Subscribe now to and start applying to auditions!

News

Essie Davis: Tackling Singing and Nudity

  • Share:

  • Pin on Pinterest
Essie Davis:  Tackling Singing and Nudity

The surrealist elements and heady philosophical issues aside -- and Tom Stoppard's "Jumpers" is awash in them -- actress Essie Davis says that the most daunting tasks in playing Dotty, a featured role in the Broadway production, are the singing and the nudity. There is no shortage of emotional challenges either.

"When I first read 'Jumpers,' I felt that Dotty -- who is dotty -- was very British and alien to me," notes the Australian-born, 30-ish Davis, who meets me in her dressing room before a performance. "But when [director] David Leveaux said I could do her with an Australian accent, I became more comfortable with her."

She adds: "Dotty becomes different people, depending on whom she is with. There's something na誰ve and infantile about her, but she's also very perceptive and intelligent. Dotty plays language games with her husband, George [Simon Russell Beale], and knows something about philosophy; she plucks from various philosophies that suit her, yet thinks poetry and songs are more important.

"She's also a great singing talent who, following her nervous breakdown, lost her talent," continues Davis, now making her Broadway debut in "Jumpers" and earning a Tony Award nomination as best featured actress for her efforts. "Dotty has so many disparate elements. She truly loves George, who does not respond to her cry for help. So she turns to her doctor [Nicky Henson] for love. It's not sex. That's not clear in the script, but for me it's very important that she is not having an affair with her doctor."

Bringing together an amalgam of farce, variety show, mystery, and lots of intellectual pyrotechnics, "Jumpers," which opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on April 25, considers what happens when the Radical Liberals take over. The scene is London; the time is the early '70s. Men have already landed on the moon, myth and romance are dead, and all academic discourse is predicated on the notion that everything is relative.

Philosophy professor George Moore -- named not coincidentally for a significant 20th-century Cambridge University philosopher -- is psychically stumbling about trying to figure out what it all means, while his childlike wife, Dotty, emotionally disintegrates; she's unable to cope in a world devoid of an absolute morality. And then there's a murder: During an acrobatic display, which takes place somewhere not entirely clear, one of the tumblers -- all academics moonlighting as acrobats -- is killed. Nobody knows who the culprit is. To further complicate affairs in this absurdist universe, his corpse ends up in Dotty's room.

Davis' Dotty is one breathy, wide-eyed innocent. It is a seamless performance, yet she insists that there are segments that continue to pose stumbling blocks -- specifically, the aforementioned nude scene and the singing.

"I've sung before, first in a band in high school and then in a band in Norway, but never in a musical," notes Davis. "I'd always stand behind the bass player with my head down and my eyes closed. The most difficult thing for me was to sing with my eyes open. And, of course, Dotty is a great West End star. I prepared for the role by singing along with Julie London, Nina Simone, and Blossom Dearie."

But the singing was nothing compared to the discomfort surrounding the fleeting nude scene, she remarks.

"When I read the script and realized there was a nude scene, I said, 'I can't,' " remembers Davis with a small shudder. "I can barely get changed in the girls' dressing room. But I did it anyway, the first time in a closed rehearsal wearing nothing but a jumper until the last moment. And then I cried." Stunned even in retrospect, "No one cared or even noticed!"

She adds, "I thought, if nothing else, having to be nude onstage would make me go to the gym more often. It didn't. In the beginning I was so upset, I ate three chocolate bars a day. I thought being nude onstage would make me like my body more. That didn't happen either."

Davis boasts wholesome charm; indeed, she is downright homey, a quality that is punctuated by the family photos lining her dressing room wall. There are Mom and Dad, her brother, her husband, and even several shots of her dog, whom she misses especially, but she assures the visitor that the dog is being well taken care of by her parents Down Under.

A Gamble That Paid Off

Davis has moved ahead rapidly in her career. She has already won the coveted Olivier Award for her debut performance in London as Stella opposite Glenn Close in Trevor Nunn's production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" at the National Theatre. Previously, she worked extensively in Australian theatre (receiving, among other nods, a Sydney Critics' Circle best newcomer nomination); her film credits include "Girl With a Pearl Earring," "The Matrix Reloaded," "The Matrix Revolutions," and "Code 46."

Davis hails from Tasmania, a bucolic island off the coast of Australia. The daughter of a painter, Davis always wanted to be an actress and studied acting at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA) in Sydney, Australia. NIDA's program is based on London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Davis notes, adding that the training brings together elements of the Method and the classics.

"I learn the techniques and then take what I need. I have the Essie Davis technique of acting." She points out, "I'm an instinctive actress."

It's an approach that has clearly served her well. From the outset, she has worked steadily as an actress, launching her career in Sydney theatre. Then, because she wanted a film career that was not forthcoming, she took a major gamble, one that proved to be a turning point.

"I had just been offered the role of Laura in 'The Glass Menagerie' -- and it's a part I'd always wanted. But I said no in the hope that I'd have more time to audition for films. I did audition for several, one of which was being produced by Glenn Close. I got a callback and was offered the lead. But it never happened because the funding fell through."

No matter. Close remembered Davis, and when Close got cast as Blanche in that production of "Streetcar," she recommended Davis for Stella. Davis flew to London, auditioned, and three months later was tapped for the plum part, which brought her, as noted, the Olivier Award.

Davis, who has now worked on three continents, offers some interesting comparisons. "I think the unemployment rate for actors is pretty much the same in Sydney, London, and New York. In all three cities there are more actors than there are jobs. But I do think that there are far more acting opportunities in London and New York than in Sydney, where there are approximately seven actors that you see over and over again in every play. Then suddenly you stop seeing them and seven new actors are appearing in everything.

"Also, there's almost no crossover between theatre and film in Sydney," she continues. "Film directors don't come to the theatre in Sydney. In London and New York they do. In Sydney, they suffer from what is known as 'the tall poppy syndrome,' meaning they cut off the heads. There's a gentle oppression in Sydney with the attitude, 'You're very good and you don't have to be any better.' Later, if you become a big film star -- like Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, or Nicole Kidman -- you are welcomed."

Davis admits that she is still after that elusive film role, with an eye towards playing the lead in a movie version of Jeanette Winterson's novel "The Passion," a surrealist lesbian fairytale now under option by Miramax Films. At the moment, however, she's thinking about "Jumpers," ever hopeful that audiences leave the theatre saying, " 'Wow!' I want them to be moved -- moved to a place where they can listen with generosity to the fragile people in their lives." film credits include "Girl With a Pearl Earring," "The Matrix Reloaded," "The Matrix Revolutions," and "Code 46."

Davis hails from Tasmania, a bucolic island off the coast of Australia. The daughter of a painter, Davis always wanted to be an actress and studied acting at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA) in Sydney, Australia. NIDA's program is based on London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Davis notes, adding that the training brings together elements of the Method and the classics.

"I learn the techniques and then take what I need. I have the Essie Davis technique of acting." She points out, "I'm an instinctive actress."

It's an approach that has clearly served her well. From the outset, she has worked steadily as an actress, launching her career in Sydney theatre. Then, because she wanted a film career that was not forthcoming, she took a major gamble, one that proved to be a turning point.

"I had just been offered the role of Laura in 'The Glass Menagerie' -- and it's a part I'd always wanted. But I said no in the hope that I'd have more time to audition for films. I did audition for several, one of which was being produced by Glenn Close. I got a callback and was offered the lead. But it never happened because the funding fell through."

No matter. Close remembered Davis, and when Close got cast as Blanche in that production of "Streetcar," she recommended Davis for Stella. Davis flew to London, auditioned, and three months later was tapped for the plum part, which brought her, as noted, the Olivier Award.

Davis, who has now worked on three continents, offers some interesting comparisons. "I think the unemployment rate for actors is pretty much the same in Sydney, London, and New York. In all three cities there are more actors than there are jobs. But I do think that there are far more acting opportunities in London and New York than in Sydney, where there are approximately seven actors that you see over and over again in every play. Then suddenly you stop seeing them and seven new actors are appearing in everything.

"Also, there's almost no crossover between theatre and film in Sydney," she continues. "Film directors don't come to the theatre in Sydney. In London and New York they do. In Sydney, they suffer from what is known as 'the tall poppy syndrome,' meaning they cut off the heads. There's a gentle oppression in Sydney with the attitude, 'You're very good and you don't have to be any better.' Later, if you become a big film star -- like Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, or Nicole Kidman -- you are welcomed."

Davis admits that she is still after that elusive film role, with an eye towards playing the lead in a movie version of Jeanette Winterson's novel "The Passion," a surrealist lesbian fairytale now under option by Miramax Films. At the moment, however, she's thinking about "Jumpers," ever hopeful that audiences leave the theatre saying, " 'Wow!' I want them to be moved -- moved to a place where they can listen with generosity to the fragile people in their lives."

What did you think of this story?
Leave a Facebook Comment: