Emily Browning arrives at Flat White, a cluttered, clattering cafe in the heart of Soho, and a popular hangout for London’s growing Australian population. But despite the presence of so many of her countrymen, barely anyone throws the 22-year-old Melbourne native a second glance. If someone does look her way, it’s not because they’ve recognized the face of an actor but because, even in the shadowy back corner of this crowded coffeehouse, Browning is a striking presence: small in stature but commandingly beautiful, wide-eyed, and supremely confident.
A few years ago, Browning’s life was simple—or at least simpler. Though she’d been appearing on Australian television since the age of 10, and was thrust into the public eye for her turn as the plucky Violet Baudelaire in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, the 2004 film adaptation of the popular children’s book series, it’s only been since the spring 2011 release of Zack Snyder’s ambitious but misguided action spectacular, Sucker Punch, that she’s become a recognizable figure.
Sucker Punch was child’s play compared to her latest film, Sleeping Beauty. As statements of intent go, this one’s a doozy: the austere, unsettling, and unabashedly art-house tale of Lucy, an isolated, emotionally passive college student whose thirst for new experiences leads her to accept a position as a unique kind of prostitute. Drugged unconscious and placed in a bed, the pale and physically fragile Lucy becomes the unwitting receptacle for the sometimes lustful, sometimes nostalgic, and often violent fantasies of an elite group of elderly, impotent men.
Pretty Woman, this is not—nor does it retread the slick fanboy fantasies of Sucker Punch, which had Browning kicking ass as Babydoll, a victim of sexual assault who escapes into an imaginary brothel filled with killer babes. Sleeping Beauty, the directorial debut film from acclaimed Australian novelist Julia Leigh, is a bleak, painstakingly constructed look at exploitation and empowerment, a film that explores ideas of feminine allure and masculine fallibility in an icily clinical style inspired by European masters like Luis Buñuel, Michael Haneke, and Peter Greenaway.
Despite the apparent passivity of her character, this is a dynamic role for Browning: even stripped bare and rendered unconscious, she dominates every scene in the film. Whether or not such a (literally) naked performance will be embraced by audiences remains to be seen. At its Cannes premiere this year, the film divided its audience: there were those who commended its force and originality, and those who found it every bit as exploitative of its young starlet as Sucker Punch was. But one thing is certain: Sleeping Beauty is Browning’s first major bid for artistic credibility. It’s also the kind of juicy, headline-grabbing project guaranteed to attract the furtive attention of the tabloid media, and so she finds herself—as so many have found themselves before her—simultaneously attempting to embrace and ignore the hype.
“I’m trying to find my balance,” Browning says, when I ask if she’s been affected by the steady increase of attention. “I love what I do, and I’ve come to understand that a certain amount of publicity is necessary if I’m to keep working, but I still get nervous before an interview.” Browning is refreshingly open and remarkably vulnerable, onscreen and off, which is both a blessing (for us) and a curse (for her). “I’ve been burned before by talking too much in interviews,” says Browning, who has since been more guarded about what she chooses to reveal to the press. “But I’m not good at faking another version of myself,” she says. “I’m still trying to find my alter ego. Take this interview: I want to tell you about me, I want you to like me. I like to be liked, but that’s something I have to kill. It shouldn’t matter what people think of me.”
Browning was recently introduced to one of the more insidious aspects of the publicity game: paparazzi. “The idea of being followed by strangers with cameras really worries me,” she says. “I was with my boyfriend [actor Max Irons, Jeremy Irons’ son] and some friends after the first Sucker Punch screening in London. I’m not a drinker, but it was a big premiere—I was nervous—so I got a bit tipsy. We were outside having a cigarette, and we realized that some guy was filming us from around the corner. And I thought, How long has he been there, and what have we said? It was terrifying. I want to be in control of what people know about me.”
Although she gets annoyed by the infrequent intrusions of a roving reporter, she’s not looking for sympathy—or even normalcy. “I hate the word normal,” she says, smiling. “What does it mean, anyway? There are so many actresses trying to prove to everyone, ‘Look at me, I’m so normal!’ But my life isn’t normal. I travel the world, I work long hours, and when I’m not working I can spend weeks not doing anything at all. It’s not the same as a lot of other people’s lives. But when I go home and hang out with my friends and my family, they’re not affected by any of this. It’s not like I have a higher status in my friendship group or my family. No matter what parts I land, they’ll continue to take the piss out of me like they always have.”
Even after they’ve seen her projected against a 40-foot screen, stark-naked and being pawed by geriatrics? “Well, a few friends haven’t said anything about the movie, and I think that’s because they feel awkward that they’ve seen me naked,” she says. “When I told my Nana about the film, I was really nervous. I said, ‘Don’t get scared, but I’m going to be naked.’ And she said, ‘Do it while you’re young! You’ll look great!’ After she saw the film she said, ‘I loved every minute of it, except when you offered that man a blow job.’ That was the best reaction I’ve had. Maybe it would be weirder for my parents if I’d been in some really intense sex scenes. But the film is not erotic—it’s not sexy in any way.”
Browning appears very casual, even dismissive about the nudity in the film, but surely, I suggest cautiously, there must have been moments, particularly at first, when it felt unusual? “There was definitely a kind of nervousness that I’ve never felt before,” she admits. “But we eased into it gradually. By the time we got to the scenes where I had to be completely naked, I felt so comfortable with the crew and with Julia that it wasn’t such a big deal.”
For the film’s titular sleeping scenes, Leigh encouraged her actress to use meditation to achieve the stillness required of the moment. “It wasn’t like I signed up for David Lynch’s Transcendental Meditation workshop,” Browning says, laughing. “I just studied some breathing techniques, and I learned to be quiet. There must have been takes where I flinched, but mostly I was able to keep completely still.”
Despite their obvious physical similarities, the chatty, effortlessly charming young woman in the cafe bears almost no resemblance to the restrained, almost ghostly Lucy. “I can relate to her, but I’m not at all like her,” Browning says. “Lucy allows herself to be destroyed by outside forces; it’s almost nihilistic. I don’t think that was ever really me, but I’ve seen it in friends, the kind of people who do crazy shit, and seem to have no concern for the consequences.”
Given that the frank exploration of sexuality does, in very different ways, inform both of her recent roles, you’d be forgiven for pegging Browning as a libertine—but it’s feminism, not hedonism, that interests her. “Sexuality and gender are things that really interest me,” she says. “I have very strong ideas about the way women are portrayed on film. With Sucker Punch… ” She pauses, thinking carefully about how to phrase the next part of her answer. “Listen, I love that movie, and I had an amazing time working on it. But I do think that, for one reason or another, the message got slightly muddled. I’m a feminist, and I hoped that it would present an empowering message, but it got a bit lost. I would hate for anyone to watch Sucker Punch and think that it’s important for girls to look sexy if they’re going to be tough.”
Some viewers were violently offended by Sucker Punch’s depictions of women— “misogynistic” was an adjective regularly used to condemn the film in reviews—and many of the critics got distinctly personal, though their fury was generally directed at director Snyder, rather than his cast, which also included Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, and Vanessa Hudgens. “I don’t read reviews,” Browning says firmly. “I think that once you’ve made something, you have to let it go. If you keep worrying about what people think of you, you’ll go insane.”
The cliché of the doe-eyed starlet who gets chewed up and spit out by the Hollywood machine is as old as the movie industry itself, but so is the tale of the presumed innocent who turns out to be an unstoppable force of nature. As Browning sits across from me talking about her hopes for the future, although she’s still young and relatively inexperienced, it becomes clear that there’s strength in that slender frame, and a spark of steel behind those wide open eyes.