After earning top accolades and awards for prolific Australian film and stage work (including Love Serenade, The Well and Doing Time With Patsy Cline), chameleon-like NIDA graduate Miranda Otto, will next have a pivotal role in The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King as the feisty princess Eowyn who refuses to stay home while the boys go off to fight in the ferocious battles between good and evil. The daughter of Australian acting icon Barry Otto, has also made impressions in overseas films such as What Lies Beneath with Harrison Ford; Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line; and The Last Days Of Chez Nous. Don’t be surprised if the porcelain-skinned Miranda becomes the next Australian actor recognized internationally, a la Nicole Kidman or Toni Collette.
Here Otto tells Attitude about the appeal and challenges of her role as Eowyn/Dernhelm, in two films of this multi-million dollar making film trilogy of The Lord Of The Rings as well as the mammoth amounts of work she manages to fit in between filming.
Dernhelm in The Return Of The King
So glamorous and wonderful
“In some ways my character seems glamorous, but she’s also gritty as well. The costumes are made of wool and heavy fabrics so it’s not just like the ephemeral, floaty elf look of Liv Tyler’s Arwen because my character is human. Ngila Dickson is a wonderful costume designer. When I got there, I didn’t know how they were going to turn me into this iconic character from the book. There were a lot of questions, like: how would she look, and how what that work. It was really due to her work and the detail she put into the clothes that really formed the character for me. I work a lot from the costume and it’s very important to me that the costume is right. And that I feel right within it.
“Some people would say it was glamorous I suppose, what with the flowing wig and the costumes; but in other ways she had, for instance, flat shoes and flat leather boots that were made for me, and that made it feel like a strong costume. That’s my idea of glamour! I prefer that to all the [maciage – sounds like mach-ee-aje] and bouffant hair [laughs].”
Your costumes change quite dramatically between The Two Towers and The Return Of The King.
“Oh yes! I fight in The Return Of The King, so the costumes get much heavier. I’m wearing a special chain-mail they developed, which was a little bit lighter than regular chain-mail but still quite heavy. We all had armour made for us and swords and helmets. So, yeah it’s very different! The Two Towers was the dress-wearing’ film and The Return Of The King is the pants wearing’ film. That’s how I differentiated between the two from day to day. If I was in pants, it must have been The Return Of The King!
“It’s great. They hand-made all of those things for us. It was kind of like a rite of passage really, when they handed them to you it was like an enormous gift they were giving you of this armour they had worked on for so long especially for each actor.
Can we talk about your preparation and training even your sword work as it will play such a big part of this film.
“Well, I originally found out about the sword-fighting from Liv. In the original script that I read, there wasn’t as much. And then the script started to change to go much more back towards the original book, for both my character and Liv’s. It was Liv who warned me saying, you’re going to have to be able to sword-fight and all these other things.’ So then I went out and sought out the swordmaster and started to get some training.
“Then when I came back to do the shooting in August of 2002, I had three weeks to work with them for three hours a day. Then I would just individually do it for each move as we choreographed for the fights. They’d work on each section of each fight and we’d work on them from there.
Many were waiting for you to break out the sword in The Two Towers.
“I know! It’s kind of a big lead-on isn’t it? I heard that from a few people, that they were disappointed it didn’t happens but just you wait. Originally there was a little bit of sword-fighting in The Two Towers [Miranda shot a scene where Eowyn defends the women and children hiding in the Glittering Caves from some marauding orcs who’ve broken through the defenses at the Battle Of Helm’s Deep. It was deleted], but that wasn’t taken from the books. In the books, she really does have to wait until The Return Of The King and the Battle Of Pelennor Fields to get to do it.”
They’ve picked a big enough opponent for you! Your main battle is with a character portrayed by massive Maori actor Lawrence Makoare isn’t it?
“Lawrence was there. He is a big boy isn’t he [laughs]. But there were a few different guys on different days playing the same character. When we were shooting, it got just so frantic that sometimes you wouldn’t have the actor who normally played the role available.”
How much time did you spend in production on The Lord Of The Rings?
“I was in New Zealand for about five or six months. I managed to fit in six things after shooting principle photography on The Lord Of The Rings. First of all I went to London and did a BBC production of Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now with David Suchet, which has already been on television in Australia. Then I did an English film called Doctor Sleep alongside actor Goran Visnjic, and then went to Poland to do a film with Agnieszka Holland called Julie Walking Home. At the same time I was doing that, I was also doing a film in Italy and in Italian. Then I came back to Australia and did a play, The Dollshouse, at The Wharf. Then I did Danny Deckchair. I did all that after The Lord Of The Rings then decided to have a break. We all need a breather sometime! I wanted to have a rethink to decide on what I was going to do next and how I was going to approach the next couple of years.
“I think I’ll go back to the states in January 2003 and look at what’s around there. I haven’t done anything in the States for a while as The Lord Of The Rings was filmed in New Zealand as you all probably know. The last thing in did in the States was Human Nature which was also with Danny Deckchair’s Rhys fans.
“It will really depend. I’m also very interested in what they’re doing in England and stage work. It will depend on what the best thing that comes up is.
“I’ll do some pick ups in May and June of 2003 for The Return Of The King; just some bits and pieces. At this stage I couldn’t tell you what work there will be for me on the films. I believe for The Return Of The King, there’s just two shots at present that they need. But anything can happen between now and then.
“They’ve already told me to keep some time aside for them in May/June, but then they’ll work around me. For instance, if I’m only available in the first week of May, they’ll use me then. The time taken on the pick ups themselves could be a long time, but the period they might work with me might be only two to three days which may only result in two or three shots. For other people, it might mean two or three weeks of solid work. It just depends on what they need. At the most, I think they might require me for a couple of weeks.
“When you see the DVDs for both The Two Towers and The Return Of The King, you might see some of the pieces we’ve been shooting. For instance, with The Two Towers, there were some things we experimented with that were showing, in some ways, a lighter side of Eowyn’s character that unfortunately haven’t ended up in the theatrical release of the movie. I’m quite happy they didn’t actually, because I prefer the aloof, strong and cold Eowyn; even though in some ways, some people might think that’s less accessible for the audience. I really admire that part of her.
“There are some things that are very Eowyn that we shot that didn’t end up in The Two Towers for different reasons, ie: there just wasn’t enough time. They might turn up on the extended DVD edition.”
As one of the few females on the set of The Lord Of The Rings, did it feel as though you’d joined a boys’ club?
“In some ways it was a boys’ club because there’s horse-riding and sword-fighting it was a masculine environment. But they were very friendly and open. There are also a lot of women working on the production; from the top such as [screenwriters] Fran Walsh [also wife of director Peter Jackson] and Phillipa Boyens who I’m quite close with; as well as so many people on the crew. Our main Assistant Director is also a woman. It was good to have them around.
“I guess, working on a film like this is an adventure. It’s an adventure story and actually being in it is another adventure. It’s not just a film for men it’s for the women as well. It’s just as much fun for a girl to get out there and do all those things. But it isn’t about sitting around, painting your nails although I enjoy getting together with the girls to do girlie’ things, I also like getting in the dirt.”
Was it a tough environment to work in?
“I think the hardest part was for other people. For instance, the shooting on the Battle Of Helm’s Deep took four months; at night, in the rain and fighting with swords for five to six days a week. That pushed a lot of people really close to the edge, being so physically demanding, in the cold and wet in the middle of the New Zealand winter. Very hard.
“Some sets were easier than others. Sometimes, when we were working in the studio, it was really easy. Then other times, like when we were on the outdoor set of Edoras [the Rohirrim palace where we first meet Eowyn], the wind was very strong. I also ran into some other problems along the way, being flooded and snowed out. There were environmental factors but it some ways it made it more fun. It got particularly frantic in the last three weeks of shooting but, at other times, it was much easier.”
If what we see onscreen is any indication, your chemistry with Viggo Mortensen [the handsome actor who plays Aragorn, the returning king of the title] was very good. Is that the way it felt for you?
“Viggo’s a really terrific person to work with. He knew so much about the story and knew his character so well. My character was more evolving’, in terms of what sides we would show of her at what times. For instance, when you try to work out at which point onscreen you’ll show when someone becomes fascinated with another character [as Eowyn does in star-crossed fashion with Aragorn]. The scene that gets that across the most is the one where she’s practicing with her sword and he interrupts. We didn’t shoot that and it wasn’t even written until the second to last week of the shoot.
“So it was a constantly developing thing in terms of what the actual chemistry would be. Originally when we approached it, we had more things where I was not idolizing him but me looking at him and being in a sort of awe. Then we realized we needed to make her stronger and more distance, and be able to hold her own ground. That was important.”
For such a huge production, much seems to have been in constant flux.
“If you saw some of the scenes that were in the original script, you would just die because they’re so different to what we ended up shooting. But they told me that from the moment I got the part. They said, forget about the script for your character because we’re really changing it.’ For other people it stayed much the same but mine had gone a fair way from the book in the original draft that had been done.
“Basically, Liv’s character was more action-based and that meant that mine wasn’t as much. Then her character became a lot more like more like the Arwen of the book’s appendices much more of a strong feminine presence and less of a warrior princess. I suppose they had thought, at one stage that was the way they’d have to go to integrate her. So we both changed to become closer to the way our characters were in the book.”
Did you have fun working with Brad Dourif (the slimy agent of evil who has an unsavory interest in Eowyn)?
“Brad’s terrific! I loved working with him. He puts so much energy into it and as someone else said, he pushes himself even harder when the camera is on you instead him. He’s that giving. I just really enjoyed doing our scene together because I was really interested in the energy between those two characters. Even though he’s an evil character, you kind of feel sorry for him because he is in love with her and she’s not in love with him.
“I was also interested in the fact that no one listens to Eowyn at that point or understands her. Her brother has vanished and she’s really alone. Someone like Grima can get to you under those circumstances and lure you in. The minute you start to listen, it’s like when you’ve broken up with someone and you go to some other guy who’s a friend for advice, and then in the middle of consoling you, they try to make a move. It’s that kind of thing of opening yourself up because you’re alone. I can’t say that exact scenario has happened to me before but it’s very easy to put yourself in those shoes.
“It’s important to see that Grima Wormtongue has a power through [the evil wizard] Saruman, which has wielded over King Theoden. In some ways, you have to endow him with that.
“Brad’s a fantastic character actor. He’s done terrific work before. But people don’t often realize how humble and a sweet person he is and he’s very happy to do that kind of work. He has this fantastic trick of being able to make his eyes run and snot constantly drip from his nose [laughs]!”
Now the chemistry between yourself and David Wenham’s character, Faramir, comes into play in The Return Of The King. How was that?
“That’s a big section of the book, but when we get to that part of the film, there are so many other things going on, I don’t know how big a part of the film that say, the Houses Of Healing where they meet, will have. There are so many more cataclysmic things going on at the same time, that it probably won’t be as long of a section as it is in the book.”
Were you able to draw on your friendship with David for the scenes you have together?
“That’s a funny thing, because David and I haven’t worked together since we did a radio play ages ago and that was a really small thing. I’ve known David for a very long time but this was the first time we’d really been able to work together since then.
“It was great. It’s always nice to work with someone you know, someone who’s an Australian.”
In a few words, how would you sum up your experience working on The Lord Of The Rings?
“It’s hard. It was incredibly exciting from the moment I arrived and saw what they were doing. I couldn’t get out of my head that it was like working on The Wizard Of Oz or something one of those films that would stay and stay. It has that same element of the fantastical to it. I could hardly sleep when I was there because I felt I would be a part of something that I felt would last; that was so big and yet, somehow, so intimate. Then when I was there, I just wanted to stay and soak up the experience. It was really incredible.
“I saw The Two Towers for the first time on November 31, 2002. It was just before we started the press junket in New York.”
How does t feel having a doll made of your character?
“That was definitely surreal [laughs]! You can’t help but think of all the horrible things you did to your dolls when you were younger. I keep thinking I’ll be walking along the street and see one with its nose chewed off and arm amputated.
“I’m wary of people asking me to sign these things for them. I’ve already had people hanging outside my hotel room in New York asking me to sign things. I thought they were fans, but it turned out they were just putting them on the internet and selling them and making ridiculous amounts of money from the fans. I won’t fall for that again!”
The casting seems to have been very exacting. Did you get any sense from Peter Jackson why he chose you and why you were identified with the Eowyn character?
“I don’t really know what he saw in me. I think one of the first things you needed to have for the role was a sense of being able to play in something that was period’. Not playing a model person but a person that could be from another era. She also had to have both a masculine and feminine side to her so she could look like a graceful and elegant woman but also be a fiery and strong person underneath that with physical abilities. I hope he found those things in me!
“It’s hard for me to tell. I’ve been with a few audiences to watch his, but I don’t know what the audience and fans of the book have thought about the character and whether they feel she’s been realised’. Now the film’s out, maybe I’ll learn more.
“Peter Jackson gave me a lot of room to move and knew what he wanted. He doesn’t say huge amounts to you. I can think of one scene in particular that’s not in there and him saying one thing to me about not thinking about being sad so much as being nervous. Things like that made for a very clear and specific direction.”