ScreenDaily profiles Bright Star’s Abbie Cornish, The Hurt Locker’s Jeremy Renner and Scott Hicks, director of The Boys Are Back

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Abbie Cornish
Jeremy Renner
Scott Hicks

Best Actress

Abbie Cornish, Bright Star

“I never trained as an actor and I feel I’m always learning about myself as an actor, because each film is different and you bring what you know and adapt,” says Australia-born Abbie Cornish. Filming Bright Star for writer-director Jane Campion, Cornish says she learned to enjoy rehearsals. “There were three weeks of them, but I think Jane would have done it for three more months if she could.”

As Fanny Brawne, the fiercely independent acquaintance of John Keats who falls into an intense romance with the poet, Cornish researched furiously before the nine-week shoot started in the UK in early 2008. She read Keats’ poems and letters of course, and learned to sew. But when she immersed herself in Brawne’s journal, the story of ill-fated young love got its hooks into her.

“[Fanny] had a day-to-day journal and the way she wrote was like perfection. The fact she must have been so messed up at the time makes it incredible,” says Cornish, referring to Brawne’s awareness that her cherished Keats was dying and they were living on borrowed time. “It was so painful to look at it because of how controlled it was.”

Cornish and Campion agreed that Brawne “was breaking rules left, right and centre”, so it was only fitting that Cornish, who, Campion has noted, is something of a rebellious soul herself, be given the space to find the character. “Jane did such a great job of not being tied to the period but at the same time being respectful of it. Jane sets up space for you on the shoot and creates a very intimate feeling.”

Cornish worked with dialect coach Gerry Grennell to fine tune that flawless English accent and “find where Fanny’s voice sat in her body so that when I spoke it sounded natural”.

She says: “There was so much preparation for Bright Star and I had read so much for it that [when we started shooting] I was ready to go.”

Jeremy Kay

Best Actor

Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker

To understand what it is like to serve as a bomb-disposal technician in Iraq, The Hurt Locker’s Jeremy Renner spent a week at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California. Encased within the 100lb protective suit, a simple task such as transferring piles of paper clips became almost herculean.

“I wanted to pass out,” Renner says. “You can manoeuvre, but not gracefully. The heat means you don’t see clearly. Being in a suit like that dumbs you down by about 25 IQ points, so you have to focus. To be in combat on top of all that, stress levels sky-rocket.

“I spent time with the guys and they opened up their lives to me. They come in all shapes and sizes. It’s a volunteer part of the army, which fascinates me. What they all have in common is training, a mental toughness. They’re not afraid of the IED [improvised explosive device]; they’re worried about how long they’re spending over the IED because they have more chance of getting shot at. They can deal with the bomb.”

A year later Renner donned the suit again, this time in the 125 degree heat of Jordan for three months in late 2007 under the watchful eye of director Kathryn Bigelow. Renner’s performance as the mesmerising staff sergeant William James demanded complete immersion in a methodology and philosophy of life, revealing an expert soldier governed by professional exactitude and deep reserves of compassion. The role has already earned him the best actor award from the National Society of Film Critics in the US.

“I always like to look at the deeper layers,” says Renner. “It’s about doing what’s honest. I’m very aware there are obvious choices and Kathryn was about capturing the subtleties.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in a desert shootout sequence, when James bonds with the other soldiers in his bomb squad, played by Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty.

“It’s about leadership and you see how the buddy system works in that scene.” Very few words are spoken, which suits Renner just fine. “I told Kathryn we should do a silent film. I would much rather communicate in other ways than lots of words. Mark [Boal]’s script was fairly frugal with words.”

Jeremy Kay

Best Director

Scott Hicks, The Boys are Back

The latest film from director Scott Hicks, The Boys Are Back starring Clive Owen, tug hard at the heart strings but without too much sentiment and manipulation. The tale about a man learning to be a better dad after the death of his wife, does not try to turn on the tears with music, for example, and has considerable authenticity, in part because Hicks determinedly rejected the familiar.

“I wanted the audience to find the emotion themselves,” he says. “I also put scenes through a primitive filter in my head. I asked, ‘Have I ever seen this in a film before?’ A lot got cut out as a result. I had seen a funeral in almost every film but not a body bag coming out of the family home.”

The UK-Australia co-production came to Hicks in 2004 via its UK producers, Tiger Aspect Pictures, and will be released in Europe and the UK early this year. It took an admirable $1.1m (a$1.2m) in its first 10 days in Australia after opening on November 12, but the limited US run through Miramax Films was unspectacular.

The Boys Are Back is the first feature filmed on home soil for Hicks since his breakout hit Shine, though he always conducts post-production in Australia. Making the film in a place he knows and loves, and in a real house not on a soundstage, injected air into what could have been a drama without scale, he says.

Hicks agrees that he “defaults to the intense” but believes in humour, both on screen and in production. When deciding who to work with, the question is never whether their work is any good because you know it is, he says, but “whether you will survive in the same room together for six months without killing each other”.

Sandy George