Elissa Blake July 28, 2012
Think piece ... Fox plays a psychiatrist who appears to be losing her mind in the Sydney Theatre Company's Face to Face. Photo: Jon Reid
Kerry Fox is having disturbing dreams. She's reliving arguments from long ago. Climbing up ladders. Trying to get out of windows. ''Weird, weird behaviour,'' she says. ''Some of them have left me very shaken.
''I had one dream about a friend being swallowed up in a cesspit. It was all muddy under a tree, a heavily rooted tree. I'm just trying to understand what it all means. I don't usually dream. Or, at least, I don't usually remember them.''
It's tempting to draw a causal thread straight to her present job. Fox is in rehearsals for the Sydney Theatre Company stage adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's 1976 film Face to Face. She plays Jenny, a psychiatrist who appears to be losing her mind. The story features a number of dream sequences and the actors have been sharing their night terrors.
''The whole play is about how close people are to the edge of madness,'' she says. ''Most people have great doubt and suffer. They lose their wits. It's very easy to do.
''This is a woman who is really suffering and it makes me feel very weighty. Some days I feel incredibly heavy-limbed, like I can hardly move my arms.''
Asked how she would describe the role, she pauses.
''I suppose I would use the words 'excruciatingly painful','' she says finally, then laughs loudly.
New Zealand-born Fox is best known for her early films, including Jane Campion's An Angel at My Table, Danny Boyle's Shallow Grave and Michael Winterbottom's Welcome to Sarajevo. She won the best actress award at the Berlin International Film Festival for the 2001 film Intimacy, only to be crucified by the British press for a scene in which her character fellates a man she is meeting once a week for loveless sex. The sex act was real. Fox had no regrets. But, since then, she is understandably wary in interviews.
Today, she is in ''a weird haze'' after waking early to read Bergman's autobiography, The Magic Lantern. ''It was so early it was still dark but I wanted to work some lines and then I thought, 'OK, now I've got all this buzzing, I'm going to go back to sleep and see what comes up.' I'm physically trying to encourage my subconscious to reveal something.''
In conversation, Fox is serious, self-deprecating and expressive, particularly with her eyes. She employs a host of throwaway looks, sideways glances and wide-eyed glares to illustrate her disbelief, doubt or amazement about almost every subject we touch on - from the global financial crisis (''complete, solid, underlying anxiety'') to finding a good school for her children (''enormous pressure'').
She approaches each question as if it's another damn puzzle she has to solve. And when she reaches an answer she's happy with - usually a brutally honest one - she laughs.
''Most of the time in rehearsals, I just feel like a nong,'' she says. ''I told Simon [Stone, the director] and he said, 'You can be as much of a nong as you like.'
''Half the time, I'm just standing there, looking lost. I mean, the nature of an actor's job is to be directed. It's my job to be vulnerable. You have to be malleable.''
Fox is a relative stranger to Sydney's stages. Her last stage appearance in the city was in Belvoir's Cosi in 1992, alongside Barry Otto and David Wenham. Her most recent work has been in London, where she has lived for the past 17 years with her husband, British journalist Alexander Linklater, and their two children, Eric, 11, and Hugh, 7.
She made her London debut in The Maids (Donmar Warehouse, 1997) and earned strong reviews in I Am Yours (Royal Court Theatre, 1998) and In Flame (Bush Theatre and New Ambassadors Theatre, 2000). Her last play on the West End was Australian playwright Andrew Bovell's Speaking in Tongues in 2009, with John Simm (Life on Mars, Doctor Who).
But her stage triumph came in Cruel and Tender for the Young Vic, directed by Luc Bondy in 2004, an adaptation of Sophocles's tragedy The Trachiniae. Fox was described as ''wonderfully caustic and abandoned'' by The Independent. The Guardian noted her ''superb, emotion-charged performance''.
Bondy was set to direct Gross und Klein for the STC last year before pulling out owing to a back injury (Benedict Andrews took over). Fox saw Gross und Klein at the Barbican Theatre in London in April.
''I felt really excited watching it,'' she says. ''It was very different from British theatre.
''It was more active and it had fantastic staging, not so traditional.
''It gave me a real feeling of wanting to work with this company. I'm not sure if you'd call that ambition or drive, but it was excitement.''
Colin McColl, a friend from drama school who now runs the Auckland Theatre Company, says Fox leads an ''exhausting'' life, moving her children around the world with her as she accepts more acting work.
''But she does it in a gloriously sleepy way,'' he says. ''When I go to London, we say we must go to this show or that show but we always end up just talking and relaxing in her kitchen. She is a great cook and a fantastic mother.''
McColl says Fox finds the British theatre world, and in particular the acting style emerging from it, more intellectual, less emotional.
''Kerry can take on very emotionally demanding roles,'' he says. ''Her skill is that she can drill down into a character and find something even darker … or funnier. I've known young actors watch her on stage and say, 'But she's not doing anything.' But that is perfect. She has no artifice, she's not presentational. She's just being true. It makes her compelling to watch.''
Stone says Fox has the strongest internal reality of any actor he's worked with.
''A million thoughts are whirring away inside her stillness and then she lets go and explodes all those things hidden on the inside,'' he says. ''The dichotomy of extremity and stillness is fascinating.''
Fox says she simply draws on her own experience and relies on the other actors.
''I'm very interested in just responding to what the other actor is saying,'' she says. ''I try to find the essence of reality in every syllable and response. If I prepare something, it's immediately false. I told Simon I have to come to work in the state I'm in that day. It's no use trying to get me into another state.
''When I step on stage, I come from exactly where I am before I take that step. I don't negotiate myself into a state of despair.''
Fox says she would love to do more theatre but the toll on her family life is too great.
''It's tough on the kids,'' she says. Her sons flew out from London last weekend to be with her. She's also been taking days off to fly home to New Zealand to see her parents, whom she describes as frail.
''I've had lots of opportunities and have managed to provide for my family and also be, you know, an engaged mother and find some sort of balance in that,'' she says. ''So I can only assume that that's going to continue.''
Asked how her kids would describe her, Fox says: ''Eric came on tour with me once when I was doing a play around Europe and he was asked, 'What does your mum do?' and he said, 'Oh, she changes clothes and she shouts a lot.' I think, 'Is that at work or in life?'''
So motherhood requires some acting, too?
''Yes. Like acting grumpy witch mother, that takes a lot of acting.'' More laughter. ''That's the hard thing about doing a play, you're just so vile in the morning,'' she says.
Fox turns 46 on Monday. Her hair is increasingly silvery and she doesn't bounce back from jogging injuries as quickly as she once did.
''I'm a runner and I was doing a film in France last year and stubbed my toe and it had shocking and really excessive repercussions,'' she says with a twisted mouth and baffled eyes. ''But I did my first [10 kilometres], which I was running regularly, in June. I feel so grateful to have that rush back.''
She says she still feels like the girl she was back at drama school in Wellington. McColl recalls that girl being shy. ''She's much more assured now,'' he says. ''She's very no-bullshit and she says what she thinks. I like that in an actor.
''You need someone honest in a rehearsal room and not someone being nice and pleasant.''
Fox says she remembers herself at drama school with long, red hair and blue eyes, someone ''pretty capable and upfront''. In her final year, film director Jane Campion spotted her in a play and she was cast in An Angel at My Table. The role changed her life.
''Suddenly I wasn't that girl with long, red hair any more,'' she says. ''I still saw myself as her, but none of the adults around me saw me as that. I realised the other day that person was gone forever with that role. That is a really weird thought. But in my mind I'm still that girl. She was without guard. Naive.''
And how would Fox describe herself now, today?
''Well, I think I'm much more withdrawn. Not guarded,'' she says, thinking. ''Just a nong, really. A nong.''
To prepare for her role as a psychiatrist, Fox has been talking to friends who work in the profession.
"I've been talking to them about the nature of depression and the nature of suicide,'' she says. ''I've learnt that CBT [cognitive behavioural therapy] isn't all it's cracked up to be. In the play, Jenny is losing her mind but she thinks she's just fine. That's not uncommon. There are so many different degrees of trauma and depression and lunacy. Some people get manic and other people feel the weight of despair."
Fox says she hasn't suffered severe depression herself but she has watched it in others.
"It's very confusing and very specific to each person,'' she says. ''It's also very taboo. I don't understand why we can't talk about it openly and simply.
"I was walking in Coogee and I saw these two men walking in front of me. Women walk and talk to each other, really trying to support each other … and I realised that's what these two men were doing. They were talking very intimately. It's rare.
''I rely on that kind of intimacy, particularly with women. While I'm here, I speak to one sister and then I speak to the other [every day]. It's a big thing. And the pleasure in that is so unbelievable. And at home, I have a couple of girlfriends I touch base with every day. It's really vital."
Fox says she tries to unveil truths in her work.
"I'm trying to learn about myself and take the audience, whether in film or in a theatre, on the journey with me so we can understand it together, make something clear, together. That is what is so important about those intimate conversations."
Face to Face opens on August 11 at the Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay.