Alice Englert Started Her Film Career as Jane Campion’s On-Set Confidante—Now, She’s Ready to Step Behind the Camera
By Jaclyn Bethany
Photographs by Madeleine Morlet
When I meet Alice Englert, it’s as though I’m connecting with the long-lost artistic sister I never met.
It’s a predictably sunny April day in LA, and we’re at a French bistro near Hollywood, not far from where Englert—a 23-year-old Sydney native, whom you might recognize from her recent starring role as Mary in Top Of The Lake: China Girl, or from her turn as Lena Duchannes in the film adaptation of Beautiful Creatures (2013)––is staying while in the middle of various projects.
Yet despite her familiar face (she is also the daughter of legendary director Jane Campion), Englert’s prowess as a filmmaker in her own right will soon come to the fore. She’s currently writing her first feature script, and is fresh off a filmmakers’ incubator lab for rising Australian talent called Talent USA, sponsored by Screen Australia and held at Lincoln Center in New York.
Like many filmmakers, Englert first found her way into the industry as an actor, appearing in a short film called The Water Diary (2006), directed by none other than Campion, when she was only 11.
“My mum had written two characters based on me and my best friend and... at the time, I didn’t want to act,” she tells me. “My mum figured out that I could be natural, and I remember doing that film, and it was the most beautiful thing to see adults cooperating. A film set is a beautiful image: just watching a whole lot of huge men go quiet when mum says action… and then giving space to something that is usually secretive or confusing and actually making an impression. I was just like, ‘This is what I want in life.’”
The experience led Englert to work on scenes for another of Campion’s beloved films, Bright Star (2009), her compelling ode to the Romantic poet John Keats.
“Sometimes she would have me read with her,” Englert recalls, “and it was around that point that we realized it was fun for us to play together. It was genuine––and it was something other than a mother/daughter relationship. If we met in another life, we would have been great mates. And that’s what led us to Top of The Lake: China Girl.”
Of course, it helped that Campion knew her daughter so well as an actor and was thus able to perfectly craft the role with her idiosyncrasies in mind. “She knew what I was capable of doing,” Englert explains.
Englert says she related to Mary, the rebellious, confused 17-year-old daughter (of an adoptive mother played by Nicole Kidman), who drives much of the second season’s drama: “When I was that age, I definitely went after people I wouldn’t have gone out with if I had only a year more of life experience. I just had never been paid attention to in a way that felt like genuine connection. And when these guys I met actually appreciated I was reading Dostoevsky, I was just like, ‘Oh my god.’ Guys my age didn’t really talk to me at all.” Englert’s takeaway from her early run-ins with youthful, albeit fleeting, attraction? “I think you figure it out because humans want to connect. We actually want to be vulnerable and true to each other. And when you see even just a slither of that, we become desperate … I think at that age, you make it work, and you feel something, just that little bit of magic, you reach out to it, and you kind of have to, because you don’t know yet. You want to get closer something that feels real.”
Now, as she turns her attention to writing her first feature, Englert’s experience of making two short films (The Boyfriend Game, a recent Vimeo staff pick, and Family Happiness, with Ben Whishaw acting alongside Englert, both of which received acclaim on the festival circuit), paired with her talent for balancing a whimsical sensibility with palpable realism, will no doubt inform this larger project.
Of undertaking both acting and directing, a hybrid approach that we share in common, Englert tells me, “You just have to check any ego at the door. It was interesting and really fun to see that I could watch myself and not call myself a piece of shit.”
Englert also shares that she holds a particular soft spot for the fantasy genre: “I love [it], but have always told real stories. I think the reason I keep thinking about fantasy is because when I was growing up, I made up all these great games with my friend and it just felt like the best thing ever ... I think it can sometimes bring you back to reality when you go to a magic place.”
And as for the magnetic pull that Australia still clearly has on Englert as a storyteller? Well, let’s just say it wouldn’t surprise me if she found a way to put her distinct spin on an Australian tale as she begins the next chapter of her film career, behind the camera.
“Australia’s got this really interesting attitude to it, which I love. I very much find it sexy and attractive. I’ve been to Hanging Rock. The feeling you get when you go there … I love it. If we are going to tell stories about Australia, and really do that, we have to tell difficult ones, because Australia’s story is really difficult—and we’re going to be chasing our tails until we tell a flurry of those stories.”