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In Jane Campion’s new film, Bright Star, Abbie Cornish shines as poet John Keats’s inspiration.
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.
For Cornish, Bright Star was a chance to work with a woman who is both a hero down under and one of the most acclaimed directors in film. “Jane has this amazing ability to create a world,” says Cornish, who had met her only once briefly before auditioning for the role of Fanny. “It’s almost like you can feel the breeze. You can smell the flowers. You can sense the cold.”
Bright Star recounts the story of Keats and the young woman he was smitten with until his death, in 1821, of tuberculosis, and its intellectual sensibility makes even relatively highbrow movies like 2007’s Atonement seem made for the masses. Campion depicts daily life in Georgian England with a scholarly attention to detail, and the literary script, which she wrote herself, may appeal to the most persnickety English professor. And as for the public’s interest in such refinements? The film’s premiere in Cannes was a highlight of the festival. “People seemed to love it,” says Cornish. “They seemed to absorb what you hoped they would absorb.”
Campion first stumbled onto the love story by chance while she was researching a different film about a writing teacher and happened to pick up a biography of Keats. The dusty history leapt to life with Fanny’s entrance, and Campion admits to sobbing when she got to Keats’s death. She went on to read the poet’s letters to Fanny and realized they were an “incredibly detailed portrait of a love affair” that could be told onscreen.
“Keats had laughed at romance as a distraction from the things that mattered, like poetry,” Campion says during a phone call from her home in Australia. “But then he fell in love. He wrote Fanny the most beautiful love letters that exist in the English language. They naturally record an excessive outpouring of emotions, but Keats had the skills as a writer to describe them.”
Cornish recalls that she was equally swept away when she read Campion’s script. “It was just beautiful,” she says. “You melted away into that world. The love story, the loss, Fanny’s character, that all felt very real to me and very alive.”
As a consummate Romantic heroine, Fanny may seem to be a role custom-made for an English rose like Keira Knightley. Campion acknowledges that a big star would have made finding financing easier, but she decided that a less famous presence might suit the story better. (“I love Keira Knightley,” says Campion, “but she’s done so much that she seems to our collective knowledge much older than she is.”) What’s more, Campion notes with delight, a New Zealand–born director working with an Australian actress to tell this particular tale is actually the epitome of historical accuracy.
“These were not wealthy people,” she says of the characters. The Brawne family scrimped to maintain appearances, while Keats and his best friend, Charles Armitage Brown, lived in penury. “These were the class of people who emigrated from Georgian England. Keats’s brother went to America. Brown actually went to New Zealand. So I’m exactly the class of Keats, or my ancestors were. It’s very English to leave England.”
Cornish plays Fanny as a proper if strong-headed girl—Campion was surprised to see the degree to which the actress, whom she describes as rather shy, made Brawne “funny and bold.” Fanny finds her creative outlet in sewing, so Cornish learned to sew for the part in addition to studying with a dialogue coach. Still, she says getting into character was easy after three intense weeks of rehearsal with Campion and Whishaw.
“We had all this time,” recalls Cornish, noting that the unhurried rehearsals matched the deliberate preindustrial pace of the finished film, which was shot outside London. “If there was a scene where the characters are out walking, then we’d go to a park and run it while walking. Things started to come alive.”
What won’t make sense to most viewers is how—or even why—Keats and Brawne never consummated their love. “Keats had had sexual experiences before,” says Cornish, “but he decided not to do that with Fanny because he knew he was going to die. He had this whole precious idea of her.”
The bucolic world of Bright Star is not entirely unfamiliar to Cornish. She and her four siblings, who range in age from 14 to 28, grew up on a 170-acre family farm north of Sydney, where her childhood chores included hanging laundry to dry and feeding the horses. At 15, she won a modeling competition in Sydney, and her agency sent her to an acting audition. Cornish nailed it and got her first role, as a quadriplegic on a hospital drama.
“When I got on the set, it was like I’d stepped into the television box,” says Cornish, recalling her wonder at learning how a show was put together. “I was like, ‘Oh gosh, this is how it works.’ It was like a puzzle that I didn’t even know existed.”
Despite a zest for travel that kept her away from home for long stretches, Cornish managed to land heavy-duty roles in Australia as a teenage sexual adventuress in 2004’s Somersault and a heroin addict in Candy. Those performances opened the way to such prestige fare as A Good Year and Elizabeth: The Golden Age, in which she played lady-in-waiting Bess Throckmorton to Cate Blanchett’s monarch. Neither film, though, had the box office draw or critical appeal to make Cornish a household name—that didn’t happen until she met Phillippe on Stop-Loss. These days she still travels regularly for pleasure, to favorite locales including Spain, Italy and Brazil.
But Cornish may not be able to continue vacationing so avidly now that her star is on the rise. Her next screen appearance will be in Sucker Punch from Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen), which, based on her description, sounds like Charlie’s Angels meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest rolled into The Matrix. The six-month big-budget shoot will be the longest of her career to date.
“It’s a little bit scary,” Cornish admits, the glass of wine beside her now empty. “But the intensity and focus of it is what I enjoy. It’s not like you put your toe in the water and wade around a little. You just dive in the deep end, swim around and then come out the other side. I like that feeling.”