Three Great Things: Essie Davis

The Babadook star Davis, who currently stars in The Justice of Bunny King, on her love of gut-wrenching movies, laughter and walking.

Three Great Things is Talkhouse’s series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. To mark the September 23 theatrical release of The Justice of Bunny King, a drama starring Essie Davis and Thomasin McKenzie about a tortured woman (Davis) who is scraping by, trying to regain custody of her two kids, acclaimed actress Davis – who is maybe best known for her work in The Babadook shared some of the things that bring her meaning in life. — N.D.

Gut-wrenching Movies
I love watching gut-wrenching movies with my best friend, Fiona Martinelli. When we were at drama school together, we used to go and see films all the time. And after I graduated, my husband Justin Kurzel and I would go to the movies, all day sometimes. But the experiences that stay with me are the ones where I can’t leave the cinema because I’m crying so hard.

I saw The Father recently and was sobbing my heart out at the end. When I saw Breaking the Waves, the whole cinema heard me crying during the film and I stayed in my seat for a long time afterward. All the ushers cleaning up popcorn must have thought, “Oh my God, what’s happened with this lady sitting in the stalls?” When Fiona and I watched In America in London, we eventually had to extract ourselves from the cinema and cry some more in the toilets. Antonia’s Line and Dancer in the Dark were also profoundly moving to me because of the kind of trauma you go through as an audience member and what you recognize in yourself and the pain you feel on behalf of the film’s characters.

In terms of my own work, I want to be in stories and play characters that profoundly move people, whether it’s to joy or to action or to tears. I want to be a part of stories that can make a real difference in people’s lives. I’m honored to work with Justin and he does make some very gut-wrenching stories and difficult tales. I try to choose work that I would like to watch, things I find important or moving, and I have done that a lot as well in theatre, where you have to pick a really difficult path through some very tricky terrain in order to tell a story. I love doing that in my work.

I like a laugh and I love being around people who make me laugh. I don’t want comedy 24 hours a day, but I love being at dinner parties, as Justin is particularly hilarious when he’s got a little group of people who bring out the best in each other’s sense of humor. I’ll be in stitches and there’s nothing better than being with good friends weeping with joy, laughing. Good comedies that make you laugh endlessly can be a lifesaver during difficult times in your life.

Particularly when I’m making dark work, to have the sense of humor and joy and laughter around it can get me through the darkness of the experience. When Jennifer Kent and I were making The Babadook, there was a time where I was covered in black vomit and sitting in a gutter outside a cellar on the streets of Port Adelaide. Jennifer and I were just sitting there, laughing our heads off. I love working with Justin, too, because we can be working on something really dark, but then suddenly be cracking up about something else. It’s the salve of life. If you can be in an awful situation and then find the funny side, the stories that come from the dark stuff can really heal you. So, I love laughing and being around the people who give me that joy.

I love sensations. I can just touch a wooden table and get off on the feel of the wood on my skin. I’m a bit too sensitive, I guess, but I do love those extreme sensations. I love touch, I love laughter, I love tears. Being a sensitive person can be quite painful and really annoying for some people who don’t like a lot of emotion, but I can’t help myself.

My preference is being in nature and being surrounded by the smell of the bush or the forest and just soaking up that quiet spiritual energy, which is so profoundly important to me. And then walking by the sea or by a river, so I can soak up the goodness of nature and let my mind stop being so manic. I also love walking in cities. When I was working recently in London, I was walking more than 10 miles a day, almost by accident. If I was going somewhere, I’d try to go through Hyde Park and Regent’s Park or along the Thames. Sometimes I might put my headphones on and listen to an audiobook, but then it got too hot in London to be with headphones, so I ditched the stories and just walked, and that was wonderful too. The Queen passed away while I was there and it was like walking through a sea of emotion. I could feel the grief around me. And then, as I walked, suddenly there were swans everywhere and there was the grayness and the incredible architecture. I just get filled up with the beauty of the world around me.

Walking anywhere is incredibly nurturing for me. My dad is a fantastic artist, but also a massive natural history collector, so when I was a child we would go to a beach and walk for miles and miles all day, collecting shells and getting sunburnt to hell. Sometimes we’d walk through whale strandings. He’s really tall and has very long legs, so I always had to go fast to keep up, and would sometimes get a ride on his shoulders out of the bush. Because all my family are passionate bushwalkers, I was taken on amazing walks through the wilderness. Tasmania is filled with the most fantastic wilderness that we are struggling to hold on to, and I’ve got a lovely mountain in our backyard, which is 20 minutes out of Hobart. If you walk any path along this mountain, you’re surrounded by the scent of wood, moss, fungi, leaves and water. It just revives you.

I guess I’ve always walked a lot. I walked to school when I was young, and when I was an exchange student in Norway, my family there would walk up mountains and have midnight bonfires, because it was the land of the midnight sun. We’d watch the sun set at 11:30 p.m., have a bonfire, watch it come up again at 1 a.m., then walk back down the mountain. When I worked on Broadway, I was living in the West Village and I used to walk the 49 blocks to work. I just loved it, being in New York City and looking at the buildings and feeling like I was in a movie. Just being able to do that walk, while I was doing eight shows a week of a play about having a mental breakdown, was joyous.

Multi-award-winning actress Essie Davis currently stars in The Justice of Bunny King, opposite Thomasin McKenzie, which is out now in theaters through FilmRise. She is best known for her acclaimed performance in The Babadook, her key role of Lady Crane in Game of Thrones and playing the title character in Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. She recently appeared in True History of the Kelly Gang alongside Russell Crowe and Nicholas Hoult, directed by her husband, Justin Kurzel, and her further film roles include Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, the Wachowskis’ The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, and Girl with a Pearl Earring. An established stage actress, in 2003, Davis won the Laurence Olivier Award for her performance in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire at the National Theatre London and in 2004 she starred in a National Theatre, West End and Broadway production of Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers, for which she earned a Tony Award nomination. (Photo by Rachell Smith.)