Film: A superior intelligence with just a hint of the perverse

Woody Allen says she is an `acting genius'. She, typically, disagrees. Adam Mars-Jones meets Judy Davis

Judy Davis is an extraordinary actress, a performer who can bring powerful bass notes to otherwise ordinary films. Not that she's the sort of star who steals scenes, more that she can endow them with raw depths that even the writer might not have imagined (her closest rival in this art is Miranda Richardson). In interview, she is modest to the point of superstition, as if acknowledging her own powers would somehow put them at risk.

When she referred to Montgomery Clift as an actor she admired, singling out his scene on the phone in The Misfits, she made an unnecessary disclaimer even before she'd finished saying his name, so that it came out: "Think of Montgomery - not that I'm equating myself with Montgomery Clift..." When I praised a particular performance, she rushed to deprecate either the performance or how much she'd contributed. Of her Oscar-nominated turn in Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives, she says, briskly: "Anyone could have played it. It was all there on the page."

In Charles Sturridge's film of Where Angels Fear To Tread, for instance, she complicates otherwise rather banal equations (Italy and sensuality, good; England and restraint, bad) by showing us someone who is utterly threatened by expressiveness. If it is possible for people to enjoy themselves in a relatively uncomplicated way, then her whole life is meaningless. Judy Davis enriches Forster's message by resisting it from within the film. The character's pain is both raw and terribly funny, but the person who made it so, although she doesn't seem displeased with what I say, distances herself from the achievement. "A touch over the top, I thought, when I saw it. I needed to do that, needed to know how far I could go. That was just a little too far. I'm sorry that the film-maker had to bear that weight, but that's part of the deal. We're all learning." She strikes an odd, moralising note, odd but characteristic of her, when she says: "Characters like that are so dangerous, aren't they?"

The people whom Judy Davis plays are anything but standard screen women. They tend to be women who are ill at ease with themselves, who can't find ways of expressing themselves, and no one can produce arias of awkward body language as well as she can.

When she describes the character she plays in Woody Allen's new Celebrity as "not particularly sympathetic", she's careful to add: "Which I don't mind, it's not something I need to be." Davis isn't an ingratiating performer - she doesn't turn on the charm. But the character she plays in the film is the only one an audience could possibly care about.

Her career choices, since her breakthrough role in Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career (1979), have been generally offbeat and shrewd, with the huge exception of the British thriller Who Dares Wins, in which she played the villain, a ruthless terrorist.

She's funny about the experience. It was her first visit to Britain, and she had some questions about the script. "We sat down in these studios in... is it Buckinghamshire?" Pinewood, perhaps. "Pinewood!" She breathes the word with a sort of thrilled horror. "There was one very stupid part of the script, where we're supposed to say, `We're going to blow up part of southern Scotland,' or something, and I said to the director, `Can we make it more apparent that this is a publicity stunt?' And he said, `Yeah, yeah, but let's wait until Richard (Widmark) arrives'. Then this director whose name I forget sat at this big long dining table and said, `Well, Judy, is there something you wanted to say?'. He just dumped it on me. Richard Widmark said, and here she puts on a huge, gruff American voice: "What is this? Fucking kindergarten!"

She's funny about it all; sees the joke against herself. There she is, playing the terrorist totty in an utterly disposable film, but she's so earnest about her craft that she's worrying about plot implausibilities and reading piles of books about the Baader-Meinhof gang. But her memory of disorientation and being humiliated seems to prevent her from turning it into a comedy routine.

I show her her entry in David Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film, in which he praises her "rich line of gruffness, intelligence, and superiority", saying that no one "can give such rapid hints of the perverse or the eccentric", and "no one has ever been so unabashedly freckled and scrawny, without losing an atom of appeal". He also suggests that it will take brave ventures to cast Judy Davis, and that hers is a career of "moments and scenes and of films that killed her off or hardly had the nerve to run with her...".

Perhaps it is inevitable that the word that registers most deeply in this admiring anthem is the word of physical description. "I sure don't look scrawny in Celebrity." With a rather sour intonation, she adds, "Wrong there, Dave". She gave birth to her second child 12 days before arriving in New York for the filming.

When I ask her to consider the other parts of Thomson's assessment, she stonewalls, as if she finds it alienating. "Well, you know, a film is really conceived in the editing room, and I have no control over that. Most film careers are careers of moments and scenes." This was where she mentioned Clift, and also Bette Davis in some of her great moments. "The one about the actress. My brain's gone. All About Eve."

She wouldn't admit to envying anyone else's career, apart from the actresses who got to work with Ingmar Bergman, "because of what they learned about life". It was Bergman's The Magic Flute that showed her what film could do, when she saw it at drama school. "I saw it recently on a television screen, and I got Colin (Friels, her husband) to watch it, I even got my son to watch it... and 15 minutes later I turned it off." She'd have to see it on the big screen to decide whether to blame television.

When I ask her about a part in which I thought a great Australian actress might take an interest (Australian subject, Australian director) - Lindy Chamberlain in Schepisi's A Cry In The Dark, the part actually played by Meryl Streep, she doesn't actually say that she turned it down on moral grounds. But they did come to her about the part. "And I wasn't interested. The court case was still going on. Which seemed to me sort of inappropriate."

Even when she does accept a role, she remains a critical presence. She vigorously contests Woody Allen's estimate of her performance in Celebrity ("All I have to do is put the camera on her, walk away, and let her acting genius take over"). "He gives me too much credit. When we started working, it became clear very quickly that whereas I thought the pitch was there," - hand at waist height - "Woody thought the pitch was there," - hand above her head. "So I went whoo! OK. You want it very extreme from the outset."

The film doesn't make up its mind about the character she plays, but Davis seems to dislike her, almost on a moral level. "In my view that woman is grotesque at the end of the film. I think she's grotesque because of what she becomes" - a vapid and entirely happy television presenter.

I pick up on her disapproval and ask her about it. "I worry about somebody like her in 10 years' time. What that woman has chosen ain't going to feed her for long, and then what's going to happen?"

I'm fascinated by what she's telling me, this great star who thinks Bergman's actresses learned about life from working with him, and that a television presenter shouldn't be happy. Do you really worry about the character outside the movie? That's when she stops me short. "Quite frankly, I don't give a flying fuck. But you did ask."

Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album