Byline: Christopher Bagley
NEW YORK — The first time Australian actress Frances O’Connor came to America, in 1980, everyone thought she was a dead ringer for Olivia Newton-John. There wasn’t much of a physical resemblance — O’Connor was 11 years old, and a brunette — but her authentic Aussie accent was convincing enough. “Grease” had recently become a box-office hit, and O’Connor made many new friends in California when she breathlessly mouthed Newton-John’s lines from the movie. (“Oh, Danny!” was a particular favorite.)
These days, when O’Connor reminds people of a well-known Australian actress, it’s usually a very different one: the seriously talented Judy Davis. And O’Connor is clearly more flattered by the latter comparison.
“I think I’d go with Judy for sure,” she says, laughing.
Recently, O’Connor was in New York to talk up “Kiss or Kill,” an Australian film noir that screened last week at the New York Film Festival and will open nationally next month. She has already been named Best Actress at the Montreal Film Festival for her striking performance as the movie’s femme fatale — a glamorous but damaged woman who may or may not be a killer.
Raised in an intellectual household in Western Australia (her father is a physicist and her mother a pianist), O’Connor faced the usual skepticism about her choice of careers; she actually burst into tears when she confessed to her parents that she wanted to act.
“They didn’t know how I’d make a living with this,” she says, during lunch at the Paramount Hotel here. But she has managed to support herself as an actor since graduating from drama school about four years ago.
Although she’s done lots of theater in Australia, O’Connor is best known for her role in “Love and Other Catastrophes,” a widely praised Australian indie that was released in the States last year. O’Connor played Mia, a devil-may-care college student who’s shaken up by a sudden split with her girlfriend. “She’s gay and sassy and confident and had a kind of cool factor,” says O’Connor of the character. “I’m not like that at all.”
Nor, thankfully, is she much like Nikki of “Kiss or Kill,” a sleepwalking, small-time thief who goes on the lam with her boyfriend (Matt Day) after botching a robbery. It’s never really clear whether Nikki deserves anyone’s trust — her boyfriend’s, or even her own — but the character’s ambiguity is what interested O’Connor.
“I think she has a lot of inner beauty even though her exterior is kind of hard,” she says. Even more appealing for O’Connor was director Bill Bennett’s technique: the movie had no real script, and was almost entirely improvised by the actors.
“It was one of the most creative things I’ve done — and the hardest.” O’Connor says. “It’s like writing the movie yourself, in a way.”
O’Connor possesses the chameleonic and slightly irregular beauty of many talented actresses. She’s soft-spoken and shy, but the upturned corners of her mouth give her a perpetually amused air, and she frequently lets loose with a surprisingly deep, guttural guffaw. Among the topics that elicit the laugh are her overextended credit card (Miu Miu was the main culprit on a recent shopping spree) and her brief nude scene in “Kiss or Kill” (“I really didn’t want to strip”).
O’Connor also stars in the upcoming “Thank God He Met Lizzie,” and she made headlines in Australia last July when she was summoned to New York to audition opposite Keanu Reeves for a movie that was later shelved. Although she has signed with the high-powered CAA talent agency, she won’t admit to any big ambitions to star in American blockbusters.
“I just don’t see the point of it from an acting point of view,” she says. This winter, she plans to do a play in Melbourne.
Her high-minded parents, meanwhile, seem to have accepted their daughter’s showbiz career. When O’Connor called them with the news that she’d won the award in Montreal, she says, “They got very excited and kind of jumped around — then my mother got on the phone and rang all her friends.”
“As soon as you get your name in the paper,” she adds, “they’re pretty much OK.”