Famed for her lead role as Baby Doll in Zack Snyder’s fantasy action adventure Sucker Punch about an institutionalised young girl who retreats into an alternative reality as a coping mechanism while planning to escape from a mental facility, Australian actress Emily Browning talks to us about her next controversial film, Sleeping Beauty.

Officially selected at Cannes 2011, debut film-maker and author Julia Leigh’s film is a haunting portrait of Lucy, a young university student drawn into the mysterious hidden world of beauty and desire. Lucy, played by Browning, takes a job as a Sleeping Beauty, where drugged, Lucy must be absolutely submissive to the erotic desires of old men. But her work starts to bleed into her daily life as she develops an increasing need to find out what happens to her when she is asleep.

Emily talks intimately about her part as Lucy, being comfortable with nudity, the controversial sleeping scenes, working with Leigh, her favourite actress and what her Nana said after seeing the film.

HeyUGuys: Lucy is a very bold role to take on – why did you want to do it?

Emily Browning: First of all, the script was unbelievable. Julia’s writing is really mesmerising. I’ve never really read a role like this before. Lucy is aware she’s going to get objectified to some degree, and instead of raging against it, she decides to adopt what Julia calls this ‘radical passivity’, where she’s almost in control of the situation by allowing the situation to control her. She relinquishes control so that she can kind of sit back and become an observer, which I think is kind of an interesting, f***ed up way of doing things. I love the fact that she does that to the point that she literally cannot do it anymore and she has to claw her way back to reality. I just found that fascinating and I really loved how mysterious Lucy was.

HUG: Are you comfortable with doing nudity?

EB: I don’t have a problem with nudity. It’s never been an issue for me. Honestly, in terms of this film, I felt more self-conscious in the scenes where I had to be in the lingerie because it’s like presenting you as ‘I’m looking sexy’. In the scenes where Lucy is naked, some people have said they’re erotic. There’s nothing erotic about them to me – they are disturbing. The point of the film is they are disturbing. In our society when you get to a certain age you are told you are not allowed to be a sexual being any more, and that’s ridiculous. I think there’s something quite touching about these men, in the case of Man 1 (played by Peter Carroll) and Man 3 (played by Hugh Keays-Byrne) who decide to be in the presence of this sleeping girl because they don’t want to be looked upon, there’s this shame there, and they just want to hold onto something young, and I just find that a heartbreaking and sweet.

HUG: Man 2 (played by Chris Haywood) is the sadist in the film. How difficult was it to stay completely passive when he is licking your face?

EB: It was weird for the first few takes, to be honest, especially the cigarette burn on the neck. I actually had prosthetic skin put onto my neck so he could actually burn me and I wouldn’t feel it. But still, for the first two takes, I flinched, especially when someone puts a cigarette to your neck. Julia spoke to me about learning to meditate through those scenes, so I was focusing on my breathing and learning to shut myself off. I also think I get this kind of weird, super human strength when I’m in front of the camera because it’s what I love to do. I mean, when I was working on Sucker Punch, I’d do a fight scene and feel nothing, and then as soon as the camera stop rolling, I’d think s**t, I’m bleeding. You kind of lose yourself. You’re not really inhabiting your own body.

HUG: Even when being dropped in the film by Man 3, you must have wanted to react?

EB: Yeah a bit, but we’d had so much rehearsal time with Chris Haywood (Man 2), and he’s just such a sweet guy. We spoke at length about my boundaries and what he could do and what he couldn’t do. Julia wrote the bones of it, but he and I decided pretty much what he was going to do. When we were filming a scene, I actually think it was harder for him than it was for me. He was so apologetic. He kept saying, ‘I’m so sorry! Are you ok? I’m so sorry!’ That made it really comfortable. If he’d come in with an attitude, like this is awesome, then it would have been horrible. Knowing that he was there with me and on my side, and at any point when I wanted it to stop, it could stop, it made doing it ok.

HUG: Did you research into ‘Sleeping Beauties’?

EB: Julia told me a little bit about it, and she said I can send you some things if you like, but then we decided it was probably best if I didn’t, purely because I wanted Lucy to be ignorant to the whole thing because she doesn’t really know what’s going on. I thought if I had an outsider’s perspective, it would ruin it for the character. In all of the sleeping scenes, we filmed them in order. I went in when people were setting up, took of my robe and just laid there, and so I really wasn’t present for those scenes as such. I liked the idea that in the last sleeping scene, and I wake up, that’s really the first time that I’m present in that world, and that’s what I find out what’s going on, and it made it more intense for me and made that reaction more real.

HUG: Lucy’s job interview with Clara (Rachael Blake) in the film is quite intrusive – how was your first meeting with Julia?

EB: Yeah, she made me strip, she was behind double-sided glass [laughs]! No, I was filming Sucker Punch when I read the script, and I decided to put myself on tape – the film’s interview scene, where Clara asks Lucy to strip, was actually one of the scenes I had to put on tape, and so I had to make the decision during the audition, do I actually strip or not? I thought I really want this so I will. But the poor guy behind the camera really wasn’t expecting it, and I saw him trying to look everywhere but at me. I think he thought I was such a freak! But meeting Julia for the first time, I’d already been offered the role, so that made it a lot less intimidating. We discussed all of the films that she thought I should watch…

HUG: Which films in particular?

EB: There were quite a few, but the ones I remember and the ones I drew from the most were Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher with Isabelle Huppert because her character in that is kind of similar to Lucy, very quiet and still and slightly perverted in a way. I watched Belle de Jour, a film called Under The Skin with Samantha Morton in it – she’s my favourite actress. Watching any film with her in it is amazing. Julia also asked me to watch Lars von Trier’s Antichrist – and I think the only reason she wanted me to watch it was to say, our film’s not that bad [laughs]. At least there’s no female circumcision!

HUG: Was there anything you felt pressured to do, and told Julia that you weren’t going to do?

EB: Not really. I think Julia was surprised with how much I was ok with. I felt pretty good about everything. She said if there’s anything you want to change, tell me how we can fix it. The only thing I changed was when Lucy was getting a bikini wax. Originally in the script it mentioned that ‘everything was gone’, that Lucy gets everything waxed off. I said I’m not comfortable with that because I’ve had that done once before and I felt like a ten year-old. I mean, I already look very young, and I figured that just stepped over the line into paedophile territory. Julia said I totally agree. Let’s not do that! The Man 2 scene was not even as intense in the original script. Me and Chris were kind of hilarious when we got together because we were like, oh maybe you can do this, or maybe you can do that, and just kind of made it even more gross than it was!

HUG: Obviously Lucy does all these jobs to fund her studies, but is it also to help her alcoholic mother out, as it’s not completely clear.

EB: Yeah, I asked the same question. I thought does Lucy just do it to give her Mum money. I also asked Julia when Lucy says, ‘My Mother’s an alcoholic who runs an astrology hotline’ and I said is that a lie or is that truth? Julia said that’s truth, and so I think her Mum’s just annoying and asks her for money and she gives her a fake credit card number. I think in the being there isn’t a purpose – that’s the whole idea of Lucy that she’s just going through life and allowing things to happen to her. I think the turning point of the film is when Birdman dies, who’s her last connection to something emotionally real.

HUG: Can you give us more insight into Lucy’s relationship with Birdmann (Ewen Leslie) as it’s very ambiguous in the film.

EB: They are old friends, and he’s in the dark stages of alcoholism where he’s quite sick. I think she just wants to be there for him. I see Birdmann as being a little bit in love with Lucy, but she’s kind of not really emotionally available. I think the character of Birdmann is so important because without him, Lucy wouldn’t be human. When you see Lucy with him, she’s smiling and she actually loves something, that’s why when he dies, that’s like the last finger on the cliff. That’s her falling off the cliff. That’s the moment when she needs to find something and needs to pull herself back. I do think at the beginning there isn’t a purpose and he’s the only thing she cares about, and he’s gone and that’s why the waking up at the end is so cathartic for her. She realises what she’s been doing. I kind of like to think about what happens after that waking-up scene and where she goes.

HUG: Has this part and going nude uninhibited you to take on similar roles in the future?   

EB: I definitely have the same issues as other women when I don’t like this or don’t like that, but I like my body more when it’s naked than when it’s dressed – I know that’s kind of a weird thing to say! I think when people are naked every single person is flawed in some way. I just hate the way that actresses are told how they’re supposed to look. I’d just finished Sucker Punch so I’d been under quite a lot of stress, and I’d been working out, so I was actually quite skinny at the start of this film. Now that’s the one thing I watch and go [sharp intake of breath] you can see my ribs. I feel more comfortable when I have a bit more meat on me because I’m naturally very skinny. This film was almost pushing me to say I can except my body and everyone else can accept it, too, because everyone’s different and my body’s normal and I’ve got small boobs and I don’t care. I just don’t think people should be scared of being naked. I also think society needs to stop deciding how people should look – how dare you decide what I’m to look like?

HUG: Have friends and family seen you in the film yet, and how do you think the public will react when it’s out this week?

EB: Well, my Mum and my Nana and my Auntie have. They loved it, but they’re biased – they’ll just love anything that I do. My Nana said to me, ‘I loved every bit of it, except the part where you offered the man a blow job’. I said, ‘ah thanks Nan. That’s great [laughs]’! I’m happy if opinions continue to be divided because I’d rather make something that gets people talking, to something that people feel ambivalent about. I have no idea what the reaction’s going to be.

Sleeping Beauty is in cinemas this Friday (October 14). Look out for the review, coming soon.