Scotland Week: God Help the Girl’s Emily Browning

The Actress (and Belle and Sebastian Fan) Sings For Stuart Murdoch

Sep 04, 2014 Web Exclusive
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We have a special theme on Under the Radar’s website this week which we’re simply calling Scotland Week. All throughout the week we will be posting interviews, reviews, lists, and blog posts relating to Scotland and in particular Scottish music. 

More and more, Emily Browning is someone we’re getting used to seeing in major studio films. The Australian actress had her first big, Hollywood role in Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events, and later went on to star in movies like 2011’s Sucker Punch and this year’s action flick, Pompeii. However, Browning still makes room in her schedule for independent films—especially when she gets a chance to audition for the lead role in a musical directed by the singer of one of her favorite bands.

God Help the Girl is the directorial debut from Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch. Emily Browning stars as Eve, an aspiring songwriter who sneaks out of a mental health facility and meets like-minded young musicians James (Olly Alexander) and Cass (Hannah Murray). They form a band and make music over the course of a single, magical Glasgow summer.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: Obviously, we saw you sing before in Sucker Punch, but what does your musical background look like leading into that film?

Emily Browning: Singing in the shower…? [Laughs] Does that count? Nothing, really. I’ve always enjoyed singing, but I’d never really sung for anyone outside my family. My family would always make me sing for them, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re any good at it. I mean, my mom thinks I’m the best singer in the world, but she’s my mom! But no, I’ve never really done it before. I think I did a singing lesson in preparation for the audition for God Help the Girl, and then when I got the part I said to Stuart, “What singing teacher do you want me to go to?” And he was like, “None. I just want you to do it. I don’t mind if it sounds fucked-up sometimes.”

Can you describe your audition? Stuart mentioned it had been done over Skype.

I put myself on tape a long time ago… I think it was almost four years ago now. I put myself on tape and sang a song, did a couple of scenes. And then I heard nothing for a year, which was crazy and kind of offensive. [Laughs] No, I really wanted this part, so I was a little heartbroken.

All of a sudden I got a call saying, “Record another song for Stuart.” And then I had to do a Skype audition with Olly, which was so bizarre but kind of comfortable straight away. I could tell as soon as I met Olly over Skype that this could work. Automatically I was like, “I think it would make sense if we were in this film together.” I had a good feeling about it.

Were you a Belle and Sebastian fan before doing this film?

Yeah, a big Belle and Sebastian fan. I mean, I didn’t read the script until I got the part, and usually that’s so important to me; I want to read the script and know. But I just loved Stuart’s music, and from listening to his lyrics and songs, it was just like “I bet he’s going to write an interesting script.” I wanted to be a part of it, and I didn’t even care what it was; I wanted to do it.

He sent me the script and said, “Would you be interested in doing the film?” That’s how I got the part, which is such a weird, polite, Scottish way of doing things. [Laughs] It was like, do I have the part or not? And I read the script and was like, “It’s perfect.” Of course I wanted to do it.

What was your rehearsal process like? Particularly, in regards to the music?

You know, I got the part and three days later myself, Hannah, and Olly were on a train to Glasgow. I think it was really nice because we were all on the same page; we were all massive fans and we were all trying to navigate how we would work with this person, as our director, as a coworker, whilst on the inside we’re all kind of geeking out completely and excited to be meeting him.

And then when we got into the room, Stuart was like, “Oh, guys, this is the band.” Okay, so we’re in Belle and Sebastian’s rehearsal space, and we’re going to be singing with them. That was ridiculous and terrifying, but Stuart made us all comfortable very quickly. After a while it was just like, this is our band. It’s just the band, and we’re singing, and it’s fine.

In terms of the scenes themselves, it was a lot of us just getting in a room and chatting. In the recording studio we’d kind of sit down and improvise long conversations between the three characters. Some of that’s been used in the film. We were just making shit up as we went along, I guess. [Laughs] Which is a nice, freeing kind of way to make a film.

The three of you lived together, I understand.

Well, we lived in the same apartment building, but they were pretty much in my apartment the whole time. We would have dinner every night after work, and hang out every weekend.

Was that a helpful bonding experience?

Yeah. I mean, it wasn’t thought out; we just happened to really like each other. It was so easy to go to work with people that you love every day.

I’m actually a little emotional right now, because this [New York press day] is that last thing we all have to do together. We’ve been promoting this film for pretty much a year, we keep meeting up every few months. I’ve just been in London for the last three months working and they were both there, so we could hang out. I’ve gotten very, very close to both of them, so it’s a little sad that it’s coming to an end.

Did the three of you get out to see and enjoy Glasgow while you were there?

We were kind of enjoying the city while we were filming. A lot of it is shot outside, on location, and we were just running around the city, kind of catching things where we could. We got to go on a canoeing trip—kind of a canoeing lesson, because we had to do that in the film.

Having Stuart as our sort-of tour guide meant we got to go to lots of great pubs and restaurants. I felt at-home in the city pretty much automatically. I was really, really comfortable being there.

Which musical number was your favorite to shoot?

I think “Down and Dusky Blonde” was my favorite, because we shot it in front of 200 people, live. At first I was, like, shitting myself, I was so scared. The first take, I was looking at my feet and sweating and mumbling. After about three takes I got into it, and it was like, “This is the best thing on Earth.”

Also: they have to clap! [Laughs] Even if they hate it, it’s in the script that they love it. So they have to be excited! It was like, “This is ideal.” It’s the best way to perform a song on stage ever, because people have to pretend to like it even if they don’t.

Not too long ago you starred in a really cool Imperial Teen music video. How’d you get involved with that?

My best friend [Guy Franklin] directed that video. We went to high school together. I haven’t lived in Australia for a while so we haven’t gotten to see each other enough, but—fingers crossed—it looks like he might get to move to L.A., which is very, very exciting.

I was home for Christmas. We made films together in high school for our media class, and we would do everything together. We’ve always wanted to write something together and it just sort of happened that he was like, “Hey, I’m going to do this video, and you’re here. Do you want to do it?” We did it in one day in Melbourne. He’s kind of my favorite person on Earth, so I would sort of do whatever he wanted me to do! We just had fun and danced around, and it was great. 

This role you play in this film—it’s a character that Stuart had bee more or less been dreaming about for almost a decade, by that point.

Right – it’s intimidating!

Did that add any extra pressure on you?

Yeah, I think I did feel that a bit. I think there were a few moments where I sort of wanted to be like, “Eve is not a real person. I’m going to try to be your version of her the best I can, but at the same time no one will ever match what’s in your imagination, what’s in your head.” And I think he adapted very quickly. He was like, “Okay, this is your version of Eve; our version of Eve.” But I think for a moment he was like, “Why can’t this human, who is in my head, who doesn’t exist, who I’ve made up, be a real person?” [Laughs] But that’s just not how it works.

***

God Help the Girl opens theatrically in the U.S. on Friday, September 5th, and is available on demand.  For more information about the film, check out its website



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