Interview – Peta Sergeant

Interview – Peta Sergeant

Australia has been at the forefront of film making for decades now.  With a long list of memorable horror genre films, the most recent to hit the big screen in 2013 was Patrick: Evil Awakens; a remake of the cult classic Patrick (1978).  Staring a list of young and talented actors and actresses, Peta Sergeant played a classic character named Nurse Williams.  Having spent recent years in her career taking on strong roles in sci-fi and horror genre films, Sergeant is one of the brightest young stars in film today.  Recently we sat down with Peta Sergeant to discuss her career in acting, her role in Patrick: Evil Awakens, her role in Once Upon A Time in Wonderland, and much more. – You have been involved in film and television for over a decade now.  A great deal of your work appears to be on the horror and fantasy side of the spectrum.  Do you feel drawn to portray characters in these type of scripts?

Peta Sergeant – I had this conversation with Mark Hartley when we were shooting Patrick: Evil Awakens (2013) because I have never seen a genre film in my life (laughs).  I scare really easily, I am a very jumpy person.  I do not like to be scared so I do not watch scary movies.  I just found this was happening, this is weird because I keep getting into these kind of genre films.  It is funny because when we shot the death scene for Nurse Williams, and a couple of other scenes, Mark came up to me one day and said, “You are kind of born for this, you are jumpy and just have a scream that is made for this genre.  You have one of the best screams I have ever heard”.  He would know because he has seen everything being such a huge fan of the genre.  As far as sci-fi goes, I love the genre.  I think it is an extraordinary genre because you really get to explore the human condition in a way you do not really get to in others, which I really appreciate.  I love films like Gravity (2013) that are really bringing that type of idea into popular culture.  They are really fun to make and fun to be a part of, I love Sci-fi.

Pete Sergeant as Vivian Wagner in Iron Sky – Even though you may not be into the horror genre that much, with these types of films you have more flexibility to portray a character and be imaginative.

Peta Sergeant – Yes, it is different and very fun.  It is a challenge, I think all film is visual medium.  Particularly this type of film is extremely visual.  Often you are on sets where you do not have that around you, you do not know necessarily what it is going to look like and what you are looking like.  That can be really challenging, what I love about that is it brings you into a really close and distinguished relationship with the director, because it is all in their head and you are counting on their vision.  You really need to have the kind of symbiosis to be able to say ok, this is not necessarily real and it is potentially heightened but where is the ruler, where is the fence, where are the boundaries.  I love that, most directors are visionaries.  It is really great to be inside this genre particularly that you really get to burrow through that part of the brain of the director which is really fun, sometimes it is scary (laughs).  It is mostly really fun, most directors working in this genre love it because they live there. – Absolutely.  As mentioned, you star as Nurse Williams in the new film Patrick: Evil Awakens.  How did this role come about for you?

Peta Sergeant – I think Mark became familiar with me through Crawlspace (2012), an independent genre film I did a year before with Justin Dix.  Mark and Justin know each other from around Melbourne and both are huge fans of the genre films.  Mark had seen Crawlspace and contacted me and said, “I saw it, I loved it, thought you were fantastic, and I would love to have a conversation about Nurse Williams”.  We did, I read the script, and loved the characters as soon as I read it.  I had a lot of fun, I cannot name the place where it was because we sort of went in there covered.  I had a friend who lived in this fantastic old turn of the century mansion converted into apartments.  As soon as I read the script, I spoke to Mark and said, “I’d love to go film this at this building.  The building is so fabulous and rich, there are so many great textures and shadows and it would be a blast”.  I called this friend of mine and he said, “I don’t know if we can but yea let’s just do it” (laughs).   He ended up finding this fabulous elevator shaft they had in there and we went down and shot my audition in the basement and Mark loved it.  From the beginning there was a sort of adventure, joy, and covert sneakiness; because of the way I did my audition, it inevitably crept into the character.  That was a quality Mark really liked, it stayed and we played with it. It was a lot of fun. When we had a staff call, Mark had given great note about Nurse William being a human form as we continue at the lighthouse.  There is a lighthouse which is referenced a few times in the film, and Williams is kind of like that in this very dark place, we really need her to be a shining different light that pins around in a dark place.

IFC Films
IFC Films
E One Entertainment
E One Entertainment

It was a great note for me which sustained me through the whole process, because for me the biggest question I had was what is Williams doing there, how come she is not dead?  She seems to be part of the furniture now and has been there a long time. How has she survived, is she stupid, does she just not as questions, is she scared?  At the time Mark didn’t really have a susceptive answer, but as we worked with it, it all came together when I arrived in Melbourne. Arriving off the plane from Los Angeles I was ushered into wardrobe with Aphrodite Kondos; she worked on the original Patrick (1978) and is fantastic.  She immediately put me into this very high neck kind of sexy uniform with this little hat. I saw myself in the mirror and said I know who this girl is, she is kind of a 1950’s pin-up.

Still from 'Patrick'
Still from ‘Patrick’

That was so much fun for me because I had a chance to go back and watch some of my favorite films like Lolita (1962), I took a lot of inspiration from Shelley Winters and Sue Lyon.  That kind of semi-oblivious femme fatale. I think in that genre there is a lot of that Machiavellian femme fatale. There are also these beautiful characters which have this immense quirky, kookiness, and kind of obliviousness about them which is sort of very endearing.   I also went back and watched All About Eve (1950),  I very much took inspiration from the Marilyn Monroe character in that which is equal parts luminous and sexy, which is very magnetic in women but also completely oblivious in a way which is so enduring and kooky.  For me I said that is who Nurse Williams is and that is how she survived.  She does not ask questions because she is just thinking about other things (laughs).   I think that is something Mark and I came to, which really sold what could have been a really critical question to audiences about how come Patrick has not killed Nurse Williams before now and how come Williams has not left or asked questions.  Any other person would say what is going on in this place?  I feel like that was a lot of fun to work on, physically it was a lot of fun to work with.  I love working on projects where everyone, as contributors, effects it.  As I said, a lot of it all falling into place came from Aphrodite’s amazing costumes and Robbie Perkins extraordinary set.   We all felt so inspired by everything around us.

Phase 4 Films
Phase 4 Films – It obviously worked very well. The film does appear to have a very eerie atmosphere which is effective, and the acting is superb.  The film is in fact based on the original Patrick from 1978.  Part of Australian horror cinema, Patrick has become a cult classic worldwide over the years.  Have you seen the original film prior to the making of the new film?

Peta Sergeant – I have seen the original film.  I had not seen it before I was casted, of course as soon as I was casted I said I had to check it out.  I may sound bias but I prefer our version.  I think Mark has done a terrific job of translating the best parts of the original film into a more chilling, threatening, and spooky atmosphere.  I love that, I know when I first got to know Mark I asked him what kind of look are we going for and he said to see The Orphanage (2007).  I could not watch the end of it because I was too scared (laughs).  I think he has done an amazing job of swinging it into 2014, the film looks serious.

Filmways – Definitely, and the film does stand alone as its own film, not just as a remake.  The film did premiere at the International Film Festival in July of 2013, and now in 2014, is getting a DVD release in North America.  How exciting is it to see the movie get to be introduced to North American audiences?

Peta Sergeant – It is really exciting, it is a difficult question to answer at this early stage.  I think it is something I can become more excited about as it is released in North America.  Obviously it is very exciting and we are all anticipating that people will pick up on it and really love the film.  That is as far as my excitement goes at this point because we just do not know what is going to happen. – It is exciting and let us hope everyone catches on and enjoys it in North America. You currently appeared on the ABC series Once Upon A Time in Wonderland as the iconic Jabberwocky character.  What was it like working on the set of the series?

Peta Sergeant – It was amazing and fantastic.  Everyone was extremely kind and generous.  I had a lot of fun with that character.  The producers and writers gave me a lot of leeway.  I was quite amazed with the life they gave me.  I came on board and they said this character is developing as we go, there are a couple of key things that are pivotal for us for a certain kind of vocal quality and physicality, we do not know what that is, we want to see what you bring, talk about it, and have it be really organic.  That does not happen too often in television. Often you arrive and just do what you are directed to do.  It was really amazing to arrive and be given so much artistic license.  That is so much fun, it is like saying here is a blank check go do what you want (laughs).  I had a great time exploring those things and researching the different stories of the Jabberwocky and where Lewis Carroll got the idea from when he wrote the original poem.  One of the things that I read is perhaps he had taken the inspiration from the mythology about the Griffin.  That was really interesting to me and I loved the idea of the lion and eagle.  Obviously, they are both creatures which have a mythology around them.  I love that idea of the upper body and head being this sort of floating, appearing at any time, other-worldly kind like an eagle and the bottom half being all legs and hips and having a lot of gravity in the pelvis like a wildcat and lion.  That was a lot of fun, I brought that in and they loved it.  It evolved from there and you will see more (laughs).

Peta Sergeant as the Jabberwocky in ABC's Once Upon A Time in Wonderland
Peta Sergeant as the Jabberwocky in ABC’s Once Upon A Time in Wonderland – It sounds very exciting and it will be interesting to watch the character develop. Australian horror films have held their place in the genre’s history with films like Patrick, Long Weekend (1978), to Wolf Creek (2005) and Ruins (2008).  Most of the time it appears Australian horror film directors always seem to incorporate the landscape into the fear of the film.  Tell me a little about the beautiful, yet also fear-striking, massive landscape of the country.

Peta Sergeant – I think one of my all-time favorites, which is not a horror film but is definitely a genre film, is Wake In Fright (1971).  That is one of my all-time favorite Australian films.  I just think it captures what is endearing to us, that also terrifies us, about our own culture and landscape.  It is somewhere you can get lost, which is both heaven and hell.  The idea of getting lost to a lot of people is just the most awful fantastic idea that the enmity of it is terrifying, and what you might find out there when you get lost.  What I love about that is it really allows the horror of humanity to be truly exposed because there is nothing else around.  There is no computers, laptops, and urban space.  You just have this kind of vast landscape, which is beautiful, but also rule-less.

Endless is a scary thing, I think ultimately people like to have boundaries, they like to have freedom but they like to know if I go this far I am going to hit a wall, which is safe.  To be taken cinematically to an environment where there is no walls, everything is endless, and there is no end; I think that then plays on your psyche and allows you to think, well if there is this cruelty, what is the end to that cruelty?  Looking at an endless landscape, subconsciously it lends you to think about the endless human condition and the endless human potential.  Perhaps in horror films you are often looking at the negative of human potential.  I think that is very interesting and I think it is a very interesting contrast because it is so stark; your eyes, your heart, and your senses are not as insulted that maybe in an urban horror film.  There is always so much to look at in an urban genre film. If you are in the desert, there is just those people and what they are capable of. What are they going to do, and what is that environment going to do to them? How is it going to unhinge them as they push the boundary and discover there is no boundary. What does that do to a person?  Does it help them find themselves or do they lose themselves completely?  That is a very interesting question and one which can be very terrifying, as Wake In Fright is a brilliant case in point.

I think we are also very intrigued because we have a very strong connection to the land. We have so much of it.   I was so shocked to discover that Australia is roughly the same size as the United States, but we only have about 22 million people and the United States has over 300 Million, in the same space.  When you look at it like that, it is a lot of empty space.  Even when I say that, my imagination starts thinking what is out there. What happens if you are out there by yourself? What happens if you are just out there with one other person?  Your imagination is marked by the vastness of that.  I think it is part of who we are as people. As I said, we have a very strong connection with the land, but also what the land can do to you.  The land is savage out there (laughs).  When you are not in your car, you do not have buildings, you do not have a phone, you do not have things that you think keep you safe from other people, the elements, creatures, or whatever it is you are afraid of. What are you going to do?

United Artists
United Artists
Weinstein Company
Weinstein Company – You are right, that is frightening.  It is quite amazing the vast contrast of the size of the land and amount of people there.  It can make your mind wonder what is out there.

Peta Sergeant – I think as Australians, we have a love/hate relationship with our national identities.  I think that is what a lot of our genre films are about.  You look at Wake In Fright and Wolf Creek and the main protagonist in those are almost like a Crocodile Dundee character, but rather than be a lovable larrikin, he is just tipped over the edge into something else.  We love Crocodile Dundee (1986), but we hate that is how we have been identified.  I think our genre explores that, we love that kind of out there larrikin guy who says I am tired of the city and I am going to live off the land.  We kind of take pride in that we are outsiders, we descended from convicts, we do not belong anywhere and live on an island (laughs).  We take a lot of national pride in that and a lot of great things come from that, like exploration and independence.  I think there is also a part that a lot of Australians struggle with, that there is an ugliness to it and there is a sort of internal anarchy.   I think that is why a lot of genre films are set in those places where those kind of people live.  We are looking at it as this is how the world sees us. Do they know the dark side of Dundee (laughs)?  Who is that guy, who is that person?  To circle back to the beginning about genre films and Sci-fi being such great territory for exploration of identity and make a vision; everything else really does fall away when you are left with who is this person and what are they capable of.  I never thought of this before, but talking about it now, it is no surprise that a lot of American genre films are set in urban spaces.  The population is so dense in the USA and people are more afraid of their neighbors where in Australia we are not so afraid of each other in an urban setting.

Pre-order  Patrick: Evil Awakens on Blu-ray and DVD due out June 10th, 2014 at Amazon.

Check out Peta Sergeant in ABC’s Once Upon A Time in Wonderland on ABC on demand here.

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