Abbie Cornish walks into the room dressed like she's ready for a funeral. Squeezed into a black knee-length dress, she completes the sombre outfit with dark tights and court shoes. Only a leather wristband hints at her more Bohemian leanings. "I don't really have big dress dramas!" she shrugs, seemingly unconcerned about her appearance. As it transpires, her ensemble is the only thing formal about her. As laid-back as her Australian roots suggest, she comes as a blessed relief in a world of tantrum-throwing starlets. Humble and happy, she's still childishly enthusiastic about the business she's on the brink of captivating.
Already dubbed "the new Nicole Kidman" after her breakthrough role in 2004's Somersault won her Best Actress at the Australian Film Institute awards, it's little wonder that Hollywood is now so bewitched by the 24-year-old. With her blonde hair, brown eyes and pale skin, Cornish has a natural, incandescent beauty as unforced as her manner. She's the sort you could easily imagine confiding everything to over a beer; and you believe Heath Ledger (who plays her junkie lover in the new drama Candy) when he says, "I love her. She's like my little sister." When it came to the casting of her other new movie, A Good Year, a rustic comedy set in Provence, she was sought after by none less than the film's star, Russell Crowe - though she seems unimpressed by this. "It's just another film," she murmurs.
Put this attitude down to Cornish still being a good old-fashioned farm girl at heart. The second of five children, she was born in 1982 in Lochinvar in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales, and raised on her parents' homestead. "It wasn't like a farm-farm," she clarifies. "I think Mum and Dad enjoyed the feel of the farm but they didn't want it to become a real working business. We'd help Dad round up the cows and put the horses in the stables. It was always fun. Dad loved it. He had room to play. He loves cars. And he loves building and pulling things apart, so he had room for his toys."
The way Cornish describes it, her childhood sounds blissful. "The whole day was spent with my hands in the mud, and with animals, helping nature and seeing life," she says. On a typical day, she'd wake up late, wander into the paddock and wouldn't return until after sundown, when her mother called with a well-timed "coo-ee". "We'd be way down the back paddock and you could hear it," she reminisces. She says being close to nature meant she developed a mature understanding of death from an early age. "I never remember going, 'What's death? Mum, this thing's not moving!' I was always very hands-on. I think that energy and the cycle of life was always so strong in me."
A child of the Earth, then - and Cornish says she channelled this innate understanding about the fragility of life into Candy. She plays the eponymous girl, a talented art student who falls for Ledger's poet-turned-heroin addict. Soon enough, she's using smack and prostituting herself to fund their habit - though with the Australian theatre director Neil Armfield at the helm, it's unfair to accuse the film of glorifying drug use. Nevertheless, coming after Somersault - in which she played a runaway named Heidi who winds up spinning out of control - Cornish seems to be developing a knack of playing disaffected youths.
"I see them as being completely different," she says. "Heidi's bubble is probably this big..." She squishes her thumb and forefinger together to make her point. "And she was completely within that bubble - very shy, very timid, and super-sensitive. Then you get Candy. Candy is just fearless. Her bubble is gigantic. Her vision is far ... she's so raw. Candy knows sex. She knows her sexuality. She knows what lovemaking is. Heidi has no idea. Candy is more of a woman, I think. Heidi is more like a girl." Speaking with unfettered passion, rather than analytical poise, it's not hard to see why Cornish has such an instinctive presence on screen.
A heavy dreamer, Cornish claims that the night before her final audition for Candy she dreamt she was using heroin in real life. "I woke up going, 'So that's what heroin is like!'" The next day, Armfield was convinced. "She has this incredibly absorbing quality on screen," he says, "and this amazing sixth sense as an artist." Once Cornish won the role, she and Ledger dutifully toddled off to the Narcotics Users Association of Australia to observe drug use first-hand. They shot a mini-documentary, which they later distributed among the Candy crew. "Seeing people who were still involved with the drug ... that was pretty powerful. If you can start to empathise with it, then you can start to understand."
Cornish is not so masochistic that she needs to play characters like Candy all the time, however. "I think I'd shrivel into a little sultana if I did," she laughs. Although it was a big Hollywood production (directed by Ridley Scott), A Good Year meant spending several months filming in the South of France, f in the small village of Bonnieux. It was like a tonic to her. "I had this apartment off the side of a little hotel on a mountain with nothing else around. I'd wake up in the morning and look at these rolling hills and just breathe in the fresh country air." A home away from home, then - and the work wasn't too taxing, either. "The subject of the film was day-to-day," she says. "There wasn't anything horrific or harrowing we had to go and tackle every morning, like in Candy."
Despite its wine-making theme, A Good Year is hardly a classic vintage - but it may just give us the closest character Cornish has played to her real self. She stars as Christie Roberts, cousin to Crowe's mean-minded London stockbroker, who is ruthlessly overseeing the sale of his late uncle's vineyard. As Cornish puts it, "She's a very natural, open, young, fresh American girl - that's the way I always saw her." Replace the nationality with "Australian" and you might just have our Abbie. Even the backstory matches: Christie has backpacked around Europe, just as Cornish did for six months when she first left home.
"I really adored it - everywhere I went to," Cornish recalls. "Coming from Australia, it's funny: Melbourne to Sydney in a car is the same as Spain to Italy. And that was amazing to me as a 17-year-old. You'd be on the border of these two countries, and they'd be so different. Just to absorb all the different cultures was great." Travelling with next to no money, she took on work wherever she could - notably in a bar in Brussels. "I've got the perfect Belgian head going on," she grins, indicating with two fingers the exact space needed at the top of the glass for the beer's foamy top. Needless to say, she's well aware of the innuendo.
In a way, Cornish has been travelling ever since. Where is she based? "Nowhere really." She doesn't really have one place she calls home. "My family is in Newcastle, New South Wales. My friends are in Melbourne. So I just crash on floors," she says, her voice tailing off. This attitude might come from the fact her parents split shortly after she left home when she was 16. "I think as a child you know when it's time for your parents to split," she says. "You realise they love each other, but they're not in love with each other. And I think as a child it's much better for your parents to split than for them to stay and have dysfunction within the family."
Cornish's father, who runs a paper recycling business, still lives in Lochinvar, two hours north of Sydney. What else does he do? "He's a good surfer," she says. "He teaches me but I have to put some more effort in!" Her mother, who now lives in Newcastle, is an amateur photographer. Does she work for magazines or newspapers? No, just "anything that interests her" is the reply. As open as Cornish is, touching on something intimate does not always elicit an exhaustive answer. Like the reasons behind her chosen profession. "Acting pretty much fell out of the sky," she says.
When she was 12, Cornish entered a modelling competition in a magazine and got to the finals. Picking up an agency as a result, she was later sent to audition for ABC's Children's Hospital and won a role as a quadriplegic. At the time she wanted to be a vet - a throwback to those days on the farm - but as she studied at a Catholic school in Maitland she began to cram in more and more acting gigs. Local product followed, such as the police drama Wildside and the horsey teen series Outriders. In 2000, she starred in The Monkey's Mask, a lesbian detective noir opposite the Top Gun star Kelly McGillis. Somersault came a little later, but it's to this that she attributes her recent success. "I don't know what I'd be doing right now if it weren't for that film," she admits.
As much as she loves acting, Cornish maintains that music was always her first passion. "When I grew up, that was what I did with my day. I loved it." She plays piano, guitar and percussion, and even raps when she gets the urge. "It's like poetry in music!" she giggles. And she has a band, sort of. "At the moment, we're reforming, so we don't have our new name yet. We play different styles of music. Mostly when we get together, we play hip hop - and separately we play other stuff. A lot of people I make music with are really talented and it doesn't stop at one instrument." She used to date Kid Lyrical, an MC from the Newcastle hip-hop band Blades of Hades, but is currently single, her peripatetic lifestyle hardly conducive to maintaining a relationship.
She was recently in London to work on Shekhar Kapur's The Golden Age, the sequel to his 1998 hit Elizabeth. With Cate Blanchett returning as Elizabeth I, the story moves on 10 years as the intrepid explorer Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen) enters the court, entrancing both the Queen and her favourite lady-in-waiting, Bess Throckmorton (played by Cornish). "There's a beautiful love triangle that happens between them," says Cornish. "The idea of the film is immortality - and Bess is the mortal one, while the Queen is immortal. But she is so full of life and so fierce in that court, she still has this zest about her. You can see death in her because she is so alive."
From 16th-century England to post-September 11 America: Cornish is now in Austin, Texas, completing Kimberly Pierce's as yet untitled drama about a group of US soldiers who return from Iraq and attempt to readjust to civilian life. Sounding like The Deer Hunter for the Gulf War generation, it's another evocative choice from Cornish, who plays the patriotic fiancée to one of the men. Initially at least, her character is in agreement with America going to war - and Cornish says the film forced her to think about what it "would've been like for an American citizen who witnessed 9/11, and then had a very emotional and abrupt reaction to that."
With this succession of high-calibre projects on her CV, does Cornish feel that she's been born under a lucky star? "Hmm ... maybe," she says, giggling again. Either way, it's not hard to see where the "new Nicole Kidman" tag has come from. "It doesn't really bother me in any way," says Cornish. "I just think it's a nice thing to say." That said, fame - or "the other stuff that comes with the job," as she puts it - is not something she invites, though she seems at ease with the prospect of it. "I don't block it out, but I don't concentrate on it at all. A lot of it, you can't have any control over. But it's not exactly what you wanted to do when you started acting."
She chuckles at the thought of spending hours getting ready for premieres. "I just go and grab a dress ... it's not a big thing." When I ask about her ambitions, it's evidently not about walking up more red carpets.
"I've got heaps of dreams," she says. "I'd like to keep travelling. I'd love to make more music and make good movies." That doesn't really include Hollywood blockbusters, she says. "I don't think they really appeal to me."
Life is still simple for Abbie Cornish, then. She pauses for a minute. "The thing is, I'm still that person from the farm."
'A Good Year' opens on 27 October. 'Candy' is released on 3 November
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