Exclusive Interview: Miranda Otto on Reaching for the Moon
If you’re in the mood to explore some art at the movies this Thanksgiving weekend, Reaching for the Moon comes to limited release theaters for an alternative to the kids movies, hardcore violence and already early Christmas movies. Miranda Otto stars as poet Elizabeth Bishop, and the film focuses on her time in Brazil where she fell in love with politically active architect Lota de Macedo Soares (Gloria Pires). We got to speak with Otto by phone about the real Elizabeth Bishop and her performance, as well as her upcoming TV series “Rake.”
CraveOnline: The film implies that Elizabeth is struggling when we meet her, but she had been published already, right?
Miranda Otto: Yes, but she went through a very low point in New York just before she went to Brazil. She was going through a very bad period, a very bad drinking period and just a period in her life. I suppose she was about to turn 40 and the relationship that she had for a long time had ended and she did have some very low years so I think she’s struggling on many levels at that time, just about life and where she’s going and her work.
She came out of a really bad time and she was planning to go to Europe actually, and she was planning to take the boat to Europe. Then the boat that she booked on, they said it was now not available and they said, “We’ve got another boat but it’s going around Brazil and up to Europe.” She said, “Oh, I’ll do that and I’ll stop off for a few days on the way in Brazil” and she stayed 15 years.
Was it really because of the peanut allergy that her stay was initially extended?
Yes, it was the peanut allergy. That really did happen. She did eat a cashew fruit and she did end up in a hospital and came out in a horrible allergic reaction, and did take a long time to recoup from that.
Is the poem about Lota’s hair a real Elizabeth Bishop poem?
Absolutely. That’s quite a famous Elizabeth Bishop poem called “The Shampoo.” That is in the collection of poems that Elizabeth puts out in the movie. She wrote a lot of poetry during that period.
Is doing the American accent relatively easy for you?
Look, I’ve done it a lot in things. It was really interesting, I found recordings of her voice from when she was very young and then from when she was a lot older. She had a really interesting sound actually because she had been brought up in Canada for a short time when she was younger and then also she had this sort of Southern thing in there at one point but she’d lived down in Key West for a period.
Then she had that sort of slightly Boston sound in there as well. She had quite an interesting voice but we tried to not do too many kind of embellishments in it because we think it might’ve been a little confusing for people. But no, the accent thing, I’ve done it so many times. I find myself speaking with it here all the time. [Laughs]
Is playing such a long lifespan, from about 40 until close to the end, a really unique opportunity?
Yes, I’ve never done that before. I think on a couple of things I’ve maybe played one scene later on and they do a bit of aging, but this really was like trying to graph out 15 years and her significant points through those years and then trying to think of the physicality of that.
One of the hardest things actually was the day that we had to do the dancing, when she was drunk and dancing because I’m someone who actually really likes to dance and I think of myself as an okay dancer, and then I had to think of trying to dance as an old woman and I had to think of dancing being drunk and then I didn’t want her to be a very good dancer. It was actually physically quite a hard thing to do to try and dance as somebody else.
I was going to ask about the drunk dance because a scene like that has the potential to go overboard. What was the line or balance you had to find with that?
I just wanted it to have an air of sadness about it, that she was sort of celebratory about “Well, I’ve got these records and to hell with it, it’s my birthday and I’m fabulous” but I wanted it to seem a little sad really, a little uncoordinated. That was my line, that it was somewhere between how she saw herself and how other people would actually view it.
It does come across that way so I think you did it.
Yeah, someone told me how terribly I dance. That was what I was aiming for. [Laughs]
I didn’t mean that. I meant emotionally.
Were you an Elizabeth Bishop fan before this script came to you?
I didn’t know Elizabeth Bishop at all.
No, and I was just so fascinated to start reading about her and then reading her poems. That’s one of the fun things in acting, to get to find out things you may not have found out otherwise, delve into these worlds and become completely obsessed about things that may not have crossed your path otherwise.
Did you shoot in Rio?
Yes, we shot in Rio and we shot in Petropolis which is about an hour and a half out of Rio in the mountains. That’s where the property was that was not her actual house, but the one that we used in the movie was also in Petropolis. We shot about four weeks there, almost half the shoot there.
The garden is still there, right?
Yeah, the real house, the real Samambaia house is actually still there but that wasn’t possible to film in. It’s privately owned and so the house that we actually shot in was an Oscar Niemeyer house that was somebody’s property that we were able to shoot in, which was an amazing house and stunning gardens and stuff. It was very funny. I bought a book on Brazil for Tracy [Middendorf] who plays Mary when we were leaving as a present, and we opened the book and inside there was a picture of the house. The house was that famous that there was the house inside this book.
Your costar who plays Lota, Gloria Pires, is someone I hadn’t seen before. Were you familiar with her work?
No, I wasn’t but she’s absolutely huge in Brazil. People have grown up with her. They’ve seen her in so many things over the years. She’s very close to people’s hearts there. She’s a wonderful actress.
Would you rehearse a lot with her, or was it the kind of movie where you were afforded that time?
When we arrived, we had three weeks but a lot of it was talking through the script and looking at do we need to change anything? We did some reading rehearsals but we didn’t get into much physicalizing or being in a big space or anything. And then we had a lot of hair and wardrobe tests because of all the aging, so that ate away a lot of those three weeks. We did get to know each other during that period which was great.