Interview: Essie Davis

Cinema Australia Original Content:

Essie Davis in Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears.

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by MATTHEW EELES

It’s only February, but 2020 has already been a big year for Essie Davis. 

When I called the Cloudstreet and The Babadook actor she had just returned to Australia from London where she was promoting her other 2020 film, True History of the Kelly Gang – an adaptation of Peter Carey’s Booker Prize-winning novel directed by her husband, Justin Kurzel.

“Phryne is opening here on Thursday and True History of the Kelly Gang is opening on the same day in London,” Davis tells Cinema Australia with a burst of excitement. “It has been a lot of fun.”

Of course, Phryne is Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears, but such is Davis’ affection for the glamorous 1920s private detective, she only ever refers to the character and her on-screen adventures by her first name.

“I’m glad that bits of Phryne have rubbed off onto me in terms of being bold and confident and living my life with joy.”


I love how you refer to Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears as Phryne.
[Laughs]. I love the name, Phryne. Originally the series was going to be called Phryne Fisher. The people in marketing decided that no one would know how to pronounce her name. I thought they should put in brackets, “Fry-nee”. [Laughs]. It’s meant to be a bit of a romp. 

Have you heard of people naming their children after Phryne?
I haven’t, but it wouldn’t surprise me. 

You once said that you aim to never play the same character twice. What is it about Phryne that keeps you coming back for more?
It has to always be a new story where you get to see a character go on a new journey. I think that repeating yourself is boring, basically. I think she is a joyous character and that this adventure is a whole new social world and an incredible story of social justice. It’s not only a murder, it’s a masacre. Phryne is a woman of the world and with this we’re taking the audience out into the world with Phryne. They get to go on the adventure with her in an airplane, into the desert and out onto the streets of Jerusalem. I think that’s an amazing place for this character to live and thrive and be appreciated. 

Does Phryne stay with you in your day to day life? Do you imagine what she would do in mundane day-to-day situations like going shopping?
[Laughs]. Sometimes. Yes, I do. Sometimes. I think that every character you play comes from your own sole and that a little bit of each character rubs off on you and I’m glad that bits of Phryne have rubbed off onto me in terms of being bold and confident and living my life with joy. 

Are your daughters too young to appreciate this character?
They have recently had the opportunity to watch this and they love her! I don’t think that they’re too young. I think that she’s become quite an intergenerational character who brings together families and women from ten year olds to ninety nine year olds. She brings a lot of people together and I think that that’s a fantastic thing. 

Would you say audiences will need to have seen the original series to enjoy Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears?
I know for a fact that it stands alone. When we opened it at the Palm Springs Film Festival a quarter of our 850-strong audience had never seen any of the series and they thoroughly enjoyed the film. This is the next step up from the series in terms of the world of the characters. Fans of the series will not be dissapointed, but it’s also a complete meal in itself. It’s an action adventure, murder mystery, romp, romance and the history between any of the chartacters is just a bonus for character and storytelling. 

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There has been an emotional response to the film with some audience members in tears during your Q&A sessions. Do you find you’re being introduced to a whole new Miss Fisher fan base compared to what you’ve experienced with the series?
Absolutely. It’s quite extraordinary how much Phryne touches people’s lives. People tell me that Phryne saved their life. I’m profoundly humbled by that and I’ve witnessed the joy of people dressing up to go to the cinema and I’ve seen people coming together from all walks of life, all genders, and everyone having a really great time. There’s something about Phryne that’s really empowering for people. 

This film, especially the opening sequence, took me back to when I was a kid watching adventure films like Indian Jones and The Goonies. It got me wondering what kind of films you enjoyed watching as a kid.
I love Indiana Jones! God! He’s the best, isn’t he? I love Indy! I love that romantic world of that superintelligent character who’s not afraid to get their hands dirty and do a little action all in the name of keeping history alive. I also love that Phryne fights for social justice, for women’s rights and for the underdog, and that she stands up for women, but she also loves men. There’s something timeless about that kind of enthusiasm for life. I love black and white movies and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and Katherine Hepburn and Bringing Up Baby. All those wonderfully witty actors doing highly skilled, crazy things with their characters and their dialogue. There’s nothing like a classic movie at the cinema. 

Audiences are turning their backs on cinemas with streaming services becoming the preferred way to consume entertainment. Was there any debate about this when deciding to make Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears for the big screen?
Yes. And there’s an ongoing debate about this. Times are changing. It is a very volatile, changing world at the moment. True History of the Kelly Gang opened here on 11 screens, but it’s opening on 111 in the UK. Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears is opening here on 300 screens, but who knows how it will open in any other country. There is something kind of wonderful about being able to stream a film onto your own television in your own house and lying around on a comfy couch. I’m really sad that in the state I live in there are no Drive Ins anymore. I think that there will never be a time or place that cinema isn’t valued. I think that going to the cinema, even if there are only a few other people there, you are having a profound group experience that you can’t have alone on your device or in your home. To go into a place and have the lights go down and you’re surrounded by sound and there’s a massive screen, it’s a true escape into another world. I think that’s the value of this film. It’s a real community film in that families and friends and lovers can go together in a group and it brings a group joy. There’s nothing quite like the united experience of going to a cinema. 

What’s the one message you want audiences to take away from the Phryne Fisher character?
You’re pretty exceptional so you might as well enjoy life. 

Harrison Ford is 77 and he’s about to start filming a fifth Indiana Jones film. Can you see yourself playing Phryne Fisher into your late seventies and early eighties if there’s still a demand for it?
Totally. [Laughs]. I can imagine her little silver bob and her still being as audacious ever. [Laughs].

Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears is in cinemas from Thursday, 27 February 2020.

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