Emily Browning takes control with transgressive offering Kill the King

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The Independent Online

If there is a thread that runs through Emily Browning’s career, it would be a kind of young insurrection. She made her break in the lacklustre 2004 adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events as the ingenious teenager Violet Baudelaire, betrayed by a conniving Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), who plots to steal the family fortune by forcing her into marriage.

In her newest film, Kill the King, the character she portrays is much more mature, as are the betrayals. Forced into a drug rehabilitation centre by her suburban parents and assaulted by one of the doctors, her character Karen meets the compassionate but delusional Jack Blueblood, and the two embark on a violent, sexually-charged rampage in his quest to murder Elvis Presley.

The transgressions of their elders is a theme through the whole film, whether in the character of the abusive doctor, Jack’s violent father or the perceived Elvis, brilliantly portrayed by Ron Livingston. According to Jack, Elvis must die for his ‘corruption’ at the hands of Hollywood, showbusiness and all its vicissitudes. 

Browning had spoken previously of her dissatisfaction with Hollywood after first moving there. 

“I think mostly I connected with Karen and that feeling,” she tells The Independent. “I think it takes its toll on you if you buy into that world too much. You see it happening to people all the time now - still - and it makes me sad when I see these articles about celebrities who have drinking problems.

“It’s like we forget when we write about these people, as if we have a right to them or their lives, and they need to stay exactly as they were when they came into the public consciousness. I think we forget the humanity of them.”

After moving to America from her home in Australia, Browning launched her acting career in Hollywood. However, she quickly became disillusioned with LA and left soon after, returning to high school to complete her studies.

“When I got to Los Angeles for the first time I was so excited and I think I did have that idea in my head at the age of 14 or whatever, ‘oh I’m going to be famous and this is going to be so glamorous and amazing,’ and I got there and quickly realised that many of the people I met were just so damaged by that world.

“I had to do a press junket for the first time when I was 14 and it just felt so invasive. Even at that age, to be asked so many personal questions, and then read the articles of the interview that I’ve done and feel like I’ve been robbed of some of my…”

“These people just get to decide how I’m presented.”

After finishing her studies, Browning started acting again, appearing opposite Kit Harrington in Pompeii and playing Reggie Kray’s first wife in Legend. In Kill the King, though, came greater control over the creative process in a production that was both youthful and collaborative.

A small cast and crew worked and travelled together through the whole production and Browning says they have since become her best friends in Los Angeles: “I think I’d just moved to LA when I did the film - I mean they’re people I see at least once a week. It was one of those experiences that just can never happen on a big budget film, where there are just so many hands involved and everyone's so exhausted that they just go back and sit in their trailers.

“It was one of the first times I’ve worked with a director who was my age, which is odd for me, because I started acting when I was so young that I’d still go into every project feeling like ‘the kid,’ but this time I was like ah: These are my peers, they’re of my generation. It made me feel like I was able to speak up about how the film was going.”

To have control over her work and her career clearly means much to Browning. In a similar way to the way in which Karen fights for power in her own life in Kill the King, Browning has fought hard to work on her own terms.

“I at first was nervous the character of Karen was going to be the sort of tragic girlfriend character who comes along for the ride and then dies in a gunfight or something, “ she explains. 

“I think the idea of the ‘abused girl’ has been around forever. I think it’s been sort of a stereotype and not necessarily been represented in a positive way. I hope that we’re moving towards a move where we sort of can understand those characters as human beings rather than these caricatures.”

In the face of a world that has not accepted them, the characters have to carve their own space to reach a brief happiness and nowhere is that clearer than in the character of Teijo Littlefoot, an old friend of Jack’s struggling with their gender. It’s a striking addition to a film that feels truly like a 70s movie that would never have touched on such a topic.

An impressive look throughout - partly down to the use of 16mm film, especially in Elvis’ scenes at the retro ‘Beverly Canyon Hotel’ - belies the film’s shoestring budget. 

According to Browning, some people refused to even believe their set was real: “They were like, ‘it’s great but that Grand Canyon blue screen just looks too fake.’ We said, ‘No no, that was us, we’re actually sitting at the grand canyon, it’s just the 16mm makes it look unreal!'

“My favourite scene in the film I think is when Karen and Teijo are having a discussion about being outsiders, essentially, sitting just right on the edge of the Grand Canyon.

“We went kind of over the rails where you’re not meant to go, we had all this camera equipment and we’re sitting right on the edge and we’re in shorts and t-shirts because it’s meant to be summer, but it actually started snowing and we’re in the middle of the take and we had to stop sooner than we were ready because my toes and fingers had started to turn blue.

“That was a really magical experience as well, having this new bunch of friends that I’d made. We’d finished principal photography and had the week off to ourselves where I think we hung out every day anyway, then we all took a road trip to the Grand Canyon, and stayed in sh***y motels, and it was pretty incredible. It feels like one of those summers from your youth, you know. It felt like a formative experience."