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The versatile Radha Mitchell, co-starring in David Twohy's Pitch Black, shows she can stretch - from New York lesbian to space travelling action heroine. But, she tells Andrew L. Urban, "I don't do crap films." And Twohy tells what irked him working with Australians.

With a new house in Hollywood and a boyfriend (Australian, living in Los Angeles) of three years, Radha Mitchell is enjoying a more structured, almost normal life than she did as an actress just three years ago, "Although," she says, "I miss the freedom of when it was just free ….living like a gypsy." And she's in a pretty good position, "meeting all the significant directors at the moment…"

"the wardrobe is far from demure or girlish"

Smaller than you imagine her - especially after her latest and biggest film, Pitch Black, Mitchell has the innocent blue eyes of an angel and the clear-skinned freshness of a youth worker. But the wardrobe is far from demure or girlish.

A red scoop neck top over leg hugging multicoloured tights give her a slinky look, her short blonde hair accenting her attractive square face. Bathed in the late afternoon sun, which is slipping below the Sydney Harbour horizon outside the window of the hotel where we meet, she is more gamin -like than her action adventure character, Caroline Fry.

As Docking Captain Fry, Mitchell gets to play the Sigourney Weaver role (if this was Alien); "people want to you to say, 'oh I did this because I chose it…' But often it's a matter of what chooses you. I was lucky enough to get it. I like to choose what I audition for and so whatever comes out of that is the result - and that effects my life," she says with a little wry smile. "Why did I decide to audition for it? Well, it's an interesting script, great character, shot in Australia, get to go home, you know, a whole range of reasons. And because I guess it's not something I would often have the opportunity to do; it's a genre piece and I felt it was an opportunity to learn."

"we had pressure…but it was also exciting"

Nor should we underestimate the attraction of the big pay packet which a film of this size delivers. The Hollywood house was not bought on arthouse film roles. But it was physically challenging, "freezing a lot of the time. . .and it was like introduction to adulthood, 'cause everyone was very serious," says the 27 year old. "I'd never had three producers on set, watching, the whole time. So we had pressure…but it was also exciting."

Mitchell sees David Twohy as reserved. "He wrote the script so he's close to it, but he didn't give you a barrage of comments all the time. So I felt like we negotiated a lot of it on set between us as actors and he'd come in and mediate. It was fairly free. And (co-star) Vin Diesel brings a lot of energy…he's very positive, very focused on making the film a success, not cynical at all."

She went from the heavy action demands of the space thriller to the sweet romantic comedy of Cowboys and Angles, directed by Gregory C. Haynes and the noirish drama, Everything Put Together, before making a black comedy, Anasazi Moon, with Gary Oldman, Skeet Ulrich and Mary Steenburgen - none of which yet have Australian release secured. But it is evidence of her strong presence in the American filmmaking world, which she first encountered with High Art, Lisa Cholodenko's much acclaimed 1998 film that launched Mitchell internationally - made just 18 months after Love and Other Catastrophes. And it was getting an agent at Cannes on the strength of Love and Other Catastrophes that led her to Los Angeles, an agent who understood her desire to work in quality, independent film, and the coveted role in High Art.

But there are also a lot of things she has said she isn't going to do. "It's hard to say no - especially when you first say no, because as an actor there's so much insecurity about doing anything, to say no it feels like you're saying no to an opportunity. But I've learned to do that and when you do that you start to feel empowered!" What sort of things has she said no to? "Lots of independent stuff I've said no to because I feel it's not saying anything independent . . .or it's not that interesting."

"I've made myself very available to my career"

There's no set rules, no subjects or themes that are taboo: "I just don't do crap films," she says with a sweet smile. She admits to having put a lot of energy, focus and even making a few sacrifices for her career to date. "I've made myself very available to my career. And I've had to give up pieces of Australia."

Shortly after our interview, Mitchell heads back to Palmerston North in New Zealand, where she is shooting the thriller, Shearer's Breakfast, written and directed by New Zealander, Scott Reynolds.

In Shearer's Breakfast she play a waitress (American) in a diner where a man flees, claiming he's being chased by murderers. But the gang have a different story. Mitchell was offered the script by Beyond Film's Gary Hamilton (who was the sales agent for her first film, Love and Other catastrophes) and then met Reynolds in Los Angeles. She was cast even before the money was secured, "so they didn't know whether it was going to be Australian or American…" In the end, Sony Classics came up with distribution guarantees - and Mitchell was back to an American accent.

Mitchell co-stars with Josh Lucas, the up and coming young American actor who, she promises, will go places. Australian audiences will see him first in American Psycho.

"What's great about this is the voice of the director…it's the work of a real auteur, and he has an interesting, unique style. Kind of post modernist, non traditional narrative, yet he is working within the thriller genre - yet it's wicked…."

"it's a chance to learn"

There was a similar playing with the genre in Pitch Black, and Mitchell enjoyed the character of Fry; "how can you be both good and bad. I think it's complicated that way and that interesting about the character. How do you make her likeable when she's a bitch in the beginning?" They got the right gal for that one.

As for acting, she sometimes wonders why she does it. But she feels it's a chance to learn, "it makes you more mature about your identity. You have to put up with a lot of crap and you have to know why you bother."

It was at the insistence of the casting consultants that David Twohy agreed to a call back for Radha Mitchell, largely unaware she was Australian. "But in fact," he says, "Radha views herself as a child of the world, rather than just Australian." It was at the second screen test that Twohy saw "the many subtle elements" of Mitchell's talent, he says.

Having chosen the barren, supposedly hot and arid desert around Coober Pedy for the location of the alien planet, Twohy learnt a few things about Australia and Australians: first was that in June, Coober Pedy is not hot and arid. "It's bloody freezing…" The second was that Australian actors don't much like being called by their character name. "In America that's a sign of respect…it's how we work. But not the Australians. They got insulted," he says good naturedly.

"Australians embrace technology as we do"

The third thing, though, was what really irked him: "The crew wanted to start early so they could watch this big football game, and they explained to me it was like the Super Bowl…so I said I understand. Then they did it again the following week, and the week after that, and I said, look, there is only ONE Super Bowl game a year! But then they explained to me that these games were like qualifiers…I sorta understand, though I still don't understand football!"

On the other hand, Twohy was delighted with the crews on a professional level: "Australians embrace technology as we do in the US, so these guys are all up to speed."

Twohy, who has several awards from science fiction film festivals, traces his interest in the genre to his fascination for astronomy. "I may still get back to it…. either if I'm enormously successful or an enormous failure…" he jokes. "I love the big ideas in science fiction, and I love creating worlds, playing god, perhaps…." Nor surprisingly, perhaps, he also believes there is extraterrestrial life in space - "and much of it. Just mathematically it's entirely probable….but like many great astronomers, I don't believe we have seen any…I don't susbcsribe to the UFO theories."

"a three picture deal with Miramax"

As soon as Twohy finishes his promotional tour for Pitch Black, he begins work on a three picture deal with Miramax, which includes two sci-fi pictures. If any of them are set on remote planets, he might be back on Australian locations - but he'll probably avoid the end of the footy season.

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Radha Mitchell


PITCH BLACK - stars Vin Diesel, Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser, Keith David, Lewis Fitz-Gerald, Claudia Black; written & directed by David Twohy

Australian release: May 18, 2000.

David Twohy

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