As you may have guessed, the film is drenched in violence but this is hardly surprising given that it’s loosely based on the story of our most notorious bushranger.
“This is an incredibly brutal world, it was f…ing brutal,” says Essie, just as brutally. “It’s an amazing story about what it is to survive. Ellen’s a fighter. Even though the men are incredibly violent, she’s just as violent back.”
So why is she giving in to the policeman’s demand in those opening minutes? “All she is doing is trying to keep the cops from harassing them – it’s like protection money,” says Essie. “It’s not about getting money to put food on the table. It’s getting a month’s reprieve from being attacked, or having her husband taken off to jail yet again.”
Given the violent nature of the film, it comes as no surprise that Essie copped a few real-life blows while shooting. “On our third day, I was trying to get George [MacKay, as the older Ned Kelly] and Earl [Cave, as Dan Kelly] away from each other in this massive fight and I cracked my rib … on the third day of shooting!”she recalls. “The next day, Marlon [Williams, as George King] was punching me and throwing me on the ground, and the next day I was raped, and the next day …” she drifts off.
It doesn’t sound like ideal working conditions, but perhaps performing with a broken rib helped Essie get into character as tortured Ellen Kelly? “No,” she says, roaring with laughter again. “It didn’t help at all!”
Thankfully, today’s shoot for Sunday Life is far less brutal, though not necessarily easy. It’s a 34-degree day in Sydney and the air is thick with smoke from surrounding bushfires. Cockatoos screech as they pass over the crew, who all have flies sticking to the back of their damp shirts.
But Essie is smiling and barely breaking a sweat. A leaf blower is aimed at her face for the purpose of camera-worthy hair, but perhaps that’s what’s keeping her cool. She’s totally unflustered by the instructions being thrown at her: “Chin up”; “Nose to me”; “Move your back foot a bit to the left”; “Now to the right …” Once she’s finished being photographed and has settled for our chat in the airconditioned comfort of the make-up truck, there’s no evidence of the preceding sun-soaked photo shoot.
For anyone familiar with Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, what’s most striking when meeting Essie is the absence of Phryne Fisher’s sharp black bob. Instead, Essie has a huge, sun-kissed mane that seems to move almost independently of the rest of her body: one small turn of her head and a tsunami of hair follows. Beneath her mass of locks is a strikingly beautiful face. Her wide eyes and cheekbones are almost cartoonish in a Betty Boop way.
But Essie’s stratospheric beauty makes her no less down to earth. It’s clear that her relaxed nature on our shoot is just who she is. After all, this is a woman so easygoing that she’s not only worked with her husband on this Ned Kelly project but happily spent months taking direction from him.
“I feel like every person working on this film felt this immense privilege of being part of it. It was so creative and brave.”
“He’s one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with,” she says, with such conviction that it’s impossible to doubt her. “His level of expectation is so high but it’s not unreasonable. He makes you break from whatever limits you put on yourself.”
But surely there were times she wanted to tell him to rack off? “I know he’s not just asking me to do something because he’s being a dick,” she says, laughing. “Sometimes he’d get me to do something and I’d be going, ‘Holy shit!’ But he’d be like, ‘Get in there!’ It’s a privilege to have that kind of relationship as an actor, to trust 100 per cent and know you’re not going to look like a fool.”
This trust wasn’t solely reserved for the director’s wife. “The level he built up with everyone was amazing,” says Essie. “Justin did this by giving each actor a manifesto of what they had to do to prepare for the role.”
Part of that manifesto involved the young men who make up the Kelly Gang forming a punk band. They wrote around 10 songs, then performed at a pub in Melbourne under the stage name Fleshlight. The idea was to build up the gang mentality and fill them with a raging punk spirit. “They did the most phenomenal performance,” recalls Essie. In fact, they did such a remarkable job that the music now features in the film.
It was clearly a unique way to prepare for the roles, but the finished product is proof that it worked. “It was constantly hands-on and creating all the time, but I feel like every person working on it felt this immense privilege of being a part of it,” says Essie. “It was so creative and brave, and that incredible bravery that Justin has meant that all of us were so dedicated.”
The way Essie raves about her husband, you’d assume they were in the early, loved-up stage of their relationship. But the couple have been together for more than 20 years, having met at Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre back when Justin was a set designer. They share 13-year-old twin daughters, Ruby and Stella, and the family are an incredibly tight unit.
“It’s a juggle but they come everywhere with us,” says Essie.
“We are like a travelling circus. It’s very complicated and hard but when we reach the point where we go, ‘One of us can’t do this any more,’ the girls go, ‘No, we don’t want you to stop!’ ”
If one parent were to give up their career, would it be the successful actor or equally successful director? “Probably me, but I won’t,” says Essie. “That said, I don’t do everything I could do. The kids come first.”
Though they have yet to take up residence, there is a family home in Tasmania, chosen because Essie grew up on the Apple Isle and has fond memories of an idyllic childhood.
“It was special – having freedom and space and bush and wilderness and an incredible loving family,” she says. “There are lots of siblings and we were always on big adventures. Dad is an artist and he would go off to paint albatross colonies on Albatross Island, then he’d take us to the west coast to look at massive whale beachings, and we’d go fishing and camping.”
Essie’s father’s career as an artist has clearly helped to shape who she has become, but it’s not what he intended. “Being an artist, Dad didn’t really want me to tread such an unknown as acting. He’d say, ‘You can be anything you want to be. Anything. You could be a doctor or a lawyer. Anything. You could be a doctor or a lawyer. Doctor … lawyer …’ ” she says, laughing.
Essie may have chosen acting over the law, but she still has a strong sense of justice – something she clearly shares with her husband. The fact the film is being released by Stan on Australia Day has particular significance for both of them.
“Ned Kelly is such an Australian icon – he’s basically the Sydney Harbour Bridge. What this film is doing is questioning why he’s an Australian icon.”
“Justin wants us to look at ourselves and ask, ‘What is it to be Australian?’ ” she says. “It may be tricky for the people with the tattoo of Ned Kelly on their bodies. Ned Kelly is such an Australian icon – he’s basically the Sydney Harbour Bridge. But in fact, what this film is doing is questioning why he’s an Australian icon.
“Look what we’ve done to this country, to our Aboriginal people. So why is Ned Kelly a hero? He’s a boy. They were a bunch of teenagers who became rebels in order to continue the war between the English and the Irish, and to keep on fighting.”
While the title of the film refers to the “true” history, it’s as loosely factual as the Peter Carey novel, published in 2000, it’s based on. Much of the storyline is invented and some facts are distorted, including intriguing elements such as the Kelly Gang’s penchant for cross-dressing.
“It makes you ask, ‘What is masculine?’ ” says Essie. “I love that it fills you with more and more questions. I think people will be expecting one thing and go, ‘Holy shit, that’s wild! That’s not what I was expecting.’ ”
With the exception, perhaps now, of the opening minutes.
True History of the Kelly Gang streams on Stan from today.
Photographer Emily Abay. Stylist Nadene Duncan. Hair Brad Mullins using O&M. Make-up Samantha P. using Dior.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale January 26.
Genevieve Quigley is Head of Parenting & Lifestyle at Fairfax Media.