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Career

Why Top of the Lake director Jane Campion cast her daughter as a sex worker

The A-list director didn’t have to look far when she cast a key role for her series.

By Sebastian van der Zwan
When Dame Jane Campion started writing the second series of Top of the Lake, she had a rather unusual idea for who would play the lifeless body of a deceased sex worker in the very first episode – her own daughter Alice Englert.
That is, until Alice asked her, "You're not going to start with a dead prostitute, are you?"
Indeed, the season does begin with a deceased prostitute, but Alice's role has morphed into something even more unsettling. In Top of the Lake: China Girl, she plays a schoolgirl from a broken family who gets lured into the seedy underworld of Sydney's brothels.
In fact, there are scenes that are so disturbing, her Oscar-winning mother – who created and co-wrote the show – had to rope in another film-maker for four of the six episodes because she couldn't face directing her in such a dark scenario.
"I tried to do the easiest ones," confesses Jane (63), who hired Aussie director Ariel Kleiman (32) to help out.
"I tried to give him the episodes with my daughter. I did want to direct it, but with her, I am first and foremost a mother. When she gets mad at me, I get upset and I can't see straight – I'm a pushover for my daughter."
The young actress with her illustrious Top of the Lake co-stars (from left) Elisabeth, Gwendoline and Nicole, who plays her adoptive mother.
Alice – who turns 23 this week – adds, "She asked Ariel to direct most of the scenes where I have to wear less, and be in difficult and complicated situations."
However, the actress insists she didn't get any special treatment just because she's Jane's daughter.
"She's done a great job of treating me like she treats the rest of the cast. She does challenge and push us, but I feel very confident working with Mum because I've always understood and been able to relate to that clarity of vision she has. It was easy to work with her because I trust her."
The Weekly is talking to the mother-daughter duo inside the historic bathing pavilion of Sydney's Bondi Beach. It's a bitterly cold winter's day, and we've just watched the cast and crew – including a few shivering extras in bikinis – film a final climactic scene by the water.
Starting on Sky's UKTV on Tuesday, this season has a very different backdrop from the first, which was filmed around Queenstown.
Lead actress Elisabeth Moss, of Mad Men and The Handmaid's Tale fame, is back – but the rest of the cast is made up of fresh faces, including Hollywood heavyweight Nicole Kidman (50), Game of Thrones star Gwendoline Christie (38) and, of course, Alice.
"We always knew she was going to do it," Jane says of casting her daughter. "I tried to play to some of her strengths. The character is a bit younger than she is, but Alice has the depth and experience to carry off quite a difficult role."
Alice plays troubled teenager Mary Edwards in the much-anticipated drama series.
Alice was born in Sydney in 1994, the same year Jane won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for The Piano. She has said, "I was in her belly when she collected the award, so I can say I've been to the Oscars."
Her father is Jane's ex-husband, Australian film-maker Colin Englert, who worked as a second-unit director on The Piano.
Alice announced she wanted to be an actress at age 13 after starring in her mum's short film The Water Diary, and went on to star opposite Elle Fanning and Annette Bening in the teen drama Ginger & Rosa, then with Emma Thompson and Viola Davis in the Twilight-esque Beautiful Creatures.
"I don't think there was any pressure to become an actress," the serious-minded brunette says, spreading her expressive hands in front of her.
"In fact, there were warnings, but whatever has made me an actress now has come from being in a family that was in film and I feel good about that."
Born in Waikanae, Jane has been in Sydney for many years, although she still speaks with a distinct Kiwi accent and keeps a cottage at Rees Valley Station, just north of Glenorchy, where she has lived and worked periodically.
While Alice went to school nearby for a time, Jane is hesitant to describe herself as a "local", however, at the New Zealand premiere of Top of the Lake: China Girl in Auckland last month, the warm, silver-haired national icon told the audience, "You're my people. I'm a New Zealander. This is my home. I'm so proud to be one of you guys. I'm creeping my way back home from the south up."
The Waikanae-born film talent was pregnant with Alice when she won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 1993.
Alice, meanwhile, describes herself as an Australian, but she says the "really arty, whimsical side of the family resides in Hobbit land" and adds that she often feels homesick for Aotearoa. In fact, she pictures herself "shuffling around the South Island" in the future.
"I love New Zealand so much, which is why I was a bit confused when Top of the Lake 2 was moved to Sydney," the actress tells. (Actually, Jane tells us, in early discussion, it was going to be set in Thailand.)
However, Alice had the chance to touch base with her Kiwi roots while filming the 2016 movie The Rehearsal, based on The Luminaries author Eleanor Catton's first novel, with James Rolleston and Kerry Fox.
She grins, "I wanted to go and make it because it was in New Zealand. That was great. It's about a drama school and so we kind of got paid to go to drama school, which is something I don't think I could have taken in real life. I'm too sensitive – it would've broken me."
Jane had just finished the script for the second season of Top of the Lake when Nicole Kidman, who starred in her film Portrait of a Lady, dropped by her office.
The actress told her, "I really loved the first series. I want to be in the next one. I want to do something unusual. Have you got a part for me?"
The doting mother avoided directing the more difficult scenes involving her daughter.
Jane offered her the role of Alice's on-screen mother, which Nicole accepted, but when she finally read the script, she said, "It is quite a small part, isn't it?" Jane laughs, "We didn't stupidly think about expanding it, so we had to make it bigger."
A red-carpet style icon, Nicole was delighted to sport an unruly wig of grey curls, a face full of freckles and a dowdy wardrobe for this unglamorous role.
Jane explains, "It's really fun for her to play the character because when you're beautiful, tall and good-looking, like she is, you get trapped in that beauty.
"There's not so much opportunity to play and be funny, and she's a very funny person. It was lovely for me to work with her again because she's an extraordinary actor, and it's great to have a role where she can stretch herself emotionally and humorously."
Of working with the Oscar winner, Alice says, "Nicole is just so incredibly generous, personable and kind. I was very impressed by that and I found it very helpful. She
was a very engaging presence to be around and I picked up a lot from her."
However, it was working with Jane that Alice says was the real highlight of filming Top of the Lake: China Girl.
Speaking of her mother, the actress smiles, "She tells her stories very well and I'm a big fan. She continues to be so brave, and funny and real, and I feel lucky to be a part of that."
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