director with his own script. He’s a tremendous admirer of Woody Allen. I think Woody’s been a bit of an inspiration for him.
LB Did you have any input into your role?
JD A little bit. The speech where she rants at the television when she sees Gorbachev and Reagan—that scene came about because I’d suggested to Peter that we hadn’t seen Joan for a while and maybe the audience would like to know how she was getting on and responding to events. And I’d met Howard Barker, an English playwright years ago who’d told me his father was a Marxist and they’d spent years sitting in their lounge room screaming at the television set. That’s a wonderful whose own grandfather was also a Marxist. And he had done a similar thing! Peter went away and came back with this fantastic speech. I made input in that way.
LB Is it difficult as an actress to sustain a role in a film that stays on the level of satire? Towards the end of the film I found myself wishing that it would shift gears and become more like a drama, and less like a satire.
JD Ah, that’s interesting. I think that’s what Peter was trying to do, actually. And if some of the scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor were still in the film, it would be even clearer that the film was going in that direction. But it would have been longer.
LB Do you feel you’re the child of any kind of revolution?
JD Well, I missed the ’60s revolution. I was in primary school then.
LB You did run away to Thailand at 17 though, didn’t you?
JD Yeah. My family and educational background were rather cloistered, so I felt the need to break free. I say that, and yet there was one particular woman at the school I went to in Perth who was a wonderful creature.
LB Was it a girls’ school?
JD Yes. There were boarders there, but not me. She was an amazing woman. But in fact that system punished her too. She was forced to leave Perth and shifted over to Sydney. This was the late ’60s and the Catholic church was going through its own turmoil then (about what behavior to allow). Our school was caught in the middle. I’m not by nature a revolutionary kind of personality. I really like a peaceful life. But I don’t like abuse of power. That’s come up as a problem occasionally. You don’t have to look too far to see abuses of power. I’ve always found it very hard to come to terms with that.
LB Power of position, right?
JD What power does to people. And how people respond to power. There are a lot of people who don’t respond to power very well at all. Some people do and they’re great.
LB When you had a child, did that make a big change in how you viewed the world, or your work? Did everything change?
JD Yes, it transformed almost everything. I really grew up very quickly. I was just a big indulgent baby before I had a child. And certainly money was not a concern of mine at all. I was rather arrogant about it, in fact.
LB Why? ’Cause you made plenty or . . .
JD No, no. I thought I was above it all, above that kind of coarse need. But the minute Jack was born, I started to think seriously about how we were going to support him. It did make me grow up. It changed my attitude towards acting too. I got more businesslike about it. I was wasting a lot of time before then. I never have been a consistent worker—job after job after job. Temperamentally I always need space in between roles to collect myself again and to develop a need to produce something else. But I started to take it much more seriously once Jack was born. All sorts of social things too. Before I had a child I wasn’t really aware of living in a community. I felt quite separate from it, being an actress. That’s not unusual, especially if you’re doing a lot of theater, which I was. You work at night, part of the day gets lost. You drift about a bit in this subculture of actors . . . That all changed. Now the community that I live in is my child’s community, and it’s become mine as well. And it’s become very important for me to feel we’re all a legitimate part of that. It really helped me as an actress too.
LB That gives you a whole other strand to work from, right?
JD Obviously, it should always have been there anyway. It’s such a concentrated experience, those early years of trying to learn how to act, trying to learn the craft, finding your way through the maze of an industry. You can suddenly find yourself quite isolated.
LB Are you committed to living in Australia?
JD I didn’t want to force my child to be a migrant. It hasn’t proved necessary to move.
LB What do you think is special about Australian film?
JD What’s made it easier for Australian filmmakers than young American filmmakers is this government subsidy system. Certainly up to this point anyway the films have cost a lot less money to make. There are only 17 million people in the whole country.
LB So you think individuality is still valued there?
JD (pause) Anywhere you go on the globe I don’t know whether things can vary much. We are social animals, and we exert tremendous social pressures on each other. Most people are conformists, and then you try to figure which society is the more tolerant of aberrations that occur within it. I don’t know whether Australia is any more tolerant than America. In some ways, Australia is the great conformist country, where anybody who had the audacity to appear wildly different could be attacked. I think that’s true historically. Maybe it’s getting better. But certainly the Australia that I grew up in in the ’60s was quite a conformist country.
LB How do you see things changing in the world your son’s going into?
JD I’m still trying to figure that out. He goes to a state primary school, and I find that very conformist, in fact.
LB Do you think he’ll have the freedom and the space to be who he wants to be?
JD He’s going to demand it, that’s his nature. It’s the way we’ve brought him up. I’ve always been interested in what he thinks about everything. Before he could speak I was asking him for his opinion on things. It was ridiculous. I don’t know how often that happens with kids, that adults show a genuine interest in their opinions. Anyway, that’s certainly what we’ve done with Jack, and it may create problems for him within systems, but in the long run it’s best for him . . . You know, I don’t mean to suggest that Australia is more conformist than any other country. Conformity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either, as long as it doesn’t lead to a narrow-minded view. Sadly, it often does. I’ve never been very good at conforming myself. I could have tried to, but I really wouldn’t have been able to pull it off.
LB Other than Joan Fraser, what do you rate as your most rewarding film roles?
JD Well, High Tide for one. That film was very emotionally draining. I’m not entirely sure what it taught me. I got pregnant straight after that film. Maybe that’s why it’s a bit of a blur. It’s curious that after playing that role of reuniting with my daughter, I actually became a mother. So I was given a very clear indication of the distance between what I imagined and the reality.
LB Maybe because you were so successful in the role it gave you the freedom to be a mother afterwards.
JD Oh, that’s a nice way of looking at it. It produced a fantastic baby.
LB Do you prefer to use “actress” or “actor?”
JD Actress, actually. We can all call ourselves actors, but it doesn’t mean the parts get any better.
LB How do you make sure you get the psychic space that you need on the set, especially when you’re dealing with first-time directors?
JD I found over the years it’s been useful not to collect a series of essential rituals. It would be too difficult to force that issue. And my preparation time for, say, a difficult sequence has decreased too. I needed more time [to get into character] when I was younger. Or I thought I did. So I’d kind of overkill it a bit. But if an actor or an actress needs time, you’ve just got to have the courage to say so. I haven’t often felt the need to do that. Certainly on Children of the Revolution that didn’t arise. There would have been no problem at all if it had. Peter was very open to anything. On a film set I don’t use up too much energy sitting around and chatting and gossiping. I find that kind of social interaction extremely draining. I probably keep myself a little isolated when I’m not actually on the floor working. Every actor’s different. Some actors need to chatter a lot before they go into a take, for whatever reason.
LB Do you work out, or do anything physical?
JD I occasionally work out.
LB You’re not a big exercise freak.
JD That’s the tricky thing, because you can overdo exercise. I did a film here in Los Angeles once, New Age, and I thought, well, I’m going to have to go to the gym everyday, because that’s what they do here. It’s going to make me feel like a local. So I got incredibly fit—too fit. When I left and went off to France and I couldn’t get to a gym everyday, my body very quickly started falling apart because it had been so tuned to that constant pumping. And it’s a very unnatural thing, too.
LB What role did you play in your latest film Absolute Power (with Clint Eastwood)?
JD I play the President’s Chief of Staff. A very, very different character from Joan Fraser. I can say what I thought I was playing, but not having seen the film, I’m not quite sure how it’s ended up. The character I was aware of playing was really hard-nosed, tough, amoral, committed to the President—you know those Washington people. It was very interesting going to Washington. Really a shock. It didn’t look anything like I’d expected. It was rather like a museum. It’s full of very imperial buildings from a time when people really believed in institutions like government. We’re all a bit cynical about them now.
LB Is there anything about communism’s ideals that you miss?
JD The film may be poking fun [at communism], but the way I played Joan, I wasn’t poking fun at her at all. When Joan believed in something, I was believing it too. And because of that I felt I was giving her, and people like her, respect. The film ultimately doesn’t mock Joan. I think the director was saying, with the best intentions in the world people like Joan can be very dangerous. Which is a very legitimate thing to say about any zealot. But having said that, when Joan speaks in the film about what she thinks is wonderful about the Soviet Union, who could disagree? It’s just that there is an enormous chasm between the theory and the reality. And that was always the dilemma with Marxism. But, in a sense, Joan is a theorist. She’s excited by, devoted to the theory.
LB Don’t you think the film satirizes capitalism equally? The ending’s so cynical. When Joe finally finds out he’s Stalin’s son he sells his life story to a publisher and options the movie rights.
JD Yeah. Money.
LB What’s your next project?
JD I did a Woody Allen film which should be coming out at the end of this year. It’s called Deconstructing Harry. A lot of people like Demi Moore are in it. But, you know . . . Woody doesn’t like you to talk about his films in advance.
—Liza Bear is a short story writer. She writes on film for The New York Times, Newsday, the Village Voice, and on the internet.