From the wild, lawless streets of Dawson City in Discovery’s Klondike to the wild, lawless streets of Detroit in José Padilha’s RoboCop, it seems like Abbie Cornish is everywhere these days. In her latest film, RoboCop, Cornish plays Clara Murphy, the wife of Joel Kinnaman’s Alex Murphy, and has a much more expanded role this time around. In the original, she was much more of an ancillary character; this time, Clara is actually the one who has to sign off on her injured husband’s procedure to transform him from cop to RoboCop. Offering up a charismatic, heartfelt performance, Cornish brings a much needed sense of humanity to the film and helps Alex Murphy seem like more of a three dimensional figure rather than just a badass cyborg stopping crime by hook or by crook. The Australian actress is becoming a ubiquitous presence, both at the box office and on TV screens, and recently I had the chance to sit down with her at the RoboCop LA press day to discuss the challenges of rebooting an iconic franchise, her most incredible on-set moments, the experience of shooting Klondike, and more.
Nerdist: So I really enjoyed the film. I was a little worried, but I really enjoyed your character, in particular. I thought it lent a nice humanity to Alex’s journey, something that you don’t necessarily get from the original. So I wanted to talk about–what do you think is one of the biggest challenges when you’re rebooting a franchise like this, that has so much fan expectation and good will associated with it?
Abbie Cornish: Well, I think in the hands of someone like José Padilha, and then the guys, the team that he surrounded himself with, such as April Ferry, the costume designer, and people incredibly talented at what they do, that a world is created that’s very specific and stylized, and it’s a world that’s created with collaboration, so it feels whole. And I think–you know, I think it holds true and honest to the original, but obviously we did it in a different age in regards to technology and CGI, so the action scenes and all of the motorbike stuff can really be remade in such a wonderful way.
I kind of felt lucky, too, that the human–the wife and the kid side of the story was interwoven throughout that, you know? Because it is a big studio action film, but there’s a political, social–there’s also a little interwoven element of family.
N: Yeah, you’ve got to keep it grounded and make it relatable to audiences as well, because explosions are all well and good, but you have to make people care about who’s jumping away from the explosions.
AC: Yeah! And who knows, in the hands of different directors, maybe that wouldn’t have been the case? You know what I mean?
N: Yeah, exactly.
AC: You never know. I think that–I really think that José made this movie what this movie is, and gave it that depth.
N: Were you a fan of the original RoboCop?
AC: RoboCop, for me, was a very nostalgic film from my childhood I grew up with brothers, so we had it on VHS and we watched that VHS until it shredded itself and it couldn’t be watched anymore. So, when I heard that RoboCop was being remade, I instantly was interested. And then I heard that José Padilha was directing it, so I had a José Padilha movie marathon night where I watched Elite Squad, Elite Squad 2, and Bus 174 and e-mailed him after that. It was an amazing night, I was still up when the sun came up, and I thought this is an extremely talented director that it would be an honor to work with. Then I heard Gary Oldman, who I’ve respected and admired forever, and Michael Keaton, and Joel Kinnaman was playing RobCcop, which I thought was great casting, and Samuel L. Jackson. To be honest, this film, for me, is the most fun I’ve ever had on a film and I’ve learned the most. There were moments on set when I’d rap, and I’d stay on set and I learned a lot watching him direct.
N: What was it about him in particular as a film maker and as a director that attracted you to the project?
AC: I got the feeling–I mean, I love the time and style of his films, but I also found that there was an intelligence, and a bravery, and a rawness of realness to everything that he did. Such a talent for storytelling, and I felt that he followed truth, and found truth, and I could tell that there was a trust in the work that he does, in regards to the people he hires in the cast and the crew, and in trust, there is then freedom. And then, within that freedom, you end up with a great film.
N: Yeah and what a stellar supporting cast! Really, I wasn’t expecting to see all the people in that film that were there. You mentioned that this was one of the most fun experiences that you’ve had on set, so is there a particular moment or experience that stands out as, like, “Wow, I can’t believe this is happening,” or “This could only be happening on the RoboCop set”?
AC: Yeah, I think, meeting Gary Oldman was a big deal for me, because my knees were a bit shaky, and I kept calling him “Sir,” and “It’s so lovely to meet you, sir” and “I’m such a big fan, sir.” Literally, my knees were shaking.
N: [laughs] Yeah.
AC: I was doing the yoga-breathe-through-your-nose–I was nervous! And then within a few minutes, I got this sense of who he is, because he’s a very lovely man, and he’d also seen Bright Star, and so he praised my work in Bright Star, and it was such an honor, to have someone that I respected who might say that to me. But then we became really good friends. When we had a moment, we’d be walking down the street, guys would be drinking coffee, I’d have a hot chocolate, and we’d be shooting the breeze. You know what I mean?
N: I can imagine!
AC: THAT was fun for me! And you know, I came out of this with a few really good friends, like José, and Gary, and John Paul Ruttan, who plays my son–we message each other all the time. His mum is a friend of mine, and we were hanging out the other day when they came to LA. It was a great cast and a great crew, and it was a feel-good gig. It just felt good.
N: One of the things that I also found interesting is that I found that you signed on when there was no script, that obviously infers a great deal of confidence in the project. What was that like to sort of come on blind, and see it evolve as you went along?
AC: Well, I just kept, every week–because I was traveling back and forth, so every week–did I mention that already, that I traveled back and forth?
N: Yeah, you mentioned it briefly in the press conference. Was this for Klondike? Is that what you were…
AC: No, Klondike I was on every single day.
N: Yeah, that’s suicide.
AC: I didn’t have a break, because I did RoboCop, so I came into it two weeks late. I went back-to-back-to-back on my days, and then I had to go do Solace, so Klondike was literally–I had no life. It was just, Klondike, Klondike, Klondike–but it was amazing! And Solace was the same. So for RoboCop, I traveled in and worked, and then I got on a plane and went home. And it was really lovely and really healthy, because I could keep fit and I could eat well and I could sleep in my own bed. I have four cats and I have a dog, and I have a parakeet, and I could see my friends and my family. But what was cool was every week, I got back on the plane, and I was getting given new scenes.
AC: I called my manager, Laz, and I go, “Laz, you won’t believe it! I just got a scene with Gary Oldman!” And then next week, “Lazo, I’ve got a scene with Michael Keaton now. Can you believe it?” Because originally, they pitched it as in four or five scenes, and so I kind of got super lucky, because the role grew. It’s not a massive role, by any means, but it has meaning, which I really like.
N: Yeah, you said it–it might not be a massive role, but it has an emotional through-line and a payoff.
AC: It has purpose. What was lovely was that, as the film developed, Clara Murphy developed and the family element developed and I think, for José, he felt that it was important to ground Alex Murphy with a home and a family and loving wife and a beautiful son…for his journey not to be just about revenge.
N: Exactly. It’s not just there for bells and whistles, like, “See? He has a wife! Isn’t that cool?”
AC: Yeah, he’s got a wife…
N: Yes, this is his connection. This is his human element.
AC: Yeah, and I had lovely scenes to play with, too. For a big, massive studio blockbuster film, I kind of proud of the good material. And the other thing that I kind of had to think about was there are only two moments where you get to see Clara Murphy happy, before he’s blown up, that one scene when he comes home. And still, she’s a bit worried because he nearly got killed that day too.
AC: And then he gets blown up, and then there’s one flashback.
N: Yeah, you have that–it’s such a cruel twist, when three months later, you’re like, “Look, they’re dancing.”
AC: [chuckles] And it’s so strange, because I sat there, and when I broke it all down, I was like, “Oh my gosh, very soon I’ve got to play a woman whose husband is nearly dead. He died, and then she has to sign a piece of paper that says she will allow them to turn him into a half–into RoboCop, and all he’ll have left is a hand and a face.”
N: Yeah, it’s kind of a big decision for a spouse to make.
AC: Yeah, it’s a little bit like–and then the corporation keeps her separate, keeps her away. They don’t allow him to see–it’s pretty harrowing, traumatic stuff, so it was trying to find a balance. Where do you bring the strength and the groundedness and the support? I kept going back to what would it be like to be a wife or a mother in that circumstance, and then that sort of fueled, so that there was a bit of range, rather than just a kind of devastated woman.
N: I think you hit the nail on the head. It anything but one note, so job well done!
AC: Oh, thanks! I appreciate that.
N: I do want to shift gears slightly before I’m out of time and talk about Klondike, because I am absolutely loving this series. I have only seen part one. The only reason I didn’t go home and watch part two last night is because I was watching RoboCop.
N: You mentioned that RoboCop is one of the most fun times you’ve had on set. Klondike seems like it was kind of a grueling experience. Is that a fair description?
AC: Grueling, adventurous, fun, exciting–at the same time, a lot of great people around, cast and crew–it was a wonderful collaboration. I personally, my favorite episode is episode two, because everything starts to happen. It all starts to bubble. The story becomes–all these characters are all coming and all evolving, so two is my favorite, so I’m excited for you to see two. Last night, I watched three, because three was last night, but they’re still playing them all.
N: Yeah, I feel like they’re going to keep replaying them. I did appreciate that it feels like a big event, because you don’t see that they do that with mini-series anymore. Night one, night two, night three–you want to tune in, you don’t want to miss it.
AC: Yeah, and I really enjoyed three. Two is still my favorite. And I l do love one, because it’s just exquisite, but there’s something about two in regards to how entertaining it is. The story and the characters, so I’m excited for you to see two.
N: Fantastic–I can’t wait! I just have one last question, and it’s an oddball, so bear with me.
AC: That’s all right.
N: What would be inside your ideal burrito?
AC: Well, I’m a vegetarian, so I guess I would go into–I mean, I love an egg burrito, like a nice breakfast burrito. So egg, tomato, if you put a little truffle oil in there, I’d be happy. That type of things.
N: Solid. I’d eat that. Very nice.
AC: Otherwise, you get into rice and beans, and I think it’s more exciting when you’re not a vegetarian to go into that world of burritos. I’ll go breakfast burritos.
RoboCop is in theaters now. Read our full review, then let us know which of Abbie’s roles is your favorite in the comment below.