Desperate Love: Essie Davis on righting wrongs and sleepless nights

Essie Davis is a mother fighting the system in The Justice of Bunny King.
Essie Davis is a mother fighting the system in The Justice of Bunny King.

The Justice of Bunny King star Essie Davis writes about the power of a wronged woman, the impact of Peter Weir and the importance of play.

We start school and they all want us to dance and sing and paint, then in high school they want us to concentrate. It’s all important and very valid, but why stop dancing and singing and painting?” —⁠Essie Davis

“Sublime”, “wonderful”, “extraordinary”, “phenomenal”, “queen MILF”, “hot”, “Essie Davis marry me”, “a gift”, “the performance of a lifetime”, “Essie Davis you are my everything”. These were some of the reactions of many Letterboxd members when they first discovered the Australian actress in her leading role in Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook. Those of us who were already following her career will know that Davis’ skills span the breadth of contemporary Australian cinema, including Shannon Murphy’s Babyteeth and films directed by Davis’ husband, Justin Kurzel (True History of the Kelly Gang, Nitram), plus a long-running stint as the eponymous adventuress in the series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (and its finale film).

Her latest feature takes Davis over the Tasman Sea for the titular role in director Gaysorn Thavat’s compelling indie drama, The Justice of Bunny King, co-starring Thomasin McKenzie (Last Night in Soho, Jojo Rabbit) as Bunny’s niece, Tonyah. Both are traumatized in different ways—Tonyah by her sinister stepfather, and Bunny by the complicated bureaucracy of the New Zealand welfare system, which has taken her two young children into foster care. As Bunny wipes windows to earn the money to get a rental home to get her kids back, the film goes from Ken Loach neo-realism to Dog Day Afternoon high-stakes hostage drama in a thrilling third act.

Many of us first met Essie Davis in 2014 when she took on The Babadook.
Many of us first met Essie Davis in 2014 when she took on The Babadook.

The Justice of Bunny King is an essential film for Essie Davis converts, Gary Cruise points out in a Letterboxd review: “Every emotional moment, every empowering moment, Davis sells all of them and adds so much as to why this film is so effective and packs such a punch.” Stefan writes that it “grabs you in at the start and doesn’t let go, constantly pulling your heartstrings and just delivers a very big impact on many important themes facing not only New Zealand but a lot of the world at the moment.” 

With The Justice of Bunny King now available on digital platforms in the US, we asked Davis to take us through the Australian features she grew up on, other important films about women righting wrongs, and the magic movie moments that fill her with joy.

Thomasin McKenzie co-stars as Bunny King’s niece, Tonyah.
Thomasin McKenzie co-stars as Bunny King’s niece, Tonyah.

Is there a film that first made you want to be on the big screen?
Essie Davis: When I was little, my mum took me to see Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. I was transported. It was such a beautiful film and so mysterious. I wanted to be Miranda. I still want to work with Peter Weir, he’s a master. 

One of our favorite Letterboxd lists is “I support women’s rights but more importantly, I support women’s wrongs. Tell us, what are your favorite “women’s wrongs” movies?
Well, I think The Justice of Bunny King is a pretty moving film about “women’s wrongs” and how a woman wronged does everything in her power to make things right, making some very tricky and dodgy choices along the way. The shoplifting scene is a favorite. Of course, the gorgeous, powerful, uplifting Thelma & Louise is a memorable standout.

And one of my favorite films of all time, Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, tells the story of a woman who allows all kinds of wrongs to be done to her because she believes she is giving the greatest gift of love. When the bells rang out at the end, you couldn’t drag me from the cinema, I was howling. Emily Watson... holy moly... life-changing excellence.

There’s enough shark action to be an honorary Australian film in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975).
There’s enough shark action to be an honorary Australian film in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975).

What Australian movies did you grow up with that feel overlooked now? We’re keen to know any New Zealand favorites, too.
My parents took me to the movies all the time when I was tiny, even ones that were rated above my age, as it was cheaper to carry a sleeping child than to get a babysitter. Dad refused to take me to Jaws even though he took all my older siblings. I remember bellowing at him in absolute fury from the back screen door: “I will remember this day for the rest of my life!” I was tiny! I’m so glad he didn’t take me. I first saw it as one of Justin’s favorite films when we started dating. If I had seen it when I was little I don’t think I would have ever swum again. I love the sea! I still almost think of it as an Australian film because, well, Great White Sharks! I would love to work with Steven Speilberg. 

For Australian films I grew up with that I loved, the aforementioned Picnic at Hanging Rock, My Brilliant Career, The Getting of Wisdom, Storm Boy, Manganinnie, Gallipoli, The Year of Living Dangerously, Careful, He Might Hear You, and Phar Lap all had a massive influence on my creative ambitions and my personal psyche and my ethics! They created my altar of Australians in film to look up to and to hopefully one day work with, some of whom I have been lucky to do so, notably Judy Davis as both my director in theatre for The School for Scandal and as my co-star in Nitram. Everyone should see her portrayal of Judy Garland.

You’ve heard of these brilliant New Zealand films, of course: Once Were Warriors, The Piano, An Angel At My Table, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Boy, Whale Rider.

What films about desperation in a life of poverty do you find the most empathetic?
Turtles Can Fly is a film about refugee kids which opened my mind and moved me so much in their struggle and their ingenuity for self-sufficiency. The whole opening of Slumdog Millionaire is burned into my memory. Terrible and powerful. Danny Boyle is another great filmmaker I would love to work with. 

“Don’t you really think we should all just keep on playing?” —Essie Davis on how Tom Hanks in Big (1988) unlocks your inner child.
“Don’t you really think we should all just keep on playing?” —Essie Davis on how Tom Hanks in Big (1988) unlocks your inner child.

Which films fill you to the brim with joy? What are those magic movie moments? 
I saw Big at the cusp of my adulthood and Tom Hanks’ glorious journey through adulthood as a child blew my mind, and made me laugh and cry with my own desire to hold onto childhood as long as possible. I fell in love with Tom forever after seeing that film. Don’t you really think we should all just keep on playing? We start school and they all want us to dance and sing and paint, then in high school they want us to concentrate. It’s all important and very valid, but why stop dancing and singing and painting?

Emma Thompson in The Tall Guy, in the greatest sex scene ever with Jeff Goldblum when the toast is stuck on her bum! Kevin Kline sniffing his own armpits in A Fish Called Wanda and Jamie Lee Curtis’ supreme confidence, wow!

It’s clear that you have a wonderful way of working with younger up-and-coming actresses like Eliza Scanlen (in Babyteeth) and Thomasin McKenzie (in The Justice of Bunny King). Who were the actresses you looked up to when you were breaking out? What are their highlight performances for you? 
Emma Thompson in Carrington and so many more. Judy Davis in Naked Lunch, Barton Fink, the list goes on. Judi Dench! Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice and, come on, almost everything! Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle when she is listening to the radio and climbs into the cupboard—unbeatable genius! She’s present, real, so sad and hilarious at the same time. Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures, oh my goodness, the glory of creativity that gives me joy. Natalie Press dunking herself in the bathtub in My Summer of Love. Golden!

Nightmare fuel—Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in The Shining (1980).
Nightmare fuel—Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in The Shining (1980).

Many of us are already deep into horror movie marathons in the spirit of Hallowe’en. What movie character gave you nightmares as a kid? 
Jack Nicholson in The Shining is one of the films that tormented my dreams as a child from a sleepless night when I came out of my room unable to sleep and ended up sitting on my Dad’s lap watching TV from under one eyelid. Damien from The Omen—ai ai ai!—too many nightmares to count. That rusty spring in my mattress was the fingernail of the devil trying to wake me. He bloody well succeeded.

We love the tension in the final act of The Justice of Bunny King. What films have the most memorable endings for you?
Gallipoli! Peter Weir, I thank you forever for my inspiration to be an actor and my effort to try and have the impact upon others that you have had in my life. Dancer in the Dark—Björk is absolutely brilliant in this devastating movie. I spent a year as an exchange student in Norway, it was life-changing. Lars von Trier has directed two of the films that have moved me in the most profound way in my life—Dancer in the Dark and Breaking the Waves—and still to this day I want to work with him.


The Justice of Bunny King’ is available on demand now.

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