Melissa George: enjoying the good life

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Croissants, a babe in arms and a new film ... this Aussie actor has much to be happy about.

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Trailer: Felony

Three male detectives become embroiled in a tense struggle after a tragic accident that leaves a child in a coma.

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It seems rather apt that when we meet to discuss her life and career, Melissa George is preparing to devour one of her much-loved croissants. For it was not so long ago that the French breakfast staple threatened to be the star's undoing when, during a heated off-camera moment in Sydney, she bemoaned the Australian media's apparent obsession with her soap-opera beginnings.

Livid at being labelled in 2012 as merely a "Home and Away star" by Channel Seven's The Morning Show, George launched into a now infamous tirade, reported in The Sun-Herald, that ended with the apparently snooty retort: "I don't need credibility from my country any more, I just need them all to be quiet. If they have nothing intelligent to say, please don't speak to me any more. I'd rather be having a croissant and a little espresso in Paris or walking my French bulldog in New York City."

Melissa George: 'I come home and pay my taxes and work – I'm very much a proud Australian.'

Melissa George: 'I come home and pay my taxes and work – I'm very much a proud Australian.' Photo: Corina M. Howell/Corbis Outline

Her fondness for that quintessentially French bakery item remains undiminished – in fact, it pops up often during our conversation – but she is surprisingly forthcoming when quizzed on that apparent outburst. "I overheard before I went out on stage, 'Let's not talk about Hunted or The Slap or anything, because they're not our network. Let's have the Aussie bitch promote Home and Away.' I thought, 'You're really going to do that? Really?' "

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It's fair to say that George – whose latest film, Felony, sees her starring opposite fellow Aussie expat Joel Edgerton as his on-screen wife – has had to rally harder than most against the nation's so-called tall-poppy syndrome.

Plucked from Perth at the relatively tender age of 16, the now 37-year-old quickly became a Logie-winning star as Angel Parrish in the aforementioned soap before trying her luck in the US. After a big-screen debut in Alex Proyas's 1998 neo-noir sci-fi romp Dark City, bit parts in Steven Soderbergh's The Limey (1999) and David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (2001) soon followed, before a series of TV pilots failed to fire. It took several more years, and roles in the TV series Alias and movies such as The Amityville Horror and 30 Days of Night, before Hollywood sat up and took note.

Son shine: Melissa George and baby Raphaël in Milan in June.

Son shine: Melissa George and baby Raphaël in Milan in June. Photo: Corbis

George points out at each of our meetings – the first a top-secret rendezvous on the set of Felony (during the Channel Seven hoo-ha), the second at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013, where the film premiered to a standing ovation – that she has regularly returned home both to visit family and to work on local projects. Indeed, her lead turn in Christopher Smith's little-seen 2009 thriller Triangle drew rave notices, as did her work on the ABC TV series The Slap.

"I come home and pay my taxes and work – I'm very much a proud Australian," she says, clearly still vexed at the reaction to her so-called "snooty" behaviour on The Morning Show. "When all this came out, my father called me and said, 'That's my girl.'

"He's an amazing man – he raised three very strong girls. That's what I'm defined by – not a payroll I was on in 1993. [Home and Away] was a difficult time for me. I was very young, I was taken away from my family, barely 16. I was working 20 hours a day, getting paid very little. It was hard. Since then, I've bought my own properties, become an independent woman. And I've made Australian productions every year."

Both Felony's director, Matthew Saville, and its writer and star, Joel Edgerton, have nothing but praise for the WA native, whom they carefully shielded from media intrusion during the film's Sydney shoot. Saville hails her as a "true pro" while Edgerton describes her as being "very much at the top of her game". Indeed, on set, there's a collective sense of protecting George against her critics' curious and ill-judged attempts at taking her down. The film's very grave plot, which tracks the fall from grace of a heroic cop (Edgerton), matches the mood on set rather nicely.

Perhaps not surprisingly, George's private life has been anything but, providing ample fodder for the gossip pages. She wed Chilean director Claudio Dabed in 2000 and says she only split from him 11 years later when he failed to fulfil their agreement to start a family. Following a brief fling with Def Jam founder Russell Simmons, some 20 years her senior, she now has a four-month-old son, Raphaël, with her partner, Jean-David Blanc, a hugely successful French entrepreneur she met at a BAFTAs after-party in 2012.

"I think there was such a block for so long," she says, "because I really wanted a family, to balance out such an ambitious character that I have, and always working. There was a deep need in me. But an even deeper need was to find the right partner in life. I had some shockers. And so I found the best guy, and it's just getting better and better, and having a family seems an extension of that. There's no pressure, no nothing. But I was very clear the first night I met him. I said, 'I want babies, by the way! So if you don't want that, don't call me tomorrow.' "

Happily, Blanc did. George waxes lyrical about their union which, she says, is the opposite of her marriage to Dabed. "I was the one who went out to work, I was the one who did every single thing in the relationship," she says, looking back. "Now I look at my son and there's a reason for everything. I look at the health and beauty he has, and the way he looks at me and my boyfriend together. I think God had bigger plans for me – to have kids."

George was back at work just two weeks after giving birth in February, and already appeared to have lost much of her baby weight. She insists that's down to breastfeeding and healthy eating.

"This is a good message for women," she coos. "If you've had a baby, really take time out [and breastfeed]. Not only does it shrink your uterus back into shape very fast, it also keeps a layer of fat around your midriff, which you need to feed. You do not diet when you're breastfeeding. And don't eat for two. That's what a doctor in Paris told me: 'In France, we eat for one, not two.' "

Ah, France. Its food, its capital city and, more recently, its Mediterranean coast, are never far from our discussion. When we speak again, just prior to the Australian release of Felony – which closed the Melbourne International Film Festival last night – George is taking time out with her young son in St Tropez. The croissants are present and correct, her agent is a mere Skype call away, and the table is laden, she says, with scripts and other reading matter.

Looking ahead, there are more Australian films on the horizon, she tells me: The Olive Sisters with veteran director Fred Schepisi and another with "a guy called Michael Rowe, who's Australian but has lived in Mexico for 30 years". And while a return as Hunted's put-upon cop Sam Hunter now seems unlikely, there's a US indie flick called The Insect King, more US TV pilots, and further additions to a range of beauty products that, she quips, "has been more successful than my acting career".

George still has that self-deprecating Aussie sense of humour, even when it's sandwiched between name-dropping "St Barts" and "Harvey" [Weinstein] or saying she's "not had a break in 20 years". (I don't doubt that's true, by the way. She's from hard-working stock – her mother a nurse, her father a construction worker.) Even so, I'm pleasantly surprised when she happily plays along with my gentle jibes about croissants.

But I'm also aware that George is, inevitably, turning on the charm – perhaps over-compensating for that unfortunate outburst in Sydney which, however bizarre, or misquoted, provided an opportunity for her naysayers to run wild. Snooty or not – and I don't believe she is – she clearly likes the finer things in life. Which, of course, many of us do.

Her new film Felony – which boasts strong turns from a cast that includes British character actor Tom Wilkinson, sporting a convincing Aussie accent – is a solid police drama. It offers George precious few scenes, but it just may hold out an on-screen olive branch to local audiences that she can expand on in the year ahead.

She's not out of the woods yet, I would venture, and Australians don't like their own deserting our shores for too long. But for now, St Tropez will do very nicely, thank you. As will the joy of finally fulfilling that maternal craving.

 

Felony opens in cinemas on August 28.

 

THREE FACTS: MELISSA GEORGE

• US producers were so taken by her recurring guest role in TV's The Good Wife that she was asked to stay on during her pregnancy, with the series storyline specifically adapted to accommodate her growing bump.

• She barely knew her Felony co-star Joel Edgerton before filming her scenes.

• She describes her French as "passable" – and says it's "getting better day by day".

 

Lead-in image: Yariv Michan/Corbis Outline.