Opposite: Essie wears Steven Khalil couture gown. Photo: David Mandelberg
"Have you heard Essie's laugh?" It's the first question people who know actor Essie Davis will ask you, when you inquire about their friend.
Her Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries producer, Fiona Eagger, says Davis's is a laugh that will ping-pong down a hallway and hit you from several rooms away – "she's a life force on set".
Her filmmaker husband, Justin Kurzel, who was then a set designer, remembers first hearing it in rehearsals for A View from the Bridge at Sydney's Belvoir St Theatre 20 years ago: "She doesn't half laugh. You get the full might of it every time."
Essie Davis wears Toni Maticevski dress. Photo: David Mandelberg
Director and friend Jennifer Kent, who coaxed from Davis one of 2014's most exciting movie performances as a grieving, sleep-deprived and possibly homicidal mother in horror film The Babadook, says, "It's the best laugh I've ever heard."
Lips slashed scarlet and her signature "Miss Fisher" bob messed about by her small, restless hands, Davis first lets me hear it while recalling how fans in London dressed as her Babadook character, Amelia, last Halloween. "I'm so pleased people are carving out my face and making masks for themselves," she says with a grin before waiting a beat to unleash her fabulous roar.
She hits me with it again when we talk Phryne Fisher, the 1920s lady detective whom Davis will play for a third series, starting next month. To a puritanical American online commenter who accused the free-spirited, bed-hopping Phryne of "giving it away like Halloween candy", Davis says, "She's just a woman who knows what she wants, and it's not marriage."
Essie Davis wears Christopher Esber dress, Zara shoes. Photo: David Mandelberg
Cue that laugh again. The force of it throws her back in her chair as the joy of it reels you in. Kent is right: it's one of the best you'll ever hear.
Davis has plenty of reasons to chuckle. Following highly praised roles on TV in Cloud Street and The Slap, her star turn in Miss Fisher has made her an instantly recognisable face. About a million people tune in to see her catch the killer each week on the ABC, and more follow her sleuthing stateside on Netflix. Her turn in The Babadook has been hailed internationally as a breakthrough. Time magazine named her one of 2014's 10 best actors, male or female, anywhere in the world and her name appeared in countless articles pointing to "Oscar snubs" earlier this year. Hollywood will be calling and she's got herself a "wonderful new American agent" to answer the phone.
It's a good place to be for someone who makes no bones about her desire to work with the world's best directors and actors – she'll take direction from Lars von Trier, and will act alongside Judi Dench, thank you very much. "I'm still heading towards the top of Mount Everest," Davis says, "and my goals are way beyond what I've achieved."
She admits to a push-pull relationship with her ambition, though. The pull is what's waiting at base camp, her husband and their eight-year-old twins, Ruby and Stella. After we speak she will meet them in Melbourne, where they live while she films Miss Fisher, and then they will all join Kurzel in London, where the family reside most of the year.
"It's hard," she says, "but what's the point of having children unless you're there to raise them, I reckon."
If you have read anything about Essie Davis before, the "on the cusp of the big time" line may be familiar. It's been said since she graduated from NIDA in 1992 as a class standout (the class included close friend Cate Blanchett) to become an in-demand theatre actor. She became "one to watch" when she took home a Laurence Olivier Award for playing Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire in London's West End in 2003.
The same year, she played the jealous wife of Colin Firth's Vermeer on screen in Girl with a Pearl Earring; the next year she was Tony-nominated for Tom Stoppard's Jumpers on Broadway. Along the way she starred in the two Matrix sequels and Baz Luhrmann's Australia.
It's the kind of award-studded CV that should put the 45-year-old, Tasmanian-born actor in the company of Blanchett, Kidman and Watts, but she's lacked that breakout film role to make her a marquee name. The Babadook, about a murderous top-hatted bogeyman sprung to life from a child's pop-up book, has changed that.
The film became a festival hit overseas, even as it failed to ignite the box office in Australia. It was a draining role, and while her performance seems effortless, she admits she still struggles with a hang-up she's had since her NIDA days.
"Acting is embarrassing," she says. "I've done plays where I've had to get naked for 45 minutes on stage every night for a year and a half in front of a thousand people, and you think, 'Oh my god, once I do this I'm going to be brave forever more.' But every day it's excruciating." She throws out another wonderful laugh.
It's hard to believe there's any stage fright watching her in front of Sunday Life's camera – she's a pro, smiling seductively one minute, arching her body backwards into a fantastic curve the next – and has the crew sharing laughs, and glasses of champagne, with her all morning. But she confesses she has to build herself up for moments like that.
On film sets it's even worse. "Pure terror," she says. An audience of a thousand is "a wall"; a crew of 10 are individuals whose eyes you can feel. She says her early film career was possibly hampered because she was "frightened of auditioning for things where there was lots of nudity. If I ever went back to drama school and taught anyone anything, it would be that no matter what shape or size you are, be prepared to get your clothes off. It doesn't have to be a sexual thing, you've got to be prepared to shed your skin. It's a very confronting world.
"You've just got to throw yourself off the cliff: 'This is going to be really ugly everyone. Look out!' "
Sometimes you also need to drag yourself up to the top of a ship. Miss Fisher producer Fiona Eagger recalls being on set during filming for a scene in which Phryne scales the hull of the 10-storey-high ship, the Polly Woodside. After stunt doubles filmed several takes, "Essie just says, 'Let me do one.' " And so, designer trench flapping in the breeze and high heels digging into rope ladder rungs, Davis climbed her way to the deck. It was the day's best take.
"You do parts with a stunt double but Essie always does it herself, too," says Eagger. "There's another scene where she's scaling the walls of parliament. Sometimes it gives you kittens!"
Playing the honourable Phryne Fisher – a character in her late 20s in the popular Kerry Greenwood novels – is as demanding a role as any the actor has played. She's in almost every scene, there are thousands of lines to learn, ships and buildings to climb, and months of 17-hour days to endure. Davis came on board as a producer of the show in season two, giving her greater creative control – and even more work to do.
"Phryne's in everything, and she's brilliant at everything – she's strong and deep, but there's always a twinkle in her eye. It's a great pleasure to play someone of that kind of lightness. But after four months of playing her, she's completely exhausting."
Justin Kurzel says his wife is a perfectionist, something she gets from her father, the Hobart painter George Davis. "He has an extraordinary eye, he's a perfectionist who understands detail and observation, and Ess is exactly the same," he says.
Kurzel's star is also on the rise as a director. This year, while he was shooting Macbeth in Scotland with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, it was Essie's opinion he trusted most when she visited the set. ("Tell Fassbender to take his clothes off!" she joked.) "She interrogates everything," says Kurzel. "You know when you put something in front of Essie that you're not going to get politeness, you're going to get a lot of raw honesty."
Kurzel says Davis does nothing by halves, at work or at home. Or even just when having a conversation. "She's completely in the moment, emotionally, of what she's experiencing. She just sinks into life and embraces it and screams and yells and laughs in ways that are very honest. I'm completely jealous of that because that's not me. I can't do that. I worry too much.
"You've heard Essie's laugh?" he asks. "Her cry is pretty amazing, too."
The couple married in 2002 and have been together for 20 years. They hope to collaborate one day. "We have to find the right project," she says. "He doesn't want me to be a bit player."
Their current big collaboration, twins Ruby and Stella, are their main focus now. Kurzel and Davis have lived separately for long periods before the girls were born – she spent a year in Manhattan performing on Broadway while he studied filmmaking in Victoria – and back then, each appreciated the way the other refused to compromise in the pursuit of their dreams. Today, caught between projects in the UK, Australia and America, and with children along for the ride, it's harder. "I never spend more than a week away from the children," says Davis. "He has to deal with that more, and he hates it."
With Kurzel in demand – he will next shoot the big-budget video game adaptation Assassin's Creed – and scripts rolling in for Davis after the success of The Babadook, both acknowledge it's likely to get harder to create a sense of stability. They're adjusting their expectations.
"In the past, we used to be really hard on ourselves," says Kurzel. "We'd say, 'We have to stop this. We have to provide a nest for the girls.' Now, we're going, 'Well, that's not what our life is.'
"We have to embrace the positive aspects, which are that as long as we can stay together we're going to be in some really amazing places, around really amazing people and hopefully that energy will rub off on the girls. It's not every day you get to be in Scotland, in winter, riding horses surrounded by men in medieval armour."
For Davis, it's important that the girls spend as much time as possible with her parents in Tasmania. "I was terrified of being a mum because I didn't think I'd ever be grown up enough. But I had such amazing parenting and beautiful family life in Tassie. I reached a point where I was like, 'If I'm going to have children, I want my children to know my parents, because they won't know how to live life if they don't meet them.' "
She describes her perfect Tassie day as beginning with Ruby and Stella jumping on her bed and the sound of her father whistling somewhere in the house. There would be a trip to Marion Bay and a cook-up with her siblings and their kids. "We'd have crayfish for dinner and everyone would come over and the party would go all night!"
She gets to Hobart sometimes just once a year these days and says, "Every time I leave, I cry. You just never know how long you've got."
But even as she dreams of Tasmania, Davis still has "Everest" in her sights. She won't say exactly what Everest is – "because if I don't quite make it, then you'll know" – but she's closer than she's ever been, she knows that. And she knows her path up won't be easy.
"If you just want to be a mum for a while, people think that you're not hungry for it. So it's just trying to make sure that all the people who are working for you know that I still want to work with Lars von Trier. And I hope I can still work with Peter Weir. And I want to work with Emma Thompson. There are actors and directors all over the world I want to work with. And I will do it."
She laughs, though not too hard.
"But I'm also going to be a kind and considerate daughter. And an inspiring wife. And a bloody awesome mum."
The third series of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries begins on Friday, May 8, on ABC.
Styling by Penny McCarthy. Make-up by Allison Boyle. Hair by Michael Brennan.