Emily Browning spent the spring of 2011 ricocheting from one controversy to another. Sucker Punch, a hyperactive video game-influenced fantasia in which she starred as the scantily-clad Baby Doll, was released at the end of March to a barrage of dreadful reviews deriding its “rancid lubrications” (the Observer), “chaotic and nonsensical” plot (the Independent) and “pervasive ugliness” (the New York Times). Then in May, she went to Cannes for the premiere of Sleeping Beauty, to hear a ruffled audience greet the film with as many boos as muted cheers. Reviews were similarly divided, between those who thought its stately depiction of fetishistic prostitution amounted to “psychosexual twaddle” (the Hollywood Reporter), and those who found it a “strange, ensnaring achievement” (the Telegraph).
At least in the case of Sleeping Beauty, the response was much as the 22-year-old Australian expected. “I knew there was no way everyone was going to like it, and I'm OK with that,” she says. “I'd rather make an interesting film that gets people talking, that maybe some people hate, than make the kind of 'entertaining' film that everyone feels ambivalent about.”
The scorn in her voice as she says “entertaining” is acidic. She spent much of her childhood appearing in easy-going Australian telemovies, soaps and kids' programmes, and with her innocent doe eyes and rosebud mouth, she could quietly charm the world for years yet. But a tattoo under her arm reading “a blessed unrest that keeps us marching”, a quote from choreographer Martha Graham's manifesto for alternative artists, indicates where her heart lies: in “fearless work that challenges me”.
The challenge that made Sucker Punch appealing to her was physical: as someone who has “never been a particularly physical person”, she was hooked the moment director Zack Snyder told her she would have to do martial arts training. But she also liked the premise of the film: that Baby Doll, locked in an asylum by her abusive stepfather, dreams up an alternate reality in which she and her girl gang kick a whole lot of ass. Although she was disappointed by accusations that the film, far from communicating a feminist agenda, titillates its audience by slavering over a female cast dressed in skimpy Playboy outfits, she understood where they were coming from. The problem, she suggests carefully, lay in the difference between the script and the final edit: “Maybe because of interference from the studios, the female empowerment message that I was hoping to send got muddled up.”
There was less chance of being misled by the script for Sleeping Beauty: Julia Leigh, who wrote and directed it, is also a novelist, and Browning says her debut screenplay was not only beautifully written but extremely detailed. Which is just as well, because Browning's character, Lucy, spends a lot of the film naked, and a goodly portion drugged into a stupor while elderly men do with her body what they will, on the understanding that there will be “no penetration”. Even reading the script, says Browning, “made me uncomfortable. I read the first scene and had a panic attack – I had to leave it for an hour to catch my breath.”
It's easy to assume that it was the prostitution scenes that unsettled her, but Browning shrugs: “Nudity doesn't bother me. Mainstream media and society seem so frightened by sex, but it's really not that scary.” Apart from requesting that the set be closed while she was naked, she didn't seek to tone anything down: if anything, Sucker Punch left her feeling “so confident, so strong and mentally stable” that she felt able to make her encounters with the men even more intense, by remaining eerily still while they manipulated her body.
What really distressed her was penetration of a different kind. Lucy also earns money as a medical research guinea pig: we see her in an intimidating white lab having a probe pushed down her throat into her innards. “I'm really squeamish, and I did say if this tube has to be in my chest I might faint.” So a bit of trickery was used in the scene, although the gagging noises Browning makes, including a rather fruity burp, are real.
Other than that, she requested just one change to the script: that the bikini wax administered to Lucy left her with “some semblance of coverage”. In fact, this is one of her favourite scenes in the film: “I love that Lucy starts laughing, because the idea of getting a bikini wax is ridiculous. What we do to ourselves to look a certain way is crazy.”
It's these little details, Lucy's defiant self-possession, her disregard for the absurd trappings of female sexuality, that give the film a feminist undertone – and for Browning this was another of its attractions. She herself is a feminist, in favour of sex work and rights for sex workers, and argues that the sleeping beauty scenes are more concerned with “the sexuality of older people, which isn't visible in society” than with the exploitation of young women. To her mind, Lucy isn't exploited at all: “Obviously the fact that she's asleep means that she's objectified to some degree, but she is completely willing to submit control to others and see what happens. I don't think it's a healthy attitude for someone to have, but the film isn't about portraying a character who's going to be a role model for young girls. It's about the choices we make as humans, and the battle to find control while living in a society that wants to objectify you and commodify you.”
Control over her life is something Browning sought from a young age. Growing up just outside Melbourne, she was bullied at two primary schools before her parents moved her to a parent-run co-operative, where the 40 pupils spent their time not learning maths and English, but painting, going on nature camps and putting on plays. It was here that another parent, an actor, spotted her on stage and suggested that she audition for an upcoming telemovie, The Echo of Thunder. She was eight at the time, and says: “My parents were a bit freaked out – they're as far from stage parents as you could possibly get.” They're not even involved in the arts: her father is a computer systems analyst, and her mother owns and runs a cafe. Browning insisted they let her audition, and continued to insist. At 10, she wouldn't even allow her parents to accompany her on set.
She spent the next few years happily combining school and filming, until she won the part of Violet Baudelaire in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Adventures. She had to move to Los Angeles for nine months and: “I hated it. I was 15 and thought I was punk and that Hollywood was crap. I wanted to be back at school – I actually missed homework, which was weird – and be with my friends and do normal things.” When the film ended, she stopped acting for three years so that she could finish school in Australia.
Her return to work was tentative, so much so that she turned down the lead role in the Twilight movies, and it wasn't until Sucker Punch – the filming of which, at least, she thoroughly enjoyed – that she decided to commit to acting as a career. Chiefly what puts her off is the idea of fame, particularly the scrutiny of gossip media. Her ideal for the future is to “work pretty steadily, without ever getting to the point where I'm super-famous, but just to the point where I can make a film every two years and write and cook the rest of the time”. She's already writing, working on a couple of screenplays, but she finds it nerve-racking, and insists: “It will be 15 years before anyone sees them. And if I ever do get to the point where I make my first film, I definitely won't be in it.”
Sucker Punch transformed her life in other ways: it was while she was in LA doing press for the film that she met her boyfriend, Max Irons (son of Jeremy), and ended up moving to London. Although happy here, she exists “in a permanent state of homesickness”. She frets about her two teenage brothers, sending them lengthy emails instructing them not to follow other people but forge their own paths, and knows that deep down her parents wish “I was home doing a normal job”.
Her father is under strict instruction not to see Sleeping Beauty; her mother, aunts and grandmother all went to the premiere in Australia, however. What on earth did they make of it? Browning giggles: “Mum was hilarious. She said: 'I thought it was great, but I really don't want to see your tits again for a few years.'”