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Q&A: “SILENT HILL’s” Radha Mitchell Makes “THE SACRIFICE”

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Though Radha Mitchell has earned well-deserved success in high-profile cinematic offerings—FINDING NEVERLAND opposite Johnny Depp, MAN ON FIRE with Denzel Washington—the Australian-born actress continues to boldly delve into more frightful material. Her latest such jaunt is her wonderfully weird, dread-inducing portrayal of an American obstetrician engaged in a deadly cat-and-mouse against rune-inspired Scottish cultists in SACRIFICE.

Writer/director Peter A. Dowling’s film (in theaters and on VOD tomorrow from IFC Films under its IFC Midnight banner) is the latest entry in a genre résumé that ranges from mainstream efforts such as SILENT HILL, PITCH BLACK and the 2010 remake of George Romero’s THE CRAZIES to the gritty indie serial-killer thrillers EVIDENCE and THE FROZEN GROUND. Those who appreciate this luminous, brilliant presence making periodic appearances amidst the darkness on the edge of our transgressive cultural town have Tony Scott, Nastassja Kinski and the blessedly laissez-faire attitude of one small-theater ticket taker to thank.

“I used to go to this art-house cinema when I was a kid, because my mom was connected to the people who owned it,” Mitchell explains. “So I grew up watching a lot of what I guess people might call arty movies and older classics. The first one I remember really affecting me was THE HUNGER, which I saw in a double feature with CAT PEOPLE. I’m still not sure why I was allowed in, but I’m grateful I was! Both of those films were just full of unforgettable images that remain with me to this day, probably even on a subconscious level. There’s something raw and powerful and kind of sexy about those movies—maybe it was an ’80s thing—that was very influential for me.

“What I like about working in the world of genre cinema is that there’s the license to explore and be innovative,” she continues. “A lot of the movies that receive the kudos in terms of Oscar nominations or whatever don’t necessarily have that freedom or sense of exploration or renegade spirit. As an actress, there’s also something cathartic about having these opportunities to cleanse yourself of pure emotion—stuff that’s not necessarily embedded in the text, just visceral sorts of things. You know, I’ve taken up surfing recently, and when you go out into the churn of the water and those waves, you can come back half an hour later feeling quite adrenalized and exhausted, which is not unlike the effect shooting a particularly intense scene can have. I do appreciate that aspect of the genre—that it takes a lot out of you, but to a productive end.”

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And, Lord, does SACRIFICE ever give Mitchell depths to plumb in that respect, as her heroine is slowly confronted with a series of stakes-raising clues and revelations that inexorably drag her away from the safe harbors of modern reason and safety toward a perilous and unpredictable sub-reality. “SACRIFICE is an unusual story,” Mitchell agrees. “Very much about the plot, but at the same time, I felt the characters were compelling. There was something exciting to me about the challenge of keeping it authentic for the audience. Because while it is a detective story, it is also a little fantastical.”

That artistic goal fits perfectly with the narrative journey of her character, Dr. Tora Hamilton. As Mitchell notes, she is “brave enough not to ignore her instincts—to begin a process of discovery that requires her to question not only herself and her worldview, but also the motivations of those closest to her. And she does this out of a sense of justice that is quite admirable, because the easiest thing to do would be to let it go and cruise through life, like many of us do a lot of the time, and not deal with the implications of the strange and wrong things happening right under her nose. For Tora, it’s almost a matter of being willing to put on [metaphorical] lenses that allow her to see what is real while understanding that the truth she finds might devastate her life.”

The film’s strong female-centered perspective—articulated through the clandestine partnership between Dr. Hamilton and a similarly stouthearted, unmoored police sergeant portrayed to great effect by Joanne Crawford—appealed to Mitchell as well. “I actually felt like we were, on some level, making a movie for a female audience—without being condescending about what a female audience is,” she notes. “Certainly, we were dealing with female issues through female characters who weren’t limited to one dimension. You know, ‘Here is The Wife’ or something like that. These are women with their own agendas and complications, and their alliance and friendship is, to me, very much at the heart of the story. I thought that was kind of an exciting extension of the genre that might intrigue women of different generations and backgrounds—another reason I was so interested in doing the piece.

“Peter had a certain sensitivity for that aspect of the story,” Mitchell adds. “He had just had a baby, so he had a real connection to my character’s need to seek out a child and create and manifest that part of her life. It was very real for him, and he’s a great writer who could translate that longing [for parenthood] beautifully within this story. That was an experience many of us could talk about and bond over, which was cool and helpful.”

Mitchell is also high on the roguish attributes of her cuddly-with-a-sinister-edge onscreen husband, played by the fittingly named Rupert Graves. “Rupert’s got this unique kind of charm,” she says. “His character is obviously very flawed, and if you just look at it on the page, it’s like, ‘Wow, how could she ever be with this guy?!’ But Rupert makes the relationship seem very plausible—obviously a fantastic person to work with.”

One circumstance that aided Mitchell with her portrayal of a fish out of water was…being an actual fish out of water on location in Ireland. Which was standing in for Scotland. Which…well… “Everyone was pretending,” she says with a chuckle. “I was pretending to be American. We had a lot of Irish actors pretending to be Scottish. There was something very Irish about that in itself, you know—this kind of wicked joke that we all were in on. That’s the world of acting, I guess, but for this particular role in this particular movie that is so much about things not being what they seem, it definitely created an interesting atmosphere for building my role. And then just to be in Ireland as well, in a culture that was all kind of new to me—it all became part of the film.

“For example, originally we were going to shoot the movie in July, but ended up filming it in November. That added this darkness, this sort of brooding intensity, to the film that I don’t think otherwise would have been there. It all matters.”

Happily, SACRIFICE hasn’t exorcised Mitchell’s appetite for scary cinema. Next month, she’ll be seen alongside Kevin Bacon in WOLF CREEK director (and fellow Aussie) Greg McLean’s Blumhouse-produced supernatural horror flick THE DARKNESS. “In a way, it was like an Australian shoot in Los Angeles, because there were so many Australians involved in the cast and crew, which was a fun experience,” she recalls. “I was especially interested in doing something with Greg McLean, because I enjoyed working with him in the past [on 2008’s monster-crocodile indie ROGUE] and also in taking a gamble on a project in the Blumhouse stable, where they’re doing quite a lot of special, intriguing work. That’s how you go from one thing to the next in this business, really—you just filter all the opportunities you’re presented with in relation to the general pedigree of who else is involved, whether that’s the other actors or the writer or the director, and try to bring yourself into the same creative space as people doing interesting work you admire.”

The conversation eventually turns to Mitchell’s Chainsaw Award-nominated turn as Rose Da Silva in SILENT HILL—“I was robbed…robbed!” she jokes—a film that, 10 years on, seems to have risen in the estimation of critics and fans alike. “I always recognized that we were doing something quite unique at the time,” she says. “I think we all did. It was a complicated shoot, not all fun by any means, but worth the effort, because what we were looking at every day was stunning. I’m happy people are still discovering and enjoying the film.”

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About the author
Shawn Macomber http://www.stopshawnmacomber.com
The ravings of noted South Florida pug wrangler Shawn Macomber have appeared in Decibel, Magnet, Reason, Maxim, Radar, Shroud, and the Wall Street Journal, amongst other fine and middling publications. He also hosts the podcast Into the Depths and pens the metal-lit column Tales From the Metalnomicon for Decibel magazine.
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