Top of the Lake: China Girl's Alice Englert on working with her mother, the show creator and her reel mother, Nicole Kidman
You might recognise Alice Englert from the whirlwind 2012 flick, Ginger & Rosa, opposite Elle Fanning. The 23-year-old Australian actress hasn't made a name for herself in Hollywood just yet, but her profile will rise in due time as the BBC drama, Top of the Lake: China Girl, begins its run on 28 July. After a critically acclaimed premiere in Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, the television series returns for its second season, bringing back lead character Robin Griffin. Played by Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss, she slips back into this meaty role as a detective.
Moving its setting from New Zealand to Australia, show creator Jane Campion has also cast supporting actresses in her bill. Nicole Kidman returns to the small screen after Big Little Lies to play Julia, the adoptive mother of Robin's biological daughter, Mary, played by Englert. Fun fact: Englert is Campion's own, with the role specifically written with her in mind. The series opens with Robin reconnecting — or attempting to — with the daughter she gave up for adoption 17 years ago, while dealing with a new case of a young woman found dead in a suitcase that has washed up on Bondi beach.
Top of the Lake: China Girl deals with touchy issues surrounding misogyny, trafficking and sexual and maternal relationships with Sydney as its backdrop. An interview with Englert — primed to be the series' breakout star — tells us more.
Tell us about your character, Mary, and where she fits into the storyline.
Mary is an intense personality. I think some of that is borrowed from the complication of being an adolescent person and then just the complications of being a human, which is a central theme in Top of the Lake and something that I've thoroughly enjoyed appreciating and examining in the series. As well as being part of something that is complicated and intelligent in its mystery. It's crime. Mary inhabits both these worlds and for much of the series doesn't know that herself. Doesn't know how close she is to the thing that Robin Griffin is trying to unravel.
It's a very interesting time in Mary's life because there is a moment in the first series of Top of the Lake where Robin reveals that she had a letter from her daughter who was the baby that she had had from being raped by multiple rapists when she was 15 years old. And she reveals that she could not reply to that letter. When we meet Mary, she is in the process of recovering and finding a way to take control of her life post suffering the rejection of not receiving a reply. Mary is interesting because unlike me she has a very strong survival instinct, which can sometimes be mean and can be scary. It's a fight that I think also Robin has within her.
What was it like doing the scene where Mary first meets her birth mother?
It's like meeting the creator and she has to confront these fantasies of love and protection and safety that she had associated with this mother figure that she had also tried to let go in the years leading up to the beginning of the series. Mary has really committed herself to living a life with Puss [her boyfriend] and to making that the world that she can survive in. And when she meets her mother it's almost like a moment of infidelity because the strength of the romance of the mother figure and the strength of the romance of the lover figure are on par. And that was a really interesting thing to explore throughout the series, Mary's infidelities with all the romances of her adopted mother and her real mother and her real lover and the dad. I don't mean in a sexual way, but I think romance is not necessarily a sexual thing.
There are different love stories playing throughout.
Robin and Mary actually do like each other, and they respect each other. Though there's this remarkable tension and feeling of what's at stake and what could go so terribly wrong, it doesn't go terribly wrong. Mary is able to let go of those fantasies because she's actually interested in the real person that is her mother.
What drew you to work on this series?
I think it would be hard to say that anything other than my mother drew me to this series. I actually am just a huge fan of Top of the Lake and the truth is that for series one Jane did attempt to write me in there but I got another role which was a lot bigger and I had to take it. From the beginning of the writing process of the second series Mary was written so that I could portray her. It wasn't really till the scripts were in a more final stage that I did read them and I really agree with something that Jane said, which is that she finds Top of the Lake to be like a novel and wrote it to be in that way.
What were rehearsals like, and how did that help build the character of Mary?
Rehearsal was incredible, I really loved it. Some actors really don't like rehearsing but at our group could have just rehearsed forever. We did a lot of improvisations around the family time and around Mary's adolescence growing up. I have a little pink book, it's my bible, I've written all my little things if I'm ever at loss, I can flick through the book. I did a lot of writing about bad things that Julia has done to deserve the cruel treatment she's given.
How would you describe Mary's relationship with her adoptive mother?
We've been doing these family dinner scenes and it's just war. It's so confusing to try and be objective or have my own point of view about the way Mary behaves in these scenes, or the way Julia behaves in these scenes. Because she has to believe everything she says, and she says some terrible stuff, completely. And I just have to be there with her till it's over. I'm not method in any way, but I have to shut my ears if anyone else is feeling provoked on set by my character's journey.
How was it for you being a part of the brothel scenes?
It was an extremely difficult set to work in because it was summer and it was hot and there was no space and I'm sure that we were all a bit smelly at some point because of that. Everyone continued to be charming and real and a totally great and unusual world to be inside of. And to learn about actually, I really appreciated that. In a way, that world is so removed from my everyday experience. But for so many people it really isn't. I don't want to not feel aware of or intimate with the things that are extremely close and present and part of our society and city and working life.
What was it like working with your mother, Jane?
I love working with my mother and it doesn't feel so strange because I spent a lot of my youth working as an actress, rehearsing with my mum, or wanting her opinion, wanting her input. Because I think she's fantastic, she's one of the best filmmakers in the world and so it's been easy because on this, I just do what she wants or try to do what she wants. I totally trust her, and Ari has a beautiful way of talking with actors. I find him really easy to understand. He's really sweet and funny and observant. He gives good direction, it's lovely when you can feel that someone's there for you like that.
Top of the Lake: China Girl will drop on 28 July 2017, 6pm on BBC First (StarHub channel 522) and on the BBC Player.