For as long as she can remember, Teresa Palmer has led a double life. “I’m a 50/50 person,” she says over coffee at the Urth Caffé in Beverly Hills, smiling at the realization. Palmer, who was named after Mother Teresa, is here to promote the zombie love story Warm Bodies, the latest film from director Jonathan Levine, who, incidentally, is also responsible for the surprisingly winning cancer comedy, 50/50.
In Warm Bodies, which costars Nicholas Hoult and John Malkovich, Palmer plays a woman torn between the emo zombie R (Hoult) and her aggro human boyfriend Perry, played by Dave Franco, who Palmer admires for his avoidance of Young Hollywood clichés. “There are too many tortured artists in Los Angeles,” she says. “It’s just so refreshing how much he loves life.”
Palmer’s own experience with the Hollywood machine wasn’t always so amicable. After a brief career in Australia’s minor film industry, Palmer, whose childhood was split between her mother’s public housing apartment in Adelaide and the rural paradise of her father’s farm, scored her first break when she was cast as the female lead opposite Tom Sturridge in Doug Liman’s time-travel caper Jumper. Two weeks before shooting, the film’s producers decided to recast both leads with older actors Hayden Christensen and Rachel Bilson. The decision crushed Palmer, then 18. When she finally bounced back with a role in the horror film The Grudge 2, the experience of being on a Hollywood movie set overwhelmed her. “I was still an outsider looking in, and it was exciting but it was overwhelmingly scary and isolating,” she says.
At 26, Palmer is already a screen veteran. Her body of work up to this point has been an intriguing mix of indie fare (December Boys with Daniel Radcliffe, the vacation thriller Wish You Were Here) and studio servings (the ’80s-set comedy Take Me Home Tonight and the alien saga I Am Number Four). Although she’s tasted success, Los Angeles constantly reminds her of its ruthless ability to quash dreams at random. “There are so many women and young girls who come out here with these huge hopes,” she says. “The majority of them are left fighting for it day in and day out, having to take waitressing jobs. I see it in people’s eyes.”
Palmer’s eyes, however, are confident and calm, those of someone who was recently given a shot at the A-list by Terrence Malick. The reclusive director cast her in his upcoming Hollywood-set story Knight of Cups, alongside Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, and Christian Bale. According to Palmer, Malick phoned her a day before the shoot to inform her she’d been tapped for a major role. “That was the most surreal phone call that I’ve ever had in my life. Hearing that the next day I was going to be filming a Malick movie? I didn’t have any time to prepare! I didn’t even know anything about my character.” Minimal pages of scene exposition were sent to Palmer, but the rest remained—and still remains—a mystery. “I’m not really supposed to talk about it because his films are always very secretive, which I love.”
But she knows that no matter how much professional satisfaction she achieves, it’s not enough to feed her soul. “I recently did sensory deprivation meditation,” she says. “It’s unbelievable. We turned off the lights and meditated in silence for five minutes, and then we started chanting. We didn’t realize that by the time we finished we’d been sitting there for 65 minutes.” Her devotion to meditation and Eastern philosophies led her to create Your Zen Life, a website she launched with friend and fellow Aussie Phoebe Tonkin. To keep the balance, Palmer, along with Tonkin and actor Tahnya Tozzi, founded Wood Cabin Pictures, a production company whose first film starts shooting next year. “I feel like I’m a swinging pendulum,” she says. “If I can strike a balance, I’ll ultimately be very happy.”
Photography by Hilary Walsh