Anyone who witnessed Bella Heathcote chucking up an eyeball in Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon knows that she’s no stranger to horror. The Melbourne-born actor has risen up via Tim Burton’s camp, gothic family affair Dark Shadows and Winding Refn’s catwalk cannibal shocker, and now stars in the considerably more tender yet equally grisly Relic.
The film is the debut of Australian director Natalie Erika James and based on the filmmaker’s experience with her grandmother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Starring opposite Emily Mortimer (Mary Poppins Returns) and Australian acting royalty Robyn Nevin (The Matrix Reloaded), Heathcote plays Sam, the youngest of three generations of women, who is called to her grandmother’s home after she’s been reported as missing.
Speaking with NME from the confines of stage three quarantine in Victoria, Australia, Heathcote recalls confronting James’ personal brand of horror, and shares the questionable playlist that’s getting her through quarantine.
What did you think when you first read the ‘Relic’ script?
Bella Heathcote: “I loved the dynamics between the grandmother, mother and daughter. All these women and their dynamics are complicated, and I like that you can trust the audience to sympathise with them even if they’re not always super sweet to each other.”
Where did your relationship with horror begin?
“With Relic, a friend of mine whose wife is suffering from pretty advanced Alzheimer’s said that he loved the film because horror provides a buffer between the viewer and a really difficult subject. There’s a thrill that you get with horror. For that reason, Relic was easier for him to watch than a straight drama.”
Is that why you think director Natalie Erika James chose to funnel this personal subject through horror?
“I think as someone who has read and watched the film, I certainly appreciate the horror for that reason. Films like Michael Haneke’s Amour are so much heavier than Relic. Horror provides an escape.”
What excites you about Natalie as a filmmaker?
“When I met her she was so sweet and softly-spoken that I was actually wary of her and ended up grilling her pretty hard. I had this mistaken notion that people were gonna walk all over her, and I couldn’t have been further from the truth. She’s so exacting and I look up to her now.”
Are you noticing a shift in female representation in the industry?
“My last couple of jobs – Relic and [upcoming Netflix show] Pieces of Her – had female showrunners, producers, directors and the majority of the cast were female. I certainly feel like it’s shifted more since when I worked on [biopic] Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, which is I think the first time that I worked with a female director, when that was a lot more noticeable.
You recently cameoed on Akwafina’s sitcom ‘Nora From Queens’. How did you get involved?
“Oh my God, that was a total fluke. I met her at a fashion show in New York; I walked up to her in the greenroom and told her that I was a massive fan of hers. Her stylist pointed out that I had lipstick on my teeth and I thought to myself: “Why do I even leave the house?
“I reached out to her on Instagram after a friend told me that they’d auditioned for a part on her show that required an Australian accent, and that I should play the part instead. She didn’t write back and I thought that I’d overstepped the mark. Then she messaged back and asked me to take it.”
honestly after working with Awkwafina the other day I reckon her vag probably does speak 5 different languages
What was the experience of being on set with her like?
“It was terrifying, I felt like the new kid at school because I was only there for a couple of days. She’s so funny, and we improvised every scene so it took me a while to find my faith. But I loved it, and I loved watching it back.”
What music has been getting you through lockdown?
“I made my dad this playlist that I’ve been listening to more than anything else. It’s called ‘RJH’s Classic Hits’ which are his initials, and it’s got Heart’s ‘All I Wanna Do Is Make Love To You’ on it and a lot of 1960s to ’80s music on it. I think that it’s really confused my algorithm on Spotify.”
What have you been watching?
“I’ve started The Sopranos again from the beginning. I’d rather watch that again than start Game of Thrones. I’m still not ready to go there.”
You’ve worked with some of the most seasoned women in Australian film. What have you learned from them?
“Robyn [Nevin] is just so comfortable in her own skin, and Jacki Weaver [who I worked with on sci-fi mystery series Bloom] is totally delightful. I guess all of them have taught me that you have to be unapologetically yourself. I should start taking notes while I’m working with them: the key to enduring success.”