If home is where the heart is, as the saying goes, then for the past year, Australian-born actress Abbie Cornish’s home has been in Los Angeles, where she shares a house with Ryan Phillippe not far from where she’s sitting at the Chateau Marmont on a recent summer afternoon.
“I guess I was lucky because it was love that brought me here, not work,” says the 27-year-old Cornish, the star of Jane Campion’s new movie, Bright Star, as she unexpectedly allows a bland question about residency to steer the talk from professional accomplishments to personal attachments. “I think the city feels and looks a little bit different because of that.”
Why she broaches the subject of romance is inexplicable, since Cornish stiffens when asked directly about her boyfriend. As any celebrity junkie knows, the couple met two years ago on the set of Stop-Loss, the first movie Cornish shot in America after having worked abroad alongside Heath Ledger in Candy, in 2006, and with Russell Crowe in Ridley Scott’s A Good Year. At the time, Phillippe was married to Reese Witherspoon, and when word of the golden couple’s separation leaked to the front pages, Cornish was cast as the culprit, an alluring other woman who tempted Phillippe away from the best-paid and possibly best-loved actress of her generation.
“It was a really difficult time for me,” admits Cornish, who is polite and guarded in demeanor but nonetheless exudes a kind of earthy, unkempt sensuality. “It was just this world of tabloid magazines that I’d never been exposed to. In a normal successful career, someone usually learns these things bit by bit. For me, it was like night and day. I woke up one day and there was this whole new thing I had to process and deal with.”
Cornish seems aware that she’ll have to “deal with” at least some additional measure of personal scrutiny during this interview, and her body language shows that she doesn’t enjoy the prospect. She untucks her legs from beneath her to place her feet more firmly on the ground and raises a hand to cover a pale mole on her left cheek as if it were a secret part of her.
“Have you spent time with Ryan and Reese’s two kids?”
“Of course, yeah.”
Cornish glances to the wicker table beside her, perhaps hoping to find distraction in the plate of berries, glass of rosé and packet of cigarettes there.
“Are you and Ryan engaged?”
“Do you have plans in that direction?”
“I don’t know,” she says, adding with a tense laugh, “I think I’m nearly ready to go on to another part of the conversation.”
Unsanctioned love, albeit a wholly chaste one, also lies at the heart of Cornish’s performance as Fanny Brawne in the historical romance Bright Star, which is based on the life of Romantic poet John Keats. With its visual splendor and sense of suspended time, the film will evoke for many The Piano, Campion’s Oscar winner, while mesmerizing performances by Cornish and Ben Whishaw, as the scissors-thin Keats, will kick off this year’s race for the Oscars.