It's all chaos in the Abbie Cornish household. The Australian actor has been unable to make it across the Atlantic for promotional duties on Robocop – an inevitable remake of the Paul Verhoeven classic – so she's phoning me from her new pad in West Hollywood. There is much clattering and sniffling at the other end of the line.
“Aw I’m sorry. But we’re all so worried about our little puppies,” she says in a voice that could hardly sound more Australian if it were accompanied by didgeridoos. “They play around all the time, but they’ve become very lethargic. So we have to take them back to the vet. Bye, bye! Be good.”
The animals are dispatched and Cornish makes her way to a quieter place. Hang on. What’s that chirping noise?
“Oh I also have a parakeet, who’ll be very excited to see me. Hello! Hello! Now, let’s do this interview.”
You can take the girl off the farm, but you can't quite get the farm out of the girl (or something). Now 31, Ms Cornish was, indeed, raised on a sizable estate in rural New South Wales. After starting out as a teenage model, she caught the eye of critics with her performance as a young runaway in Cate Shortland's excellent Somersault. Since then she's been strong as John Keats's fiancée in Jane Campion's Bright Star and as a confidante to Queen Elizabeth I in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. A lot of people in the movie business are betting their shirts on Abbie Cornish. She has the crisp, blonde looks. She has the natural talent. And she has some momentum behind her.
Reasonably enough, she asks me to avoid being too precise about the location of her new home. (Though paparazzi may want to listen for puppies and tropical birds.) In the short time she's been in the business, the odd snatch of tabloid gossip has attached itself to her. In 2007, her name was mentioned in connection with the divorce of Ryan Phillippe and Reese Witherspoon. She and Phillippe – who has two children by Witherspoon – then dated until 2010. So, one can understand why she is still a little cautious about lurking reporters.
What does she miss most about Australia? It’s a long way from there to here.
"There is so much to miss about Australia, " she barks. "I grew up on 170 acres of land. I miss that. I miss nature. But, to be honest, it's my family and my friends that I miss. They are my heart and my soul. But I have my brother and his fiancée living with me. Their wedding is coming in a few months. I have a big family. So, that's all right."
Abbie Cornish sounds as if she was weaned on Antipodean optimism. Her conversation is composed of energetic monologues that spiral through the air before settling a great distance from where they began. Set her off on the new Robocop and she won't be stopped. Directed by José Padilha, who gave us the terrific Brazilian action flick Elite Squad, the film casts Cornish as wife to a jobbing policeman who, as in Verhoeven's version, ends up being transformed into a cyborg following injury in the line of duty.
"The original was a great film. I loved it as a kid," she says. "What I really liked about our Robocop was that it's a homage to the original. That film is still very good. It holds up. But we owe a lot to our director. He brought real political and social depth to the story. It's about man versus machine, about what happens to the soul. That's in the original obviously. But we emphasise that even more."
So how did she get from that vast farm in New South Wales to the trendier end of Hollywood? It seems that Cornish auditioned for some sort of modelling competition as a youngster. That sounds fun. But it seems like an unusual decision for a child who spent her days climbing trees, birthing sheep and doing whatever else it is people do on farms.
"Yeah, the modelling thing was odd," she says. "I grew up on the farm riding motorbikes, swimming in rivers and so on. As a teenager, I started to get into the girly stuff and to go shopping. I got into make-up and all that. So, I ended up entering a few modelling competitions. I got to the final of the Dolly magazine competition, which, funnily enough, was won by Miranda Kerr. "
Oh yes. That Australian model who was married to Orlando Bloom for a spell.
“Yes. It’s funny. We met each other on a little tiny plane when we were 14. There were six finalists in this competition. She got on this plane that went through Lochinvar, where I lived. This beautiful girl got on. I said: ‘Where are you going?’ She said she was going to Sydney for this modelling competition. ‘So am I!’”
And on she goes in her amiable way. Have she and Kerr ever met since and reminisced?
“Oh yeah. Wasn’t that crazy? Two girls going to the city for the first time.”
Unprompted, Cornish’s agent decided that acting might suit her client and arranged an audition for a hospital drama series. She got the part and went on to appear in more TV and the odd Australian feature.
“I got another one and then another one and suddenly I had fallen in love with acting. I had an acting career I didn’t expect.”
It must have been traumatic for Cornish to leave the farm. Even now, she seems profoundly connected to the land. Indeed, it sounds as if she’s modelled her urban pad in the style of an outback menagerie.
“Yeah, well I was there on 170 acres, where you can see the edge of the horizon. You can watch the change of the seasons. You can see the cycle of life. You know about the birds and the bees before you do sex education. You know about death. I had animals die in my own arms. That’s why I became a vegetarian, long before I got into animal rights.”
It all sounds idyllic (if you like nature and all that malarkey). So was there no connection with popular culture out there? She makes it sound as if contemporary life entirely passed her by.
“I would lie on a trampoline and watch the sunset,” she says. “I would wonder what else was out there. I never read magazines. I never watched TV. It was about encyclopaedias for me. Then I began to watch foreign films and independent films. That really formed my taste.”
Released in 2004, Shortland's Somersault caused a serious commotion on the independent circuit. It was selected for Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival – the main sidebar – and swept the board at the Australian Film Institute Awards. One wonders, however, if the team knew they were making something special at the time. Shot in the ski resorts of Jindabyne, the film is a bleak tale focusing on a very self-absorbed protagonist. Would it have seemed like a potential breakout hit back then?
"What I felt when we made Somersault was that I was part of something very special," she says. "I knew this was a character I wanted to play. It was my first lead role. I was on set all day every day and I became that character. I lived that character for three and a half months."
Just as well it worked out so nicely then.
"Yeah, it was a strange thing for me," she says, picking up momentum again. "Somersault was in Un Certain Regard. There was Sam Worthington and I flying economy class to France. We basically turned up with bloody noses from the trip. We felt terrible. We were just a couple of kids. I remember I was staying in a rough part of Cannes and Sam walked me home every night. He was a real gentleman."
Abbie confirms that, once Somersault was screened for the international press, her agent's phone quickly turned red hot. The performance seems all the more remarkable when you talk to Abbie. There is none of her generous chatter and jolly irrepressibility in the protagonist. The director finds a surly, sensitive side to Cornish that is not immediately apparent in everyday conversation.
That same quality was on display in Jane Campion's Bright Star. Inspired by Andrew Motion's biography of John Keats, the film detailed the tense dalliance between Fanny Brawne and the poet in early 19th-century Hampstead. Again, Cornish manages to restrain her explosive energies and deliver an impressively grounded turn.
"To work with Jane Campion was a great honour," she says. "The only woman to win the Palme d'Or! That's crazy. Isn't it? And the story of John Keats's life? You would, as an actress, do anything to get that part. I felt she was there with me. It's hard to describe. I had lost a close friend just a few months before. So for me it was a difficult film to make. But it was cathartic because it forced me to deal with it. You want to slip into a cocoon."
So, Abbie has been served well by the art-house. She has, however, had an up and down time with mainstream pictures. Neil Burger's hugely entertaining Limitless – starring Bradley Cooper in an adaptation of an Alan Glynn novel – was a substantial hit. But the dubious skin-flick Sucker Punch was a deserved flop. Then there was the strange case of W.E.. Madonna's study of Wallace Simpson was not nearly so poor as many critics argued. Abbie turned up in the framing sequence as a 1990s woman fixated on Mrs Simpson's relationship with Edward VIII. So let's cut to the chase. What was Madonna like?
“It was interesting working with a director from a totally different background,” she says. “One of the most famous people in the entire world! You’d leave the set with her at night and people would be throwing themselves at the car. ‘Madonna! Madonna! I love you!’ That was mad and so surreal.”
Did that make her wary of the celebrity lifestyle?
“You can’t understand it. But we are all just human. We all have the same relative genetic make up and range of emotions. That’s what makes people fascinating. It’s not just who they are, but how they deal with life.”
Very nicely put. It’s nice to meet somebody so enthusiastic. I just hope the puppies are all right.