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Emily Barclay interview

The actress discusses her role in In My Father's Den, Brad McGann's adaptation of Maurice Gee's novel, and why she'd never dream of asking for muffins on set.

With her role as Celia in In My Father's Den, Brad McGann's film of Maurice Gee's novel, Emily Barclay completed Diana Rowan's casting hat-trick of young unknowns, the others being Anna Paquin and Keisha Castle-Hughes. But, unlike them, Barclay wasn't a novice; she has been acting for years and got her first agent when she was 13. The Listener called her up in Sydney, where she was workshopping a script.

How have you found all the interviews? When we were promoting Den, there were days where I'd get up and talk to a different journalist every 20 minutes, and it was exhausting ... They'd always ask, what was something funny that happened on set? And I didn't want to give everyone the same rote replies, but it was impossible not to. I don't know how Hollywood actors can do it. Imagine if you had to go round promoting some crappy action thing - I mean, at least with Den it's a really good movie and it's still interesting to talk about. But it's also a bit weird, as we made it almost a year ago.

Most recently you've acted in Sex with Strangers, which is what, exactly? It's a series of dialogues between people the day after they've had a one-night stand. I was with Danielle Cormack - she's a mother who gave up her baby and it turns out I'm her daughter and I'm sleeping with her for revenge. When the audience got it, you could hear this "Hhh?!" "Ooh, yuck," someone said. Because all the other skits were quite light and witty, and ours was quite dark. We'd changed it. We got a different scenario and thought it was boring, and so Danielle and I and Colin [Mitchell, the director] rewrote it.

So, you're interested in writing as well? Yeah. I'm doing English at university - well, I was - and I do write. I love it. If I wasn't so lazy, I'd like to write a screenplay and have some control, rather than being a warm prop. Which is all an actor is, really. Writers don't get enough credit. Although I didn't read In My Father's Den until a few days ago. I was going to, and Brad [McGann] said, "No, don't", so I put it off. But I started reading it while I was on the plane, and the air hostess came along, and said, "Oh, you're the girl from In My Father's Den", and I put my hands over the book and slooowly slid it into my lap. I really hope she didn't see it. I mean, it had a picture of me on the cover. She would have thought, what a nob.

Kate Elliott, who played Leeanne in Fracture, the other Maurice Gee-based movie, said her character in the book was more feral, sort of dirtier. Did anything similar apply? Celia's a much smaller part in the book and she's quite different. In the movie, she's more isolated, more of an outcast, whereas in the book I thought she was maybe not in the cool crowd, but not on her own. Celia in the movie was more innocent, I think. Less sexual.

Were you a bit of a loner when you were at school? I don't want to say, "I was so different, I was such an outcast, it was so hard", because it wasn't that bad. But it was a private girls' school. I didn't want to be there, and I didn't want to be part of it - but I had a group of friends ... I was a bit of a bad kid. Nothing real bad, I remember getting a detention for wearing my jersey in the street. Though actually one time I did a prank call to some teachers and they traced it ... I just pretended I was from a garden company and they'd ordered a big load of dirt and I was ringing to let them know I'd be bringing it round the next morning. It was just silly, but they traced the numbers and I got in a bit of trouble for that.

It didn't put you off the prank calling, did it? I've done a few prank calls from my radio show [on bFM] as well. Once I rang up a brothel and talked to this lady. I was like, "Oh, look, I'm calling from work, I've got to, you know, be discreet." Then the music director walked in and pretended to be my boss, you know, "Who're you talking to?", and I said, "Oh, it's just the lady from Coke." So he said, "Great, I'd like a word with her myself", and took over the phone and this poor woman didn't know what to do. Sometimes I think about them in advance, sometimes a good one just occurs to me.

I suppose it's all good acting practice ... what else do you enjoy? I love punk, because it's saying something and it's political and it's not about being cool. It's gone a bit mainstream now. You see people at concerts who are there because they think it's cool, and they're missing the point. And films. I really love them ... If I was in a crappy film, it would have to be a horror, one of those ones that's so bad it's good. I loved Plan 9 from Outer Space [by Ed Wood], where nothing makes any sense and Bela Lugosi died, but they just carried on with some other guy holding his arm over his face.

Have you tried making any films yourself? No, no. I'm far too lazy. Oh, I sort of made a film. My friend and I went out to South Auckland for Halloween and videoed all these young kids dressed up in their costumes, and asked them what they thought the world would be like when they grew up. And it was actually rather sad. Lots of them were like, "We'll be driving around in flying cars" and stuff, but they were very pessimistic about what their world would be like. They thought everything would be polluted and they didn't have much hope - except for one kid, who thought it would all be terrific. He was different from all the others, very articulate and a bit odd. I reckon he'd have been a bit of an outsider.

Google brings up an odd phrase about you that I wanted to check ... Muffins! "Emily Barclay refused to act until muffins were brought to the set"! I don't know where that came from, but I've seen a photo in some newspaper and that was the caption underneath.

I thought, wow, first movie and already she's acting like J Lo. I don't even eat muffins. Unless they're special vegan muffins, and of course I wouldn't ask for them on set. I wouldn't dream of it. I don't think Matthew [Macfadyen, co-star] and I asked for anything during filming.

Philip Matthews's review of In My Father's Den here.