Teresa Palmer: ‘I got kung-fu kicked in the back’
The actor has a thing about going method, whether fooling Christian Bale as a stripper, playing a kidnap victim in a tiny basement, or working inside a giant head in a supermarket
Teresa Palmer: Since February, she has appeared in Terence Malick’s ‘Knight of Cups’; alongside Casey Affleck and Chiwetel Ejiofor in ‘Triple 9’; and in Mel Gibson's Oscar-nominated‘Hacksaw Ridge’. Photograph: Maarten de Boer/Getty Images Portrait
It’s a compliment of sorts. While filming Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups, Teresa Palmer’s co-star Christian Bale was so convinced by her performance (and impromptu backstory) as a stripper that he presumed she was a genuine burlesque. It was only after he spotted the Adelaide-born actor on a billboard for Warm Bodies that he realised she’s just really very good at her job.
For Palmer, her “method” performance in Knight of Cups was just messing around with her co-star. Her method performance in Cate Shortland’s Berlin Syndrome, however, is the real deal.
Shortland’s third feature, a psycho-sexual ordeal from the same sub-genre as Room and Funny Games, follows backpacker and photographer Clare (Palmer) around the titular German city. Soon enough, she bumps into Andi (Sense8’s Max Riemelt), a charming local with perfect English. After a late-night hook-up, Clare wakes up in Andi’s apartment and finds the door locked.
An honest mistake? The removal of the sim card from her phone, the soundproof walls and the unbreakable windows suggest otherwise. Months pass, punctuated by failed escape attempts.
“It was as claustrophobic as it looked,” says the 31-year-old star. “Every day I went into this pokey little apartment and got traumatised. I worked with a body specialist to work out the body language and restricted movements of someone who was tied up so much of the time. By the end of the film, I was really glad for it to be over.”
Palmer avoided the source novel by Melanie Joosten, but she did pore over Natascha Kampusch’s memoir 3,096 Days. In 2006, 18-year-old Kampusch escaped from kidnapper Wolfgang Priklopil, a communications technician, having being held captive by him in a tiny basement for 3,096 days. Many were shocked that the victim, who was taken when she was 10, grieved for her kidnapper after he committed suicide, a sentiment that attracted sacks of hate mail.
“It was just harrowing to read,” says Palmer. “Her feelings for him were so complicated. She mourned what happened to him. I had to be prepared to stay in that headspace and give myself over to the experience. This is what people go through in these horrendous situations. This and worse. There were scenes that confused me even while we were shooting them. Max did such a great job. If looks could kill. There were times when he looked at me that made me shudder. That one crazy scene, when it’s Christmas and there’s music and presents and she’s dressed up and cooking. And she says something and it’s like he has flipped a switch. It was really interesting and challenging work.”
It’s odd to catch up with Teresa Palmer in the same week that Wonder Woman has taken a record-breaking $223,005,000 at the box office. Back in 2008, Palmer came tantalisingly close to starring in George Miller’s Justice League: Mortal. Weta workshop had designed sets and costumes and the cast – including Armie Hammer as Batman, DJ Cotrona as Superman, Megan Gale as Wonder Woman, Adam Brody as Flash, Common as Green Lantern, Zoe Kasan as Iris Allen, and Teresa Palmer as Talia Al Ghul – were raring to go.
Days before shooting was due to begin, the plug was pulled on the $250 million project, a casualty of tax issues, the 2007-08 Writers Guild of America strike, and a fear of competing Batmans. She was later attached to another George Miller project, Mad Max: Fury Road. But conflicting schedules got in the way.
“I really want to work with George again,” says Palmer. “And I say again because we did actually spend two months collaborating on the script and in rehearsals for Justice League. And we got to know each other so well. It fell apart but it was completely out of our hands. Same with Mad Max. It was just bad timing. You do have to get used to disappointments in this job. And I like to think these things happen for a reason.”
Sure enough, Palmer has had plenty to be getting along with. Since last February, she has appeared in Malick’s Knight of Cups; alongside Casey Affleck and Chiwetel Ejiofor in Triple 9; in the Nicholas Sparks weepie The Choice; and in Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson’s Oscar-nominated return to the director’s chair.
“I’ve worked with Cate [Shortland], Mel Gibson and Terrence Malick,” beams Palmer. “Three of my favourite directors. Imagine. I had wrapped Warm Bodies and I was looking around for strong women’s roles and wasn’t finding them, when Terrence’s film came along. It completely reinvigorated my passion for cinema. How he tells stories, how he celebrates every individual, how he captures someone’s essence and puts it on screen: he’s such a unique, beautiful filmmaker.”
She shot Berlin Syndrome and Hacksaw Ridge simultaneously. Which must have made for contrasting styles.
Not so much as you’d think, says Palmer. “Cate sets up a playground and lets you play. She wants you to explore inside out and upside down. The parameters are there but it’s completely liberating. You know you’re in the safe hands of a great storyteller. Mel is a beautiful visionary. I love that he can bring brutality and violence into this poetic space. And he does that really seamlessly. He’s an actors’ director: he knows your vulnerability as an actor and he knows how to get the best out of each of us.”
Teresa Mary Palmer was born in South Australia to Kevin Palmer, an investor, and Paula Sanders, a medic and missionary. Her parents divorced when she was three and she attributes her acting career to being an only child.
“My mum is super-religious,” she says. “She wanted to be a nun initially, but then she had me and became a nurse instead. She does volunteer work with the elderly. My dad is a computer whizz guy, so that’s where his head as at. Growing up, I really wanted brothers and sisters, but not having company forced me inwards. And my imagination developed from there.”
In 2003, aged 17, she won a local casting competition, Search for a Movie Star, which propelled the youngster into the not-entirely-glamorous world of shopping mall costumed characters.
“I was Strawberry Shortcake, with a ginoromous head that sometimes fell off. I’d walk around the supermarket waving at kids. Then I got Kung Fu kicked in the back. So I moved on to other things. Santa’s Little Helper. Humphrey B Bear, which is a TV character in Australia.”
She laughs: “I did a lot of deep character work.”
She was still in her teens when a local student film-maker, having seen her headshot, approached her to be in his movie. That role, as a suicidal young rape victim impregnated by her brother, in the film 2:37 (2006), brought her to Cannes, and then Hollywood. She has subsequently shared the screen with Daniel Radcliffe (December Boys), Adam Sandler (Bedtime Stories), Sarah Michelle Gellar (The Grudge 2), Nicolas Cage (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), Édgar Ramírez (Point Break) and Chadwick Boseman (Message from the King).
In 2012, she began a thoroughly modern epistolary romance with the actor and director Mark Webber.
“I fanned out over his movie, The End of Love,” she says. “I didn’t know anything about him. It was not romantic all. Then he started following me. And then he took it to the DM. And then we chatted for 40 days and fell in love over emails.”
The couple married in 2013 and have two sons, Bodhi Rain Palmer, 3, and Forest Sage Palmer (born last December). As we meet, Bodhi is snoring on his mum’s lap. It’s a role that Earth mother Palmer – the co-founder of wellness website My Zen Life, and its maternal-minded sister site My Zen Mama – is particularly passionate about. Last April, in a departure from the typical plumped, primped, pickled and pounded shots that appear in magazines, she graced the cover of Vogue in the park with her two boys.
“People have all sorts of opinions and judgments about breastfeeding and all aspects of motherhood,” says Palmer, who generated some ridiculously disapproving headlines for breastfeeding Bodhi when he was two-and-a-half. “Unfortunately that’s the society we live in. Whoever you are and how you parent, you should be accepted. I thought so even before I spent all my time either breastfeeding or pregnant.”
She laughs: “I’m never going to get the chance to enjoy red wine again.”
Berlin Syndrome is in cinemas from June 9th