In “Human Nature,” Miranda Otto plays Gabrielle, a coquettish, exaggeratedly Gallic lab assistant who seduces a repressed scientist (Tim Robbins) away from his hirsute wife (Patricia Arquette), only to get frustrated when he devotes all his energy to civilizing a sex-starved wild man (Rhys Ifans). The 35-year-old Australian actress shows such comic verve in the role that she steals the film.
Scripted by Charlie Kaufman (“Being John Malkovich”) and directed by Michel Gondry, the surreal comedy showcases Otto’s sense of mischief. “I like humor that’s slightly absurd,” she says. “I don’t like seeing the joke coming — I like the joke that taps me on the shoulder when I didn’t see it.”
Otto relished Gabrielle’s manipulativeness. “I watched a lot of the Peter Sellers film ‘The Party,'” she says. “It’s got one of those classic ’60s French girls who’s just so sweet and sexy, but she’s putting on a complete act — men are such suckers for it!”
Keen observers may have caught Otto in such Australian films as “Love Serenade” (1996) and “The Well” (1997), as the only woman in “The Thin Red Line” (1998) or as Michelle Pfeiffer’s neighbor in “What Lies Beneath” (2000). But “Human Nature,” opening Friday, should prove her American breakthrough. In December, she can be seen as Eowyn in “The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers” (and next year in “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”).
Otto is the daughter of actor Barry Otto (“Strictly Ballroom,” “Oscar and Lucinda”) and a graduate of the National Institute of Dramatic Art, the Sydney school where Mel Gibson and Cate Blanchett trained. She is both an established stage actress — much praised for her revelatory Nora in the Sydney Theatre Company’s current production of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” — and a chameleonesque leading lady of Australian films, one who can switch at ease from dowdy oddballs to glamorous vamps.
“I like that about my career,” she says. “Because I’m anonymous, I can change myself from one thing to another. That’s no good if you want to be a star, because then you want to be recognized — but that doesn’t really interest me. I like working with people who are questioning life and the reasons why we do things.”
Lynden Barber, film critic at The Australian newspaper, says that Otto “hasn’t always had the directors she deserves. She also became overexposed between 1996-98, when she took lead roles in six Aussie films in a row. After this, she almost had to go overseas. The irony for Miranda’s career is that she became a name among film financiers before she had had a big hit. The average Australian doesn’t really know her work, but apart from being immensely attractive in an individualistic, once-seen, not-easily-forgotten way, she is a very good actor who is equally at home with comedy and drama.”
Otto says she was lucky to be cast in “The Lord of the Rings”: “I just couldn’t believe they were making this thing in New Zealand! It was honestly like walking into your own fairy tale, something that will always be a part of people’s imaginations.”
Damsel in Shining Armor
Eowyn is the strongest of the few female characters in J.R.R. Tolkien’s saga. “It is potentially a wonderful character for young women to see,” Otto says, “because this is a woman who is in despair about what has happened to her country, Rohan, and when Aragorn [Viggo Mortensen] arrives, she sees him as the savior. But he doesn’t fall in love with her, so she dresses up as a man and goes to war. I thought, ‘This is a story where a woman becomes her own knight in shining armor to save herself and other people. That’s a good role model, because so many of the mythic stories we’re given as children are about women being saved by men.”
The role of Eowyn came along at a time when Otto was getting over her breakup with actor Richard Roxburgh (“Moulin Rouge”). But five months of playing a warrior princess, she says, made her so hyper she could barely come down from the experience. Easing out of her role in “Human Nature,” she couldn’t stop crying — an indication of how deeply she invests herself in her work.
She says the moments of truth she finds in each part are what propel her. “Actors sometimes get into set behaviors of how they think things would be if certain news was delivered or if something happened,” she muses. “What’s great is when you see performances that turns that on its head and you go, ‘That’s completely true!’ It goes past your brain and hits you in the stomach.”
While she can cite the scene in which Marlon Brando dies in “The Godfather” as one of these gut-wrenching moments, Otto hesitates to nominate one from her own work. “God, I wouldn’t like to say I’ve created any moment like that,” she demurs. “But that’s the quest, isn’t it?”