In 2002, Miranda Otto found herself in the mountainous wilds of New Zealand learning swordcraft to play the role of Eowyn in the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy. On the South Island’s golden grasslands, she delivered one of the series’ most memorable lines while dispatching the Witch-King of Angmar, who had said that no man could kill him.
As Miranda plunged her sword into the foe, she ripped off her helmet and declared, “I am no man!” It was a favourite role, and one Miranda says will stay with her forever. It also gave her the chance to spend some time with her half-sister, Gracie, then 13, who stayed with her for a week on set.
Gracie ended up appearing in the trilogy, and having her eyes opened to a side of filmmaking she’d never known. The epic scale of the project was such that it was common for visitors to be recruited into the Middle Earth cast. “I think everybody’s family was an extra at some point,” Miranda laughs.
As transformational as the role was for Miranda, the visit left a lasting impact on Gracie, too. She had been raised around actors, and so had a better understanding of the craft than most, but she had never been given up-close access to such a grand production.
“It was great. I remember walking around and seeing [director] Peter Jackson in his gumboots and thinking, I just want to be like that guy. I found his job the most interesting,” she says. “I loved the film and TV world. I just never really wanted to be an actor.”
Two decades after that memorable family holiday, Miranda and Gracie have reunited on set, working together for the first time on the Disney+ series The Clearing. Miranda plays the role of Adrienne, a fearsome matriarchal figure inspired by Anne Hamilton-Byrne who presided, in pearls and a bouffant, over the 1960s Victorian doomsday cult, The Family.
Gracie directed four of the limited series’ eight episodes, and the Ottos loved working together. So when we meet at the photoshoot for The Weekly, spirits are high.
“We’ve done a family shoot, but not just the two of us,” Gracie says. “I said to [Miranda] at one stage, ‘I was so nervous about working with you,’ and she said, why? I guess, for her, because I’m younger, she was thinking, of course Gracie can do this. Whereas I was thinking, this is a really big step up.”
Despite her apprehension about steering four episodes of a premium thriller, Gracie is comfortable in her own skin, and exudes easy, good humoured energy. She broke into filmmaking shooting fashion films and high-end advertisements with Miranda Kerr, Gigi Hadid and Selena Gomez. From there, she created feature documentaries and has recently tried her hand at TV comedy.
She took classes run by Amy Poehler and Judd Apatow, testing out her skills in hair-raising stand-up sets, before applying what she’d learnt to her directing. During lockdown, the sisters recorded Instagram live videos in which Gracie used a pair of kitchen tongs as a microphone, while Miranda relied on a washing-up brush for amplification.
“In some ways, Gracie and I are like chalk and cheese,” Miranda says. “Gracie’s grown up super sporty. I never was. I was a ballet dancer. She’s super extroverted. She talks 100 miles an hour. I’m much slower and more considered.”
Despite these superficial differences, their affection for each other is evident. They laugh and dance as our photographer snaps away. The olive silk dress brings out the cherry tones in Miranda’s auburn hair, and Gracie is so thrilled with her Gucci suit that she decides it would be perfect for the show’s premier. Music blares and the shoot finishes with climactic air drums to Queen’s We Are the Champions and more gales of laughter.
Gracie and Miranda Otto are the younger generation of an Australian acting dynasty. Miranda was born in Queensland in 1967. Her mother is actress Lindsay Otto, and her father is Barry Otto, the famous actor of stage and screen, and hobbyist painter. When she was a child, Barry painted portraits of Miranda with glittering fairy wings, and has twice entered paintings of her, as an adult, into the Archibald Prize.
Barry has had an illustrious stage career and counts Australia, The Dressmaker and Cosi among his on-screen credits. His best-known role is Doug Hastings, the hen-pecked father of Scott in Strictly Ballroom, for which he won an AFI Best Actor award.
The Otto children were raised in an eccentric household where art and play were valued. Barry would take an easel with him to watch his son Eddie’s cricket matches so he could paint. When it came to the pursuit of artistic expression, he placed no limits on his children.
Under these conditions, both Miranda and Gracie flourished, though they never lived under the same roof. Barry and Lindsay divorced when Miranda was a child. Barry fell in love with Sue Hill, one of the founders of Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre, and Gracie was born in 1987.
“The thing with Miranda is she’s always so prepared,” says Gracie. “She’s one of those actors who knows exactly what scene came before, what came after. She knows the arc. When you’re watching a really good actor, you’re thinking, is there anything I need to tell them? With someone like her you just want them to do it.”
Perhaps this habit of discipline was formed when Miranda was trying to shake off the weight of her father’s reputation. She has spoken previously about the pressure she felt when first trying to carve out a career in a competitive and tight-knit industry where her father was a giant. When she was accepted into NIDA, she feared her fellow students would think her connections got her in. “I used to worry all the time that I wasn’t good enough,” she told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2005.
Her performances on stage, television and film spoke for themselves and soon she was winning roles in cutthroat Hollywood casting rooms, appearing in films like What Lies Beneath, opposite Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer. She had built a multifaceted body of work when her performance as the ethereal Eowyn catapulted her into bona fide stardom.
Her next big role was War of the Worlds opposite Tom Cruise. Miranda famously discovered she was pregnant after Stephen Spielberg cast her. He rewrote the role and the third generation of Ottos (Miranda and husband Peter O’Brien’s daughter, Darcy) made her screen debut as a baby bump.
In the meantime, Gracie had studied at Sydney Film School and moved to Los Angeles, where Miranda and Peter were then based. “When I was in LA I ended up doing a lot of fashion films and was trying to get into what I’m doing now but it just wasn’t happening at the time. We were hanging around a lot more,” Gracie says.
“Dad and Miranda have always been really supportive. I did act in two films. I wouldn’t say I’m an amazing actor. It’s a hard profession. No one was going to give me a job directing when I was 17 so it was, oh, you can audition for something.”
Being around Miranda and Barry, and other actors like Kate Mulvany, who also appears in The Clearing, enabled Gracie to pick up important directorial skills. She developed an instinct for helping an actor feel comfortable on set.
“I was always the baby that was around on the sets, hanging out with Dad or whatever. The one advantage I’ve had is growing up with actors, knowing so many actors my whole life. I really have good intuition for when is the right time to talk to an actor,” she says.
She describes herself as “impatient” to sink her teeth into filmmaking when she was young. She sought out mentors, and impressed industry stalwarts with her tenacity and her eye. Among them was acclaimed director Gillian Armstrong. “She would watch all my short films and give me critical notes. I was always scared she was going to hate something. I really love her opinion,” Gracie says.
In 2013, Gracie’s feature documentary The Last Impresario debuted at the London Film Festival. It was a chronology of the life of theatre producer Michael White, and featured interviews with Kate Moss, John Cleese and Yoko Ono. Ahead of the premiere, Gracie gave an interview to a UK film magazine about Michael White taking her to Jack Nicholson’s house but telling her to leave her camera in the car.
“Jack is there in a Rocky Horror T-shirt. They were talking about life and age, and I was kind of observing, sitting on a leopard skin couch with three Picassos behind me. It was crazy,” she told Eye For Film. Her gutsiness and determination have led her to some remarkable places. “She always really strode out on her own, and she had her own individual take on things,” Miranda says.
“I’d be wearing my trackpants and Ugg boots and a beanie,” Gracie laughs, “and I’d just think, I’m so glad I don’t have to have my hair and make-up done and some cult dress on. But I’m so comfortable sitting on a milk crate for 10 hours out in a paddock.”
The Clearing isn’t the first Otto family project. Miranda has performed opposite her father several times, most notably in the 2005 production of Boy Gets Girl. Theatregoers were amused when Barry, playing a Weinstein-esque film director, offered a drink to Miranda, as a journalist, then when rebuffed, declared, “You’re not my type.”
In 2018 Gracie made a short film about Barry. But The Clearing is the first time the sisters have worked side-by-side. When Gracie first met with the producers, she had no idea Miranda had already signed on to star in the show. “They kept saying they’ve got a really good cast attached,” she says, laughing, and adds that actors don’t talk about their projects until they’re actually happening “because of the jinx factor”.
In the studio, Miranda and Gracie are affectionate and easy together, and when the crew breaks for dinner and take-away containers are spread out, it feels like being invited to a family dinner. On the record later, they both talk of each other’s work with awe and admiration.
“For me, I guess it always felt like Miranda was out of my league. She was so established,” Gracie says. Going into the project was “a bit daunting at first … Only because it’s like going into business with friends. You kind of go, oh my God, I’d hate for this to go really badly or for this to not work out, because that’s a relationship that had been really strong. So it was great that we got to the end, no fights, no nothing.”
As with the visit to New Zealand more than 20 years ago, working on The Clearing gave Miranda and Gracie the opportunity to hang out together, and go for dinners on weekends. For Miranda, one of the joys of working with Gracie was getting to learn from her younger sister.
“Someone said to me, ‘Ugh I can’t imagine what it would be like having my sister direct me’,” Miranda laughs. “I was like, no, it wasn’t like that for us at all. I really respect what she had to say and I respect all the skills that she brings to the table that I don’t have.”
In the past, Miranda has spoken about the dearth of meaty roles for women so she was heartened that The Clearing had so many dynamic women on set, both on and off camera. “There was a really wonderful moment when we were shooting,” she says. “Gracie was on set directing, and Katie [Milwright] was the DP [Director of Photography] and our stunt coordinator was a woman and Jude [Troy], the producer, was there, and her assistant and co-producer were also there. These are some very strong women in some very important roles. That was great to see. It gave me a real kick to see a female stunt coordinator.”
Miranda adds that this kind of change is happening because, she believes, women working in the Australian film industry today are committed to fostering more women. “Success is infinite and the more success there is, the more success there is to go around for everyone,” she explains. “We don’t have to fight over success, we can bathe each other in success.”
And of course, seeing these accomplished women being led by her younger sister makes her particularly proud. “Directing is such a big job,” Miranda says. “You have to be super strong at the helm of all that. I loved watching her run her team. I loved watching the respect that she has from people. I love watching her stand her ground for what she wants. Getting to work with Gracie for the first time was absolutely fantastic. I hope we get to do it again soon.”
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