Interview with Alice Englert, one of the stars of Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal

by Elisabeth Easther / 22 July, 2016
The film adaptation of Eleanor Catton’s first novel is stacked with big names, including Jane Campion’s daughter, Alice Englert.
Photo/Getty Images
Photo/Getty Images

Despite being born in Sydney and considering herself a true-blue Aussie, young actor-director Alice Englert has always felt a deep longing for New Zealand. It’s partly because this daughter of Wellington-born director Jane Campion has been a regular visitor since childhood. But it’s something more.

“I’ve been going there since I was four,” she tells the Listener from Australia. “And my best friends in the world live there, and it’s somewhere I love to write. It was really nice to do The Rehearsal, because I wanted to do a film in New Zealand. I’m really happy being Australian, but growing up I always felt homesick for New Zealand. In 10 or 40 years, I’d love to be in New Zealand.”

The Rehearsal is the film adaptation of Eleanor Catton’s breakthrough novel of the same name a rite-of-passage story set in a New Zealand drama school. It’s stacked with big names: Emily Perkins co-wrote the screenplay, Kerry Fox and James Rolleston are two of the stars, Connan Mockasin composed the score and acclaimed director Alison Maclean is at the helm. Even fast-rising singer-songwriter Marlon Williams has a role.

Director Alison Maclean with author Eleanor Catton.
Director Alison Maclean with author Eleanor Catton.

An early start in the business

It’s little surprise that 22-year-old Englert – whose father is Australian producer Colin Englert – turned to acting. “I hadn’t thought I wanted to act, but I did a short film with my mum when I was 11 and that must have helped.”

That short film,The Water Diary, is set in a drought-stricken Australian town and is about two girls who try to gain some control and bring the rain back. “I had to cry in the film. My character had to bring a teardrop to the top of a hill, in a jar, and all these grown-ups were standing around, silent, so an 11-year-old could cry into a jar. And I thought, this is a job? Playing for adults? I always knew how to play.”

That early good fortune blossomed further when her mother was directing Bright Star, the biopic of poet John Keats starring Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish. “Sometimes Jane would test her rewrites on me and get me to perform the lines to see if she preferred what she’d done, and I realised I could be helpful. I was actually being real, and it was during that time that I thought, ‘I can do this; I think I could do this well.’ I was 13 or 14 at the time and I remember it being one of the most satisfying experiences I had growing up.”

She attracted more attention for Sally Potter’s Ginger & Rosa, playing the close friend of Elle Fanning as they navigate personal and far more monumental crises in 1960s London. She starred in the supernatural romance Beautiful Creatures, for which she even composed a song, Needle and Thread.

Alice Englert in 2012’s Ginger & Rosa.
Alice Englert in 2012’s Ginger & Rosa.

A brutal place

In The Rehearsal, Englert plays ­Thomasin, a character who isn’t in the novel. The story centres on Stanley, played by Rolleston, a first-year acting student who mines his girlfriend’s family scandal as material for his drama school’s end-of-year show. The result is a social powder keg; director Maclean describes the film as “exploring messy moral territory … playing with the ambiguity of what’s true and authentic and what’s performed”.

Luckily for Englert, she hasn’t been through the notoriously cruel and unusual anguish of drama school. “That’s partly why The Rehearsal was really fun. I got to go to drama school, was actually paid to go for about six weeks. And Kerry Fox would talk to us between takes. ‘I’m here, I should be teaching you about acting,’ she’d say, ‘and tell you the things I’ve found useful.’ I really appreciated her talking about emotional scenes and the fears of drawing on your own memories.”

The drama school in The Rehearsal is a brutal place where the tutors strive to break students down. “I don’t think I’d go to drama school, but I did love doing the exercises. Kerry spoke about not being afraid and we talked about the breaking down. I think it’s interesting, but I don’t think it works … I think the reason it’s still practised is that they’re trying to provoke the human spirit. To take control but to create those accidents is to take a lot of responsibility … but I don’t think it’s worth the glory.”

Rehearsing for The Rehearsal: Englert as Thomasin.
Rehearsing for The Rehearsal: Englert as Thomasin.

It’s common knowledge that acting is not for the faint-hearted. “One thing I enjoyed about doing this film was to see how Alison Maclean was touched and amused by the world of acting. And I think you have to be amused, otherwise it’s just too intense, too fraught. Acting’s not a job for the fragile. It’s really, really hard. It’s not an industry that looks after you or takes care of you.”

Building resilience early has been a huge gain. “I had a great advantage growing up with a director’s perspective and seeing why people get rejected all the time. I have seen so many great actors not getting the roles.” And not because they’re not talented, but because they’re not the right fit.

Future-proofing herself against the uncertainty of winning acting roles, Englert is also writing and making short films. Her directorial debut, a short drama called The Boyfriend Game, starring Kiwi Thomasin McKenzie and Aussie Morgana Davies, will have its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.

Currently filming the second season of Top of the Lake in Australia, she is likely to be lured back to New Zealand before too long. “One day, perhaps,” she says with a smile, “you might find me shuffling around the South Island being a wwoofer.” Perhaps, but it’s just as likely she’ll have her notebook tucked in a back pocket, quietly gathering material.

The Rehearsal premieres at the NZIFF on July 23 and has a full theatrical run from August 18.

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