Blonde beauty Abbie Cornish may epitomize the Hollywood ideal, but the Australian actress isn’t about to let good looks stand in the way of a great role.
This story first appeared in the April 11, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Hollywood has its share of golden girl imports from Australia—Nicole Kidman, Naomi Watts, Cate Blanchett—and newcomer Abbie Cornish looks set to join the list.
In her first American movie, the war drama Stop-Loss, in which she plays the small-town fiancée of an Iraq War solider played by Channing Tatum, Cornish’s natural beauty shines through despite the grittiness of the role. “I saw [my character] Michelle as strong and tough. She could shoot a target with the boys, drive a car well and preferred to be in jeans and boots rather than a skirt,” says Cornish. “I wanted to make her very real and didn’t want her to seem preoccupied with the way she looked.”
As the film follows Michelle on an emotional road trip over three days, scenes called for her to look as though she’d spent the night in a car or worn a hat over her hair all day, hardly picture-perfect. But the reality suited Cornish, a no-frills sort of gal herself.
“When I do photo shoots, they do a great job making me look good. But when I act it’s a different thing. I prefer to find truth to a character, and with this one, I felt less was more with makeup and hair,” she says.
Cornish, 25, burst onto the big screen in 2006 with the Australian film Candy co-starring Heath Ledger and Geoffrey Rush, a well-received art house release in which she played one-half of a heroin-addicted couple. She embraced the role, which followed her title character’s seven-year battle with drugs. “So many days I walked into work and they made me look worse then when I walked in. Dark circles under my eyes, spots on my face, red around my nose,” she remembers. “It was wonderful to feel that raw. There was something so liberating to that.”
Critics immediately compared Cornish to a young Kidman. Though she hasn’t yet worked with Kidman, the actress has played opposite Blanchett, in 2007’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age in which Cornish was a lady-in-waiting to Blanchett’s queen. Despite the low—or virtually no—maintenance look of her previous films, it’s clear that Cornish relishes preparing for her roles, as well as the transformative process of costumes, hair and makeup. Of working on Elizabeth she says, “That was fun for me because I’ve never jumped that far back into history. The dresses and jewelry and hair and makeup…it was exciting to see how it all comes together. The hair was just done to perfection and I loved the care and precision taken with the makeup base because it was lighter that my own skin.”
Makeup artist Jennifer Shircore focused on the character’s pale Elizabethan complexion, going minimal on the eyes (she points out that it was an “eyebrow-less era”), lips and cheeks, infusing Cornish with a youthful glow. “One of the first things Abbie asked me for was a picture of [her character] Bess, which she had enlarged and kept in her dressing room. I had admiration for the way a young actress approached that part. She had really done her homework,” says Shircore. “She was in the chair for about an hour and a half each morning and wanted to know all the whys and wherefores and if she didn’t agree with something, she certainly said so. She’s got lovely skin, so it was no hardship to work with her. And she lost her tan over those four months.”
By contrast, Cornish showed up to the WWD Beauty Biz shoot with a healthy California glow, wearing a lace top by Australian designer Marnie Skillings, a pair of jeans she’s had since she was 17 and rubber boots that she bought in London while filming Elizabeth. Her outfit was indicative of her style—a touch feminine, yet comfortable and practical. She also keeps her personal beauty routine simple, eschewing makeup when she’s off-duty. “Sometimes it’s just nice to have a fresh face. You can feel the buildup after shooting for several weeks, so I like to sit in a steam room and use a washcloth on my face. I also love massages. It’s so nice for your body and your mind,” she says. Her daily ritual consists of a gentle cleanser and moisturizer with sunscreen. Period.
“I’m not into things that are overly perfumed or that feel like they’ve been through a thousand different processes before they went into the bottle,” she says.
As for fashion, Cornish has lived out of a suitcase for the last few years, hopping from one film location to another. “I fill my suitcase up on a trip and when I get through that I go back to the store or to my Mum’s, where I’ve got my things in a storage shed,” she says. “I have things that follow me around for years, like these jeans and a couple of jackets.”
Cornish grew up in Australia’s Hunter Valley, a region two hours north of Sydney known as farm and wine country. “The land is incredibly green and gorgeous,” she says. “Every time I go back it overwhelms me. Something I do love about L.A. is that there is some sense of space here.”
She played piano and guitar, and became a vegetarian at 13. (She continues to work as an activist with animal rights groups in Australia, including a Web site called Voiceless that is part of Animal Club, for which she is an ambassador.) As a young girl, she hoped to become a musician or a veterinarian, both jobs that would allow her to travel, another passion. “I loved drama class but never thought of acting as a job. It kind of came from nowhere,” she says.
After taking six months off to travel through Western Europe after high school (she returned home “because I ran out of money,” she recalls), she started acting in television and small films. Cornish is currently in London filming Jane Campion’s Bright Star, about the romance between 19th-century poet John Keats and his neighbor Fanny Brawne. Keats died of tuberculosis before the two could marry.
One of a coterie of young international actresses taking Hollywood by storm, a group that also includes Brit Emily Blunt and France’s Marion Cotillard, Cornish is no stranger to the Tinseltown scene. So far, though, she’s handled it like a pro. Despite tabloid reports linking her to Stop-Loss co-star Ryan Phillippe, the actress has resolutely maintained her silence, focusing solely on furthering her career instead. Of “making it” in Hollywood, the L.A.-based Cornish says, “For me the process of being an actor doesn’t feel confined to the country I was born in or where I live now. In the same regard, there’s a huge concentration of the industry here so I feel really lucky,” she continues. “But I think it’s important to maintain that sense of vision and passion and not get jaded by the familiarity.”