"I like stories about living with life as it is": Radha Mitchell. Photo: Gen Kay
Has it really been 20 years since Love and Other Catastrophes? Radha Mitchell made her debut in the film alongside Matt Day and Frances O'Connor as the very fresh-faced Melbourne University student who had just broken up with her girlfriend.
Since that indie debut, Mitchell has been a consistent presence on screens big and small, albeit in a low-fi sort of way. And that's exactly how she likes it. She's done art house, television, Woody Allen, sci-fi, an Oscar-nominated film and smaller-budget Australian flicks.
In her latest incarnation she plays Denise, the mother of a teenage runaway, in the new Australian film by Sue Brooks, Looking for Grace. Mitchell's character, the wife of Richard Roxburgh and mother of Odessa Young, doesn't smile a lot. Clad in workout gear, her accent flattened like a pizza base, her smile never quite reaches her eyes.
Air of intrigue: Radha Mitchell. Photo: Gen Kay
It's a portrait of suburbia: lots of clean lines, not a lot of soul. There's wealth, but it's all on credit. A mix of dread and boredom hangs in the air.
"A lot of people say it feels like a Perth story because there's a lot of new architecture, everyone is living some version of the perfect life. There's no traffic anywhere, there's no trash on the street ... it's really clean," Mitchell says.
Shot in Perth and rural Western Australia, Looking for Grace is a welcome return to filmmaking from director Sue Brooks, who made the similarly intelligent and meditative Japanese Story, starring Toni Collette.
Brooks tells me that Mitchell was the first choice for the role of Denise. "We asked her if she would do it and we almost lost her [because] we couldn't get all the dates to line up. I'd watched a lot of her work, right back to Love and Other Catastrophes. I've been following Radha's career since, and then she was the right age to play this role."
Mitchell, now aged 42, is at a stage of her career where she is cast as "mother" characters. (All she'll say about having children in real life is that she has not ruled out adoption at some point.)
We're talking for the second time.
Our first conversation was in Melbourne, before the film was completed. Mitchell had chatted about how entering her 40s had ushered in a time of wisdom for her and about the importance of remaining open and curious. Back then, she hadn't seen the final version of the film and, despite being very welcoming over a pot of tea, was hesitant to say too much about it.
The film wasn't the only thing she was reluctant to talk about. Everything, from her romantic life to growing up in Melbourne, was gently deflected, creating a force field around her.
It's not known whether she's married, single, even whether she has a pet. That's not to say she's unfriendly or rude – quite the opposite. Yet maybe that's what 20 years in Hollywood has taught her, that you need to circle the wagons and keep a few things for yourself.
A year has passed and Mitchell is sitting upstairs at the Chauvel cinema in Paddington, Sydney, in the middle of a round of media interviews. Working her way through a Toblerone, she's wearing a fitted white dress, is tanned and gorgeous in her minimalist style (her only jewellery is a fine gold ring) and her body language is as relaxed as a rag doll. Commenting on a bracelet I am wearing, she mentions that she's not into buying anything new. It's murmured asides such as this that intrigue me the most. Last time it was about potentially adopting a child, and later today it's about not being "career-focused".
These titbits create an intimacy that can easily throw you off the scent. Underneath, she is a fortress. "She is very genuinely warm and quite a spiritual person and all of those things inform her work," says Brooks. "There is an air of intrigue in how she approaches the script. The emotion she brings to the role is not nailed down, it flies around as we film."
Radha Rani Amber Indigo Ananda Mitchell grew up in Melbourne and attended St Michael's Grammar School in St Kilda, the daughter of a model-turned-fashion-designer mother and filmmaker father who divorced when she was young. She was named Radha after the Hindu goddess. As a girl, she accompanied her mother on fabric-buying trips to India – a country she has returned to several times, including for a film shoot with Joel Edgerton in The Waiting City. She once described the environment she grew up in as "very unusual. I think my parents see my life now as very conservative."
Mitchell has settled in Los Angeles but there is something of the nomad about her. Apart from this visit to Australia, she's been in Ireland in the past year as well as Vancouver, Canada, where she filmed a faith-based movie, The Shack, with Sam Worthington. "It sort of contextualises what's good about Christianity," she says. "It's affirming of the way life is. God is a woman, Jesus is a lumberjack, the holy spirit is an ageing pop star. It's cool. It's not afraid to be what it is – a conversation about God."
Mitchell, who defines herself as "spiritual" and practises yoga and meditation, is drawn to these themes. "Looking for Grace is a real spiritual film," she explains. "It's a story about fate and how we impact each other's lives unconsciously. I like stories about living with life as it is, about it not going the way you want it to go. There is a reverence to that as well."
Looking for Grace was the only Australian film to be selected in competition for both the Venice and Toronto film festivals in 2015, and the initial buzz is strong. "They are all about consumerism, this family," Mitchell says. "There's the emptiness, [which] Denise tries to kill with her stuff. She's doing all the right things, taking care of her family, but she's not connecting. She can identify with her daughter's situation [as a troubled teen] but she's never been able to share the wisdom."
Mitchell could never be accused of over-sharing and agrees she uses social media cautiously. (I have been following her on Twitter for 15 months: yesterday she re-tweeted something about a climate march: "Building healthy #soil is the key to #climateaction.")
"I re-tweet stuff I find of interest," she says. "Even my Facebook stuff is under a pseudonym. Super-personal stuff I rarely post, not even on my own personal page. I can't be bothered. Also I don't want everyone – even people I know – to know what I'm up to."
Yesterday she filmed an interview for the ABC's One Plus One program and the uncomfortable feeling of being probed has lingered. "I felt totally like I was in the hot seat. It's like running around and suddenly you find yourself on the seat being asked personal questions about your childhood and you're trying not to be rude when you're deflecting."
I ask her what she feels comfortable talking about, and she responds, "We can talk about our dreams." She tells me about a dream that's stayed with her, one she had just after Love and Other Catastrophes came out: she was on St Kilda pier and a pod of dolphins were calling to her to come and play. But she walked on, not turning back.
She shrugs and says, "I guess the message was success will come along later, and it's okay to just let it go."
Indeed, even though she has worked steadily and there was a period a decade ago when she was on a roll – the lead in Woody Allen's 2005 Melinda and Melinda, Oscar buzz around Finding Neverland with Johnny Depp, the indie hit Phone Booth alongside Colin Farrell – Mitchell doesn't seem ambitious.
She says it's hard to be relaxed about career in LA: "It looks like they're just relaxing in their ugg boots, going round drinking green juice, but there is a sort of intense focus going on."
Suddenly sounding world-weary, she says, "I could live without seeing Sunset Boulevard ever again ... but there is also [people at the] cutting edge of whatever they are doing, amazing minds. LA at its best, or perhaps worst, is like a yoga studio plus office [at the same time]."
Life in Australia suits her current frame of mind. "In Australia no one is pushing it too hard, which is great. You can just be."
Looking for Grace opens in cinemas on January 26.
- She played a guest role in Neighbours in 1994, and in 1996 returned to play the regular role of Catherine O'Brien.
- Among her many given names are Rani ("queen") and Ananda ("bliss").
- When asked in a magazine interview what her "must-have" on a desert island would be, she said "a lover".
Hair and make-up: Kylie O'Toole. Stylist: Ricky James Flynn at DLM. Radha wears Ellery top and skirt from Paloma Bleu, Estelle Deve earrings and rings.
This story first appeared on Sunday Life