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Born to be creative and “let everything out” Abbie Cornish is completing her Australian media tour promoting Somersault, her first leading role, just as her next film is announced, in which she stars with Heath Ledger and Geoffrey Rush. This ‘overnight star’ has seven years experience behind her, and she’s cool, calm … and creative, as Andrew L. Urban discovers.

Driving through Sydney traffic towards Kings Cross, I am tuned to 702 Sydney, where the ABC’s Sally Loane is interviewing Abbie Cornish. In 20 minutes time, I am to be interviewing Abbie Cornish at a boutique hotel in Darlinghurst Road, which has a walled-in courtyard at the rear, complete with man-made fountain, which drizzles into a shallow display pool. 

As Cornish arrives, right on time, we take a window-side table in a suit, and Cornish remarks that with the courtyard and the ambiance, we could be in Tuscany. She has made the cross city trip with the same calm that she displayed on radio, and is remarkably relaxed as we swing into a conversation about Abbie Cornish, Overnight Star. The jokey irony is intentional; anyone closely familiar with Australian film would know that Abbie Cornish, although only 22, is now a seven-year veteran of acting. She began on TV in 1997 with Wildside, and Somersault is her fourth feature film (after Monkey’s Mask, Horseplay and One Perfect Day) – but, true enough, her first lead role.

"born to create"

“I think I was born to just let everything out, you know what I mean, born to create,” she says, flinging her arms open wide, “ever since I was a kid I always had my fingers covered in paint, and every birthday and Christmas I would get inundated with art supplies. I’d steal mum’s camera and take photographs …I was always creating and building. I’d build rafts and swim in the local dam, build mud-cakes and cubby houses and run around playing commandos…”

These days, Cornish doesn’t play commandos (at least not in public) but she does play characters, like Heidi in Somersault, which has won her acclaim from Cannes (Un Certain Regard) to London and now Sydney. She continues to paint, in oil on canvas, and to take photos. She has hundreds of the former and thousands of the latter. This is what she does between jobs. “I do abstract impressions on canvas,” she explains, “lots of colour and texture…like Basquiat.” Basquiat, the late New York artists, is her favourite painter, and Julian Schnabel’s film of Basquiat is her favourite film.

With a steady gaze through clear, open eyes, Cornish conveys a maturity and intelligence which is neatly balanced by a ready laugh and a self deprecating manner. She’s just the girl next door…. but in a great neighbourhood. Dressed in a casual but individual fashion, she wears an open, soft, black top over a grey T shirt, rusty brown slacks decorated with a wide, black belt with metal-ringed belt holes. She is cool but proudly true to her own self.

"a film that was really honest"

It’s not surprising that she hones in on the one quality in the film that was the mantra for writer/director Cate Shortland and Cornish herself: honesty. “The script was so well developed, through AURORA (NSW FTO script development scheme) that it didn’t need much change. But I remember as a team what we tried to do was to make a film that was really honest. It’s realistic – and I think that’s where the ambiguity comes from, the naturalness of the characters and the situations.”

In Somersault, Cornish plays Heidi, who is just 16, but her life isn’t sweet – and she has been kissed. In fact, she’s been doing the kissing, with her mum’s (Olivia Pigeot) no-hoper boyfriend. The kiss becomes something of a kiss of death for the mother-daughter relationship right then, and Heidi runs away from their Canberra low-rent home, catching a bus to Jindabyne at the foot of the resort-driven mountains. She is befriended by the motel keeper (Lynette Curran) whose son’s mini-flat is empty – while he’s in jail. Desperate not to be alone, she uses her newfound, sexually awakened body to make contact with the world. Well, men…well, boys, actually. She takes a shine to one young man who’s different, though, Joe (Sam Worthington), the son of a local farmer and a tad more worthwhile than the rest. They are tentatively drawn to each other in a complex journey that is filled with misunderstandings and painful realisations. But the process does help them understand the need for real emotional attachment.

It’s easy to see how Cornish can play a 16 year old; she has a young, pretty face, straight hair that responds well to direction, and large eyes. In real life, though, she exudes an easy self assurance that Heidi will not have for a few years yet. Perhaps this comes from having supportive parents who encouraged her in whatever she did – “and let me be whatever I want.” 

"Australia’s most wanted actors"

The critical success of Somersault will no doubt catapult Cornish into the ranks of Australia’s most wanted actors. But her next role, the title role in Candy, did not come through via Somersault. “I had been auditioning for Candy for two years,” she says. It was only now (in early September 2004) that the finance came through and the film was announced. Cornish – now playing a 19 year old - will co-star with Heath Ledger, who plays her lover, Dan, and Geoffrey Rush who plays Dan’s older best friend, a professor. 

Written by Luke Davies, Candy is the powerful story of two lovers whose intersecting lives take them on a journey of lust, addiction and self-destruction. Acclaimed theatre director Neil Armfield has worked with Davies to adapt his best seller for the screen and will also direct the film. The producers are Margaret Fink (My Brilliant Career, For Love Alone) and Emile Sherman (The Night We Called it a Day). Filming begins in January, giving Cornish a couple of months to use up a few more canvases and tubes of oil.

Published September 16, 2004

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Abbie Cornish


... in Somersault.

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