At HIFF: Emily Browning Talks Controversial Sleeping Beauty and Mishandled Sucker Punch
As noted earlier, Emily Browning was among the squad of young talent to storm this year's Hamptons International Film Festival. The Australian actress best known for Hollywood efforts Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events and this year's Sucker Punch dropped by this time around for something completely different: Sleeping Beauty, writer-director Julia Leigh's disturbing dive into the realm of somnambulistic sex work.
Browning stars as Lucy, a disaffected college student scraping by on odd jobs before happening upon a madam (Rachael Blake) who supplies young women for a group of high-class patrons. In the most extreme of their scenarios, Lucy is essentially anesthetized and placed nude in bed, resulting in a succession of outre encounters that have left viewers from Cannes to the Hamptons shocked, appalled, enthralled, breathless, fleeing the theater and/or any number of combinations of each.
I sat down with Browning this weekend to learn more about the film, her role, her festival experiences, and the odd conceptual link between Sleeping Beauty and the much less admirably received Sucker Punch.
How was your trip into town? It's such a long flight.
I actually came from London, so it's not too bad. But then I got in and I stood in the customs line for two and a half hours. I had such a nice flight! I slept, it was awesome. Then I got in, and then the line was just mental. And you know how it is when you're shuffling at such a slow pace? I was a zombie by the time I got in [Friday] night. I was just not on the ball.
How did the post-screening Q&A go?
I don't know how it went! I hope it went well, but honestly, I was on another planet. I think I might have been talking a bit of rubbish, but...
It's a polarizing film. What kinds of conversations have you encountered or personally had with people about this since Cannes?
I think in terms of people speaking to me personally about it, their reactions have been positive. The guy who was just interviewing me said a reaction that I've gotten a lot, which I quite like, which is, "When I first saw it, I wasn't sure. I didn't know how I felt about it; it made me uncomfortable. But then it stuck with me, and now I really like it." And I love that reaction. I think that's great, and that's what we want. It's so weird when I do a Q&A, and somebody asks a question and they begin it with, "I loved the film!" I'm like, "You loved it?" That's kind of a weird response.
I know. "Already?"
Yeah! I mean , when I first saw it, I was proud of it, and it worked exactly as I wanted it to. But the automatic response "I love it"? I kind of like that people have to think about it. And apparently it's stuck with people, which is great. It's all I could ask for.
What was your own reaction the first time you saw the film?
Well, I was meant to see it for the first time at Cannes. I said to my publicist and others, "I can't do it. I need to see it before them, because I might pass out." It was the most nerve-wracking experience. So they gave me a copy, and I watched it in bed with a bottle of vodka by myself because I was so nervous. But I was really happy with it, and it's so rare for me to feel that about a film. I think so often the things that I've done have been muddled with, and I was just really happy -- so happy that I watched again the next day, sober. Which was good. But yeah. It made me feel the way I think it's meant to make people feel, which is uncomfortable and a bit squeamish. It was what I wanted it to be.
Then watching it at Cannes was a different experience -- with the huge screen, thinking, "Wow, I'm this giant naked person, and there are thousands of people looking at me." It changes it a bit. So at Cannes I was sweating profusely and gripping onto Julia's hand and kind of shaking a little bit.
In discussing both this film and Sucker Punch, you've expressed your interest in the subject of female empowerment. But in both cases there's objectification and exploitation going on that threatens to bury the message. Surely there must be a clearer way for you to get it across?
I have to speak about the two films separately here. Sucker Punch... It's hard for me to be objective about that film, because I had the best time working on it. I love every single person I worked with; I love Zack [Snyder, the director]. And I loved the script -- how it was originally. But I think that message did get muddled a bit in terms of studio rewrites and having to go from an R to a PG-13. I can definitely see people's complaints about that being a little bit sexist. As I said, it's so hard to be objective, because I genuinely love that film, Sucker Punch, and being such a part of it. But I do get that.
Sleeping Beauty, on the other hand... I think Lucy's being objectified within the film, but she has what Julia calls a "radical passivity," which is to say, "I have this understanding of this world where I'm going to be objectified, so instead of raging against that, I am going to see where it takes me. I'm going to turn the other cheek. Do your worst." So I don't see the film itself as being sexist in any way. Also, for me personally, as a feminist, I'm pro-sex work. And I believe that a portrayal of that -- though she's not quite a prostitute, but someone who's in that line of work -- I don't think that's automatically going to be innately sexist. Does that make sense?
And when I say I'm "pro-sex work," obviously there are some terrible conditions, and there are obviously horrible circumstances where people are forced into that line of work. But there are also people doing it because they want to do it, and their rights need to be acknowledged. I think that their rights need to be fought for, because that profession in itself -- when it's all done in a way that should be done, and everyone has rights and it's safe -- is a necessary and honorable profession.
Drop back by Movieline closer to Sleeping Beauty's Dec. 2 release date for our complete chat with Emily Browning, featuring more about how to act while asleep, the true cost of literally burning money, the actress's writing aspirations and how many takes the most disturbing scene of the year required. (HInt: A lot.) And check out the rest of Movieline's HIFF coverage here.
[Top photo: AFP/Getty Images]