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Rachael Blake thinks acting is weird, especially in a weird film like Perfect Strangers, but then she’s also inspired by the generosity of actors, and surprised by the likes of her co-star, Sam Neill, she tells Andrew L. Urban.

Rachael Blake was “in a caravan in the middle of nowhere” when she opened up the script of Perfect Strangers to read it through. “My first response was, “WHAT is that? And my second response was WOW! It was SO different to anything else I had been reading…it was so radically different I had to look at it.”

"eager to talk about the film"

Blake, the actress whose award winning roles range from Max in Wildside on television to Jane in Lantana on film, is sporting a stylish new hair cut of short blonde hair, contrasted with high heeled black shoes with points longer than her painted fingernails. Relaxed and eager to talk about the film, Blake says she “knew how to have it work for the first sort of quarter of the film, but then I thought… how does the rest of it work?”

The reason for her concern can’t be disclosed without spoiling the film’s mood and its revelations. It’s secrets are hidden in the story outline: Melanie (Rachael Blake) is single and looking, like her friends. One night at the pub, a few drinks later, she goes off with a handsome man (Sam Neill), another possible Mr Right. He leads her to his boat and takes her on a mysterious trip to his remote and wild island home, but the romantic surface is shattered when she realises he is keeping her prisoner, like a man obsessed. Violent and dramatic events leave them both the worse for wear, and Melanie is confused about her feelings for this complicated man. When a few days later her one-time (as in one night) lover Bill (Joel Tobeck) turns up unexpectedly, she has a lot of explaining to do – some of which she does with a shovel.

“I didn’t understand how it would work, so as an actor I thought that was a bit spooky. But then I met with Gaylene and took all those questions and concerns with me. Because it walks such a fine line….in fact (she breaks into a suppressed laugh) I don’t even know what line it walks!”

And what reassured Rachael was Gaylene herself. “We had a conversation about filmmaking that pushes boundaries, whatever they are, and that’s something we’re both quite passionate about. I’d rather be working in areas that I don’t know than in areas that I do know. It advances things if you’re risking something.”

"a collaboration"

When Preston said to her “Look, I don’t really know how to do it either, we’ll just play around…I like that. That spoke to me of a collaboration more than me being worked on.” 

The final confirmation that Blake was in the right hands came with the screen test, “when we improvised and mucked around a bit, I sang a bit and she got the camera and did something I really loved: instead of just sitting opposite me like most people at auditions, she did a 360 around me with the camera. That interested me; she works differently, I thought.”

Blake calls Preston’s directing style “organic”. It allowed her to find the character “in the take”. But it was still challenging; all of it, “especially when Sam [Neill] went off to do Dirty Deeds publicity for two weeks. “I don’t like working by myself very much. When Sam left I was alone a model man in a fridge for two weeks, I thought how is this going to work?” (The ‘model man in a fridge’ is a slightly cryptic clue for you, dear reader, which will solve itself when you see the film.)

The other thing Blake found difficult was all the work on the emotional scenes. “Scenes that require crying or screaming … I enjoy the fact that I’ve got it, that it’s in the can and it’s there for the story, but I don’t necessarily like doing it. It hurts.”

But when Sam Neill WAS there he was a pleasure – and a surprise. “I tell you what was really interesting about Sam: when I met him I thought I knew who I was going to meet. You know, I’d seen Jurassic Park and I expected to meet this terribly suave English sort of man. And that’s not who I met. And that surprised me. That’s when I realised that’s what people do to me all the time. They think they’re going to meet Max from Wildside. And that’s what I did to him. It was fascinating because I’m sure he works at making sure you do meet the real Sam. So for five weeks in rehearsals I got to know a man who wasn’t that debonair, suave Englishman. And I was fine, he’s just a cool guy, he supported me [in the work] and he’s lovely and generous, blah blah blah.

"it blew me away"

“Then we started shooting and we had rushes in this little church 40 kilometres from the location, and I sat there on the pew and suddenly there was Sam Neill on the screen …and I went, ‘oh my god, I’m making a movie with Sam Neill’. That’s when I got it: he turns it on for the camera. That’s acting. And I don’t think he gets the acknowledgment for that….because that’s not who he is. It’s so surprising… it blew me away. And I had a mild panic attack and …oh my gaawwd! (she holds her head in her hands as she did on the pew).”

Which is a good moment to ask her about this weird profession she’s in. “Yeah,” she drawls pensively, “I think it’s so weird and it gets more weird every day. If there was anything else I could do and feel like was home to me, I’d do it! But there isn’t. It’s disturbingly weird. Especially doing weird movies like this. It took a while to recover from this whole… emotional, traumatic thing. I was a bit shagged. 

“And there were times… like I’d catch myself crying in front of 30 complete strangers [the crew] and I think ‘what am I doing?’ I do question the sanity of that. But then I watch other actors and I’m so inspired by their generosity, that they’re prepared to unzip themselves – metaphorically speaking …”

So why do it? Partly it’s storytelling, she says, “but also I get a HUGE amount of self expression. I am far more revealing in film work than I would ever be in person.” That’s not so strange, considering she gets to be hidden behind the façade of a fictional character, not her own face. But here’s the contradiction: “There’s also this delight in …. This invitation, ‘watch me’ and I’m allowing you to watch me, and I enjoy being watched. Except when I’m walking down the street as Rachael…it’s really odd. There’s this permission I grant…in the work. Watch me.”

"a provisional licence"

Of course, Blake has just hit the fame nail on the head. It’s a provisional licence for us to ogle at our screen idols in very intimate, revealing close ups – but only on the screen. Of course many of us don’t recognise the very real border between the screen Rachaels and the supermarket Rachaels “buying apricots”. We’re not licenced to watch the latter.

Rachael Blake fully understands this: she’s caught herself doing it to other actors - like Ruth Cracknell. “I felt like such a drip…I saw her and grinned wildly and went ‘Hiiiii!’ and she looked at me blankly, and perhaps with a degree of quiet disdain, and I felt a real nong….I thought, ‘oh my god that’s what I do…’ 

Like all actors, when asked about their plans, Blake says “I just want to keep working really…” But then it is a stupid question. Except Blake does have – if not a plan, a dream: she wants to work in Europe. Yes, Europe. France, in particular. She admires European filmmakers. And she’s five weeks into her French lessons. 

Bonne chance, Mademoiselle Blake.

Published October 16, 2003

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Rachael Blake



Interviews by Andrew L. Urban

With co-star Sam Neill

... in Lantana

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